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Saintly visions: Other histories and history's others in the medieval ruins of
Delhi
Anand Vivek Taneja
Indian Economic Social History Review 2012 49: 557
DOI: 10.1177/0019464612463843
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Saintly visions: Other histories


and historys others in the
medieval ruins of Delhi
Anand Vivek Taneja
Columbia University
This article is centrally concerned with understanding the perceived presence of Muslim saintly
figures at various medieval ruins in contemporary Delhi. I explore how popular relationships
with these ruins, centred on the presence of the saint-figures, are not historical, but still indicate meaningful connections to the medieval past. To understand these connections, this article
explores the epistemological and ontological privileging of the imaginal (manifesting as dreams
and visions) in Islamicate thought and everyday life, arising from the influence of Ibn Arabi,
by looking at both contemporary popular practices and beliefs around these ruins, as well as
the significance of these ruins in Urdu antiquarian and literary texts from the early twentieth
century. I argue that the ontological primacy of the imaginal is also inextricably connected to
an ethics of diversity and non-sectarian ideals of justice. The imaginal becomes increasingly
important for connecting to the past in the aftermath of colonial and post-colonial state violence,
not only because of the destruction of the usual (discursive) modes of historical memory, but
also because it poses a moral vision of the pre-modern past against the violence of the modern
(state). This article ends by suggesting that the rituals around these ruins create a sensory and
affective archive of the citys history that needs to be explored further.
Keywords: Delhi, everyday life, history, Ibn Arabi, ruins, Urdu literature
Acknowledgements: This article is based on research funded by a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from
the Wenner-Gren Foundation, as well as by research funding from the Graduate School of Arts
and Sciences, Columbia University. I would like to thank Partha Chatterjee, Michael Taussig, Zoe
Crossland, Severin Fowles, Frances Pritchett, Shahid Amin, Seema Golestaneh and Dwaipayan
Banerjee for their constructive and critical engagement with earlier drafts of this article. I would also
like to thank Ravi Sundaram and Amiel Melnick for generously providing me with opportunities
to present earlier versions of this work to scholarly audiences, and for the very valuable ensuing
discussions. Raghu Karnads curiosity about the mysteries of Begampur and Manan Ahmeds original

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DOI: 10.1177/0019464612463843

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call for papers were the genesis for this article, and I would like to thank both of them as well as
Sunil Kumar, without whose enthusiasm and continual encouragement the Madison panel would
not have become this special issue. Finally, I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for their
insightful, enormously helpful and remarkably prompt comments.

But the Santal with his statement I did as my God told me toalso faces us with
a way of being in this world, and we could ask ourselves: is that a way of being
a possibility for our own lives and what we define as our present?
Dipesh Chakrabarty1
My work in Delhi has been centrally concerned with contemporary ritual practices
around medieval ruins. Delhi is a rapidly modernising city with an extremely
violent and disrupted past, where its elite mourns the lack of historical sense
among common people. Yet people in the thousands regularly come to the ruins of
Delhis past, and often form deep affective bonds with them. For many, the ruins
are experienced not as locations of history as past, but of presence. By presence
here I am invoking the multi-valence of the HindiUrdu terms Hazrat and hzir,
derived from the Arabic arah2. Hazrat, literally presence, is the honorific used
for saintly Muslim figures, including the spirit figures said to dwell in many ruins in
Delhi. The supplicants also make themselves present to the saint through hzir,
or attendance. Paradoxically, many of these now-sacred ruins are what we could
consider secular, being the remnants of dams and palaces and hunting lodges not
originally built as places of worship.
I do not wish to prove those who mourn the lack of historical sense wrong.
Peoples relations to these ruins (of the sort that I am interested in) are not historicalthey are certainly not linked to the academic discipline of history, nor can
they be understood as memory in any straightforward way. Following the work
of Jennifer Cole,3 I do not see history and memory as fundamentally dissimilar.
Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, p. 108.
To minimise the use of diacritics, in this article I use the ALA-LC Romanisation Tables for Hindi
to represent both Indic and Arabo-Persian words which I encountered primarily in speech. However I
use the n from Urdu romanisation to represent nasalisation in speech, to avoid the complexities of the
anusvara/anunasika distinctions, not obvious in everyday speech. When reproducing excerpts from
Urdu texts, I use the ALA-LC romanisation for Urdu. I also apply Urdu romanisation to the Persian
phrases and verses that are often part of these texts to reflect their seamless integration into the Urdu
texts (as well as Indic pronunciations of Persian). When referring to Arabic theological terms, which
occur quite sparingly, I use the ALA-LC romanisation for Arabic, as in the above sentence. The names
of texts, authors, people and places are given without diacritics.
3
The (often) binary opposition between history and memory, especially following the influential work
of Pierre Nora (Les Lieux de Memoire) seems to suggest that one marks a modern and a critical faculty,
and the other marks something both more organic, and less concerned with either fact or criticality.
Jennifer Cole, working among the Betisimisaraka in Madagascar, critiques Nora for suggesting that
collective remembering ever happened naturallythat even among traditional societies, the links
1
2

