Does the Delhi of Mystery and Magic Still Exist?
After a year of taking refuge in India, I decided to visit the capital for the first time to see if I could follow in Dalrymple’s steps.
In March 2020 I found myself stuck in India, stranded in the world's strictest lockdown, unable to leave my building at all for 2 months. In those uncertain weeks I decided to get fully immersed in books based in India, as I reasoned that if I couldn’t physically see the country outside of my four Jaipur walls, then I’d visit virtually.
I read William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi in those early days of the pandemic. A beautiful time capsule of Delhi 30 years ago, the autobiographical dive into India’s capital city is based in 1989 and was finally published in 1993. Now a master historian twelve books deep, Dalrymple began his career as a travel writer, an Oxbridge graduate who received a college bursary to backpack from the UK to Mongolia in search of Xanadu.
His follow up work, City of Djinns is a crossover piece, half history book, half personal tale of a 26 year old writer making sense of Delhi’s 3000 years of history, starting in the 1980s and pulling us back in time with him. Thirty years on, the writer still resides in Delhi, has raised his children there and started literature festivals, contributed to exhibitions and presented television shows on India for the BBC. While I prefer to read books about India written by Indian authors, it’s fair to say the guy’s a hero, incredibly well educated and definitely well intended.
In City of Djinns he weaves a textured tale of magic and mystery; sufis, sultans, ghosts, invaders, and refugees, who all live through the eight incarnations of the great metropolis. His Delhi struck me as somewhere special, not the city with the worst rep in India that receives one stereotypical bit of slander after another. He wades through layers of time, following the djinns, the spirits of the city who “loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted.”
In March 2021, after a year of taking refuge in India, I decided to visit the capital for the first time to see if I could follow in Dalrymple’s steps. The pandemic seemed to have petered out (sadly it hadn’t and a horrific second wave hit soon after) and I hadn’t been to a city for a year. I’d read City of Djinns twice by that point, so was full of questions and hope. Are the ruins he searched out still standing? Is Sufism and superstition still booming? Are the mysteries and mayhem enough to grip the discerning 21st century visitor? Or has the rapid push of capitalism, technological advancement, and construction rendered the magic of 30 years ago crushed and forgotten? Would I be able to find Dalrymple’s “portrait of a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side in aspic.”
I started my research at former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s house, as it is at this point in history that William Dalrymple opens the narrative of City of Djinns. You can visit her bungalow, now a museum that presents a rosy picture of her socialist tenure alongside her private rooms which have not been rearranged since her death. Her assassination in October 1984 shook India and resulted in massacres across Delhi, as vengeful rioters searched for a community to blame. This seismic event was contemporary to Dalrymple, who moved to the city to work as a journalist just a few years later and the violence towards the Sikh community following the assassination really frames the opening pages of the book.
From there I headed straight to Nizamuddin, a small neighborhood in the east of town where the shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya has been welcoming pilgrims of all demographics for 700 years. Much of Djinns is set here as Dalrymple and his wife Olivia take an apartment in the area, under the watchful eye of a humorously overbearing landlady Mrs.Puri and her sweet, shell shocked husband. East Nizamuddin today is quite posh, with large houses flanking the train station, while the west is a maze of alleys, tombs and shrines. Sufism, an ancient Islamic mysticism, is alive and well in a number of cities across India but none so strikingly as Delhi which once housed several hundred sufi shrines and still has a deep tradition that’s easy to track down. You can join pilgrims in attending the weekly Qawalli service where sufi masters and musicians sing age old songs, while visitors pray to the saint for their own personal miracles. Whatever your beliefs, the devotional songs of Qawalli present a moving experience and one that snaps Delhi into sharp focus, a place steeped in faith, harmony and tradition.
The Muslim Mughals revered Sufis and sufi saints highly, so Emperor Humayun was laid to rest in a tomb built alongside Nizamuddin’s shrine. Humayun was the second emperor of the Mughal Empire and his tomb is one of the first great pieces of Mughal era architecture in Delhi, as ambitious as it is ornate. Dalrymple compares the grandeur of this tomb to the ramshackle materials used in Safdarjung’s Tomb at the other end of the Lodhi Road. Built 200 years apart, these two tombs indeed serve as a before and after look at an empire at its richest and at the point of financial demise. Visiting both on the same day really pushes the point, and I started with the sadder, the tomb of Mughal tactician Safdarjung, an 18th century noble who was one of the last great military leaders of the declining Mughal Empire. While both have the garden surroundings and vista pathway, the difference in scale and materials used is noticeable, Humayun’s Tomb suggesting promise and Safdarjung’s suggesting fragility, as the British East India Company were armed and poised in the wings.
