“If you truly want to understand the soul of Burhanpur, and have not grasped its Sufi aspect, then you know 0% about Burhanpur,” announced Ghanshyam Malviya or Guruji, a lecturer-turned-guide in his 70s. “Nearly 4,000 Sufi saints came here to spread Islam, not by the might of the sword, but by the power of their word.” With these words from him, we dived into the religious and spiritual history of Burhanpur.

Malik Nasir Khan of the Farooqi dynasty captured Asirgarh Fort in 1400 A.D. and moved his capital to nearby Bhragnapur. He renamed it Burhanpur, after the Sufi saint Sheikh Burhan-ud-din Garib, disciple of Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Aulia.

The Farooqis were liberal and the town’s tolerant air attracted saints and mystics of all faiths. It’s rare to find a mosque where Sanskrit and Urdu coexist in the mihrab, but around Burhanpur there are two—the Jama Masjid in the heart of the city, and in adjacent Asirgarh.

Following Guruji, our guide’s footsteps, like apt pupils (and often treated like them), we stopped at a cluster of tombs, where we saw the faithful resting in the shade of old neem trees. Prominent among the structures was the maqbara (mausoleum) of Shah Bahauddin Bajan, who came to Burhanpur as a young tutor for the children of the Farooqis. Though revered for his intellect, it is said that he spoke very little, and was thus called “Chup” Shah. Once, when asked to share his knowledge, he famously offered four pieces of wisdom. “Neki kar dariya mein dal (Do good deeds and forget them); Badi kar bhool ja (Forgive those who wrong you); Jab savere utho toh yaad rakho ki aaj mera antim din hai (Live each day as if it were your last); Oopar wala hi poore kaayanat ka maalik hai (The universe belongs solely to the creator). He died at the ripe old age of 120 and his takiya (Sufi dwelling) in Burhanpur’s Lakherwadi area is still visited by many.

Not too far away, on the banks of the Utawali River, rests Hazrat Shah Bhikhari, whose maqbara dates back to the reign of the Farooqi ruler Adil Khan II. Nearly 2 lakh devotees offer namaz on Barawafat, Shah Bhikhari’s urs (death anniversary) and the Prophet’s birthday.

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Pilgrims offer prayers at the tomb complex of Syedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin and other saints
Pilgrims offer prayers at the tomb complex of Syedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin and other
saints

The 17th-century Bohra saint Syedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin too came to Burhanpur. He was a hafiz—someone who could recite the entire Quran from memory. It is said his recitation was so soulful it could mesmerize any living being. A famous legend recounts how one day as he was reciting the Quran in the forest, a tiger walking by sat transfixed before him and didn’t move until the venerable scholar finished his prayer.

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Intricate lattice work and arches decorate the marble interiors of the mausoleums of Bohra saints
Intricate lattice work and arches decorate the marble interiors of the mausoleums of
Bohra saints

Hakimuddin died in 1730 A.D. and just 22 days after his burial Aurangzeb had his body exhumed to deliberately insult him. To the gravediggers’ shock, they found his body had not decomposed at all, and emitted an ethereal glow. He was reinterred at Dargah-e-Hakimi, where two other Bohra saints Sayyedi Sheikh Jeevanji Sahab and Abdul Tayab Jakiuddin lie in marble mausoleums.

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The local tonga in Burhanpur is a tradition that goes back to Shah Jahan's times when it was known as shahi sawari
The local tonga in Burhanpur is a tradition that goes back to Shah Jahan’s times when it
was known as shahi sawari

Spread over 125 acres, amid landscaped gardens and immaculate guesthouses, with facilities and food that would make a resort blush, Dargah-e-Hakimi is a stunning complex so clean you could eat off the ground. Drawn by Syedi Hakimuddin’s miraculous powers, Bohras visit the shrine observing a mannat (vow) for cure from disease and ill fortune. The holy Syedna’s visit is no less than a festival, attended by nearly one lakh Bohra pilgrims, with an endless procession of horse-drawn tongas ferrying Bohra visitors to the shrine.

Burhanpur is no stranger to miracles. Learned saint Syed Mohammad Hashmi Kashmi came to India and lived in Burhanpur for 12 years. Two hundred years after his death, when the changing course of the river threatened his grave and was being shifted to a safer place, his body was exhumed only to be found intact, as if it had been buried moments ago.

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The original Guru Granth Sahib believed to be written and signed in gold by the last Sikh guru Gobind Singh is one of Burhanpur's rare treasures
The original Guru Granth Sahib believed to be written and signed in gold by the last Sikh
guru Gobind Singh is one of Burhanpur’s rare treasures
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A priest at Burhanpur’s Gurudwara Badi Sangat
A priest at Burhanpur’s Gurudwara Badi Sangat

Burhanpur is also sacred to the Sikhs as it was blessed by the footsteps of the first and last gurus. Guru Nanak stopped here in 1511-12 on his way to Omkareshwar. Guru Gobind Singh stayed in Burhanpur in 1708 en route to Nanded, while accompanying the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah to the Deccan. The place where he encamped and gave a satsang to local Sikhs is marked by the Gurdwara Bari Sangat. The room where he is believed to have stayed for six months and nine days is called Nivas Asthan Patshahi, and houses the guru’s weapons. It was here in Burhanpur that Gobind Singhji decreed that there would be no more gurus after him; henceforth the Granth would be the guide. A handwritten copy of the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book) marked with his seal, is attributed to him, and carefully preserved here.

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