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Other histories and historys others in the medieval ruins of Delhi / 559

Both history and collective memory are fundamentally linked to discourse, to narrative, and what one sees in the relationships people have with these ruins is a lack
of concern with both facticity (the concern of history) and narrative (the concern
of history and memory). And yet, as I hope to demonstrate in this essay, peoples
relationships with these monuments are a sign of a meaningful relationship to the
medieval (what I, still living within history,4 think of as the) past. To understand
these relationships, I argue, needs a fundamental shift in both our ontological
and epistemological frames.5 In this article, I explore the alternate epistemologies and ontology opened up to us by paying close attention to the work of the
medieval Muslim philosopher and theologian Ibn Arabi (and the larger body of
thought associated with him), and his widespread influence on Islamicate thought
and everyday life. Rather than positing the usual binaries between history and
memory, or between written and oral transmission, I am positing here a different kind
of binaryone between discursive ways of knowing (including both oral and
written discourse), and the imaginal6, the realm of experience and knowledge
linked to dreams and visions. I also investigate how the imaginal becomes increasingly important for connecting to the past in the aftermath of colonial and postcolonial state violence, and the resultant disruption of the usual modes historical
memory.

to the past are considered fragile, and have to be constantly worked on and worked with, lest they be
forgotten (Cole, Forget Colonialism? p.108). If history and memory (beyond individual memory) are
both not given but constantly worked and reworked, then what analytical purchase remains in keeping
the two separate?
4
Here I am gesturing towards Ashis Nandys argument that millions of people in the world still live
outside historyThey do have theories of the past; they do believe that the past is important and shapes
the present and the future, but they also recognize, confront, and live with a past different from that
constructed by historians and historical consciousness (Nandy, Historys Forgotten Doubles, p. 44.)
5
There has been a recent turn within anthropology towards ontological difference and multiple
ontologies as a way of coming to terms with the radical alterity of belief and practice so central to the
anthropological encounter. I find Martin Holbraads statements in support of multiple ontologies to
be richly suggestiveWhat do you do as an anthropologist when the people you study say that a stone
is a person, or have performed sacrifices to maintain the supremacy of their king, or engage in any
other activity or discourse that during an unguarded moment you would be tempted to call irrational?
Ontologys answer is that if these things appear irrational, it is because we have misunderstood them.
If people say that a stone is a person, it is because they are talking about something different from what
we talk about when we say that it is notif the problem when people say that stones are persons is to
understand what they are actually saying (as opposed to why they may be saying such a silly thing), then
the onus is on me as an anthropologist to reconceptualize a whole host of notions that are involved in
such a statement. I have to literally rethink what a stone and what a person might be for the equation of
one with the other to even make sense (Holbraad in Alberti et al., Worlds Otherwise, pp. 902903).
6
Imaginal, as Willam Chittick explains it, is a term bequeathed to us by the late Henry Corbin. As
Corbin has explained in his works, the imaginal word or mundus imaginalis possesses an independent
ontological status and must be clearly differentiated from the imaginary world, which is no more than
our individual fantasies (Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge, p. ix).

