City of Djinns
In a rapidly developing Delhi, faith healers carry out exorcisms using age-old methods in shrines and mosques tucked away in the urban landscape.
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.
The 33-year-old caretaker arrives at the shrine in a shiny white Maruti Alto, wearing a woollen sweater, black trousers and shoes, before changing into his uniform of a white kurta pajama and cap. He comes here every day to serve the saint, receive devotees and assist in their prayers for various requests, and organises the occasional qawwali (devotional music of Sufism) night. He says what he receives in donations is very modest, and that his main source of income comes from designing Rajasthani shoes and bangles, during free evenings, in another south Delhi neighbourhood where he lives with his wife and two young sons.
Until his father’s death, Khan worked full-time as a storekeeper at the US Embassy – barely one kilometre away, but a world apart from where he now spends most of his time in the quiet company of a small goat and two chickens. It was always expected that he’d take over from his father, who taught him all he knows and who himself had learnt from his own father and grandfather. Three graves next to the shrine remind Khan every day of the generations of healers before him.
The young Sajjada Nashin speaks with a voice of authority about the supernatural forces that, he says, surround him. “It is the souls of people who died an untimely death that create physical and mental suffering in people,” Khan says. “They roam around the place of their death, looking for a body to enter.” The same goes for djinns, those entities that according to Islam are created by Allah out of smokeless fire. Most djinns are good, according to Khan. But the malignant djinns, he says, are usually sent by people using black magic because of reasons such as envy. “They are strong and cause people to shout a lot, use bad language and force,” he says. But he also says while someone may appear to be possessed, it isn’t always so, and this is when he relies on the saint’s judgement to let him know. “If it’s not a case of possession, ‘Baba’ will advise me to send the patient to hospital,” says Khan, adding that the saint speaks to him at night when no one else is around.
A djinn or soul is not captured with a simple click of the fingers. Patients need to follow certain rituals, such as walking around the shrine while their family members and Khan recite verses from the Quran out loud. Often, they just need to spend time with the saint. Even then, it can take months, sometimes years of praying and weekly visits to the shrine to weaken the spirit sufficiently in order for it to be fully exorcised from the body. Meanwhile, the subject may continue to demonstrate the understood symptoms of possession – weakness, physical pain, hallucinations and mood swings. The spirit is also blamed for any bad luck the family encounters, such as illness or financial loss.
Similar stories are told in shrines and monuments across Delhi, from the peaceful shrine where Khan serves, to the chaotic crowds at the mausoleum of Nizamuddin Auliya, to the small, twin shrines of Sarmad and Hare Bhare in the buzz of Old Delhi, from the surprisingly quiet Fatehpuri Masjid on Chandni Chowk to the beautiful ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla that are believed to be inhabited by thousands of, mainly good, djinns. People with all kinds of ailments and desires are attracted to the power believed to reside in these holy sites.
Although none of these places in Delhi exclusively specialise in exorcism – unlike some temples and dargahs across India, such as the Balaji temple in Rajasthan, or the Hazrat Sayid Ali Mira Datar shrine in Gujarat – the healers there can perform the task. It is in these spots that people, a majority of them women, can be found banging their heads, growling, murmuring indistinct words and rolling around on the floor. While they might otherwise behave normally, this behaviour which occurs only in holy places is said to indicate that the spirit inside them is having a hard time as it wrestles with the power of the saint.
Spirit exorcists like Khan say they have acquired their power partly through birth, but mainly through loyal devotion to God and the saint. And they claim to employ different methods of controlling spirits. Khan says he traps them in matkas, as his forefathers did. A pir of the Sarmad shrine says he buries them at a nearby cemetery, while others “convert” them into good spirits or help them proceed on to the next world.
As spirituality is widely perceived as a godly and immaterial practice, most pirs insist that they perform healings and exorcisms more as a good deed, and less for the money. This humble claim allows them to have another career on the side. For instance, Syed Musharraf Ali Nizami, 52, a Sajjada Nashin, according to his business card, at the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, is also employed at the shrine for services such as cleaning and distributing flowers. For his traditional healing skills, the sufferers’ families often pay him money, which he calls a “donation,” ranging from Rs 11 to 1 000 a visit.
Musharraf’s business card, however, is not the only indication that the pirs of Nizamuddin run professional healing organisations rather than charities. Several offices next to the shrine’s entrance – one called “Head Office” another called “Main Office” – compete for the attention of the sick and possessed.
