Friday, July 06, 2007

Nizamuddin 02: Political Economy - II

[NB: This is part of an ongoing series on the Nizamuddin locality of New Delhi. For a brief background, please read the prefatory note.]

[Continued from Part I]

Unrest and discontinuity thus characterise the history of the Walled City. In a span of 273 years from 1638 to 1911, it witnessed the decline of the Mughal empire from the glorious days of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb; the weak later Mughals; internecine fights and succession squabbles; sackings by Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali; gradual intrusion by the East India Company; the 1857 Revolt and its bloody aftermath; being sidelined; and finally, reduction to playing second fiddle to New Delhi.

In contrast, Nizamuddin's existence of over eight hundred years has been relatively placid. Owing largely to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, it has come to acquire considerable spiritual significance over the centuries. This has also served to protect it, especially from invaders and other plunderers.

Historians note that most emperors of Delhi actively sought the patronage of Sufi saints. The holy men guided them in matters both religious and temporal, and interceded on their behalf for divine beneficence. As a result, the monarchs invested the saints and their monasteries with a considerable degree of protection.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia's turbulent relationships with reigning monarchs constitutes an exception to this. Nizamuddin lived through one of Delhi's most unstable times. His life spanned no less than three major imperial lineages, namely the so-called Mamluk dynasty, the Khiljis and the Tughlaqs.

Parricides and fratricides were the order of the day. Loyalties changed frequently and viciously. And the enormous influence wielded by the mystic only added to the ruler's insecurities. To add to this, Nizamuddin remained steadfast to his principles throughout his life. He treated all human beings as equal, irrespective of caste, creed or birth. Moreover, he refused to kowtow to any temporal ruler.

Alauddin Khilji was convinced Nizamuddin intended to seize power at the first opportunity. He tried to test Nizamuddin, who rebuffed him asking him not to waste his (Nizamuddin's) time on temporal matters. Alauddin's successor Qutubuddin Mubarak Shah repeatedly asked Nizamuddin to pay obeisance at his court. Nizamuddin refused each time. When things became particularly ominous, the seer is supposed to have said:
The king will not be victorious over me for I have had a certain dream. I saw that an animal with horns was attacking me. Upon it coming closer, I took hold of its horns and threw the animal on the earth in such a way that it was killed.
That very night, Mubarak Shah was killed by his catamite Khusro Khan.

Relations with Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq were especially discordant. According to one account, the Sultan was wont to make a show of donating money to Sufi orders; the recipients were expected to return the amount in full later. Nizamuddin instead distributed the money amongst the poor, as was his practice.

Another version has it that when the emperor began to build his capital Tughlaqabad, he pressganged all available workers to work on the site, and forbade them from working anywhere else. At that time, Nizamuddin was getting a Baoli built, and refused to stop work.

Some even say the workers so loved and respected Nizamuddin that they volunteered to work at night by the light of oil lamps. In response, Tughlaq banned the sale of oil. Nizamuddin ordered water from the well be poured into the lamps; miraculously, this fuelled the lamps and kept them lit. By then, the emperor's behaviour had infuriated the seer enough to condemn the new capital city to barrenness:
Ya rahe usar, ya base Gujjar
(May it be deserted, or become a dwelling for Gujjars)

[NB: At the time of Nizamuddin Auliya, and to an extent even today, the term 'Gujjar' denoted a community of semi-nomadic herdsmen]
The Sultan was at that time fighting a campaign in Bengal. He sent word he would deal with the 'turbulent priest' as soon as he returned to Delhi. To which Nizamuddin riposted, 'Hunuz, Dilli duur ast (Delhi is yet far away).'

[Interestingly, the same momentous phrase was uttered on another historic occasion. In 1739, when the plunderer Nadir Shah was poised outside Delhi, the sybarite emperor Mohammad Shah 'Rangile' responded to his generals' warnings with an identical 'Dilli duur ast'. Whereas the seer's prophecy paved the way for abiding peace, the emperor's complacency led to one of the most horrific carnages of all times.]

Nizamuddin's predictions proved remarkably accurate. On the emperor's return from Bengal in 1324, his son Mohammad bin Tughlaq organised a grand parade just outside Delhi to welcome him. There, a canopy mysteriously collapsed and killed him; historians credit this to a conspiracy allegedly hatched by the son. In 1327, three years after ascending to the throne, the parricide emperor shifted the administration to his own capital, Jahanpanah. Tughlaqabad was reduced to a ghost town.

[Continued in Part III]