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Facing the Conundrum: Hardam Khayali ki Dargah, Begampur Village


What do I mean when I say that peoples relationships with these ruins are not
historical? Let me illustrate with an examplea venerated grave (Hardam Khayali
ki dargah) in the ruins of a large fourteenth century complex, known as the Bijay
Mandal. Bijay Mandal is located now between the urban village of Begampur and
the modern residential enclave of Sarvapriya Vihar, in the institutional and elite
heart of south Delhi, a stones throw away from the Indian Institute of Technology. This part of Delhi has been rapidly urbanised and developed in the last five
decades or so, before which it was a landscape of agricultural fields, small villages,
and masses of ruins from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the fourteenth
century, during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq (r. 13251351), Bijay Mandal
was probably the administrative centre of the Delhi of his time. The slope-walled
tower near the southern end of the ruins provides one of the best views to be had
of south Delhi. Just to the south are the many dark symmetrical domes around
the vast courtyard of the Begampuri Masjid, once the central congregational mosque
of the Tughlaq city of Jahanpanah. To the southwest, a few kilometres away, the
Qutab Minar rises tall, marking the site of Qila Rai Pithora, the first city of Delhi.
To the north is the bulbous Asiad Tower built in 1982, and buried underneath it, the
thirteenth century city of Siri. It is a stunning visual confirmation of the vastness of
fourteenth century Delhi. Muhammad bin Tughlaqs Jahanpanah stretched between
Qila Rai Pithora and Siri and encompassed them both. This walled conurbation
had 30 gates leading out of it.
Ibn Batuta probably had his first audience with Tughlaq here at Bijay Mandal,
in the Hazr Sutn, the Hall of a Thousand Pillars, of which all that remains are
some scattered stone pillar-bases, overgrown with weeds. In the long aftermath of
the thirteenth century Mongol attacks and the subsequent migrations from Central
Asia to Delhi, this really was jahn panh, refuge to the world. However, according to Syed Ahmad Khan, this city was desolate (vrn) by the time of Sher Shah
Suri, circa 1541.7 By the early-twentieth century all that remained of the centre
of Jahanpanah was Begampur village, small enough to fit inside the Begampuri
Masjid. The village was removed from inside the mosque in 1928 by the Public
Works Department,8 and the villagers were given land around the mosque to settle
in, and here today is urban village of Begampur, a rural settlement exempt from
the zoning laws that define the city that surrounds it. Though many migrants now
live here, Begampur retains a core of people with ties to the village going back
several generations, unlike the surrounding modernist middle class residential
colonies built upon its agricultural land.
Syed Ahmad Khan, Asar us-Sanadid (2nd Edition), p. 89.
Lewis, Delhis Historic Villages, p. 36. Lewis also mentions here that when the villagers petitioned
against the acquisition of their homes in 1927, they claimed that they were very poor people who had
been residing in the village for about 300 years.
7
8

