Delhi Uncovered: City of Djinns

By: Namrata Bhawnani

September 5, 2014

 The true essence of a city can only be experienced by investing in some determined leg work – and a reliable guide. Whether you’re a first time visitor or an old Delhi hand, pick up a copy of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns and embark on a DIY tour of the sites mentioned in the book.

The author, in his witty and nuanced memoir, captures a year spent in Delhi discovering its hidden charms and reconstructing the city’s colourful if often violent past. He meets Pirs who can overpower djinns, follows the eunuchs on their rounds and grasps the hierarchy of their community, witnesses partridge fights in an old Muslim cemetery, visits Unani hakims in Ballimaran, narrates colourful stories about nautch girls, courtesans and their noble patrons, and watches whirling dervishes go into a trance.

Old Delhi from Jama Masjid mosque | City of Djinns
View of Old Delhi from Jama Masjid mosque © José Antonio Morcillo Valenciano/Flickr 

A Pir explains to the author that Allah created another race – djinns that were ‘fashioned from fire.’ He says that the djinns loved Delhi so much that they could never bear to see it deserted. So, despite repeated attacks and destruction, the city kept appearing in new reincarnations.

This first encounter with a Sufi takes place in the Feroz Shah Kotla fort, straddling Old and New Delhi. Built by Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq in the 14th century, the fort is said to be inhabited by djinns. Devotees leave behind letters, stick coins on the walls of the mosque, light candles and incense sticks, and offer milk and sweets to appease the djinns. In the ruins of the fort, you can see the mosque, a 13-metre-high Ashokan pillar and a baoli (stepped well).

The author settles into a flat near Nizammudin village, famous for the Hazrat Nizammudin Dargah. The mausoleum houses the tomb of the revered saint of the Sufi Chisthi Order – Hazrat Nizammudin Auliya. The poet Amir Khusro, Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter Jehan Ara Begum and the poet Ghalib also have tombs in the mausoleum complex. Qawwali recitals are held after prayers every Thursday. Here, the author witnesses the Sufi whirling dervishes.

Old Delhi

The Red Fort was built when the Emperor moved his capital from Agra to Delhi. Enter via the Lahori gate and among the many attractions, visit Khas Mahal, the Emperor’s personal palace, and Diwan-i-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience, where the Peacock Throne once was the centrepiece. The Mumtaz Mahal Museum is said to have been built by the Emperor for his queen Arjumand Banu Begum (known as Mumtaz Mahal).

One of the three gates of Fatehpuri Masjid stands in front of the Red Fort in Chandni Chowk. The mosque, built in 1650 by one of the Emperor’s wives Fatehpuri Begum, is also rumoured to be the haunt of djinns. Shah Jahan was equally ambitious in terms of scale and the grand Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in India. The magnificent mosque’s open courtyard can hold 25,000 devotees.

Jama Masjid | City of Djinns
Built by Shah Jahan, Jama Masjid was begun in 1650 and it took six years and more than 5000 workers to build the largest mosque in India ©

New Delhi

India Gate | City of Djinns
The 42 m-high India Gate was designed by Edwin Lutyens © sihasakprachum/iStock/Thinkstock 

For relief from the oppressive nature of Old Delhi, the author walks to New Delhi. Trace his footsteps by visiting India Gate and the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan), designed by Edwin Lutyens. The two Secretariat buildings flanking the President’s House on Raisina Hill were designed by Herbert Baker. The author offers an interesting perspective that the buildings were purposefully constructed to show off the might of the British Raj.

Rashtrapati Bhavan | City of Dijinns
Architect Edwin Lutyens built the Rastrapathi Bhawan (Viceroy’s House) in New Delhi ©

Spend a leisurely afternoon in the trendy Hauz Khas village with its upscale boutiques and restaurants. Hauz Khaz gets its name from the royal tank built by Sultan Alauddin Khilji. The lush Deer Park in the village is an animal lover’s dream.

Qutub Minar | City of Djinns
The 73 m-high tower of victory,Qutab Minar was built by Qutab-ud-din Aibak after the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu kingdom in 1193 © Raj Thakkar

Further south, you find the dominating Delhi landmark in Mehrauli – the Qutub Minar, which is the tallest minaret in India. The ruins of Lal Kot’s ramparts are still visible around Qutub Minar.

Mehrauli Archeological Park is popularly known as Jamali Kamali, famous for the (supposedly haunted) mosque and tomb of Jamali and Kamali. The park also has a unique structure within its bazaar called Hijron ka Khanqah (Sufi spiritual retreat for the eunuchs).

Tuglaq's Tomb | City of Djinns
Tuglaq’s Tomb sits within a courtyard protected by fortified walls © Saad Akhtar/Flickr

In the Qutub Minar complex, visit the massive Tughlaqabad Fort, built by the founder of the Tughlaq dynasty, Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq. On the southern side is the tomb of the ruler, enclosed in a courtyard with fortified walls. Legend has it that skulls of the Mongol marauders were used in the construction material and that Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq’s death was caused by the curse of a saint. Baraatis (wedding attendees) who took refuge in the tomb, got lost here. The area is now said to be haunted by ghosts.

Bara Gumbad Tomb at Lodi Gardens | City of Djinns
Bara Gumbad Tomb in the Lodi Gardens © William Perry/iStock/Thinkstock 

Finally, wind down with a visit to the Lodi gardens where the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties rest eternally in peace. The tomb of the last Sayyid ruler, Mohammad Shah, built in 1444, is the oldest, while Sikander Lodhi’s tomb was built by his son Ibrahim Lodi. Bada Gumbad (big dome) is a large domed structure grouped together with the Friday mosque of Sikander Lodi.

Header image © Saad Akhtar/Flickr

Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Delhi. Book your flight today.

Have you been on a City of Djinns tour of Delhi? Where would be your first stop? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Namrata Bhawnani


Namrata Bhawnani

Namrata Bhawnani is a London-based freelance travel writer and the co-founder of the ecotravel web magazine

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