Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti, A Cultural Wonderland


Delhi is turning out to be a coalmine of wonders to me bestowing with an enriching travel experience every time. The more I explore this wonderful state capital, it makes me feel that I have completely wasted my last 2.5 years of stay in the capital.

Narow Street of Nizamuddin Basti

Narow Street of Nizamuddin Basti

This time my passion took me to the slender lanes of Nizamuddin Basti in South Delhi. Previously, whenever my ears heard the word “Nizamuddin”, the only place I could associate it with was the Nizamuddin Railway Station.

In order to know more about the place, while browsing the several website and books, I came across the website of The Hope Project, NGO based in Nizamuddin, which runs Shan-E-Nizam tour of the area (popularly known as “Nizamuddin Basti”) along with its detailed history for uninformed masses like me on a very nominal fee. The tour is guided by a local resident of the Basti who are also the volunteers of the NGO.

I was very delighted while leaving my home for the tour as this was my second encounter with the Islamic community (first was the visit at Matka Peer orThe Saint of Earthen Pot– For more information read). I prepared myself for having a pleasant interaction with the community and left all my preconceived notions and misconceptions behind. It was kind on the part of NGO to arrange for the tour at such a short notice. Luckily, I was the only one for the tour at that moment and that helped me in getting personal attention from the guide.

My guide or you can aptly call mentor for the jaunt was Daanish, a young guy in his early twenties with an average height and a slightly chubby cheeks. He has been living in Basti since birth and had inherited all his lessons of Nizamuddin’s history coupled with anecdotes from his grandfather since childhood and was taking the same ahead through these tours.


The tour started with a brief history lesson on Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan the founder of The Hope Project and also the descendant of Sufi Saint Hazrat Inayat Khan. Danish revealed that in 1980’s, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan was touched by the poverty of the people of Nizamuddin Basti. Therefore, he followed the footsteps of his father Hazrat Inayat Khan and initially helped the people by distributing milk by placing a table at the famous Alvi Chowk (Presently the office of The Hope Project is situated at same place) in Nizamuddin Area. Soon he was joined by couple of more murid(Arabic meaning “committed one” or simply disciples) who took the movement forward. Gradually with time their work was recognized by some international dignitaries who supported the cause by funding and sending their volunteers. Today, the NGO runs a medical camp, free tuitions classes, a computer centre and many other vocational courses for the poor women and children of the Basti in order to improve their life. The founder of the movement passed away in 2004 but movement still continues to serve its purpose.

Daanish then elaborated the demography of area in brief and informed that the area is inhabited by 90% Muslims and 5% each Hindu and Christian family.


After a brief lesson on Hope Project, Danish and I strolled through the narrow lanes passing through the Christian Street (5% Christain of the Basti live here) and finally reached an old but vast medieval structure as compared to the size of houses in the locality. While my eyes were on the structure trying to figure out what it was and before I could look to Danish for the answer, Daanish asked “What do you think this structure is ?” a question which he asks every visitor. After pausing for few seconds, I replied “To me its looks similar to some sort of an old fort as the design of its outer walls resembled to Red Fort”. He gave a witty smile and replied “This is the Kalan mosque, the largest one in Basti and has three entrances”. He later explained that Kalan is a Persian word meaning “large” and was built by Ferozshah Tuglaq in 13thcentury. As per Daanish, Delhi Quarter Stone was used to build the mosque.

Outer wall of Kalan Mosque

Outer wall of Kalan Mosque

He then took me to the back side of the mosque and showed me a semi-circular niche in wall of mosque known as Mihirab. On seeing a baffled look on my face, he explained “Mihirab” indicates the direction in which Muslims should face while praying. Mihirab is constructed in the direction of Kabba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia and also known as Qibla wall.

One of the entrance of Kalan Mosque

One of the entrance of Kalan Mosque

He then narrated an interesting anecdote relating to the mosque which his grandfather had narrated to him. The anecdote dates back in 1947 when the country was plagued by communal riots, the government decided to shut down the mosque in order to avoid any riots in the neighbourhood. This caused a lot of difficulties for the Muslims as at that time it was the only mosque in the area and as per their religions men cannot recite namaz (prayer) in their homes if there is a mosque nearby. The local Muslims requested to open the mosque and was supported by the Hindu community of the neighbourhood considering which government reopened it. It was surprising to know that 5% of Hindu community resides next to the boundaries of the mosque. Further, Daanish also showed small Hindu temples right in the front of mosque’s gate and also apprised me that no communal riots have occurred in the area ever. It was somewhat soothing and pacifying to become aware of the fact that two religions which are criticised for their long communal history share a bond of love and coexistence in Nizamuddin Basti.