The office next door houses Syed Mujahid Ali Nizami, a healer in his 50s with shiny green-stoned rings and a green cap, whose business card advertises services to assist with, “Strong Problems, Business, Black Magic, Body Pain, Marriage and Love Illness.” Although he says his real business comes from the hotel he owns in Nizamuddin, Mujahid seems eager for clients and publicity. He is quick to tell the photographer that she needs to be cured as somebody has cast the evil eye on her. “Please mention my address [in your story],” he insists, “and don’t forget to write that I also help the poor.”
The overt marketing of such pirs is a source of suspicion among some community members. “These are not pirs. You have to sacrifice and surrender to god to be blessed with the power to heal. They are one in millions,” says Samiur Rahman, the Executive Director of the Nizamuddin-based NGO, The Hope Project. “The real pirs will never ask for money or goods for healing.” The NGO runs, among other projects, a clinic in the neighbourhood. According to Rahman, it’s an uphill struggle to establish faith in modern medicine within this community, as people tend to rely on the saint for every little complaint. “Superstition in modern cities is getting less,” he says, “but it persists in the countryside, and with rural migrants arriving in Delhi every day it’s a continuous effort on our part.”
The heavy influx of rural migrants from all over India into the city is probably why the healers’ stories show slight variations in the appearance, temperament and behaviour of a spirit. The healers, however, agree on a few basic points such as djinns being as numerous as the city’s population of people, and that most djinns are good. Where bad djinns are concerned, the opinions are divided on why they might possess, and the reasons differ, from djinns being envoys of black magic, to inhabiting a human because they find them beautiful or fall in love with them, and therefore resist leaving the body. While most say possession is indiscriminate, Musharraf is of the opinion that “healthy and good” people are usually immune. Evil souls, all agree, are those of people whose demises were untimely, whether by accident, murder, suicide or disease.
Sudhir Kakar, an Indian psychoanalyst who runs a practice in Goa, does not personally believe in spirit possession as a supernatural phenomenon. Rather, he has identified both social and personal reasons for why an individual might be deemed possessed. He researched this belief along with various traditions of exorcism in the country for his book, Shamans, Mystics and Doctors (1982). He says, across regions and religions in India, what lies at the heart of what is understood to be possession is essentially the same.
“The names might be different, but the symptoms and causes are similar,” says Kakar, in an interview in Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. “The majority of [those believed to be] possessed are young women, which is because they have the most difficult time in the family,” he says, referring to women who are unable to cope in a rigid social structure. “Being ‘possessed’ gives them the freedom to abuse their husbands and mothers-in-law, and even show all kinds of forbidden desires, including sexual.” According to Kakar, adopting a state of possession usually manifests subconsciously. Another common scenario says Kakar, is where a Hindu believes that he or she is possessed by a Muslim spirit and demands to be fed meat.
When it comes to exorcism, Kakar explains why he doesn’t discount it as a practice. “Generally, exorcism works as therapy, just as well as my method [psychoanalysis] works,” he says. “The effectiveness of a certain type of therapy is completely related to the beliefs of the patient.”
Kakar believes that exorcism will remain relevant in India in the foreseeable future, and offers a cultural explanation for this. He says in the West, people are more inclined to focus on “the self” and therefore the causes of a mental disorder are understood to be connected to the individual, whereas in India, many believe that such problems originate from external entities. In other words, if a spirit is believed to be the alien force responsible for a malady, then exorcising it might be the most effective cure. “This [reliance on exorcism] will not change until people accept that problems come from within,” Kakar says.
But even if belief in spirit possession persists, the question of whether the next generation of faith healers will embrace this profession remains to be seen.
While expressing some pride of their knowledge and mastery, none of the healers interviewed seemed particularly keen for their sons to take the family tradition into the future.
“If one of them would really be interested I will surely teach them,” says Khan, whose sons are just three and five years old, but he doesn’t seem convinced. “First, they need to finish school. Education is most important, and they can study what they like.”
Musharraf is more frank when he says that he would prefer if his son, who is now 21 and in college, went on to pursue an alternative career. “Everybody dreams of improvement,” Musharraf says. “My son could become more wealthy as an engineer, or a doctor."
Author: Aletta André
Published: May 2012
Photographs: Alakananda Nag
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