Many of those who come to Firoz Shah Kotla deposit multiple photocopies of petitions addressed to the jinns in various niches and alcoves throughout the ruins, as if submitting applications to various government departments Photograph: (WION)
Eerie atmosphere, crying sounds, terrified people
I smelt sandalwood and rose as I was taking off my shoes to enter the alleyway. “Beti, baal toh bandh le. Jinn ki kamzori hai khule baal aur ittar ki mehek (Child, at least tie your hair. Jinns are drawn towards loose hair and the smell of perfume),” said an old woman. I bunned my hair that very instant and tried to ignore the chills that went down my spine from her statement.
Another woman sat outside one of the dungeons, banging her head against the wall, crying to herself. It was a disturbing sight. “What happened to her?” I asked a baba sitting beside her. “She is in the possession of a jinn. She cannot even stand up until the jinn permits. He punishes her but also takes care of her,” he explained. She laid down on the floor, shouted “forgive me, forgive me” and started beating her chest. I couldn’t bear the sight, so moved forward.
A line of about 20 identical dungeons--the scene inside every dungeon was also almost identical too--bats hanging from the ceiling, clay diyas lit over a bed of flowers, incense sticks, and a dozen handwritten or photocopied letters. As mystical as the atmosphere appeared to be, it was as bewildering at the same time.
Every Thursday, the ruined fort of 14th century Emperor Feroz Shah turns into a sacred place--where jinns are worshipped.
Every Thursday, the ruined fort of 14th century Emperor Feroz Shah turns into a sacred place--where jinns are worshipped.
I noticed a young, college boy on the phone--who was very dedicatedly following rituals of hanging flowers, letters, sticking coins to the walls and pouring oil in the dungeons. Later, I overheard him on the phone “I am still in the temple,” he said. ‘Temple’--the word struck me. There was an evident cultural mix in the devotees that came to pay their respects to the jinns. Clearly, a major share were Muslims--there is an open-air mosque in the premises and the fort belonged to a muslim ruler--which explains why. But there were several Hindus in the premises too. Men in saffron kurtas and women wearing bindis--who were offering milk and rice to the jinns.
I went to the guy and asked him what this place is all about, and if he believed that jinns were real. He was taken aback and petrified as if seen a ghost “Yes, it’s true. Be careful and don’t make faces when you hear stories. It might offend them,” he said. There was an emphasis on secrecy, he was reluctant to talk any further and left in a hurry.
After being put away by several people who seemed a bit afraid to talk, I met a man who had been visiting the premises for ages. “The jinns love this city. They will never let it fall down,” he had a point, I thought to myself. Delhi has been ruled over by a number of dynasties and has always been the center of power. It has been destroyed over and over but emerged like a phoenix each time.
A view of the dungeons--where people believe the jinns reside (WION)
A thousand petitions addressed to jinns
Many of those who come to Firoz Shah Kotla deposit multiple photocopies of petitions addressed to the jinns in various niches and alcoves throughout the ruins, as if submitting applications to different government departments. People write about all sorts of intimate problems--search for a job, finding a suitable matrimonial match for your unwed child, restoring mental balance or physical health for a family member, business losses and even a jinn-led search for lost family members.
The belief is that jinns function in a structure, much like our government. You write a letter to the jinns, stating your problem. But there’s a catch--each jinn looks over a different administration--your request must reach the right jinn for your problem to get solved. Therefore, one makes copies of letters and puts it in every dungeon--quite a systematic method of praying. The next day, all the letters are cleared--there are thousands of letters. The jinns should be really fast in reading and solve all problems in less than a day’s time. But some people proudly narrate tales of personal problems getting solved and mental patients getting healed--that made them return persistently.
But there is a connect between ritual and history. In the 14th century, letters addressed to rulers--documents, letters of forgiveness with the seals of spiritual authority--played an important role in the process of addressing grievances.
This explains the relations with jinns--it is a combination of reverence, fear with a kindred spirit of intimacy
Shapeshifting jinns made of smokeless fire
Plenty of stories abound. Some people visualise the jinns as talking crows or men in white robes with long beards. Some think there are many of them and that they have their unique smell. They are not angels and thus, like us, they too can be ill-tempered or evil. Leaving behind milk and food for the animals and feeding even meat chunks to the circling set of huge kites is a norm. People believe the jinns accept these offerings through their animals.
The concept of jinns is explained in Islam. “Jinns are a separate species created by the Supreme Power. The word ‘jinn’ in Arabic means ‘the hidden or invisible one’. The story of genesis says they were created before humans. It is said that the supreme power has created man from dry clay, farishtey (angels) from water and djinns from smokeless fire,” explains Ramit Mitra, founder and explorer at DelhiByFoot, a walking tour venture based out of the capital of India.
Jinns are supposed to be on earth to help humans, but were to be ‘invisible to the eyes of men’. “Forged from smokeless fire, they are physically stronger, live longer, possess magical powers, have the ability to shapeshift and can travel swiftly at the speed of thought,” he explains.
We start praying to what we believe is more powerful than humans. This explains the relations with jinns--it is a combination of reverence, fear with a kindred spirit of intimacy. "People look upon jinns as fulfillers of blessings and as connectors of human beings across centuries. So jinns being prayed to is also akin to someone praying to his ancestors for guidance & blessings,” Mitra added.
A woman claimed to be under the possession of jinns. (WION)
So how did a 14th-century fort become the residence of the jinns?
This fort, besides which Yamuna River flowed once upon a time, was the fifth city of Delhi. It was founded and built by Emperor Firoz Shah Tughlaq in the second half of 14th century. Today, it lies forgotten, adjacent to the famous Feroz Shah Kotla Cricket Stadium.