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In the northern part of the ruins there are some graves under a tree, with a recently
added green pennant that reads pr bb in Hindi, the generic north Indian term for
(usually) Muslim saints. Beyond that generic term, not much seems to be known
about the baba buried here, even by those who come here to venerate him. I became
interested in the site after a friend who lives nearby went to visit the grave, and
asked about the history of the baba, and came away completely unsatisfied. Yih to
bb hain was the standard response he got. He is a baba, a statement supposed
to be self-explanatory. These days a man known as Hafiz Sahib sits at the mazr
on Thursdays, and says he has been coming here for 25 years, called by the baba
in a dream.9 He is from near Aligarh in western Uttar Pradesh, but has been living in Sangam Vihar, a vast unauthorised working class migrant colony about 10
kilometres to the south of Begampur since the 1970s. I went on a Thursday and
asked him what he knew about the baba. This is Tahir Husain Hardam Khayali
Baba, he said. Yih sab k khayl rakhte hain. He takes care of everyone. Beyond
that, Hafiz Sahib seemed to know nothing of the history of the baba or his resting
place. When I asked why the baba chose to live in the ruins of a Sultans palace,
he said all this was built by the baba and belonged to him. The Begampuri Masjid,
he said, was built by the babas begam (wife) for 50 years after his death, hence
the name of Begampur. As we talked, a small stream of visitors, mostly women,
mostly Hindu,10 mostly from Begampur village, arrived and made offerings at the
grave. I asked about some of the more recent structures, built close to the mazr,
and was told that they were memorials to his deceased devoteesbb k sev
karne vlon k ydgr hain. These memorials, squat little domed structures on tiny
square platforms, with a square opening for the placement of lamps and offerings,
are reminiscent of the bhayn/bhomiy11 shrines, memorials to deified male hero
figures, found in Jat and Gujjar villages in the Delhi area. On one of the Thursdays
I was present, two women who had come to the mazr pointed out one of the little
memorial structures as being that of their deceased father-in-law.
For those who come to venerate the pir baba, it seems that the narrative of
his life does not matter. His history, or memory, as we would understand it, is
9
The theme of being called by the figure of a saint/baba in a dream to begin taking care of a formerly
derelict site is a common theme for Muslim graves and shrines in post-Partition Delhi. See also Kumar,
Pirs barakat and Servitors Ardour.
10
My use of the term Hindu is a problematic one. While most of those who I have clumped under
the broad rubric of Hindu would recognise themselves as such today, my descriptive use of the term
actually elides the variety of qaums (qaum/kaum or community being the term used in Delhi for what
sociologists would recognise as jati or caste) who have traditionally lived in Begampur and who continue
to come to visit the shrine, including Jats, Brahmins, and the untouchable castes of sweepers and
leatherworkers, Bhangis and Chamars (now often collectively spoken of as Dalits), whose inclusion
into the Hindu fold is relatively recent (see Prashad, Untouchable Freedom).
11
Etymologically the term bhomiya is closely related to bhumi, land, and denotes this local
deitys special connection to the land he defended Bhomiya is also refered to as Dadosa Honoured
Grandfather. Cort, Devotees, Families and Tourists, pp. 17273.

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nearly forgotten here, apart from a name. But he is still venerated, whereas Sultan
Muhammad bin Tughlaq, who built this palace, is completely forgotten. And this
place of forgetting is paradoxically a site of remembrance, where people from
Begampur light lamps to their ancestors, and where by coming in groups every
Thursday, they reaffirm community and continuity in the midst of a vast and rapidly
metamorphosing city.
This paradox becomes even more puzzling with the realisation that the babas
history and biographical details are not lost, or hard to find, but available in relatively popular Urdu books still in print and circulation. In his Asar al-Sanadid,
Syed Ahmad Khan writes, In the time of Sultan Sikandar Lodi (14891517),
Shaikh Hasan Tahir used to live in this very tower. The graves near this tower are
those of him and his children. He passed away in 150312 I found Shaikh Hasan
Tahir in an Urdu translation of Abd al-Haq Muhaddis Dihlvis Akhbar al-Akhyar,
his seventeenth century Persian compendium of the biographies of Indian Muslim
saints. Hasan Tahir has a large and comprehensive entry, with many details from
his life, and a summary of his major theological writings.13
From the age of his youth the pain of the quest for truth had grabbed him and
hence he stayed only in the company of dervishes, Abd al-Haq writes. It is related
that at this time he obtained Fusus al-Hikam from an elder, but his father was an
opponent of the Fusus... Twelfth-century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Arabis Fusus
al-Hikam (The Ringstones of Wisdom), has a long history of being considered a
troublesome text in India. The text and its commentarial tradition were considered
foundational of the doctrine of wadah al-wujd (the unity of all being, wadat
al-wujd in Persian and Urdu), and Muzaffar Alam gives us two examples in his
Languages of Political Islam of the book being proscribed. Shaikh Nizam al-Din
of Amethi (d. 1517) is said to have snatched the book away from a student of
his, and advised him to limit his readings to recognised theological and orthodox
Sufi treatises.14 In the seventeenth century, Aurangzeb (r. 16581707) took grave
exception to the contents of Shah Muhibb-Allahs Risala-i Taswiyya, seeing it as
a restatement of Ibn Arabis Fusus al-Hikam, and demanded an explanation15.
But a young Hasan Tahir, according to the Akhbar, managed to convince his father
of the theological soundness of the Fusus. Later in life Hasan Tahir moved from
12
Syed Ahmad Khan, Asar (2 edn.), 91. However, it should be noted that in the first edition of the
Asar (1847), which is radically different from the second edition (1854) (see Naim, Syed Ahmad and
his Two Books called Asar-al-Sanadid), Khan does not mention Shaikh Hasan Tahir or the grave of
Hardam Khayali at all. In the second edition, which is much more textual and historically correct,
he seems to be quoting directly from the Akhbar as a historical text, which mentions the graves being
close to the Bijay Mandal. Given that in the first edition, which is much fuller of participant observatory
details than the second, Khan never mentions Hardam Khayali or Shaikh Hasan Tahir, he does not seem
to have made the connection between the dargah and the structure of Bijay Mandal.
13
Abd al-Haq Muhaddis Dehlvi, Akhbar al-Akhyar, pp. 417420.
14
Alam Languages of Political Islam, p.153.
15
Ibid., p. 170.

