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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – Dargahs


By Madhavi Menon 1

A neglected tomb in Delhi holds within it a story of extraordinary passion between two men. Madhavi Menon examines Indian Sufism’s ecstatic homoeroticism

jamali-kamali-mosque-prayer-hall-mehrauli-delhi Photo Credit: Baadal |

Jamali-Kamali mosque prayer hall
Photo Credit: Baadal |

It is the middle of the monsoon season. For several days I have put off my trip to the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, but finally decide to brave the puddles and take the plunge. Luckily it is a breezy morning, and my guide awaits me at a side entrance to the park. Marvelling at the fact that despite being Delhi-born and bred, I have never visited this site before, I start taking in the wonders that await a short distance inside the boundary wall. Old walls, and entire structures in various states of dilapidation. There is a new mosque on the left, at which I will stop later on, but not now. This is the site of Lal Kot—a bustling city ruled by Rajput Chauhans between the 8th and 11th centuries—one of the oldest versions of what was later to become Delhi. The Delhi Sultanate in the 12th and 13th centuries made Lal Kot a bustling and cosmopolitan space that flourished even after the Khiljis set up Siri in the 14th century. Many of the ruins around us date from the 15th century, but there are hints of even older habitation. There is a sign for Balban’s Tomb, which dates from the 13th century, and is widely regarded as the first structure in India to have made use of the arch. But before we get to Balban’s Tomb on the right, there is a small gate to the left. We round a corner, and turn in through the gate to come upon a wonderful courtyard, with a flourishing tree in the middle of it, and a shallow well-like structure to the right—this is the wazukhana, where the faithful cleanse themselves before offering namaz. One can still see the underground aqueducts that drained water into the tank centuries before. This is where dusty, weary travellers from afar, and energetic, spiffy pilgrims from closer by, would have come together to clean themselves before entering the mosque that rises majestically in front us.

A solitary watchman is on guard over this mosque. He sits in the shade provided by one of the arches, enjoying the breeze generated by the tree in the courtyard. He wanders over to chat, confirming that he does indeed get lonely in the absence of visitors. The mosque is a brilliant structure: designed by a Sufi saint named Shaikh Fazlu’llah and built around 1528. It boasts unique architectural features, including the first-recorded use in a mosque of the Rajasthani jharokha or latticed window. It is decorated also with the Star of David (or Daud), which was commonplace under the Mughals. The structure exudes a sense of serenity and beauty, but it is not at present an active mosque where the faithful can pray. Later, when I pause by the new mosque on my way out, the maulvi tells me that the old mosque is populated at night by jinns, creatures from a different dimension that have the power to pass into our world. I have heard this urban legend before, but decide to press the maulvi further. Why, I ask, would jinns come there at night, and how does the maulvi know that they do? The second question he considers unworthy of his attention, but in response to the first one, he provides a very interesting analysis. According to him, Allah does not like his places of worship to be empty, and since the old mosque is now a protected site, he sends jinns to add some life, as it were, to the place. Like people in this world, he adds, jinns too come in all shapes and sizes—some are drunkards, others gamblers, but then there are also the good-hearted ones, and they together make up the ranks of worshippers in the mosque. Given how atmospheric the mosque is—tranquil, beautiful, caressed by the branches of an old tree—one believes the stories of haunting by jinns without difficulty.

There is another gate in this courtyard, leading away from the mosque to the right. The security guard unlocks it, leading us into another courtyard, with wide open spaces, and a flat-roofed structure towards the back left-hand corner. The site is both bucolic—washed clothes fluttering lazily in the breeze on lines just outside the courtyard—and sculpted—the archways through which one looks out at the lazy linen are stunning.

But even the guard with the keys who had led us thus far is powerless to let us into the structure around which the courtyard is built. Apparently the key to the building resides in the offices of the Archaeological Survey of India; it would take time, a trip to the ASI offices, and a special petition, before the doors can be opened to us.

Photo Credit: Baadal |

Photo Credit: Baadal |

This building—the dargah of Jamali-Kamali—has been described as a jewel box. And like any jewel box containing precious gems, it lies under lock and key. One can peep into the dargah through the latticed windows that adorn the centre of three walls of the structure. Squinting through the star-shaped holes, hoping to find the light at an illuminating angle, hopping from one position to the next, I finally see. And what a sight it is. A dome adorned with sumptuous blue and gold, with intricate patterns traced on its arches and filigree, and inscriptions both from the Quran and Jamali’s poems running around the base of the roof. What is interesting about this “domed” roof is that it is a dome only on the inside—the dargah is unusual inasmuch as it has a flat roof rather than a dome on the outside. What the reason for this might be, we do not know, but it seems to be a mark of humility. Rather than a tower or a dome reaching towards Allah, the Jamali-Kamali tomb has a flat roof on which to receive the word of God. Not only is the inside magnificent in its rich blues and deep golds, but it is also entirely unexpected in the midst of overgrown grass and abandoned courtyards and haunted mosques.