The Mughals originated from regions in present day Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and having lineage to the great Mongol leaders Genghis Khan and Timur, felt the conquest of India their birthright. They established themselves in Delhi in 1526 and dominated northern India until their final puppet ruler was deposed by the British during the “Mutiny” (aka Battle for Independence) of 1857. Known for their great art and architecture, the most famous Mughal structure in Delhi was the renowned palace built by Shah Jahan, commissioner of the Taj Mahal. The palace, now known as The Red Fort, is described at length in City of Djinns. Dalrymple visits the site with scholar Dr Jaffery who explains the beauty and magnitude of the palace that has since been lost. What remains of The Red Fort is a shell, following the British deconstruction of much of the site they used as army barracks. At the time of my visit in March 2021 the site was closed due to an act of "terrorism" that took place earlier in the year. Protesting farmers from the Punjab, pushing back against the government's attempt to regulate and corporatize the country's farming industry, had occupied the Red Fort months earlier. I have to admit that besides the initial disappointment, I felt some sense of relief to miss out on the butchery of what was one of the finest palaces in the world and settled on reading that chapter of Djinns again instead.
From The Red Fort I crossed the highway into Old Delhi for the first time, wandering through Chandi Chowk in search of havelis; 18th century Indo-Islamic town houses with courtyard centers once dominated Delhi’s domestic architecture and feature regularly in Djinns. Very few remain and those that do are generally museums or hotels. To see what a haveli would have looked like in its prime, I visited the heritage hotel Haveli Dharampura, where manager Mr. Arvind gave me a tour. As restoration projects go, the Dharampura is impressive, its subtle reinstatement of original features such as glass and wood work taking six years to complete before its opening in 2016. Our tour took me to the hotel’s rooftop and I was reminded of Dalrymple’s point that you see the best of Old Delhi from above, with the domes and turrets of the old city’s skyline greeting you in every direction as life pumps rapidly round the alleys and pathways below. Other havelis glanced in were very run down in comparison but rang true with Dalrymple’s descriptions throughout the text of an ornate old city slowly dilapidating before one's eyes.
Old Delhi is not, in terms of the city’s life span, comparatively old. It earned that title from the British, as the Delhi that came before them. What City of Djinns elegantly illustrates is that there were at least seven incarnations of Delhi earlier. Ruins and remains of sultanate cities and pre-Islamic dynasties can be found in a long strait that flanks the south side of the current city centre. I visited Lal Kot, the Qutb Minar, Hauz Khas, Begumpur and Tughlakabad, Djinns in hand, finding the sites just as Dalrymple had described 30 years ago and locating them with notably more ease than he experienced, having Google Maps at hand. I was surprised to find these ruins just as depicted, with one main difference being the “villages” around these sites, such as Begumpur or Mehrauli, are now developed towns. The cattle and fields of 1989 are long gone but the ruins stand the same. Large, impressive, and a bit overgrown.
Rather than explore chronologically, in the order presented in the book, I approached my literary tourism geographically, one or two neighborhoods per day. I spent the majority of my time taking in the fortresses, palaces, mosques, colleges, and tombs of South Delhi which has ruins on just about every block that date back as far as the 11th century. It is entirely thanks to these structures and tombs that Delhi is so unexpectedly green. The city has been called a metropolis of the dead and its ghosts have undeniably shaped its present; the preservation of these tombs and the land around them allows the growth of so much life. I visited the cascading Deer Park and Lodhi Gardens in the south, the peaceful Shalimar Bagh and Coronation Park in the north, and the green marsh lands on the river banks along the east of the city. It really doesn’t take much to find the fetishized Delhi that the Raj Brits cooed over, having “moonlight picnics in Hauz Khas, a place we all thought was madly romantic” - as one elderly interviewee tells Dalrymple in the text.
The earliest British architecture in the capital is in the northeast corner of Old Delhi, in Kashmere Gate. William Fraser, Dalrymple’s wife’s ancestor, was based on this side of town from his arrival in 1805. The chapter on Fraser is a wonderful bit of family history and the first of Dalrymple’s deep dives into the East India Company (see 2019’s The Anarchy for a deeper dive still) and the complexity of their unchecked pillaging. You get the sense from his letters that Fraser loved Delhi; he learned its languages and was a patron of the arts, being a sponsor of famed Urdu poet Ghalib. Fraser’s tomb can be found in St. James Church, built by his best friend Colonel James Skinner, a fellow Indophile and EIC outcast. It’s a quiet, well kept chapel, neo-renaissance and mildly incongruous with its urban environs.
