The cavernous room in Feroz Shah Kotla’s ruins, where 50-year-old Rehana Parveen sits, is dark and humid. The stone walls are covered in faded photocopies of what looks like government petitions, impassive faces stare back through passport-sized photographs stapled on some of them. Parveen takes the hand of a teenage boy sitting expectantly in front of her, inhales audibly and ponders with her eyes closed for a few seconds before she ominously says, “andar koi cheez bithai hui hai, koi dushman hai tumhara (there’s some weight sitting inside you, some foe of yours is behind this)”. Even as the boy’s parents nervously process this information, Parveen rattles some instructions at them and sends them packing. It’s a busy day and she has no time to waste.
Parveen, respectfully called khala, can be seen at the ruins every Thursday. She distractedly hands out appointments to believers who think of her as a channel to speak to djinns or spirits that lurk the grounds of Feroz Shah Kotla. Built in 14th century AD by Feroz Shah Tughlaq, the complex was constructed as a palace when the medieval sultan founded a new city, Firuzabad, on the banks of the Yamuna River. It is popularly believed that Delhi was a site for seven different historical cities. Firuzabad came to be known as the fifth city. A severe water shortage in the old cities – Tughlaqabad, the third city built by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, founder of the Tughlaq dynasty, and Jahanpanah, the fourth city, built by Muhammad bin Tughlaq, Feroz Shah’s uncle – prompted the move. All that remains of Firuzabad today are the outer walls of the fortified palace and the ruins within.
But Feroz Shah Kotla is no ordinary monument. Those who come here don’t think of it as an inanimate relic of the past but as a dargah that’s lived in and very much alive. While most other dargahs are spaces of marble floors and green chaadars (blankets), Feroz Shah Kotla is a haggard citadel, trying hard to stand the tests of time. The appeal of this ‘dargah’ is not in a revered saint buried within its walls but in the hallowed presence of a colony of djinns.
Ministry of Djinns
According to Islamic mythology, Allah created adam (humans) from clay, angels from noor (light) and djinns from smokeless fire. Djinns are older, mortal, but live for thousands of years and have the ability to connect human beings centuries apart in time. They are believed to be shape-shifters who can travel long distances in a short time. Djinns can also choose between good and evil – rub a djinn the wrong way and you may not live to tell the tale. Legend has it that the most malevolent of djinns have been locked up in a dungeon beneath the steps of the Jama or Kotla Masjid inside the fort.
Every Thursday, people from across Delhi and beyond flock to Feroz Shah Kotla with letters, candles, chaadars, rice and such, to profess their most private secrets to the djinns and ask for their protection. “Thursdays are auspicious since it is spent in preparation of jumma (Friday), the holiest day. The djinns are happy and generous on Thursdays,” says Mohd Wajid, 40, who comes to Feroz Shah Kotla every other week after he visits his parents’ graves in the qabrastan nearby.
The ‘ministry’ of djinns functions not unlike contemporary bureaucracies. Most believers write their woes in a petition letter, complete with address and passport-sized photographs. Every alcove of the ruins finds multiple photocopies of the letters as if petitioning different departments of a sarkaari office. The believer is expected to make a trip to the ruins for seven jumme raats (Friday nights) for their wish to come true. For those who can’t make these frequent trips, the djinns always have their address.
It is believed that the djinns hold a darbar (court) at midnight to discuss the petitions and Allah grants the wishes of those who seem genuine. The chief of the Feroz Shah Kotla djinns, ‘lath wale baba’, is believed to be residing by the Ashokan Pillar (lath means pillar) on the second storey of the citadel, the highest point in the monument. The 3rd century BC sandstone pillar built by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka was brought from Haryana to Firuzabad on the orders of Feroz Shah.
While Thursdays see a massive turnout of people offering prayers, serpentine lines also lead up to those whose prayers have been answered, as they serve biryani and sweets in celebration. Anjali, 35, a devout Hindu and Shabana, 36, a Muslim, come from Mandawali, which lies jamna par (across the Yamuna) in east Delhi. They have been friends and neighbours for 15 years. It was Shabana who introduced Anjali to the djinns when she was going through troubled times. “Meri mannat mere aur bhagwan ke beech hai, par do mahine mein meri baat sun li (what I wished for is between God and me, but my prayers were answered in two months),” says Anjali, giddy with happiness, even as she’s careful not to jinx it by revealing what she had asked for. Shabana, whose husband and two children are also partaking in the celebrations, serves meetha chawal (sweet rice) she cooked herself, to people around. The rice is sweetened with the elixir of their trusting friendship, with a pinch of saffron for flavour.
Madina, 28, is another hopeful. Though her family has lived in north-east Delhi’s Bhajanpura for many years, this is their first visit to the ruins. She sits, smiling and mild-mannered in a dark hijab (veil) and abaya (cloak), on a spare rock in the lawns. Her genteel company comprises of her two sisters, her mother and one-year-old niece. Madina is not sure if she believes in the djinns but her family took a leap of faith after a neighbour said her son-in-law had found a job in Saudi Arabia after she petitioned the djinns. Madina remains tight-lipped about what she has asked for, in case there indeed are djinns listening.
The Legend of Laddu Shah
The practice of devotees thronging the fort every Thursday seems to have been popularized after the Emergency of 1975-77. An urban myth goes that a fakir named Laddu Shah moved into the ruins after his settlement at Turkman Gate was destroyed in the notorious slum demolition drives in 1976. It is said that Shah felt he was in the presence of a certain energy and encouraged his followers to say their namaz at the Kotla masjid. Another story says the djinns fell in love with Shah because of his musical talents and offered him the gift of healing, thereby increasing the popularity of Feroz Shah Kotla, where he resided.
The timeline of the fort’s popularity is befitting, argues Anand Vivek Taneja, author of Jinneaology. The excesses of the Emergency affected the poor and working class of Old Delhi most adversely, many of whom were resettled in colonies across the Yamuna. Today, most patrons of the fort come predominantly from a few specific areas in the city – Old Delhi and its outskirts like Paharganj, and east Delhi, where their families may have been forced to relocate during the 1970s.
An even older legend goes that Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh was held captive at the fort in 17th century AD by Aurangzeb, with no food or water. But when the soldiers returned a week later expecting to see him emaciated, he looked healthy and happy. The djinns had apparently hosted him well.
Kotla at Nightfall
As dusk creeps in and the shadow of the large Pilkhan tree in the middle of the grounds begins to disappear, the devotees trickle out. The guards, who otherwise sit complacently on Thursdays (the Rs 5 ticket fee is waived on Thursdays), begin to take rounds of the lawns to check if anyone is left behind. Logistically speaking, the ruins are not necessarily safe after sundown, one never knows who’s lurking behind, whether human or celestial. But in mystical terms, the grounds must be prepared for the djinns to hold their darbar. As the devotees leave, the fragrance of their agarbattis (incense) and rose petals hangs thick in the air. Their woes fastened shut in heavy locks, remain behind, as do centuries of history and mysteries that the djinns of Feroz Shah Kotla have been witness to.
Photographs by Kirti Narain for Homegrown.
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