Creating the Dargah

Volume 52, Issue 1 :: Text and images by Eric Doud

Overlooking the Rio Grande River Gorge

The structure, which marks the gravesite, overlooks the Rio Grande River Gorge.

God is beautiful and He loves beauty.
Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad

A Dargah is a special place that houses the mortal remains of illuminated souls, also known as saints. These sacred shrines are places of pilgrimage and reflection. In the Islamic tradition the word “Dargah” literally means dar—doorway, gah—place, i.e. “the place of the doorway.” The word holds the image of a threshold between where we are on Earth and all that lies unseen beyond. A deeper meaning is “the door to the Murshid”’ (the senior teacher) where traditionally people come with their questions or troubles in the hope they will find answers and direction, worldly or otherwise, in a place of healing.

Sam Lewis (1896–1971) was an agronomist, a religious scholar, and a mystic. Through his teachings he became recognized simultaneously as a Zen master and a Sufi saint. He followed the lineage of Hazrat Inayat Kahn, who brought Sufi teachings to America in the 1920s. Murshid Sam had the unique ability, when visiting the shrines of saints in the East, to empty himself and receive their direct guidance. During a trip to India, while visiting the Dargah of Sheikh Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri, he received the vision of the “Dances of Universal Peace.” These dances, founded by Murshid Sam, are a spiritual practice employing singing and dancing sacred phrases from the great religions and have now spread through out the world.

Before his passing, Murshid Sam predicted that his own resting place would become just such a touchstone, a sacred place where pilgrims could receive guidance and answers to life’s questions. He stressed the importance of creating such shrines and pilgrimage places in America.

The Site

Murshid Sam’s gravesite is located at the Lama Foundation in northern New Mexico. The Lama Foundation, founded in the 1970s, provides retreat facilities for non-denominational groups and private hermitages for individuals. Murshid Sam taught at Lama and requested that, upon his death, he be buried there. The Dargah site, removed from the buildings and daily activities of the community below, is reached through a trail leading upward through scrub oak, a pathway that naturally becomes a walking meditation. The gravesite has a powerful presence. Perched 8,700 feet high in elevation on the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, its location provides an expansive viewpoint. From north to south one looks out over the Rio Grande River Gorge and into the western skies. The power of place is amplified through the juxtaposition of the inward and outward focus, the spiritual threshold of the gravesite and the vast uninterrupted view beyond.

Design of Divine Proportion

Traditionally, geometry was employed to give a structure profound significance. “Philosophical Geometry” was a pathway to spiritual understanding and insight. By rendering into form underlying universal principles, this form of geometry could demonstrate the invisible creative process of the divine.

The ancients believed that for a sacred building to function as such it needed to embody these principles. Without them, the structure could not serve its “divine function.” Therefore, the incorporation of proper proportion was critical, not so much for the outward appearance, but to insure that the structure was internally attuned to attain connection to the divine.

The primary geometrical component of the Dargah is the “zome.” Beginning with the contemplative form of the sphere, which represents the original unity, it was considered the most perfect of geometrical constructions in that each point of its surface is equidistant from its point of origin. In the design of the Dargah, the sphere’s form is used to define the dome’s geometry. From it, the intersections of an eightfold double helix define the zome’s rhomboid facets. This describes an axis rising from the center of the grave through the skylight, focusing a vertical energy vortex.

In the Timaeus, Plato describes how Pythagoras discovered the relationship of whole number ratios to sound frequencies. He used this to demonstrate the original beauty of creation—how unity divides itself to become the multiplicity.

Traditionally, the column diameter was the primary unit setting the base tone and then used to proportionally modulate the building’s parts to its whole. With the Dargah, the column’s 16-inch diameter is used in this way. The height of the column shaft is four column diameters, one half the octave of eight. Eight column diameters define the height of the ring beam from the floor, which is the midpoint of the zome’s sphere. Sixteen column diameters establish the overall width and height of the zome, the double octave inscribing the building’s original unity.

The choice of pattern for the floor is inspired by the shrine of Sheikh Salim Chishti, where a marble wall screen uses a geometrical pattern moving from five to eight, with pentagonal forms emerging from an octagonal foundation. The specific pattern of the Dargah’s floor tiles uses a similar geometry, of which the earliest known use is in the floor of the ancient Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia, dating from 670 CE.

The number five, which represents the life force, is coupled with the double-square eight, the next Fibonacci number. In a seven-note scale, it is the eighth note that completes the octave. In many symbolic traditions, this eighth step signals movement to a new level, often associated with spiritual evolution.

Material and Iconography

The overall intent is to develop a sense of unity between Eastern and Western traditions. Through subtle blending of the Moorish influence found in Spanish Colonial motifs in New Mexico, the use of local indigenous construction methods, the natural beauty found in timber and stone, and the modern building geometry of the zome, these forms and materials, design patterns, and iconographic images with their associated symbolic content, are intended to melt into an elemental whole. Murshid Sam’s teachings describe the many paths leading to that unified center, toward “the One.”

The author is a graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Notre Dame. He practices with Designworks in California and Colorado.

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