Where Djinns answer Prayers

Who are Djinns? Ask your mom and she may just nod, may be even say she heard of one in the neighbourhood when she were a kid.  Your grandfather may just claim to having seen one.

A Historian will likely dismiss you. But Ask a villager, and you may hear admittance; a small towner would likely hesitate, and a metropolitan may just shrug it off.

I had no clue there were djinns amid the sprawling bustle of Delhi. So when I read William Dalrymple’s delightful ‘City of Djinns’, I just chuckled.

So this early summer morning, I reached the ramparts of the erstwhile ‘Ferozabad,’ the fifth known major city of Delhi, rechristened the Feroze Shah Kotla by the British.


Very few people know that the Feroze Shah Kotla is the name of standing ruins of a fort, and not just the Cricket Stadium named after it. And fewer are the devoted who come here every Thursday evening and pray to their deities- the djinns.

Rose petals, sweets, incense, holy water, tons of prayers and written letters/applications, all encapsulate a prayer, a wish that would get one his or her desire, as mundane as good marks in an examination to as serious as curing one’s kin of cancer.

Now I didn’t go Thursday evening. It was Saturday morning; after all I have a day job.

So I was witness to the aftermath- of the prayers, of parched souls wishing redemption, of harried masses looking for that one comforting bliss. This aftermath was absolutely magical – I can only imagine how Thursday evening would have been, and made a mental note to visit some Thursday soon.

As you enter the walls, you can’t help but notice, a three major structures amid clone upon clone of the same wall. The Jami Masjid, a Stepwell and a 3 story building that proudly acts as the base of the much antique Ashokan Pillar. But more on that later.

This 3 story building is known as the Palace of Cells. There are small dark cells at ground level in both these structures. Dark cells- that are as mysterious as they are magical. This is where the Djinns apparently reside or rather descend to. This is where people pay homage to them. This is where there are remnants of the prayers. This is where elaborate applications in chaste Urdu and Hindi are pinned to dark walls..

Backside of the Jami Masjid with dark cells on ground level

Let’s take a step back. As you meander ahead, you see ruins that are uniform in colour and girth. The setting is largely rectangular. As you enter, you can’t avoid noticing that the settlement next door has walls almost creeping over the southern walls of the fortress, as if stating that the modern crudeness has totally taken over old elegance in this city, and will not budge come what may. Metaphorically that is true of much of the city, in body or spirit. However, this is a city that has been destroyed umpteen times, but refuses to die. At times, it rises from its ashes like a Phoenix; other times, it just spreads its hitherto unseen wings. The Kotla of the Djinns seems to be holding strong against these matchbox apartments, signalling that grace and elegance may hard to spot, but they are not lost. Ever.

As you walk ahead treading the path criss-crossing pleasant green lawns, you also notice the floodlights of the eponymous Feroze Shah Kotla Stadium on the norther flank. Commissioned in 1883, this stadium is the second oldest Cricket stadium in India after the Eden Gardens. The fort that gave its name is much older, having been commissioned in the 1350s by the 3rd Tughlaq Sultan Feroze Shah.

Interestingly, all the first three Sultans of the Tughlaq dynasty set up new capitals for themselves. So much so for fiscal discipline. No doubt, the Tughlaq period was marred by economic collapses, albeit surrounded by some great infrastructure work especially in irrigation.

Anyway, so Ferozabad- the 5th major city of Historical Delhi closely followed the 3rd- Tughlaqabad founded by Ghiasuddin Tughlaq and the 4th- Jahanpanah founded by Muhammad Bin Tughlaq.

Not only did Feroze Shah build this large city by the banks of the Yamuna and further north of Tughlaqabad and Jahanapanah, he even brought two massive Ashokan Pillars from nearby towns and erected them in his new capital. Was it a way of establishing his claim to be the righteous ruler like Ashoka? May be not since accepted historical accounts believe that Ashoka was lost to Indians till James Pricep deciphered the Brahmi script in the early 19th century. Was Ferozeshah a conservationist? Probably. One story goes that the pillars were to be used for creating new minarets. But we can’t be sure.

Topra Kalan Ashoka Pillar
Ashoka Pillar @ Feroze Shah Kotla

One of these pillars was erected at what is now the north Delhi Ridge near the Delhi University. The other one (brought from Topra Kalan in present day Ambala) stands proudly atop the 3 story Palace of Cells at the Feroze Shah Kotla.

How such large structures were transported in those days must be an act to witness. Stories say the pillar at the Kotla was wrapped in layers of soft cloth, then transported on a large train of bullock carts, transferred to a collection of boats to cross the Yamuna, before being carefully re-erected at the present site using a complex network of pulleys and inclined planes. Sounds like a lesson in Physics to me.

The structure has dark cells at the base level as I talked about earlier. A couple of staircases on either side leads one to the terrace with happy views of the gardens on one side, and hustle of the Ring Road on the other. A melange of football players can be seen playing inside the premises on one side- team members including an 8-ish year old, and a 70 year old boy with long white flowing beard! A living djinn perhaps. On the other lawns, a school team of kids sit fidgeting excitedly, as their teacher narrates the history of the place.

The Skyline around is dotted with large flyovers, the huge obelisk of the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium Complex, and a lone tall high-rise at the ITO crossing some distance away. The loud city screams its predominance, yet seems unable to penetrate the calm of this abode of the Djinns.

Much of the fort was dismantled over the centuries brick-by-brick in order to build later day cities, including the famous Shahjahanabad. Yet what stands is a great testimony to preservation- both by and for it..

Or perhaps Djinns are guarding their abode..

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