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Jaunpur to Agra to Delhi, and became one of the most prominent Sufis of Delhi. At
a time when the intercessions of the shaikh were crucial to claims of sovereignty,
he resolutely refused to use his influence. A brother of Sikandar Lodis, who was
a disciple of Hasan Tahir, wanted to become the Sultan and asked the shaikh to
pray for him. The shaikh told him that God had already given the kingdom to his
brother, and he should not oppose Gods will. When news of this reached the Sultan,
he immediately came into Shaikh Hasan Tahirs presence. The Sultans gratitude
explains how he came to live in Bijay Mandal, the former royal palace. But the
Jahanpanah in which Shaikh Hasan Tahir made his final home was a city in decline.
In 1503, the year Shaikh Hasan Tahir died, Sikandar Lodi moved the capital to Agra.
How do we understand this vast gap between the (fairly easily) available
biographical record and contemporary recollection? I assumed initially that this
knowledge gap was symptomatic of the many tragic disruptions that have characterised Delhis recent history. The Muslims of Begampur, like those of surrounding villages, must have left during the upheavals of Partition, and with them left
the memory, the biographical stories of the saint. This also conveniently explained
the presence of Hafiz Sahib, coming from faraway Sangam Vihar, rather than a
member of the local community.16 None of the Hindu devotees could find the true
story of the saint because virtually no one reads Urdu now, especially amongst
the non-Muslims of Delhi. And Hafiz Sahibs lack of knowledge of saintly literature
reflected the intellectual (and often very real) poverty of madarsah education in
modern India. While all of the above may well be true, what we are confronted
by at the site of Shaikh Hasan Tahirs venerated grave is not (only) a disrupted
inheritance, but a much wider aporiaone between two different ways of knowing
and relating to the past.
This became clear to me when I was reading Bashiruddin Ahmads Waqiat-i
Darulhukumat Dihli on the monuments of Begampur. Bashiruddin Ahmads threevolume compendium on Delhis history and monuments was written in the 1910s
(the three volumes of the Waqiat were first published in 1919), nearly a century
ago. Amad belonged to one of the most learned and literary families of Delhi,
and his book, despite occasional wholesale borrowings from Syed Ahmad Khans
Asar, is a model of scrupulous and painstaking research. And yet his account of the
history of the saint is even sparser than current recollection, and as unconcerned
with either narrative or facticity.
The Dargah of Hardam KhayaliThe people of the village call this ko
(fort) and some merely maqm (location, station, eminence) and some people
call it Hardam Khayalis dargah. In short, there is as much talk as there are
mouths (Gharaz jitne munh utn bten). Whether Hardam Khayali is merely
16
There is actually a sizable community of Muslims, largely from Western Uttar Pradesh, now
settled in Begampur. Also, not all the original Muslim inhabitants left the village. Among those who
left, some also came back from Pakistan.

