City of Djinns
Tucked away in delhi's shrines and mosques, traditional faith healers are on hand to exorcise unseen spirits from the possessed.
Daya, a well-built woman in her early 40s wearing a salwar kameez and headscarf, sits on a low wall surrounding the small shrine of Khwaja Moluddin Chishti in south Delhi. As she calmly speaks, nothing about her suggests that her body and mind were once taken over by a supernatural entity called a “djinn”.
“Shortly after my marriage, about eighteen years ago, I had an abortion. I already had one daughter,” says Daya, who only goes by her first name. “Something went wrong in the procedure and in the following months I would not stop bleeding. It was then that the djinn possessed me.”
At the start of her ordeal, nothing she tried would help and Daya refused to follow several doctors’ advice of removing her uterus to stop the bleeding. A family friend suggested visiting the shrine to consult the faith healer there. She was doubtful, but soon after her first visit the bleeding stopped. The djinn, she says, took much longer to exorcise.
Daya doesn’t remember that turbulent period, which lasted more than a year. “She screamed a lot and used bad language,” says her brother Raju, an electrician, who accompanies her. “She was also very strong. Once, she just lifted up the bed.”
But slowly, Daya was restored to her normal self. “Baba cured me,” says Daya, referring to the saint who is buried here. She points to a teenage boy sitting beside her. “I had a son after that. Ever since, we all come to this place every Thursday.”
From the perspective of mental health, Daya’s condition could have been diagnosed as psychosis following a traumatic abortion, and the djinn dismissed as superstition. In Daya’s case, visiting the faith healer was a last resort, but for the many who believe in spirit possession, such traditional healers, who perform exorcisms, are often seen as the first step toward a cure, and may just offer significant social and therapeutic value for the afflicted. Today, even in a fast changing city like Delhi, various kinds of spirits are believed to exist, and the people believed to be able to master them, who belong to an age old profession and are usually the scions of Sufi clans, are kept in demand.
“There are at least as many cases as twenty years ago,” says Ali Khan, the caretaker of the Khwaja Moluddin Chishti shrine. He became the Sajjada Nashin – a title assigned to those considered to be descendants of a Sufi pir or saint who usually serve as the caretaker of that saint’s shrine – when his father, the previous caretaker, died in 2000.
The shrine is just a ten minute walk from the green, wide roads of south Delhi’s affluent Diplomatic Enclave neighbourhood. It lies at the end of a sandy track that runs through the dense Central Ridge forest, with treasures along the way such as a centuries old well concealed by spiky bushes. Nearby is a Tughlaq era hunting lodge, carefully guarded by monkeys, and the old walls of a reservoir from the same period from the late 1300s. The impressive quantity of garbage around, serves as a reminder that even these seemingly isolated monuments have some interaction with the mushrooming city.
The shrine itself is about 800 years old and used to serve the inhabitants of a village called Malcha, which disappeared when the British made Delhi their capital in 1911. The villagers are said to still be haunting the area, something you are reminded of with every sound of a leaf or twig cracking underfoot, or unexpected monkey scream. Even spookier are the dozens of matkas, earthen pots, which are spread out under the bushes immediately surrounding the shrine. These grounds serve as a jail where 800 years worth of djinns and bad souls are held, with the latter being kept in the pots, Khan explains.
But unlike the surrounding monuments, this shrine is more than a relic of the past. The saint’s grave, housed in a relatively new, small, green and white structure with candles and incense burning inside and out, continues to serve dozens of devotees from across Delhi every week. Daya and her family come all the way from Badarpur, almost 30 kilometres away.