What makes people recognise the ruins of Delhi’s past as one of their own concerns? What makes people deposit multiple photocopies of their petitions to the jinns, as if to the offices of a modern bureaucracy, in the ruins of a 14th-century palace?
Anand Vivek Taneja, an anthropologist and now an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University, did his Ph.D. as a student of Columbia University, on the ruined fort and dissected various elements of the recent rituals that take place in the fort.
He explains that the partition in 1947 unleashed violence, destruction and mass migration of Delhi Muslims to Pakistan--changing radically the character of the city. By the time the immediate violence had ended, approximately two-thirds of Delhi’s Muslim population had either died or left for Pakistan and other places. From being a city with almost equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims, Delhi became a city with a Muslim population of about ten per cent, as the influx of Hindu and Sikh refugees swelled the city's population to almost double its 1941 size. It was followed by the relentless structural violence of the post-colonial state, which continued policies of discrimination and displacement against the Muslim populace of the city. This post-colonial remaking of Delhi has led to a gap between the once interconnected realms of the sacred, the ecological and the everyday.
The popularity of Firoz Shah Kotla as a dargah of jinns can be dated back to 1977, to the months immediately after the end of the Emergency of 1975-77, a time marked by 20 months of the undemocratic rule which were particularly hard on the lower-classes of the city, and especially those who lived in Old Delhi. Several other human rights violations were reported from the time, including a forced mass sterilisation campaign. The Emergency is one of the most controversial periods of independent India's history.
The popularity of Firoz Shah Kotla as a dargah of jinns can be dated back to 1977, to the months immediately after the end of the Emergency of 1975-77, a time marked by 20 months of the undemocratic rule which were particularly hard on the lower-classes of the city
"Emergency saw some really strict societal diktats on the largely Muslim population living in & around Turkman Gate on Asaf Ali Road by the erstwhile party in power, Congress," adds Mitra.
According to research, in 1977, a Fakir called Laddoo Shah Baba, who was earlier based near the Turkman Gate, was asked by the authorities to move away, and he made his station at the ruins of the Kotla. And as it happened, his devotees started to throng this place. Later, during meditations he sensed 'higher spiritual powers' at the Kotla Ruins, giving a stronger, 'saintly' validation that this was actually the abode of jinns.
"And once a belief becomes popular, then even after a generation of people leaving behind that place to migrate away, the stories linger and thus the next set of people who populate the area then fan on these stories," explains Mitra.
A tall pillar in the premises is considered to be the Laat wale baba or the Sarkar (head) of jinns. This is actually the Ashokan Pillar that Feroz Shah, a keen historian, and architect, uprooted from Punjab and erected in his fort.
How did a Buddhist pillar become the governmental head of jinns? The answer itself lies in Laat Wale Baba, and its long association with the mythic past.
Even now, when you look at the pillar, its impressive height framed by sky, indecipherable inscriptions, its lustre relatively undimmed over two millennia, you experience a sense of bafflement. How was it made? How on earth did they get this up here atop this pyramid?
"In absence of factual information to the working and poor class thronging there, it became the head--the embodiment of the powers of all the jinns," adds Mitra.
In a time where the society was reeling under the post-colonial and post-partitional trauma, legends of jinns helped in alleviating the troubles.
There is an elaborate etiquette of nameless intimacy that avoids religious and caste identification and opens the possibilities of relating to the world and the self outside of the dominance of socially constructed identity
An alternate court of justice, that is otherwise denied
The postcolonial condition of Delhi is an unforgettable one. The jinns are present precisely at the locations of archival absence, where the plans of the bureaucracy, the verdicts of the judiciary, and the illegibility of the state coincide to create vast erasures of the texture of the city’s everyday life, both lived and remembered.
According to German philosopher Walter Benjamin, the present turns to the past not to return to a historic, originary moment, but to a moment in the past where it recognizes itself and its own concerns
In a country where people’s relation to the state is dominated by narratives of corruption, and the arbitrary violence of the state is manifested at the very sites of the government’s care, the petitioning of the government of the jinns in the ruins of a pre-modern palace invokes an older idea of government. The troubled who have lost faith in the man-made order of justice, look for a parallel, supreme one in the ruins of Kotla Firoz Shah.
I noticed women telling their children that “Sabko salaam karna hai (We have to salute all jinns)” - as if greeting government officials. Could it be the structure of the monument--where the dungeons represent the chambers of officers? I wondered.
View of the open-air mosque (WION)
A secular site where Hindus and Muslims come together to pray
Sacred rituals are performed amidst ‘secular’ ruins, secular not just in that they were not built as spaces of worship, but also in that they are now under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India, and have no officially appointed clergy or formal sanctification.
Though these ruins are associated with the city’s Islamic past, specifically the Tughlaq sultanate, and the ritual vocabulary the place is similar to that of other Muslim shrines or dargahs. A majority of the people who come here are non-Muslim.
In a rapidly modernising city whose elite mourn the lack of 'historical sense' among the common people, people by the thousands regularly come to these ruins of Delhi’s past, and form deep affective bonds with them. For them, these ruins are experienced not as locations of history as the past, but of presence.
The relations that people make between each other in this place, while deeply intimate, are often nameless, purposefully avoiding communal and caste identification. There is an elaborate etiquette of nameless intimacy that avoids religious and caste identification and opens the possibilities of relating to the world and the self outside of the dominance of socially constructed identity.
As the sun came down and darkness enveloped the already blood-curdling scene, I still wasn’t sure if I really believed in jinns. Yet I felt a profuse urge to pay my respects, I made a silent, trivial wish.