The Djinns of Delhi

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On the one side is Delhi’s ultra-modern cricket stadium. The other is rimmed by an arterial ring road. In the middle, among the ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla, is the hub of the djinns (spirits). Thousands of them are believed to have been living here for centuries.

Oddly enough, in these supposedly haunted surroundings, stands a dilapidated dargah (shrine) of the 13th century Sufi saint, Khwaja Baba Badru Shah (Badruddin Rahmat Ali). Every year for three nights — 17-19 June — this ramshackle mausoleum springs to life to celebrate Urs, the death anniversary of the saint. In the Islamic traditions of South Asia, the death of a Sufi saint is regarded as wisaal (union with the beloved), and is celebrated as a wedding anniversary with fanfare and the religious recital of qawwali (Sufi devotional music).

What sets the Urs of Baba Badru Shah apart from the others is that it attracts hundreds of men and women — Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike, saints and dervishes from across the country, who come to pay homage to Khwaja Baba and invoke him to exorcise the djinns within them. Baba Badru Shah, who spent his life in the very place where now his mausoleum stands, is also referred to as the Djinn ka Badshah (the master of all djinns).

According to Islam, Allah created djinns out of smokeless fire, unlike human beings that are made out of clay. Despite its airy composition, the djinn is believed to be physical in nature, having the power to interfere with humans to cause mental imbalance, a lack of appetite and the use of foul language. While they are classified as good and bad djinns, the latter assume much more importance. According to Satbir Singh, 54, one of the attendees at the 733rd Urs of Baba Badru Shah this year, “Every pain, from a minor headache to that of lung cancer, is caused by djinns. Khwaja Baba is the only panacea. He has healed amnesiacs, cancer patients and the mentally deranged ones.”

It is 10.30 at night on 18 June. We reached the mausoleum after a long walk through dark and deserted alleys behind the Feroz Shah Kotla monument. The thin road opens into a vast expanse known as Gulab Park. A dome looms in the distance. Qawwali blares through loudspeakers, with a rhythmic clapping to keep time. The entire area is bedecked in hues of green. At the entry, flower vendors tempt us into buying packets of rose petals for the invocation.

Organised by the Hindu Muslim Bhaichara (Brotherhood) Committee, whose sadar (chief) is a certain Hari bhai, the event starts every night at eight and goes on till two in the afternoon the next day. Qawwals from as far as Singapore come to perform. The courtyard of the mausoleum is densely crammed; men seated in front with the qawwals, women at the back. Some of the men get up every once in a while and toss a wad of ten-rupee notes towards the qawwals. After the qawwali starts picking pace, a few women at the back pull a giant white curtain and sneak inside. When we start to shoot, they admonish us, asking us to shoot the rest of the ceremony instead. Intermittent glimpses of tripping bodies flash through the curtain. I ask Haider Ali, a 24-year-old tabla player from the Dilli gharana, standing next to me, to throw some light. “They are shunning the gandi hawa (bad air) that the Djinns engender.”

The qawwals supposedly invoke Baba Badru Shah with their soulful singing and he orders the djinns to leave the bodies of those present there. This subtle process of passionate purging inadvertently wreaks mental havoc for the devotees, making them lose their minds, banging their heads in air, circling relentlessly and howling like wolves on occasions. Nobody minds them. They all have come to rid themselves of their djinns of some kinds, in some cases – the djinns of envy, fear and lust.

We come again the next night, a Thursday. The place is overcrowded; there’s no place to stand, little to breathe. It’s the last and most important night of Urs; the djinns are rampant like never before. Today, however, people are so lost in shunning their gandi hawa that nobody stops us from taking photographs. The delirium of those dancing and quivering has managed to subjugate the barriers; the curtain is down. A woman branches out from the group and drops off on the floor where men are sitting, jumping like a fish out of water. People watch, then channel their attention back to the qawwali. A girl whirls her head, her hair whipping the faces of those near her. Again, nobody quails. A qawwal from Mumbai has taken the stage; his singing ruptures the spooky silence of the entire night.

We return before dawn-break. It’s unsettling to walk through the ruins of the Feroz Shah Kotla, now that we know that the djinns of Delhi are greater in number and are on the loose.

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