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an imaginary (khayl) name or whether it has some real basis, of this we have
no information.17
Ahmad then gives a detailed physical description, with accurate measurements,
of the buildings upon the site and its current condition, including the Pl trees that
gave (and still give) welcome shade to the graves. Two things stand out for me
in his account of the site. First, he separates his account of the dargah of Hardam
Khayali from his account of the Bijay Mandal, whereas the two are quite clearly
part of the same complex for a modern visitor. Second, he quotes extensively from
the Akhbar al-Akhyar in his account of Bijay Mandal, but never makes the connection between Hardam Khayali and Shaikh Hasan Tahir.
Shah Abd al-Haq Sahib Muhaddis Dihlvi, writer of the Akhbar al-Akhyar, who
was a famous elder of piety in the times of Akbar and Jahangir and who passed
away in 1052/1642, describes this building as a tower of Jahanpanah and says that
in the time of Sikandar Lodi being sultan, an elder by the name of Husain Tahir
came to Delhi and by royal decree he was made to stay in this palace. He passed
away in 909/1503 and was buried outside this dwelling. Accordingly, the other
graves at this place are of his near and dear ones. 18
And yet, Bashiruddin Ahmad does not make the connection. Hardam Khayl
mihiz khayl nm hai y isk kuch alt bh hai hame habar nahn, he wrote
(Whether Hardam Khayali is merely an imaginary name or whether it has some real
basis, of this we have no information). In treating Bijay Mandal and Hardam Khayalis
dargah as two separate structures, he was obviously following local precedentthe
two sites were considered separate by the local populace despite being close together.
Part of this separation was probably physical. The area between the tower and Hasan
Tahirs grave was (and during the monsoons still is) wild and overgrown. It was only
in excavations in 193031 that it became clear that this area was once a large pillared
hall19, stretching north from the tower to the graves. But I believe that considering
these two structures as separate was not merely a physical divide for the villagers,
and for Bashiruddin Ahmad, but also a conceptual one. This is reflected in his radically differing narratives of the two sites, manifestly historical for Bijay Mandal,
associated with the sultans, and plainly ahistoric in writing of Hardam Khayalis
dargah, the site of the saint. How do we begin to understand this difference? One of
my interlocutors at another sacred ruin in Delhi suggested a possibility.
Epistemological Aporia: Pir Ghaib
The structure that is known as Pir Ghaib is all that remains of a fourteenth century
hunting lodge built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq. It stands on the crest of the hilly Ridge,
Bashiruddin Ahmad, Waqiat Dar al Hukumat Dehli, Vol. 3, p. 149.
ibid., pp. 15152.
19
Lewis, Delhis Historical Villages, p. 40.
17
18

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and would have been to the north west of the city of Firozabad. Today, it stands
within the residential quarters of the Hindu Rao Hospital, and despite now being
surrounded by buildings on three sides it still gives commanding views over much
of North and West Delhi. The name of this place given in the chronicles becomes
immediately understandable from atop the roof of the buildingKushk-i Jahn
Num, The Palace of World Viewing. In the early-nineteenth century, it was used
as a measuring base for the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, which left a
mysterious cylindrical hole in the roof.20 Since at least the early 1820s, when it is
mentioned in passing in Mirza Sangin Begs Sair al-Manazil 21, and possibly long
before, this has been the venerated shrine of pr ghaib, the invisible saint22. While
the care-takers of the shrine have been from an Alavi Muslim family from the Beri
Wala Bagh locality in the Sabzi Mandi area (and previously from Paharganj) for the
past four or five generations, this shrine has historically been special for the people
of the nearby village of Chandrawal, like the shrine of Hardam Khayali is special
to the people of Begampur. The idea of the Sufi wilyah/wilyat, the territory over
which a particular saint has/had spiritual authority seems to be in operation at these
shrines even if never mentioned explicitly.
Chandrawal is a predominantly Gujjar village, now surrounded by the
post-Partition expansion of Kamala Nagar and Delhi University.23 In Chandrawal
I met Vijindar Khari, the son of the honorary pradhn of the village. Khari is
active in the real estate business and state-level politics in Delhi, and is a
surprisingly thoughtful and eloquent man. When I asked him about the history
of Pir Ghaib, he seemed perplexed to begin with. The history is written on the
board in front of the building24, he said. Have you read it, he asked me. What does
it say?
I told him that I knew the history written on the board, that this monument was
built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq and that a saint came to inhabit the building and mysteriously vanished while praying, hence the building is now known as Pir Ghaib.
But, I continued, I wanted to know more about the history of the relationship of the
people of Chandrawal to the pir. Khari said that what I was asking was contradictory. There are two different things, he said. One is the history of buildings, how
they are built and who built them, and the ASI deals with that from a conservation
Bashiruddin Ahmad, Waqiat, Vol. 2, pp. 488, 490.
Mirza Sangin Beg, Sair al-Manazil, p. 46 (Persian), p. 191 (Urdu).
22
True to form, in the three full pages Bashiruddin Ahmad writes on the Kushk-i Jahan Numa
(vol. 2, pp. 48790), he spends two lines on the saint, almost incidentally. Here, to the right side adjoining
the stairs, on a 2 foot high platform, there is a solid sepulchre 6 ft 8 in long, 3 ft wide and 1 ft 7 in high
of some elder that people call the dargah of Pir Ghaib. (Bashiruddin Ahmad, Waqiat, vol. 2, 489).
23
Amin, Past Remains.
24
There are sandstone informational slabs erected by the Archaeological Survey close to all the
major protected monuments in Delhi. The slabs are inscribed primarily in English, and usually full of
mind-numbing architectural detail rather than local stories or beliefs about the structures. On the slab
at Pir Ghaib, the legend of the saint is also briefly narrated.
20
21

