“This prophet or saint is one that cannot be identified with any known Bible character, though by some he is supposed to be the same as Elijah. This belief gains colour from the fact that he is reckoned as one of the four prophets who did not meet death. He enjoys the title of Khwaja par excellence as a person of distinction in the sight of his Maker. And he is called ‘Khizr’ because whenever he happened to sit down, the ground became verdant underneath him, the word khizr meaning green in Arabic. Like Iliyas (Elias?), the saint of the woods, Khwaja Khizr is known to live in the waters, and his special function is to take care of travellers, and to relieve the troubles of the faithful.
“He was born in the pre-Mosaic age and was seven generations removed from Noah. His real name was Balban, and his genealogy is thus given: Balban, son of Malkan, son of Faneh, son of Ghabir, son of Shalikh, son of Arfakhshad (Arphaxad), son of Sam (Shein), son of Nuh (Noah).
“He is said to have discovered the water of life, hence he is considered to be the saint of the waters. The Muhammadans leading a sea-fearing life offer him oblations of lamps, flowers, etc, placed on little rafts (bera) and launched on the river, particularly on Thursday evenings, in the month of bhadon (September), and it is in his honour that the feast of the bera (rafts) is held.
“There are numerous legends concerning the Khwaja. He is always described as holding a black ebony rod in his hand. He is invoked in the Punjab at the construction of a new well, and the mallahs (or sailors) give a shout to his name, ‘Jae Khwaja-ji-ki’, before they launch forth into the deep.”
As for this scribe, Khwaja Khizr, the name brings to mind an evening long ago when two young men new to the hill station were making an upward climb from Chhota Simla. “It might take two hours for us to make it to the Mall by the way we seem to be going, and it’s dark already,” said Baig, “may Khwaja Khizr help us”.
“Who is Khwaja Khizr?” was the natural question of his companion. The story is worth repeating: “He is the one who takes care of wayfarers,” replied Baig. “Whenever one is in danger one must pray to Khwaja Khizr. Once, some members of my family were travelling by train which was in danger of being attacked during the riots in 1947. Everybody was panic-stricken, except for Badi Amma, the grand-aunt who was sure that Khizr would see them through. “Well, they had a safe journey. Many years later when Badi Amma was travelling again, a stranger came to her and said, ‘An old bearded man in the last coach has sent his barkat (blessing) to you. Badi Amma mumbled and then commented, “Must be Khwaja Khizr. Please give him my salaam.”
Baig’s story hardly helped to clear the mystery about this personage but over the years one came to realise that he was someone like St Christopher, the saint who helps people in distress, especially those undertaking a journey.
But to come back to the Khwaja, one was pleasantly surprised to find reference to him in William Dalrymple’s book, “City of Djinns”. The author did a lot of research on Khwaja Khizr and unfolded a fantastic story. Khizr, is believed by some to have accompanied the prophet Abraham to Canaan, by others to be the person who guided Moses and the Israelites during their 40-year journey to the Promised Land. Yet others believe that he was the great-grandson of Shem, the son of Noah, and the Greek belief is that he accompanied Alexander on his conquests as friend, philosopher and guide. He was also the saint who controlled the waters of immortality.
William Dalrymple traced a cave beyond the Mehrauli Idgah in Delhi where the Sufis told him that Khwaja Khizr appeared to those who prayed fervently for several nights, fasted and did penance. The cave is referred to as Khizr Khana or Makan-e-Khizr in the Muraqqa-e-Dilli.
However, the Khwaja has his base on a remote island in a nameless sea. Belief in Khwaja Khizr can be traced to many religions. For the Sindhis, he is Jhule Lal or Raja Khidar and in Punjab he is supposed to be an avatar of Vishnu, says Dalrymple. When one is in danger, one has to call to him thrice and he is there to help. He is the one travelling around the world all the time and praying on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem once a week.
How many of the chosen few Sufis have seen him in Delhi is a moot point. But unlike St. Christopher depicted on a medal, there seems to be no known image of Khwaja Khizr in existence.