When you are with Asif Khan Dehlvi, you should be ready for the spiritual and the stories, fragrances of sandalwood and rose with nothing of that sort burning nearby, and the invisible forms chatting with him, as he chats with you. Since we had met a few days before while he was leading the walk on djinns of Delhi in Ferozeshah Kotla Fort, I was quite prepared to hear the unusual; in fact that’s what I wanted to hear. And Asif, the young founder of Delhi Karavan, didn’t disappoint; he invited me to walk around the exotic Mehrauli Archaeological Park (MAR) with him. The green ambience, winter sun, a chill in the breeze and some spirit talk, excerpts from the conversation sitting on the baoli terrace:
You are studying history. How did the idea of heritage walks come along?
I am doing my MA in History from IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University), but those are loads of books (he laughs). I have done a lot of reading to understand history for my walks. I am not a tourist guide or a storyteller but someone who loves Delhi and would like others to see the city with its deep roots.
It was in 2011 that I read about Delhi heritage walks in a newspaper and went in search to join them. But I didn’t get the job! So I started a group called Delhi By Foot in 2012 with an acquaintance. I was not Facebook savvy either, but when we started this group, we popularised it on FB. And my first walk was here in MAR with two girls. I earned Rs 400! I got good feedback and it just picked up from there.
You are conducting all walks in Hindi and Urdu. Why not English, a more popular language nowadays?
I did start in English, but a teacher from my theatre group suggested I do the walks in Hindi and Urdu. They are more in sync with our history, lots of influence from our native tongues.
You did theatre also…
I did a few plays with a NGO, street plays for awareness.
What kind of walks did you begin with?
Dargah walks on Thursdays, I would sit on the terrace at Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah and recount stories and people would love it. It became one of the more popular walks. Then, of course, Adilabad, Shahjahanbad, Old Delhi food walk, Djinns of Delhi…
From Delhi By Foot to Delhi Karavan…
As my associate and I decided to part ways, I started Delhi Karavan on November 5, 2013. And have been adding walks—Razia Sultana walk, Zaika-e-Dilli, Ugta Suraj Mughalon ka on Purana Qila, Doobta Suraj Mughalon ka on Red Fort…We keep innovating and adding…
In between, he breaks and starts telling about baolis. These are step wells, places to sit and enjoy the seasons, designed in a way so that air passes cool in summers and the warm sun shines in winters. Women would spend their time there during the afternoon, gossiping and resting, men were not allowed when it was time for women to be there. Another famous monument of MAR is Jamali Kamali mosque, it is the dargah of the two Sufi saints, soulmates as Asif describes them “Guru-shishya where love reigns supreme and nothing stands in between,” he says.
You follow Sufism?
I don’t know what is Sufism, I just know when love for the creator makes you transcend all boundaries, then it’s Sufism. I haven’t read about the philosophy but I have read about the saints.
My childhood was spent in the courtyard of Hazrat Khwaja Naseeruddin Chirag-e-Dehlvi dargah and now I live near the dargah of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli. My life has been around Sufis only. We lived in the premises of the Chirag-e-Dehlvi dargah in Chirag Dilli. I used to do my homework sitting by the graves. During Urs, people couldn’t get in but I would be sitting inside and studying.
How come you were living there? Are you the caretakers?
No, my family came to India in the 16th century. My ancestor was Mohammed Asif Ali Khan Ghouri and there is even a riyasat in UP named after my ancestors. They would often visit saint Naseerudin and one of my great grandparents ended up building a haveli near the dargah. Then my grandfather started living there, by that time the dargah came within the premises and we began to be thought as khadims or caretakers. However, it is not so. But my father’s and my grandparents’ graves are in the dargah.
So you didn’t follow the family business of agriculture in UP?
My father prayed for a son. And I have never had an inclination towards business, though my father was a government contractor. So, as a lot of people used to say if you ask a fakir for a son, you can only get a fakir! Everyone thinks I am a healer but I have never proclaimed that ability. I was born in the dargah and my father passed away soon after my birth.
(People have been in touch with Asif for removing evil eye effects, understanding occult and the mysterious. Even ghosts have asked him to pray for their moksha).
So Sufism can be traced to…
If we go from the top to the bottom of the Chishti order—Hazrat Khwaja Moinauddin Chishti of Ajmer, Hazrat Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyaar Kaki Chishti in Delhi, Hazrat Khwaja Baba Fariduddin Gunj E Shakar RA in Pak Patan, Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya in Nizamuddin (Delhi) and Hazrat Khwaja Naseeruddin, Chiragh-e-Dehlavi in Delhi. This is where the Chishtia Silsila ended, there are branches of course.
How do you define Sufism?
Ishq, beintaha ishq, love infinite love, where you are not bothered about rules. I connect to the creator unconditionally; maybe a physical way of doing it is through daily namaaz and keeping the month-long fast during Ramadan. Rationally, I could be in a corporate job, I was offered also, but this is what I am.
My mother. She has sacrificed her life for us, she could have remarried after my father passed away but she preferred to be with us.
What are the walks that you doing now?
I don’t know, I keep doing as they keep coming to me. The night walk in MAR had about 110 people. I wanted people to experience the ambience at night, but it sort of got the name of a ghost walk, though there are no ghosts here. There are djinns guarding the tombs of the saints Jamali-Kamali.
Well, no ghosts certainly, but Asif requested the guards to open the Jamali-Kamali sacred tomb for us. As we entered the quiet space, the beautifully decorated white marble tombs, we were enveloped in the fragrance of sandalwood and rose. No incense, nothing, the doors had been opened only then after a long time. Perhaps the guardian djinns and the blessings of the saints….
Text by Ambica Gulati