“Jamali” is the pen name of Shaikh Hamid bin Fazlu’llah, a Persian Sufi poet and traveller who died in 1536. At some point in his travels he made Delhi his home and was also known as Shaikh Jalaluddin Dehlwi, or Jalal—a name meaning “wrath”—which he then changed to Jamali—meaning splendour or beauty. Historically he straddled multiple reigns, beginning with the pre-Mughal Lodis at the end of the 15th century through the Mughal emperors Babur and Humayun; he lived through several chronological periods, historical reigns, architectural styles and noms de plume. But the biggest mystery surrounding Jamali—some might say the reason why his dargah is kept under lock and key—is his relationship with the mellifluously named Kamali, alongside whom he is buried.

There are many theories about the identity of Kamali and his relationship with Jamali. Some say Kamali was Jamali’s brother, victim of a parental desire to have rhyming names for their children. But this reason does not work since “Jamali” was a name the Shaikh took on later in life. Others say, variously, that Kamali was Jamali’s best friend, a staunch disciple, a fellow poet, a local villager and even his wife. There is no documentary evidence to provide positive identification for Kamali, but what is incontestable is that he was a man. This can be seen from the fact that both graves in the dargah have pen boxes constructed on them. Traditionally, graves housing male saints have these pen boxes on top of the stone, denoting the instrument with which the commemorated saint wrote words of wisdom during his lifetime. Graves housing women—and there are several of these in the courtyard surrounding and adjoining Jamali-Kamali’s tomb—are given flat tops to denote the paper upon which the pen writes. Interestingly, the roof of the building housing Jamali-Kamali’s tombs, as we have already seen, is flat. There is thus something androgynous about the building—woman on top and man below, female flat roof on the outside and male phallic pen on the inside—that adds to the central mystery of Kamali’s identity. We do not know who Kamali is, except that he was close enough to Jamali in his life to warrant being buried next to the saint after his death. Urban legend and local chatter favour the homosexual theory that Jamali and Kamali were lovers in life and death. But once we accept that we cannot know for certain, what remains important for us to consider is the nature of a love between two men that was intense enough to warrant burial side by side. What does their love mean? And how was it coded?

Jamali-Kamali’s tomb Photo Credit: Baadal |

Jamali-Kamali’s tomb
Photo Credit: Baadal |

Often described as the gay Taj Mahal, Jamali-Kamali’s tomb is understood to commemorate a same-sex attachment as intense as the one that inspired Shah Jahan to build the mausoleum for his wife. Unlike the Taj Mahal, Jamali-Kamali’s dargah is not open for public viewing for fear of being defaced like the mosque next door. It is hard to see inside the dargah, just as it is almost impossible to see anything in the actual mausoleum room of Mumtaz Mahal. But while the Taj displays all its splendours on the outside, Jamali-Kamali keeps its beauty hidden, treasures only for a privileged few to see. This secrecy is also the reason why Jamali-Kamali’s tomb is not always referred to as a dargah. A dargah—literally “door to the place” (dar from darwaza, gah from jagah), a place of access—refers to the shrine of a Sufi saint that is visited by pilgrims and which hosts qawwali music to produce a mystical gathering (sama) of followers. The Jamali-Kamali tomb is the shrine of a Sufi saint, but it is not currently a site of pilgrimage or qawwali because of its protected status—a classic case of killing history in the name of preserving it. Belying its current bucolic surroundings, Jamali-Kamali’s tomb was set in the middle of bustling Lal Kot. And judging from the handsome courtyard that surrounds the tomb, the complex used to attract a great number of pilgrims. Equally, the courtyard has a clearly demarcated space right in front of the door to the tomb—an orange and beige chequered pattern with blue tiles still visible on a portion of it. Given that qawwali singers and musicians typically sit at the door of a dargah, it seems legitimate to speculate that Jamali-Kamali’s tomb was a space that created frequent and thriving samas. No matter, then, if one views this tomb currently as being a dargah or a qabr (grave), or mazar (shrine), the fact remains that a highly venerated Sufi saint, with a large number of followers who commemorated his poetry in ecstatic song, is buried here. Along with his boyfriend.

