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City Of Djinns, by Simon de Trey-White

1 November 2020

The ruins of the 13th century fortress-city of Firoz Shah Kotla in New Delhi, India, is thronged weekly with thousands of supplicants seeking favour from supernatural beings of smokeless fire, djinns. These magical entities also known as jinn, jann or genies spring from Islamic mythology as well as pre-Islamic Arabian mythology. They are mentioned frequently in the Quran and other Islamic texts and inhabit an unseen world called Djinnestan. Believers, mostly Muslim but from other faiths too, circumnavigate the ruins clutching dozens of photocopied requests, flower petals, incense, and candles. They visit the numerous niches and alcoves in the catacombs said to be occupied by different djinns and greet and salute the invisible occupants with offerings. A copy of their requests, often with detailed contact information, photographs and even police reports to bolster the case is left with the ‘Baba’ before moving on to the next where the procedure is repeated - like making applications at different departments of a bureaucracy.

Anand Vivek Taneja in his book “Jinnealogy” makes a compelling case for linking the historical and ongoing effects of the Partition of India in 1947 and the later Emergency with the current traditions at Firoz Shah Kotla. ‘Partition was not just a singular event... but rather the inauguration of a structure of dispossession, displacement, and amnesia. The “Long Partition” (Vazira Zamindar 2007) continued to affect the Muslims of Delhi long after the events of 1947, being entrenched in the laws and policies of the postcolonial state, systematically eroding Muslim rights of property and citizenship’. Although jinn veneration has been associated with Firoz Shah Kotla for almost a century, Taneja says: ‘We can think of the dargah of the jinn-saints making possible the reformation of community in the aftermath of violence. It was only in 1977, a few months after the end of the Emergency, that we have the first record of people starting to come to Firoz Shah Kotla in large numbers. This seems significant, given how destructive the Emergency was for the Old City and how many poor and working class people were displaced from the Old City to resettlement colonies across the river’.

Though the age and gender of the supplicants at Firoz Shah Kotla varies, there’s a marked prevalence of women, especially younger women as they usually have the most difficult time coping within the rigid social structure of many Indian families. Some of these women subconsciously believe themselves to be possessed by spirits. Being ‘possessed’ is an outlet and gives them the freedom to abuse their husbands and mothers-in-law and even show all kinds of forbidden desires. Their relatives often bring them to visit the djinns and the Pirs (Sufi Masters) who frequent the place, seeking exorcism. The possessed women can be found banging their heads, growling, murmuring indistinct words and rolling around on the floor. While they might otherwise behave normally, this behavior which occurs only in holy places is said to indicate that the spirit inside them is struggling as it wrestles with the power of the saint.

This was one of the personal projects I photographed in-between assignments while freelancing in Delhi between 2009 and 2016. I visited the site numerous times for well over a year, usually in the late afternoon and early evening when activity was at its peak. Most of the niches people visit are in the catacombs and filled with dense incense smoke. I found I had to use a high grade anti-pollution face mask and goggles to help protect my lungs and stop my eyes from streaming. Geographical magazine published this image in their April 2016 edition. To see more from this story go here or for a wider edit see here.

Simon de Trey-White began his career freelancing for local press organisations in North London, followed by staff positions including a 4 year stint with Newsquest. In 2007 he moved to New Delhi to take up an appointment as Chief South Asia Photographer for picture agency Barcroft Media. In 2009 he returned to freelancing remaining in Delhi, before returning to the UK in 2017.

See more work by Simon de Trey-White

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