Kathleen Ellison

Major: International and Area Studies

Hometown: Chattanooga, TN

Study Abroad Program: UNC Summer in India

I imagined spending my first days in India browsing vibrant orange and pink silks in local markets, immersing myself in various religious landscapes, and talking with people to understand the challenges and complexities people face when dealing with the question of “Indian” identity.

However, as I walked around in downtown Delhi during my first week in India, the smells of spicy sweat filled my nose as the sounds of horns and rickshaw bells rang in the overwhelming 120-degree heat.  The streets were packed with rickshaws, bicycles, and vendors selling fruits and vegetables. The public buses were crammed with men hanging from windows, sitting on top of the buses, and fitting anywhere they could, kind of like a human version of Tetris. Rather than seeing my mental image of picturesque markets, however, I saw something else on the sides of the streets and in the alleys. My gaze was fixed on a dusty sprawling slum surrounding a large Sufi shrine.

Some of Delhi’s largest religious sites are sprinkled with sprawling slums, striking sights of abject poverty. While some are built with concrete walls and tin roofs, others consist of tent cities, canvas shelters brimming with activity during the day and glowing by smoldering firelight at night.

One such religious center I visited was the Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin, a 14th century Sufi shrine in the heart of Delhi. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and curious visitors visit the shrine to secure the blessings of the deceased saint and hear the ancient music of the Dargah, called qawwali, unchanged and passed down from the 11th century among generations of accordion players and vocalists. We wound through a medieval labyrinth of crumbling alleys and uneven dirt roads that led to the Nizamuddin, passing pilgrims and impoverished residents. The merchants had stalls arranged along the path, and they sold warm chapati, vibrant marigolds, and thick red strands to give to the saint in prayer.

As we approached the Dargah, we heard the pounding of drums and the supernatural sounds of ancient qawwali. A man wearing a plain white kurta, a traditional tunic, directed us to sit in the front of the qawwali audience. Upon sitting down, a man wielding a large palm fan began to cool us, promptly holding out a felt drawstring bag for donations to the Dargah in exchange for his fanning service.

During the qawwali performance and the subsequent touring of the Dargah complex and its various tombs, I could only think about the approximately 20,000 impoverished residents who line the basti (area surrounding the shrine).

However, while walking around the Nizamuddin, I saw a small alcove with a red cross painted on the door frame. I asked a man sitting inside to ask what the room was, and he informed me that it was a clinic, one of the many services provided by the decedents of the Sufi saint for the residents of the neighboring slums. People who cannot afford health care can walk to the makeshift clinic to receive treatment. The operators of the shrine have also created other institutions, such as schools for children, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, and vocational training centers where adults can learn marketable skills. In addition, they are working with the government to secure basic services such as clean water and sanitation facilities. The goal is not only to help the impoverished residents of the Dargah but also to alleviate some of the caste conflict in the area.

Spiritual centers in India, such as the Nizamuddin, serve as centers of well-being in spiritual and personal aspects. When I saw the multitudes of people begging outside the Nizamuddin, I was startled by the living conditions surrounding the Dargah complex. I thought in terms of deficiencies; the residents lacked permanent home structures, economic stability, and access to basic human services. However, after talking to residents around the Nizamuddin, my perspective began to change. They had unparalleled optimism and faith in their religious institutions. The people with whom I spoke were confident that they would one day reach their potentials and have improved qualities of life. The shrine operators provided for their residents by giving them resources for education, meals, and health clinics, hoping to encourage hope, faithfulness, and spiritual enlightenment.

Though I left India without seeing my vision of picturesque markets covered in billowing canopies, I did manage to glimpse into India’s complexities. I learned that spirituality and a mutual quest for truth can connect the unlikeliest of people. I learned to slow down, explore more, ask questions, and seek to understand the person, not judge by his or her circumstances. People have more in common than one could ever imagine. After all, the visitors at the Nizamuddin were seeking blessings and luck from the Saint. And so were the people who lived there.