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(saraksha) point of view. Then there is the other thingpeoples mnyat, what
they believe in, the things that happen in their own experience that they could write
about, but then who would believe them?
He then told me about his own experience of the pir. He was about to lose a
finger. It was infected and had turned black and the doctor had suggested amputation, and Vijindar had agreed to it. But that night his father had a dream. The baba
came in his dream and brought out a finger from his jhol (bag) but it was too big
to replace the one on Vijindars hand. The baba addressed Vijindar affectionately
in his fathers dream and brought out another finger but this one did not fit either.
And then he brought out a third finger and this time it fit perfectly. In the morning,
his father told Vijindar that he should not get his finger amputated, because the baba
had come to him in his dream and told him that his sons finger would be saved.
The next day Vijindar went to see a new doctor at a public hospital in Shahdara, in
east Delhi across the river, despite his own misgivings about travelling from the
relatively posh and upmarket VIP North Delhi area to impoverished and dirty
Shahdara. When the doctor met him, he kept working on his finger for half an
hour and Khari did not even notice because the doctor kept talking to him. Within
three changes of dressings (corresponding to the three fingers in the dream), the
doctor cured my finger completely, he said. He held his index finger up. It did not
look like anything had ever happened to it, not the least sign of scarring or discoloration. So this is my experience (tajurbah), he said, and everyone in Chandrawal
and the surrounding areas has similar experiences, and we believe in the baba,
so this is why even the board up there had to include the baba in the history they
chose to tell.
Vijindar Khari sees it as exceptional that Pir Ghaib became part of the historical narrative of Firoz Shah Tughlaqs hunting lodge. This is not only because
he sees peoples experiences as incommensurate with the stuff of history; how
and why buildings were built and who built them. It is also because peoples experiences and beliefs linked to these ruins, including his own, are not about history
as past, but are suffused with the presence of the baba with whom they have
a deep personal bond. By presence, I am trying here to illustrate a form of perception or relationship which is manifestly ahistoricalfor this relationship/perception
is based not on a knowledge of the baba as a historical figure, not as person
turned to past tense narrative; it is based on the intimate presence of the saint
in dream, imagination and reverie, an immanent relationship to the sacred as
opposed to a historical relationship, in which the object of study is irrevocably in
the past.
At Begampur, Hafiz Sahib told me that those who live close to the ruins say
that if you ever lose the way home, the baba comes himself to show you the way.
He is seen like I can be seen sitting here. (Aise dikhte hain jaise main yah baihe
dikht hn). Not only did the image of the baba seem substantial and real to people,
the baba also looked similar to Hafiz Sahib, a grey bearded man, dressed in white,
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marked as a Muslim saint figure.25 Hafiz Sahib told me of an incident one May
afternoon. A l (a hot wind) was blowing, and he was sitting with his eyes closed,
doing tasbh. When he opened his eyes, a lady was standing in front of him, asking,
Bb, did you come to my house to call me?
At Firoz Shah Kotla, where I have done extensive fieldwork since 2007, there are
hundreds of such stories. Firoz Shah Kotla is a fourteenth century palace complex
built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq which is now near the centre of the city. People here
venerate babas who share many characteristics with other saints of Delhi except
that they are not human beings, but jinn. The presence of the babas is felt by the
congregants among the ruins, most characteristically in the raising of gooseflesh,
but also often as the appearance and sudden disappearance of handsome, but
indistinct white-clad figures. The babas also appear in peoples dreams, which they
call bashrat, a word that usually refers to prophetic dreams. One of my Hindu
interlocutors at Firoz Shah Kotla, Mohan Lal, once said to me he had learned the
Musalmn zubn, his highly Persianate theological vocabulary, by listening to
the baba who appeared regularly in his dreams. The appearance of the baba in a
dream or reverie, white-robed, bearded, unmistakably Islamicate, almost invariably
presages the successful resolution of some conflict or crisis for the dreamer. One
time at Firoz Shah Kotla, an employee of the ASI, someone who has been posted
on duty to many of Delhis medieval monuments in rotation told me that in all
the old monuments of Delhi, not just here, in all the forts, (including the Kashmiri
Gate of the seventeenth century city wall of Old Delhi) there are buzurgon ke
sye, the shades of the elders/great ones. You see them not just at night but also in
the day. Then he proceeded to tell me stories of two women workers of the ASI,
who had disrespected the buzurg by urinating inside the forts, and how just before
they were struck by mysterious illnesses as retribution, they had seen the buzurg,
dressed in white clothes and wearing white turbans. But, he said, if you do not
disrespect them, by serving at the sites, there is no harm to anyone. ASI officials
are happy and prosperous and in no trouble with the courts or the police, and that
in itself is a big thing these days. The buzurg bless those who serve at the forts. All
these fortifications and palaces, places of war and soldiery and royal courts, now
under the jurisdiction of the secular ASI, are haunted by the images, by the mostly
beneficial presence of Muslim holy figures.

