The Sufi music tour: Where to hear qawwali in India

The Sufi music tour: Where to hear qawwali in India

Sit, listen, emote, get closer to that "something out there"
Sufi music
The World Sufi Spirit Festival in India showcases the convergence of religious ceremony and performing arts.

It is just another Thursday evening at the dargah (shrine) of one of the world's most famous Sufi saints, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, situated in the heart of New Delhi.

The air is heavy with the scent of rose water and incense. The marble courtyard is awash in the golden light of a fading sun. A constant trickle of devotees pass through. 

But as the evening matures into night, the shrine takes on a magical quality. 

It is a highly interactive art form in which audience's display of emotion is part of the whole experience

Sufi devotional singers begin to perform qawwalis in praise of Allah in a trance-like state. As their tempo increases, an enraptured crowd of devotees increasingly respond with unabashed displays of emotion until everyone in the room is moved to a state of fana -- spiritual ecstasy.

This is the other side of Islam; the mystical face of Sufism. 

"Sufism is an antidote to all the negative stereotypes of Islam," says historian William Dalrymple who made the documentary "Sufi Soul."

"Since the earliest days of the faith, the Sufis have produced some of the most beautiful art, poetry and music."

Sufism, a more tolerant version of Islam that allows freedom of expression through performance arts and poetry as a means of reaching Allah, is growing in popularity amongst young people in India who are seeking an alternative spiritual experience. 

On the flip side, Islamic hardliners consider Sufism heretical and there has been a recent increase in attacks on Sufi shrines in the region.

Qawwali, the popular musical form associated with Sufi music in India, is a fusion of devotional poetry and Hindustani music and was developed by the great Indian scholar, poet and mystic, Amir Khusrow.

In a good qawwali, words are more important than music with a repetition of verses. It is a highly interactive art form in which the audience's display of emotion is part of the experience.

Hear it

The upcoming World Sufi Spirit Festival on February 17-18 in Nagaur and February 20-21 in Jodhpur is a great place to start a Sufi music tour. 

The festival will feature everything from traditional faqirs, qawwali legends, whirling dervishes, north Indian mystical songs, local folk traditions and Sufi rock.

Or wait till June 8-16 for the Fez World Sacred Music Festival to be held in Morocco. This year the festival pays a special tribute to Persian poet Omar Khayyam. 

The easiest way to experience qawwali is to visit one of the innumerable living shrines of Sufi saints in India. Qawwali is performed on any evening, but mostly on Thursdays, and anyone can enjoy the spiritual heightening of Sufi devotional singing.

Some of the most conveniently located and highly revered shrines are below.

Have you been to any of these Sufi shrines? Do you have any advice for travelers wishing to visit these spots? Let us know in the comments.

Sufi music The crowd anticipates the qawwali at dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

If you can only visit one: Nizamuddin

The dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is the shrine to visit in New Delhi. It is a pilgrimage site for Sufi devotees from around the world.

The shrine is home to one of the most famous qawwali families, the Nizami Bandhu, who have been singing at dargah Nizamuddin Auliya for hundreds of years. See a video of the qawwali on vimeo.

The "father of qawwali" Amir Khusrow was also a disciple of the saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Khusrow, who died six months after his teacher, has his tomb next to the saint's. 

The surrounding Nizamuddin Basti neighborhood is a destination in its own right. The area is a labyrinth of lanes filled with kebab shops, flower sellers and religious knick knack stalls and is where daily life takes place for many of India's muslims.

It is also rich with relics. Visit a baoli (stepwell) or the tomb of the revered Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. The main shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya is also flanked by Jamaat Khana mosque, which is said to be the oldest building in Nizamuddin.

Thursday and Friday evenings are a sure bet for experiencing qawwali at dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Performance times are 6-7:30 p.m. and 9-10:30 p.m. Read more on

Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is located in Nizamuddin West in New Delhi.

Mystical music school: Inayat Khan shrine

Dargah Hazrat Inayat Khan is one of my favorite Sufi shrines to visit as it is close to the Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya shrine but does not share its crowds.

This dargah offers a bit of peace and solace as well as soulful Sufi music and facilities for studying the faith.

Tucked in the folds of the Nizamuddin Basti, the shrine of Inayat Khan hosts qawwali sessions in the cool of a marble courtyard each Friday.

The dargah is also a social and cultural center, hosting an informal school for underprivileged children in the neighborhood as well as other social initiatives. 

The site is home to the Sufi Inayat Khan Music Academy, which offers lessons in poetry, classical and Sufi music, as well as providing a modest library for delving deep into the study of Sufism. Contact the Academy directly for details.

29 Basti Nizamuddin, New Delhi 110013, +91 11 24350833,

Sufi musicWomen are not allowed into the inner halls of some Sufi shrines.

Oldest and most tranquil: Dargah Kaki

Khawaja Syed Muhammad Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, a Sufi saint with many honorific titles, was one of the most important figures in Sufism, attracting many new followers of Islam in 13th- and 14th-century India.

The saint was a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed and his most important disciple, Fariduddin Ganjshaka, in turn became a spiritual teacher to Nizamuddin Auliya.

Kaki died while in a musical trance induced by a qawwali. His mausoleum was then built in Mehrauli, one of the seven ancient cities that makes up New Delhi.

The shrine is one of the oldest in New Delhi and certainly one of the least touristy. Women are not allowed into the inner compound of the dargah.

Thursday evening is the time to go for the singing of the qawwalis and a walk at the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. 

The dargah is also the site of the Phool Walon Ki Sair, an inter-faith festival celebrating the flower sellers of Delhi, held in September after the rainy season. 

Dargah Khawaja Syed Muhammad Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki is in Mehrauli, New Delhi. The nearest subway station is Qutub Minar.

Most challenging: Dargah Sharif 

The Moinuddin Chishti shrine known as dargah Sharif is one of the most visited Sufi shrines in all of India.

Due to its charitable work, the shrine is commonly known as Gharib Nawaz, the benefactor of the poor.  

It is so popular that one needs nerves of steel to wade through the sea of humanity -- vendors, beggars, pilgrims -- that surrounds the building to reach the main shrine.

When visiting the shrine during the urs, the anniversary of the death of the saint, prepare for a struggle. The small town of Ajmer transforms into a teeming city of mystics.

The next urs will take place in June 2012. See this website for more details.

Qawwali is performed daily at dargah Sharif in Ajmer, Rajasthan. 

Divya Dugar now freelances as a photojournalist for various publications, works on documentaries and travels non-stop.

Read more about Divya Dugar