Attar Street

Attar Street

Daanish then took me through the numerous twist and turns of the Nizamuddin Basti which he had mastered all these years and we finally reached the “Attar”(Perfume) Street. For one moment, I felt Daanish pronounced the word incorrectly and I interrupted and said “It’s Ittar. He objected and replied that it’s a spoiled name which now is being widely used and reaffirmed the correct version as “Attar” while pointing towards the banner of shop which confirmed his version. I finally surrendered the argument in his favour. He told that “Attar” is a 100% natural product extracted from flower and trees and there are countless varieties of “Attar”. People also have the option to customize the fragrance of different “Attar” to have unique one for themselves. I could also sight some hawkers sitting on the street make the narrow lanes narrower selling nicely cleaned twigs of Meswak used for keeping teeth healthy. He also told that Meswak itself is an Arabic means “tooth-cleaning twig”.


The next stop of our voyage was the building known as Markaj located on street moving straight to the mausoleum of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Daanish explained that Markaj is an Arabic word meaning “Center” and the same is the world largest Center for spreading Islam in the world. Scholars from all over the world come here to learn basic tenets of Islam and ancillary activities such as learning Urdu, training of Urdu translators etc.

Every year it hosts many congregational summits for spreading Islam which are attended by the scholars and followers of Islam from all over across the globe.


After a little bit of strolling from Markaj towards Hazrat Nizamuddin Shrine, on a right hand side you will notice an arched structure with a wooden door having a small opening with a passage similar to the prison gates in Bollywood flicks.

Entrance of Urs Mahal

Entrance of Urs Mahal

Daanish took me through the passage and it was a big courtyard where few local boys were playing cricket. By the time Daanish could tell me its name, I already read it on the yellow board inside the courtyard, it was Urs Mahal and was built under the patronage of Hazrat Pir Khawaja Ahmed Nizami Sajjada in 1962.

Urs Mahal

Urs Mahal

Urs Mahal Courtyard

Urs Mahal Courtyard

Daanish then explained that it’s mainly a place for congressional gathering during festivals, anniversaries of Sufi Saints, organizing cultural events like Qawalli sessions etc. Unfortunately, I did not had the chance to hear any of the Qawallis but I promised myself to take out some time for it in future.


While Daanish was informing me about the Urs Mahal, my eyes were struck on the structure right opposite to the courtyard of Urs Mahal. Before Daanish could complete about Urs Mahal, I interrupted in between to inquire about the same, and he politely replied “It is Chausath Khamba” or commonly known as 64 Pillars, a name which doesn’t require further explanation. However, I was informed by Daanish that the same is closed due to renovation which was a bit disappointing. But he still gave me a history lesson on the 64 pillars.

64 Pillars - Courtesy-

64 Pillars – Courtesy-

The structure dates back in 1623 during reign of Emperor Jahangir and is the mausoleum of Mirza Aziz Koka who served as Governor of Gujrat during Jahangir’s reign. Later on it is believed that his family members were also buried there. Daanish and I then rushed to the mausoleum of famous poet Mirza Ghalib from where I could had a closer look of 64 pillars but unfortunately it had also closed by that time.


Daanish then took me to our last destination on the list i.e. shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (I will write in detail about it in other post) where I bowed my head for some blessings and moved out. Daanish and I then dispersed to our respective dwellings with some pleasant memories and the face which guided me through the narrow lanes of the Nizamuddin and unwrapped its hidden treasures for me was lost in one of those lane in no time.

Kaushal Mathpal
Kaushal Mathpal is an Advocate practicing in Delhi Courts in India but also has a flair for travelling. When he's not in a courtroom, he enjoys exploring various parts of India and the surrounding region. He also writes on his blog and you can follow him on Twitter @KaushalMathpal.
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