Sunday, 18 September 2011

A story from Sultan Garhi

Prince Nasiru'd-Din Mahmud was brash and young. As the eldest son of Iltutmish and the governor of large parts of Eastern India, the prince had unparalleled prestige in the empire and was looked upon as the successor to the throne. This heir apparent slept on a bed laid with rose petals every night. A slave girl was employed just to ensure the petals were laid out well and the prince's bed stayed soft.

One day, tempted by luxury, the slave girl decided to see for herself how the bed felt. After all the prince wouldn’t be back until much later. However, the bed turned out to be so comfortable that the girl slept for over four hours and was only woken when the furious prince dragged her out of bed and ordered her flogged. As she was being flogged, she started laughing hysterically. This irritated the prince even more. He ordered her to be whipped harder. But the more she was punished, the more she laughed. Finally tired of the flogging and stumped the prince put a stop to the punishement and walked up to her.

'What is wrong with you? What is so funny!?'

The girl did not respond and just continued laughing. Multiple entreaties from the prince yielded no response. Finally, after much cajoling, the girl said:

'You will have me killed if I tell you what I think.'

Nasiru'd-Din Mahmud, curious as hell promised her riches and a life long pension if she would just open her mouth. Convinced, the girl replied,

'I was wondering if sleeping on this bed for four hours makes me feel so soft and weak, what must you feel like? You have slept on this bed all your life.'

The prince was flummoxed. This was a man known for his bravery, for having helped conquer parts of East India and was known as Malik-us-Sharq, King of the East. And here, right in front of his eyes, a slave girl, bound and tied was calling him a weakling. Stories say he was a fair minded man. He kept his word of reward to the girl. Before she left she predicted:

'You will never be the king. But you will be venerated as a saint.'

True enough, Nasiru'd-Din died long before his father and never got to be the king, though he was buried in a tomb befitting one. Over eight centuries later, without knowing the weight of the prince’s story locals from Sultanpur and Rangpur pray at the tomb and address him as baba, a title normally reserved for Sufis. Every thursday, the well to do from the villages host a free lunch for the poor. The entire community basks in the light of baba Nasiru'd-Din.

This was my introduction to Sultan Garhi. A middle aged man, lame with a wooden crutch, ostensibly the care taker of the tomb of Nasiru'd-Din Mahmud was flitting around in the dark underground crypt when I entered. Peering through his half closed eyes with a broom in his hand, he egged me to climb down the stairs. I could hardly see anything. A beam of light was entering the crypt from the small, short entrance, lighting the tomb in a surreal light and making it look like something from the distant past. Three graves lay at the bottom, two of them unidentified.

Seeing me stay around for much longer than others, the old man told me this story. There is much around the tomb to see. Its a unique structure, the oldest Muslim tomb in Delhi. You can read more about it here. There are Sanskrit inscriptions around, the oldest well excavated in Delhi, the restorations by the ever present Feroz Shah Tughluq and some Mughal ruins.

For a better version of the story however, you have to make the trip to the tomb and hope to meet the old man. To see the impact of baba Nasiru'd-Din and how a prince-turned-sufi fosters communal unity, find a Thursday afternoon, 12pm to be exact. Enjoy a free meal with the lungars at what is the oldest monument in Delhi.

The mihrab (far) and the octagonal crypt
Chatting in a tomb. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
The divine light. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
At Nasirud'din's grave. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
The Thursday feast.