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23.10.2018

In a house of the living, this lattice-walled room would be large enough to hold two single beds. At the shrine of Bibi Hambel, the space is occupied by a pair of cemented graves buried under a blanket of roses, frangipani, marigold, and jasmine. Around them women and girls of all ages kneel, prostrate themselves or sit cross-legged. There are only women in this room, even in the graves.

In the interplay of scents of incense and lubaan, flowers, and devotees occasionally showering rose water on the tombs, the history of Mehrauli acquires a slice of her-story, preserved in a room with no ceiling (its fixtures are held by a higher ceiling of the resident building). Maybe. “Who is Bibi Hambel?” we ask, only to receive blank stares from faces that return to their vigil by the graves. A middle-aged woman who comes to gather stray flowers before the room is cleared of people ahead of the asr prayers, says: “That’s daayi maa,” pointing to the grave before the gold-and-wine curtained entrance. “This is begum saheba,” she points to the grave she’s standing by.

The women in the graves are believed to be the daayi maa (wet-nurse) and begum (wife) of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, the 13th century Sufi saint and successor of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, who founded the Chishti order of Sufism in Ajmer of present-day India. The women’s shrine is located within the compound of Kaki’s dargah in Mehrauli, the oldest of Delhi’s seven cities. They settled here by invitation from the ruler Iltutmish.

Originally, Kaki’s family “came from Ush,” says Syed Shuja-ud din Qutbi, one of the peerzadas or caretakers of this shrine. Ush or Osh is a place in the Ferghana valley in present-day Kyrgyzstan. It’s forever linked to India by one of its former rulers, a twelve-year-old named Babur who went on to become emperor of Hindustan (and whose grandson, Akbar, became a devout disciple of the Chishtis). “Bibi Hambel was Khwaja-ji’s daayi maa,” he says, “but not much is known beyond that.”

As for the begum, not even her name is known. Indeed, there’s no agreement on how she was related to Kaki. In Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi, historian Rana Safvi points out that “Bibi Sahiba” is “said to be either the wife or mother of the saint.” We asked historian Sohail Hashmi what he thought, and he pointed out that history is often amnesiac about the names and fates of women: “By and large, you don’t talk about women; it’s a practice that cuts across religions.”

Shrines exclusively open to women are hard to think of, and the ones dedicated to women are few too. In Delhi, Hashmi names the dargahs of Bibi Fatima Bin Sam and Mai Sahiba, in Kaka Nagar and Adchini, respectively. While Mai Sahiba was the mother of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, who came a little after Kaki’s time, Bibi Fatima Sam was Nizamuddin’s contemporary, and shared a profound friendship with him that caused a bit of a stir. “Auliya said she was his sister and she could go in and out of his hospice as she pleased, to silence the questions of society,” Hashmi says.

The shrine of Nizamuddin presently restricts women from the inner sanctum. So does Kaki’s. The Bibi Fatima and Mai Sahiba shrines permit men to enter - but the tomb of Bibi Hambel is open only to women. “Sufis did not believe in much ritualization, and you’ll find no pattern to these practices either,” Hashmi points out. (One of India’s most beloved Sufi dargahs, Ajmer Sharif, does permit women to enter its inner sanctum.)

After the asr namaaz, a troupe led by Mohammad Idris, one of the Qutbi brothers renders popular qawwalis as a nippy nighttime October breeze sweeps through Bibi Hambel’s inner courtyard. Deep in the complex, two women enter the mazaar to clean it. Two sacks full of flower-petals laden over the graves are sent out. The number of women in the dargah complex has substantially dropped now. A few devotees still rest their heads on the exterior walls of Bibi Hambel’s shrine. Sobs and sniffles are unmissable in these sombre conversations with the divine.

An elderly Asmuddin Ansari, who says he is a mulaazim(attendant) and bows to Kaki’s shrine before him, finally sits in his place. He’s been standing guard here at the entrance to Bibi Hambel’s all evening. “There was a neem tree here whose half leaves were sweet and the other half bitter, until around 1978,” Ansari says pointing where Bibi Hambel’s grave is. “It had been planted by daayi maa.” He says that consuming its leaves would fulfil a couple’s prayers for a child. Qutbi, who also mentions the tree, says it burned down in a massive fire 40 years ago.

Birjees Begum, an elderly woman who is sweeping off stray petals in the courtyard before Bibi Hambel’s, pauses. “Jo bhi dua kartey hain woh Daayi maa aur Begum poori karti hain, iss sey zyada gehraayi mein kya jaanna unke baarey mein?” she says, with a calm smile - Daayi maa and begum help realise all your prayers, why look deeper into their mysteries? “They have direct access to uparwala to relay our prayers sooner,” she says, and smiles, before she goes back to sweeping the yard. The women in the tombs slumber behind a closed curtain, alone until the curtains re-open at fajr, before the next sunrise.

Getting there: Mehrauli Village, Mehrauli, Delhi.

Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia-journalist based in New Delhi.

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