It was another hot day in August when I landed in Delhi. The air outside was drab and stung and tainted. Soon I was huddled in a cab and on my way to my cousin’s. Our plan was to visit one the oldest Sufi shrines in the subcontinent, the Nizamuddin Dargah, about which I keep hearing something or the other every now and then.

Thinking about it filled me with memories of my childhood journeys in the Rajdhani Express from Jammu to Delhi which would culminate at the Nizamuddin Station, which lies just 2 km from the Dargah. In those winters the beautiful dome of Humayun’s tomb, covered in a misty haze, seemed to welcome me to this quaint and somehow strange part of Delhi.

I got off the cab, waiting for my cousin, when the very distinct Sabz Burj (Green Dome) standing nonchalantly at the intersection of Mathura Road and Lodhi Road, came into my sight. Sabz Burj is said to be one of the earliest examples of Mughal architecture in the Timurid style. The glazed turquoise tiles on it reminded me of the Bud Shah’s Durmath (a tomb constructed by the popular medieval Kashmiri King Zainulabideen, commonly known as Budshah) in Srinagar. It is also covered with blue and green tiles with a similar octagonal plan, which could be a corollary of the fact that before becoming king, Budshah lived for many years at the emperor Timur's court, and is said to have brought Central Asian influences into Kashmir. Budshah still is one of the most revered Kashmiri kings, and his name continues to live in the memory of the local population for his splendid contributions to Kashmiri culture.

After meeting up with my cousin we started walking towards our destination, the holy dargah of Nizamuddin. But after a nudge to the left, suddenly we found ourselves standing in front of a rustic arched door with wooden panels that led into a complex bestrewn with age-old graves.

It dawned on me that the shrine was like a nimbus, placed such that you had to pass through different shreds of history before reaching it.

To the left of this compound was the Urs Mahal, a small assembly-hall like structure, or more correctly a stage, which was constructed in 1962 for organizing Qawwali sessions. The Urdu inscription there reads that it was built with the help of Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

To the right lay the offbeat Chausat Khamba (or Sixty-four Pillars in Urdu and Hindi), a Mughal tomb built on a raised plinth, commissioned by Mirza Aziz Koka, a minster in Jehangir's time. Inverse domes that cannot be seen externally and give the illusion of a flat roof are one of its most eccentric attributes.

Walking through, we saw many unmarked graves covered in red and white, lustreless stones with no epitaphs or couplets in Persian. I wondered who these unknown people were. What kind of Delhi did they live in? Certainly, Delhi seemed to have changed so many identities and cultures since then.

Just adjacent to Chausat Khamba lies the tomb of one the most venerable Urdu and Persian poets of South Asia― Mirza Ghalib. His unfathomable love for Delhi is quite well known and is well expressed in his poems. One such couplet goes:

Ik roz apni rooh se poocha, ki Dilli kya hai,
to yun jawab main keh gayi,
Yeh duniya mano jism hai aur Dilli uski jaan.

One day I asked my soul, ‘What is Delhi?’
and it said this in reply:
‘The world is as the body, and Delhi its life or soul.’

It is a belief that if someone is buried near the dargah, Saint Nizamuddin himself comes to intercede with God on their behalf. Ghalib is lucky then to rest in peace in his dearest Delhi, near Nizamuddin Auliya’s Dargah, in a small yet significant white marble tomb with geometrically latticed (jaali) windows amid creeping encroachments.

After leaving the complex we treaded at last towards the dargah, through a meandering lane dotted with small shops. As we passed some vendors almost threatened us to leave our shoes with them, while others just requested us to buy rose petals and chaddars. From this thoroughfare emanates the aroma of roses mixed with brewing chai.

The serpentine lane terminates at a small entrance where one is supposed to leave one’s shoes behind. Inside, there are swarms of people walking about on the marble floor, each carrying chadars of their own. Before the actual tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin, one passes the graves of Amir Khusrao (the famous Hindustani poet and a disciple of the saint, who composed poems in Persian and Hindavi), Jahanara Begum (Shah Jahan's daughter), and Mohammad Shah Rangila (a lesser known Mughal king who ruled in the 18th century). All of them are buried here as per their wish to get a ticket straight to heaven.

Adjacent to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s mausoleum is the Jamat Khana masjid, a red sandstone mosque which happens to be one of the oldest in Delhi, built by Khizr Khan, the son of Alauddin Khilji.

The mausoleum itself, a white marble-domed structure that was constructed by Muhammad Bin Tuglaq in the 14th century, was rebuilt again and again over the time, and the present edifice dates to the 16th century. The grave of Hazrat Nizamuddin lies inside the tomb under heaps of chaddars and rose petals.

The surrounding marble patio covered with many intricate jaalis all around throngs with people throughout the day. Outside, seated on the parched marble, a group of people with harmoniums and tablas sing praises of the saint in the form of classical Hindustani songs (qawwali). There we sat and were submerged for hours in these medieval melodies.

The qawwali goes on till late at night and fills the ambience with arcane energy. Near the mausoleum, Nizamuddin had constructed a baoli (stepwell) whose algal bloom now bears a melancholic look, as buildings droop over it in the most incongruous fashion. It takes time for it to sink in that the Delhi of the present is struggling to retain a space for its past.

All these structures have been renovated by the Agha Khan Trust for Culture since 2010. The AKTC has done immense good work in restoring Mughal-era structures around Nizamuddin West to their past glory. From renovating Chausat Khamba and the Jamat Khana masjid to cleaning and refurbishing the baoli, one can see their footprints everywhere.

Their work is obvious when one visits Humayun’s tomb, Sabz Burj, Neel Gumbad and half a dozen other medieval structures, all around the dargah. The foundation has also initiated many programs for the local communities, which include skill training, education for children and basic healthcare, to build the economy of the area and empower the people. The AKTC has done what the government couldn't do, or rather was too lax to do, in the past 70 years.

Finally, we said our goodbyes and started zigzagging back through the narrow lanes onto the sultry-aired main road. It was like coming out of a time machine from a surreal past, in which one longed to stay a little longer.

It took a while to wrap my head around the dissonance of the two different identities of this city, the Delhi of medieval poets and kings, and the Delhi of a billion new people marching towards the new future. Yet I tried to hearten myself by promising to visit again and again, before these places are layered over into oblivion.

(Photo credits: 1 to 4, Abhay Banthia @lifethroughabyslens, 5 to 7 Saif Ali Khawaja)