To be in India is sometimes scary, sometimes uncertain, sometimes violent, sometimes moody and almost every time paradoxical. For me, India’s real strength is in its people. The world’s largest democracy is a rich tapestry of multiple socio-cultural identities woven into a perfect single nation. And no other practice in this country glories India’s diversity like the institution of prayer does. When you are in India it is absolutely normal for you to witness people worshipping animals, trees, holy rivers, mountain peaks and even ‘Djinns’ who are supernatural creatures born out of smokeless fire, whose lifespan is over thousands of years and are capable of granting wishes to those who come and pray.
While working on a project of mine, ‘Why do we pray?’ which I started roughly 3 years ago, through which I tried to explore the true power and purpose of prayer, I got to know about a very peculiar practice of ‘Djinn worship’ in Delhi which used to take place in the dingy alcoves and chambers of the Feroz Shah Kotla fort every Thursday.
With every visit to the ruins of the fort, my curiosity regarding the ‘Djinns’ increased. I was determined to explore the nuisances of this long-lived ritual and document the committed devotees who visit the fort weekly.
This time-tested relic, the Feroz Shah Kotla fort was built by the Tughlaq emperor Feroz Shah Tughlaq. It is one of the oldest architectures in Delhi. It is believed that Feroz Shah Kotla is the abode of numerous ‘Djinns’. According to the Islamic mythology, it is believed that the ‘Djinns’ are supernatural spirits made of fire who can grant any wish and solve any problem. In Arabic the word ‘Djinn’ means ‘invisible’. They are believed to be shape-shifters who possess magical powers and help humans but they are feared for their ill-temper and wrath. Countless people flock in the fort, every Thursday desperately hoping to get their prayers heard. They write letters, light candles, offer flower petals, stick coins on the walls of the fort, whisper their wishes, leave locks in the railings and ask for forgiveness. The ‘Djinns’ are believed to grant wishes of people and once the wishes are granted, people even return to distribute food as a gesture to please the ‘Djinns’ and celebrate. The devotees often leave behind food for the animals to feed. Some even offer meat to the eagles and kites that hover over the ruins of the fort. The worshippers believe that the ‘Djinns’ feed through the animals and birds.
When I first visited the narrow chambers of this 14 th century marvel, I could feel the eeriness in the air; it was a Thursday evening and all I would hear were the wails of weeping men and women and their endless whisperings. The chambers were dimly lit with clay lamps and I felt claustrophobic in them. Each chamber was filled with numerous people praying frantically hoping that the ‘Djinns’ would ease their troubles and put an end to their miseries. One of the devotees, who was tying a thread in the railing of the old fort, warned me not to lurk around the premises, if I have no intention to offer my prayers to the ‘Djinns’ as it may annoy them and they may try to harm me.
I continued to visit the fort on Thursdays to witness countless people flocking there desperately hoping to get their prayers heard. The worshippers left letters and passport size photos of missing family members and friends, expecting the ‘Djinns’ to help them find their lost loved ones. Some even pinned photo copies of filled up job application forms on the walls of the forts. They strongly believed that ‘Djinns’ can resolve and reduce any difficulty of one’s life.
The cobblestone alleys of the fort were always filled with smoke, so much so that I had to keep a handkerchief in my pocket to ease my watery eyes every time I entered the hallways to click pictures. I could not stay in the chambers for more than fifteen minutes as I used to have trouble breathing because of the intense smoke and lack of fresh air.
In all my visits to the fortress, I intended to catch people unaware, at their private time when there was a unity between the soul and the spirit. My prime aim for my project, ‘Why do we pray?’ has always been to unfurl the incredible peculiarities of the numerous cultures of India which coexist peacefully. Prayer for me is the greatest art form which expresses the inner yearnings of the human soul. It is a spiritual state of unity between the soul and the spirit; a long winding pathway to find our true selves. Because it is in what we ask during prayer that truly defines who we are.