The capitals of Sudan and India are not often thought of as must-see tourist destinations. Delhi is all too often just an entry point for tourists visiting India. And Khartoum, well, Sudan’s capital is after all… in Sudan, which is not high on tourism bucket lists either.
People are missing out. Delhi is a delightfully insane patchwork of vibrant communities and leftovers of ancient empire(s) all stuffed together in a frenetic megacity. Khartoum is actually a peaceful and calm oasis on the Nile, with some of the friendliest human beings I have ever encountered. I’ve greatly enjoyed visiting and working in both cities over the past few years.
And interestingly enough, at the top of the to-do lists for visitors to both of these cities are very similar cultural attractions: Sufi shrines that feature the rhythmic devotional music so typical of this mystical branch of Islam.
A trip across the Nile from Khartoum to see the whirling dervishes of Omdurman is a must for the few visitors to this city. In Delhi, checking out the Thursday night Sufi Qawwali singing at Nizzamudin is one of the most unforgettable experiences that the city has to offer. I’ll let my video from December 2016 prove the point:
Although both sites attract some tourists, the vast majority of visitors are adherents of the Sufi branch of Islam. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of similarities between the Sufi two sites. Both are located at tombs of important Sufi leaders. The singing and dancing at both sites happens once a week, at sundown. And both sites serve a larger spiritual purpose for Sufis, making a visit to one a real, enriching experience.
Nizzamudin is located in posh South Delhi but stands out enormously from its surroundings. It is a tiny medieval village of shrines, mosques, mausoleums, kebab joints, and Islamic shops that has grown around the tomb of the 14th Century Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin. Arguably the most important Indian Sufi saint, the Shaikh Nizzamudin believed in the power of mysticism and was a proponent of the power of music and poetry to move people closer to God.
Centuries later his followers are doing just that. Every Thursday huge crowds gather at the Shaikh’s tomb, navigating a series of alleyways and tightly packed streets to reach the shrine. The alleys get smaller and smaller as you get closer to the Dargah, Persian/Urdu for “Shrine.” Every inch is covered by vendors hawking rugs, Islamic goods, oils, and plates of flower offerings. Pilgrims crowd into a small courtyard in front of the shrine, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Qawwali musicians.
Eager indeed: My first attempt at seeing music there was a bust- we waited over an hour before the musicians decided that they weren’t going to play. My second visit late last year was successful. The second I emerged from the labyrinth into the courtyard, I knew my ethnomusicologist heart wasn’t going to be broken again as the sounds of Qawwali drifted through the crowd.
Qawwali is practiced throughout South Asia, from Pakistan to Bangladesh. The late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan popularized the style among Western audiences.
One of my favorite Qawwalis from the master, Sanu ik Pal Chain:
What really struck me at Nizzamuddin was the diversity of the audience – a perfect microcosm of India’s complex multi-faceted society. Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists were all there to pay tribute to the Shaikh and take in the Qawwali. The songs were primarily in Punjab and according to my friends, some of the melodies were in fact popular Bollywood tunes with lyrics changed around. I noticed Sikhs praying right next to Muslims.. India really is incredible:
In Omdurman, Sudan, the ceremony takes places every Friday, outside the tomb of the 19th Century Sufi leader Sheikh Hamed al-Nil. The shrine is located inside a dusty cemetery on the outskirts of Omdurman, Sudan’s capital in the 19th century.
In fact, a few blocks from the cemetery lies another important tomb, that of the “the Mahdi,” Sudan’s mythic religious leader who fought against the colonial Egyptian and British forces in the 19th century. It’s relatively easy to visit this tomb and adjoining museum before seeing the dervishes, taking in a huge whiff of Sudan’s bloody colonial past: the Battle of Omdurman, General Gordon’s defeat, etc. etc.
Arriving at Sheikh Hamed al-Nil mosque is magical in itself. I tried to document it here:
Most of the visitors to the mosque are part of the Qadiriyya Sufi sect, followers of the Sheikh Hamed al-Nil. In stark contrast to the ubiquitous white jalabiya that many Sudanese men wear, the Sufi dervishes wear colorful green robes and sport long deadlocks.
And yes, they whirl. As the music increases in intensity the dervishes attain a higher spiritual level, going faster and faster. Adherents pulse back and forth around the dervishes chanting and playing on large frame drums. I noticed women and men dancing quite close to each other. The music was as rhythmic and pulsating as Qawwali, and was mostly in the distinct Sudanese pentatonic scale. I tried to capture some of the tunes:
Nizzamudin doesn’t have the same caliber of whirling dervishes, but many adherents go into a trance-like state during the Qawwali. Both times I visited, a group of young woman could be seen – and heard – flinging themselves back and forth behind a latticed screen in a corner of the courtyard almost like they were possessed.Their screams got louder and louder and by the end the few Western tourists were visibly disturbed.
But it was a sure sign of the real spiritual fervor that was going on, along with the great tunes. If you are looking for a real-deal 21st Century mystical experience with some fabulous music, go no further than Nizzamudin and Omdurman.