British Delhi really came into maturity in 1911, when the British King George V decreed that the capital city of the Raj would be moved there from Calcutta, instigating a need for a “New” Delhi. Dalrymple points out that the Persian prophecy: “whoever builds a new city in Delhi will lose it” was ignored and a chief architect of New Delhi, appointed. Edwin Luytens, who by all accounts did not like India or its people, was brought over to do the job of ensuring that “New Delhi was very deliberately built as an expression of the unconquerable might of the Raj.” Land was purchased from the Maharaja of Jaipur (who got a nice commemorative column for his cooperation) and work began on the greatest British town planning project in the world. However heavy my feelings of colonial guilt hang, New Delhi is undeniably triumphant, with a functional layout and wide leafy streets that are a joy to drive.
Completed in 1931, The Viceroy’s House, now Rashtrapati Bhagwan, is a force of modernist design and uncomfortable flex of imperial might, indicative of the British desperately clinging on to rule, as the Indian independence movement continued to grow. Dalrymple calls it the “architecture of power”, as Luytens’ “authoritarian” buildings were “built on a myth of racial superiority” in a stripped down classicism, the red Dholpur sandstone harsh and overpowering. There’s a great Luytens anecdote in City of Djinns told by Iris, an octogenarian in East Anglia who grew up in Raj Delhi and knew the architect personally. He showed her round one of his bungalows explaining that he “planned this central space in the middle with eight doors leading off. Some of these doors just lead into housemaid’s cupboards. I thought it would be terribly funny that if people had too much to drink at a big party, they’d come home and wouldn’t know which was their door. They’d all end up in the cupboards.”
My quest to get inside a Lutyens building began by walking the Raj Path, formerly the Kingsway. Starting at India Gate, I planned to walk the length of Luytens’ boulevard then visit Rashtrapati Bhagwan’s gardens. I did not get far. Much of the great thoroughfare is fenced off now, seemingly in the middle of a large construction project and the annual opening of the Rashtrapati gardens were completely off the cards, a year into the pandemic. The following day I tried for a Lutyens win again, passing Hyderabad House which was a definite no go, as a major government building. Jaipur House, now the National Gallery of Art was open but the Luytens built wing was closed for refurbishments. I was just about to give up but tried my luck at Bikaner House next door, and lo! I found myself at Delhi Contemporary Art Week. The whole house was open and hosting the delectable art fair. I checked the doors off the ballroom and counted six. Every room in the villa has at least six doors and I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself about old Luytens’ architectural subversions.
Surprisingly, New Delhi survived the independence movement as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s new government used the buildings as their own. The ill-planned and poorly conceived partition of India that separated a vast chunk of land into a new country, Pakistan, saw the Punjab region carved uncaringly into two halves. Millions of Sikhs from the suddenly Islamic Pakistan side of the Punjab risked their lives to move to Delhi from 1947 onwards, changing the demographic and expanding the population of the city at a juggernaut’s pace, while subsequently hundreds of thousands of Delhi’s Muslims were forced to leave for Pakistan. Dalrymple gives voice to both the incoming and expelled Delhites, from his Punjabi landlady and his driver friends at International Backside Taxis, to his interview conducted in Pakistan with the late great novelist, Ahmed Ali, who was cruelly forced out of the city following the partition. It’s these oral histories that really make City of Djinns such a loveable, appealing work. It’s not just a 26 years old lad climbing over ruins, he speaks to the people who’ve lived across the ages.
I ended my time in Delhi by the Nigambodh and Yamuna ghats, riverfront steps used for bathing and religious rituals, where Dalrymple closes Djinns, concluding his text there at the place of Delhi’s creation, having taken us back as far as the road goes. Synchronicity was less of a factor in my decision than health and safety, as with great reluctance I decided to cut my trip short in the face of an incoming second wave of covid. Before leaving town I had to squeeze in a trip to the hallowed ghats, where the first settlement in the area, Indraprastha, is recorded in the Hindu holy epic, the Mahabharata. The river bank ghats are such a moving space with an overwhelmingly powerful atmosphere. I believe you can feel the presence of history and the peoples that came before, who left behind a palpable energy. As I watch the sadhus, holy men who were submerged in the remarkably clear river, it could’ve been 2021 or 1021. The sunlight reflected off the Yamuna River and I said my thanks to William Dalrymple, with whose help I came to see that the 3000 year old city is as radiant as ever, if you take the time to look for it.