Or not his boyfriend? How do we adjudicate between these two options?

In Sufi poetry, merging with God is described as merging with one’s beloved. And that beloved is always coded as male. One reason for this coding is that much Sufi poetry in India was written in Persian (scholars suggest more Persian poetry was written in India than in Persia). And since Persian is a non-gendered language, the addressee is universally assumed, in a sexist manner, to be male. But far beyond this conventional privilege accorded to masculinity in which both God and devotee are grammatically deemed to be male, Sufi poetry often names its addressee by name as a man. Which is to say that Sufi poetry often names itself as homoerotic. The only matter of debate is whether the beloved thus named is considered to be a vessel of godliness or a vector of carnal desire. Or both.

Consider, for instance, that the 13th-century poet Amir Khusro, still considered by many to be the finest poet India has produced, describes himself repeatedly as the bride of Nizamuddin. In one of his most famous qawwalis (“Chhāptilak sab chīnnī re mosenaināmilāike”), he says that Nizamuddin seduced him with a single look. In Muslim Shrines in India, Christian Troll quotes another popular Sufi poem that describes this seductive aspect of the courtship between the pir and murid, teacher and pupil: “I asked what is heaven, he said a glimpse of me / I asked what is contentment, he said a favour from me / I asked what is anguish, he said a yearning for me.”

Thus it was not only the grammatical vagaries of the Persian language that produced Indian Sufism’s passionate homoeroticism. But just as one does not know for certain who Kamali is, so too is there no way to tell whether this passionate poetry was heavenly or worldly. At the very least, one presumes it must have been both. When it was written in Punjabi too, for instance by Bullhe Shah in the 18th century, the beloved is presented not only as male, but also as an erotic partner. “Now Inayat will come to me on the bed in the morning,” says Bullhe Shah of his pir, Shah Inayat; “The bangles on my arms, the plait on my head, and the bracelet on my wrist all look good. I am dyed with the delight of union with my beloved, and my whole being is filled with joy.” Some people will argue that these verses are an expression of “real” homoerotic desire, while others will insist that they are metaphorical renditions of one’s desire for God. But whether or not Khusro and Nizamuddin really had sex or Jamali and Kamali really were lovers matters far less than the fact that each couple was buried together in death after declaring their love for one another in life. How this love allows us to think about desire is the real legacy of the dargahs.

Given its Sufi provenance, this male-male love resulting in a shared burial site is attached to other tales that populate the faith. One Sufi tale goes that the mark of a real pir is that he can read the namaaz at his own funeral. This is what it means to possess the secret of the annihilation of the self, the raaz-i-fana: to still be present when the self is no longer there. Or absent while the self is still ostensibly present. This annihilation of the self is central to the tenets of Sufism in India. Qazi Hamiduddin, beloved of both the Chishti and Suhrawardi sects of Sufism (Jamali was a Suhrawardi), insisted that although the Lover and the Beloved seem different, they are in fact identical. The annihilation of the self is most commonly understood in Sufism as a merging of the self with God, an immolation in the fires of devotional passion. The language with which Sufi poetry describes this process of annihilation—fana—is utterly erotic. But even more important is the power of this eroticism to destroy the self. In other words, what is erotic about Sufi desire is its power to eradicate that which is experiencing desire. The desire embedded in the dargah is fatal because fatality is what makes it erotic. But this fatality is not, or not only, literal.

Let us turn to Bullhe Shah, again speaking about his beloved Shah Inayat: “He was Heer and then became Ranjha. Very rare are the / people who realize this. Once they do so, all disputes / are resolved.” Bullhe Shah casts his poetry in the mode of popular romance—the story of Heer and Ranjha was the bestselling subcontinental version of Romeo and Juliet. Passionate love between members of different social classes is prevented by difficult parents and ends with the death of the two lovers. But he also describes this passionate love as bringing to an end the reign of opposites. Heer and Ranjha are no longer two different entities but versions of the same phenomenon of desire, both of which are embodied by Shah Inayat. Realising that the lover is both everything—Heer and Ranjha—and nothing—neither Heer nor Ranjha—adheres to a Sufi understanding in which erotic love is indistinguishable from religious love, in which disputes, or oppositions, are destroyed. For Bullhe Shah, the insistence on death in love is simultaneously an instance of the dissolution of the self.

