It was in the citadel of Feroz Shah Kotla that I met my first Sufi. Pir Sadr-ud-Din had weasel eyes and a beard as tangled as a myna’s nest. The mystic sat me down on a carpet, offered me tea, and told me about djinns…
‘Could you show me a djinn?’ I asked.
‘Certainly,’ replied the Pir. ‘But you would run away.’
– City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, William Dalrymple
In 1993, the Scottish author William Dalrymple published the celebrated travelogue City of Djinns, a record of the year he spent in Delhi as a young correspondent. The book started my own love affair with the subcontinent, inspiring a three-week trip to India in 2009, and in October last year I returned to the country’s capital in search of the eponymous djinns from Dalrymple’s book.
The ‘djinn’ or ‘jinn’ are supernatural beings associated with the Arabic, and later Islamic, tradition. Mentioned frequently in the Quran, they are said to be formed of smokeless and “scorching fire”. In the opening pages of City of Djinns, Dalrymple meets Pir Sadr-ud-Din in the ruins of Feroz Shah Kolta – one of the early settlements of the modern day city and once the formidable citadel of Ferozabad, the ‘Fifth city’ of Delhi, built by Emperor Firoz Shah Tughlaq. It’s here that Pir Sadr-ud-Din tells the young Dalrymple that Delhi is the city of the djinns.
Though it had been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt: each time it rose like a phoenix from the fire. Just as Hindus believe that a body will be reincarnated over and over again until it becomes perfect, so it seemed Delhi was destined to appear in a new incarnation century after century. The reason for this, said Sadr-ud-Din, was that the djinns loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted. To this day every house, every street corner was haunted by them. You could not see them, said Sadr-ud-Din, but if you concentrated you would be able to feel them: to hear their whisperings, or even, if you were lucky, to sense their warm breath on your face.
My companion and guide in Delhi was the talented Kashmiri photographer Shams Ul Haq Qari. We went first to the ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla, home to 10,000 djinns and said to be the most haunted place in the city. Riding there in the back of a rickshaw, we chatted about photography, politics and relationships before we reached the gate of the ruins. There a guard and an elderly woman sat at a rickety table with an old metal petty cash box, and Shams asked the woman for directions to the Pillar of Ashokan, the main feature of the ruins. The ticket collector wobbled her head side to side, looking uncomfortable.
As we walked away he explained to me that she had politely refused to tell us the location of the pillar. Despite being the government ticket collector for the site she was too afraid of angering the djinns to show a foreigner where they lived. Nearby, at a cottage which turned out to be in the shadow of the pillar, we received the same response – a man sitting reading on the cottage veranda declined to talk to us.
In the bat-filled grottos beneath the ruins people leave milk and bread for the djinns along with letters soliciting favours ranging from success in the lottery to help recovering from addiction. We met a family who went from grotto to grotto beneath the pillar, praying to the djinns. The father, Babukahn, explained to us that his family were praying for twelve days in a row to manifest wishes and that some had already come true.
Khwaja Moluddin Chishti is a tiny holy shrine in Delhi’s central ridge forest. It did not feature in Dalrymple’s book but it is an important aspect of Delhi’s relationship with the djinns. Despite being close to centre of Delhi, it is serene and silent, almost impossible in the city.
The small shrine is said to be 800 years old and is all that remains of a village destroyed by the British at the turn of the 20th century. A simple structure of brick and cement, it is surrounded by the white marble graves of previous ‘Sajjada Nashin’, all of whom are the ancestors of the current ‘Sajjada Nashin’, Ali Khan, who inherited his role as the shrine’s caretaker and exorcist when his father passed away.
A single iron chain hangs above a green welcome mat at the shrine’s entrance. This chain, Ali explained, is where the exorcisms take place. If a person is possessed they cannot hold the chain or pass into the shrine. Malevolent djinns and the souls of the restless dead could possess people, causing great mental and physical harm. The caretaker would tie the afflicted person by the hand to the chain and with the help of the saint determine if the problem was one of mental health or the spirit.
If the latter, he would start the process of exorcism, which could take months, and would end with the djinn or spirit imprisoned in clay pots called Matkas. These pots dot the woods that surround the shrine and I felt nervous seeing them, imagining that I would break one and release something, as if they were spiritual land mines.
Dalrymple’s Delhi apartment at the time was in the Nizamuddin district, home to the tomb of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, and here amongst the Sufis Dalrymple learnt more about the fire spirits that inhabited Delhi. Shams lead me through the warren of old Delhi, past harrying stall owners who frantically waved their arms and told us to remove our shoes – to wear them in the tomb would be disrespectful.
Shams smiled gently as he bent down to undo the laces of his trainers.
‘Will they be ok?’ I asked, not fancying walking through Delhi in my socks.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied, his smile widening.
The winding narrow lanes of old Delhi gave way to a white marble complex where the saint is buried. The marble dazzled in the bright midday sun. Here free food and water is supplied to pilgrims. Despite its serene appearance, it’s no less manic a place than the lanes of old Delhi and I’m jostled by pilgrims and beggars.
The pilgrims, all men – women were excluded from the interior shrine – slowly circled around the balustrade, heads bowed, hands cupped in invocation, stopping every so often to murmur prayers or recite mantras. Outside, through the lattice grilles, you could see the dark shapes of barren ladies clawing at the rear of the tomb. Some tied threads through the jali screen: each string a reminder to the Shaykh to provide the woman with the longed-for male heir.
As a non-Muslim I was denied access to the graves at this site but I was able to photograph through the stone lattice surrounding them. After some discussion between Shams and a ‘Pirzada’ (the official custodian of Sufi mausoleums and shrines) we were pointed in the direction of an enclosure of latticed marble.
Inside were people suffering from mental illness and possession by djinns. From within the enclosure a man locked eyes on me and laughed menacingly. I instinctively raised my camera but hesitated, superstitious thoughts eroding my conviction.
It had been a challenging trip, unexpected things had gone wrong: my father who had joined me, suffered a broken tooth in the airport; we had changed hotel three times in as many days and jet lag coupled with relentless oppressive heat had stripped me of my fondness for the city. But I gathered myself and took the photograph as he stared. I struggled to hold his gaze afterwards, fearing I had somehow transgressed against the djinns, and found myself silently asking for their forgiveness.
I often struggle to articulate what keeps bringing me back to Delhi. I’m not sure I understand it myself. It’s a decade now since City of Djinns introduced me to Dalrymple’s Delhi, and following in his footsteps I found my own Delhi, in both the narrow backstreets of the decaying old city and the Starbucks of Connaught Place, and each time I return the city of djinns reveals a little more of itself to me.
City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple is published by Harpercollins