Mehndiyan graveyard, a historical site behind Lok Nayak Hospital near ITO is abuzz with activity most times of day. Elderly men sit on old wooden benches in front of a busy tea stall at the entrance of the graveyard. Children play cricket on the pavement leading from the entrance to the dargah and madarsa at one end. People go about their everyday tasks in their one or two-room homes inside the compound.

These are people who came to Delhi years ago for work and then started living illegally inside the compound. The tombstones in the graveyard are covered with clean, washed clothes from a dhobi ghat nearby that has run out of space. The overgrown grass and weeds in the space between the graves give the whole place a forgotten sense.

What was once one of the country’s most prominent graveyards is now partly in ruin. Historians and activists have time and again stressed the importance of the graveyard, and the need to save it from the rapid encroachment that has over the years reduced it to a cramped space.

“The area is encroached badly now. If only encroachment is stopped, that would be enough,” says author and historian Rana Safvi.

Safvi has written about the compound in her book The Forgotten Cities of Delhi. She states that the Qabristan-e Mehndiyan was once a huge area, home to the graves of ordinary people and many saints.

A study conducted by the Delhi Minorities Commission in 2017 says the encroachment of graveyard land is a major challenge as it has shrunk the space available for the intended purpose.

Although Delhi Wakf Board has 624 graveyards in its list, only 131 exist today. 43 of those have been encroached on by people of the community, private individuals, private businesses and government agencies.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time encroachment first started in the Mehndiyan graveyard. According to Aamir Khan, in charge of the office of the madarsa, people have been living inside the compound for more than 15 years.

“A large part of the graveyard has been illegally occupied and the space that is left contains permanent graves. So there’s little space left for new graves, because of which the price of a single grave can go as high as 50,000 to 1 lakh per grave.”

The current condition of Mehndiyan does little to reveal its striking history. In the late eighteenth century, when Shah Waliullah Dehlawi, an Islamic scholar, historiographer and philosopher died, he was buried in the Mehndiyan graveyard.

Born four years before the death of Aurangzeb, a time that marked the beginning of the end of the Mughal dynasty, Shah Waliullah Dehlawi is considered the greatest Islamic scholar of India.

Claiming descent on his father’s side from Umar bin Khattab (R.), the second caliph of Islam, his entire family is buried alongside him in the cemetery, and you will always find people sitting in front of his grave for hours, praying and meditating.

Momin Khan Momin, one of the greatest Urdu poets is also buried inside the same compound. According to a popular legend his contemporary Ghalib offered his entire diwan (collection of poems) in exchange for this one verse:

Tum mere pas hote ho goya
Jab koi dusra nahi hota

You are close to me (as if)
When no one else is.

Other prominent graves include that of freedom fighter and Islamic scholar Maulana Hifzur Rahman Seoharwi, Yunus Dehlvi, former editor of Shama, an old and out of print Urdu film magazine, and BJP member Sikander Bakht.

The entire compound consists of graves, a dargah and a madrasa. Madrasah-i Rahimiyah, established inside the Mehndiyan compound by Shah Abdur Rahim, father of Shah Waliullah and destined to become one of the greatest educational centres in India, is also in shambles now.

Established with an aim to prepare a class of scholars who would master the “rational sciences” and the “traditional sciences” of Islam, it attracted students from far and wide.

These days there are around 80 students from different states and age groups studying together in the madrasa. Dilshad, 10 years old, wearing thick, black-framed glasses and a black cap has been living here for less than a year. He is on his way to becoming a Hafiz and unsure how long he will be staying here. It can vary from a year to three years.

He takes me around the different quarters of the madrasa. The worn-down walls, bare minimum necessities and the appalling condition of the living quarters of staff as well as students make it hard to believe that this was once a leading institute of education and the most influential seminary in the Indian subcontinent.

Its headmaster Aziz ur Rehman and his wife Akhtari Begum have been living in a tiny room attached to the madarsa for nine years now.

“The headmaster as well as staff teach in the madrasa for free and whatever little money they earn, they do it from giving private tuitions to other students in the area,” says Akhtari Begum.

The scarcity of money is starkly visible in the disintegration of old books that the headmaster is struggling to salvage. The madrasa library contains some important editions of books on Islamic education whose pages are now coming apart.

The diversity of life and death in this graveyard can be felt just a few steps away. The graves of Mona Ahmad, considered India’s most iconic transgender, and her guru Chaman lie side by side in a small room with Quranic verses inscribed on its bright blue walls.

Ostracised by her family, Ahmad started a new life in a single room on her ancestral land in this neglected graveyard. Her name in bold letters and a couple of her pictures here and there in her two-room house are the remnants of her 30 years in this graveyard.

There is also a large, faded painting of Mona, in a long white dress etched on a purple wall. She died in 2017, but her nephew and caretaker Jahanara still live there.

According to her nephew, when Mona was alive her friends, fellow hijras and confused strangers kept streaming in and out of the graveyard.

“Her door was open for everyone. I used to tell her sometimes that she shouldn’t let strangers inside her home but she never listened,” he says.

Pointing to a couple of arcs still visible from the era when his family first owned the place, he says, “It was a small thing we owned back then, it was a small room which he (Mona) expanded on both sides. There was a central jail behind us where Tihar of Delhi used to be.”