In their passion, the lovers move fluidly between states, between being Heer and Ranjha, Sohni and Mahiwal. He who was once Heer (the female protagonist) could then become Ranjha (the male protagonist), and vice versa. Even more, this ability to move between being Heer and being Ranjha allows us to resolve all disputes. “Get rid of duality,” he says later, “there is no confusion. He is both Turk / and Hindu, there is no one else.” While the surface of the debate rests on whether the “He” here is the mortal male pir or the immortal male god, the rigour lies in the idea that male homoeroticism for the Sufis seems to depend on an absence of boundaries. Or a recasting of boundaries so that they are no longer bounded.

As much of this history makes clear, for the Sufis in their dargahs, there is no boundary to desire since desire transgresses geography, gender, religion, culture, language and the earthly realm itself. But arguably the two most distinctive barriers that the Sufi poets crossed were those of gender and religion. Another male couple from Lahore—Shah Hussain and his disciple Madho Lal—were so deeply in love that Shah Hussain changed his name to Madho Lal Hussain. In addition to being a same-sex couple, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were also a cross-caste and cross-religious couple: Shah Husain was a lower-caste convert to Islam while Madho Lal was a Hindu Brahmin. They are buried side by side in their dargah despite these differences, a feat that would not always be possible today.

“Dargah desire” thus testifies to the lack of boundaries in desire rather than instating new borders around it—this is why locking up a dargah makes no sense at all. Heer and Ranjha are synonymous with Shah Hussain and Madho Lal who are in turn synonymous with Shams Tabrizi and Rumi. Both Bullhe Shah and Madho Lal Hussain perfect a poetic oeuvre that allows all people to be equal, and equally, in the grip of desire. Thus, both Krishna and Allah can occupy the same stage as the object of desire, while Sohni and Heer can be as masculine as Bullhe Shah and Madho Lal Hussain. What is fascinating about this history of desire is that it actively demands not to be identified with just one thing or person. Indeed, the only thing about which we can be sure about dargah desire is that we do not know whose desire it is, and for whom. Two men are buried together, and their songs speak of intense same-sex love. But equally they speak of an intense longing for God. Rather than adjudicating between these possibilities, the dargahs present us with both options.

A page of a copy c. 1503 of the Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz-i, Shams of Tabriz as portrayed in a 1500 painting in a page of a copy of Rumi's poem dedicated to Shams

A page of a copy c. 1503 of the Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz-i,  Rumi’s poem dedicated to Shams | Source: Wikicommons

Let us then return to the question with which I started: who was Kamali and what was his relationship with Jamali? This is the mystery with which I started on my exploration of the dargah on that monsoon day, and it remains a mystery to this day. The maulvi I spoke to favoured the murid theory: Kamali was Jamali’s favourite and favoured disciple. But what prevents a murid from being a lover?

Dargah desire, then, is not “the love that dare not speak its name”, which was the favoured descriptor of homosexuality in the West until very recently. Dargahs speak about the desires of their inhabitants eloquently and frequently, but what they say is simply not recognisable by a single name. Instead of a consolidation of desire, we get the annihilation that desire compels; instead of an identity, we get profusion; instead of stasis, we get ecstasy. A far cry from the phobic history of sexuality that would assign one identity to one person, dargahs provide us with a window onto a world of desirous possibilities, none of which is spelled out fully.

Excerpted from A History of Desire in India, forthcoming in 2018 from Speaking Tiger.

This article was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.

One Comment

  1. Charles Tirkey April 21, 2018 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    @Madavi Menon,

    The myths and history of unrequited or maybe even glamourised love has been always a part of our discovered history. It is always interesting to know that “Love” was always a very strong theme in Indian cultural and historical narrative. Always, Love, has vanquished the evil of the society of that time or rather maybe, the conflict did not exist. Maybe, at a time when we see such conflict of identities, based on sexual orientation as a formative.
    I could comment better on same-sex love, had I have such orientation. Though as always, the Idea, that much resources of creativity and gnostic thought has been applied for making the ” jewel box”. These celebrations of architecture and craftsmanship for what would have been an anomie of their time.
    India, maybe shows a cynical contradiction to all break-throughs that has been accomplished in social structures. Same-sex love narrative has been mostly a current “western” social conflict, which due to global media comes as a highlighted item of social mis-alignment.
    Though we are able to communicate from as called “western” technological platform, I feel it is important to know these lived myths which in the commemoration of, asks us to build our own narrative.
    Maybe, the effect on ourselves from ourselves would liberate us from carrying any western thought burden that we may have been afflicted with.

    P.S – Is it queer to talk about queer when not ?

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