As the winter gloom nears its end and spring wafts in slowly, every year on the third of Jamadi-ul- Awal, the fifth month of the Islamic calendar, the Sufis celebrate Basant at the dargah (shrine) of one of the most renowned Chishti Sufi saints, Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. The colours and festivity of Basant take over the dargah, and you see Sufis with large baskets decorated with marigold flowers and mustard oil, yellow bands tied around their heads. They pay homage to the great saint Nizamuddin and his beloved disciple Amir Khusrow. These two saints, it is said, celebrated Basant and brought the followers of two great religions, Hinduism and Islam, together; the tradition continues, led by Nizami Sufis.
There's an interesting story tied to the festival. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya's young nephew and a Sufi of high stature, Taqiuddin Nooh had died. Nizamuddin who loved his nephew was struck by grief, avoiding public appearances and refusing food. For six months this continued and his disciples—Hindus as well as Muslims—were becoming increasingly concerned to see their murshad (guru/master) thus afflicted.
Khwaja Amir Khusrow, the closest of all disciples, one day while coming from Mehrauli saw women carrying marigold flowers, wearing yellow ghagras and colourful scarves. They were going to celebrate Basant and pay homage at the temple of Kali. Khusrow being a genius, a poet and a Sufi was at once struck by the colours and revelries of Basant, the great Indian festival. He asked the women where they were taking the flowers and the mustard oil. "It is Basant and it is also Goddess Kali's day," they replied. Khusrow then asked, "Does this make the Goddess happy?" They replied, "It does."
And then an idea struck. Khwaja Amir Khusrow along with other disciples and friends took baskets of marigold, dholaks and yellow bands and started walking towards the dargah. Nizamuddin Auliya while sitting in the courtyard of his khanqah (Sufi abode), heard the music and the familiar melodious voice. "Who is it singing?" Nizamuddin Auliya asked. The disciples present in the courtyard were also curious.
The singing voices and the drum beats were nearing the khanqah. Auliya stood up, curiously looking at the door of the Khanqah. The colourful bands, baskets laden with marigold, the incense and the whiffs of flowers entered the khanqah. "It's Khusrow!" said one of the disciples present at the Dargah, said joyfully. Amir Khusrow came singing and clapping in the Qawwali style, and stood in front of Nizamuddin Auliya. The Sufis accompanying him joined in, singing the songs of spring around Nizamuddin Auliya. Cheered by the celebration and the poetic genius of Khwaja Amir Khusrow, Auliya smiled and asked the disciples to carry on the Basant celebrations.
The Chishti Nizami Sufis, since then, have taken the tradition of celebrating Basant. To a Sufi disciple, it is said, the commitment to his murshad is the commitment to truth. Amir Khusrow is an example of this devotion of a disciple towards his master.
Nizamuddin Auliya's shrine, and his Sufi order, is the confluence of great philosophies, religions and spiritualities and has thus become a centre of interfaith harmony. It is a place of worship not only for Muslims but for Hindus, Sikhs and people of all faiths and cultures.
"The Sufi festival of Basant is specific to the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya," said Sufi Ajmal Nizami, the Sahib e Sajjada (spiritual guide) at the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya whom I interviewed on Basant. "Other Sufis of his order also celebrate the festival." On my inquiring if other Sufi orders like Qadris, Naqshbandis or Suharwardis celebrate the festival, Sufi Ajmal replied, "Not necessarily; some of them do. But it is usually celebrated at the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya and Ajmer Sharif as well, at the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the founder of Chishti Sufi order in India. Where people from all walks of life and from all faiths, take part."
As the day passes, the qawwals (Sufi musicians) and the devotees fill the courtyard of Nizamuddin Auliya's shrine, praying, eating, singing and celebrating the divinity of Auliya and the divinity and beauty of human emotions and feelings. "Basant is the festival of the farmers and the people related to land and agriculture. It's a cultural celebration, and narrowing it down to any specific religion is doing it injustice. Neither the Quran nor the Gita nor any of the Vedas mention Basant. It's a festival that celebrates colours and life. It should be kept that way," Sufi Ajmal Nizami added.