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Solving the mystery of anonymous graves in Delhi

 R V Smith |

There are a whole lot of anonymous graves in Delhi, like the one in Pragati Maidan, to which attention was drawn in an article in a local daily. This grave, as also the other ones, are most probably those of Sayyid babas, who lived and died in anonymity, with no names as to their identity, or of Sufi poets like Bedil. This mystery is not confined to Delhi alone ~ beyond it, towards Punjab on one side and Uttar Pradesh on the other, you can find such graves all over the countryside. They are situated under imli, neem or peepul trees or in the vicinity of village wells, where a man seeking divine favours or a woman depressed by domestic happenings may light a diya or a candle at sunset and then, after laying flowers, pray with folded hands, tears rolling down their cheeks.

While travelling by the Taj Express in the 1960s, one was always attracted by six graves on a white-washed platform just as the train was picking up speed on its way to Hazrat Nizamuddin station. It was so intriguing that one paid a visit to the place to make enquiries. A bearded man staying nearby claimed that they were the graves of a family killed by strangler thugs. Another person, however, contradicted him and said they were graves of unknown people that had acquired sanctity over the years. Somehow one doesn’t see them any more, wonder if they have been demolished or hidden from view by recent development. Just as mysterious are the giant graves of Nau-Gaza Pirs, who were buried with the long staffs they carried.

Quite close to Arab-ki-Sarai there is a tomb identified as that of Afsarwala. Now that would mean an official of the kingly days. The grave of Paik in North Delhi is also one of this kind. Paik means a messenger ~ a royal one of the Lodhi’s period in this case. Even Maulvi Zafar Hasan, who compiled a list of monuments in the second decade of the 20th century, when Gordon Sanderson was the ASI in-charge of Mohammedan monuments in the Agra-Delhi region, is silent on the identity of Paik. Similar is the case of Kharbuze-ka-Gumbad (the melon-shaped dome) tomb.

Near Metcalfe House are three unmarked graves, where employees of DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) light earthen lamps. When a tornado hit the area in the 1970s, causing havoc, entailing loss of life too, Sharmaji, a DRDO official, claimed that those buried in the graves were seen leaving them and “flying to the aid of their near and dear ones (sic)”. A tall story but one that gained great currency after the devastating tornado.

Why are so many graves left unmarked? The answer lies in the fact that according to the strictest tenets of Islam, monuments and tombs should not be erected as this is akin to idolatry. In recent times, the fanatic ISI has destroyed some of the reputed monuments in Iraq and Iran and other places, which were considered world heritage sites because of the belief originally espoused by the Wahabis. For this reason, even Saudi Arabian kings are buried in unmarked graves.

Visitors to the Taj see the imitation graves of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal and the ones below, which are said to be the real ones. However, according to the theory of the Six Graves of the Taj, even these are not the real ones for the emperor and his queen were actually buried in mud graves deeper below, almost at the level of the Yamuna, on which no names were inscribed. Shah Jahan had become very devout as he became older and hence his preference for mud graves. His own one was built by Aurangzeb, who presumably came at night by boat, entering and exiting by the secret passage that led to the underground burial chamber.

One remembers a Sayyid grave under an imli (tamarind) tree close to one’s house. Now this Sayyid Baba was actually a Sadasuhag ~ mendicant who dresses like a woman and seeks alms only from dancing girls. But in course of time his grave became a place of great veneration.

Akbar’s grave is in Sikandra, near Agra. It was said to have been desecrated by the Jats of Bharatpur in the 18th century and the emperor’s bones burnt in the belief that under the influence of his Rajput wives he had adopted their religion. However, over 70 years ago the late historical researcher Thomas Smith found an unmarked grave in a top storey of the mausoleum, which made him to infer that as Akbar had got his mausoleum constructed on the pattern of the Pyramids, he had planned that like most of the pharaohs his tomb would also remain unknown in times to come. Maybe a strange conclusion but not improbable.

So, anonymous graves too have a story behind them. The monuments of Mehrauli, where so many sultans are buried sans any inscription on their tombs, seem to bear this out ~ and so also the graves of the saintly Sayyids, said to be the descendants of the tribe of the Prophet himself!

Two medieval structures, which fall within the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital complex, commemorate a mysterious personage, Pir Ghaib, about whom little is known. Gossip says he was a Sufi, who had made his abode in the wilderness, probably during the time of the Tughlaks in the 14th century. But people got to know about him eventually and started coming for favours. The Pir thought his meditation was beings disturbed and decided to seek shelter elsewhere. So one morning he just disappeared, much to the disappointment of his devotees, and came to known as Pir Ghaib (missing saint), Firoz Shah Tughlak built  two structures to house his astronomical observatory and also to commemorate Pir Ghaib, who is still remembered in anonymity.

Another such divine was Sayyid Baba, an unnamed Sufi, whose grave exists in Ghattia locality. Some say he also was a “Sada Suhaga”, who wore green bangles and a green sari, and sported a pigtail to justify the epithet as always wedded (Sada Suhag) to God in a mystic union.

Sayyid Baba, according to an old-timer, who was born in 1878 and later died in Karachi, was a great kite-flyer too and escaped death at the hands of the British after the “Mutiny” of 1857 by changing shape and taking refuge on a tree that grew in the Takia compound, where he lived. Long after, when he died, he was buried under the tree, which was, unfortunately, cut down at the end of the 20th century. Even the old-timer, who was known as the Mohalla girl Sayyida’s Nana (maternal grandfather) didn’t reveal Sayyid Baba’s real name (nor for that matter did anyone know Nanaji’s own name) on the plea that saints should be allowed to live and die in anonymity “as that pleases Allah”). No wonder so many anonymous graves abound in Delhi