25
Katherine Ewing writes, The typical Pir is readily recognizable: he is middle-aged or older; he
has silver or white hair and a neatly trimmed beard; he dresses completely in white and wears a white
turban as well The importance of the detail of the appearance as part of the embodiment of the concept
of the Pir (saint) is revealed in the dreams of the followers and others, in which the narrator knows he
has dreamed of a saint because of the appearance of the stranger in his dream. Ewing, The Sufi as
Saint, Curer, and Exorcist in Modern Pakistan, p. 107.

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Ontological Aporia: Ibn Arabi and the World of the Imagination


How do we begin to understand these dreams and visions? To understand these
dreams and visions, I turned to the work and legacy of the Andalusian mystic
and philosopher Ibn Arabi, (11651240; who Shaikh Hasan Tahir a.k.a. Hardam
Khayali Baba, was reading from the days of his youth) and his emphasis on the
imagination as both a form and medium of knowledge. I turned to Ibn Arabi because
rather than turning to psychoanalysis, I wanted to understand these dreams and
visions through an understanding native to the Islamicate tradition.
William Chittick did a comprehensive survey of Arabic, Persian and Urdu
manuscript sources in various libraries in India to come to the conclusion that,
The received wisdom is correct in telling us that Ibn al-Arab was widely known
in the subcontinent.26 However, Chittick adds a caveat
By investigating theoretical works that tend by their nature towards an elite rather
than a popular expression of Sufi teachings, I could make little attempt to judge
the extent to which the this influence may have filtered down to the Muslim
masses who made up the bulk of the membership of the Sufi ordersa thorough
assessment of Ibn al-Arabs influence must take into account a wide variety
of sources, including what he calls second-rate literature, meaning elementary
manuals for beginners, regional chronicles, collections of qasaid used in Sufi
meetings, the mawalids composed in honour of local saints, and the ijazas and
the silsilas of local shaykhsMy general impression was that Urdu plays an
important role in disseminating Ibn al-Arabs teachings on the more popular
level through poetry...27
While I am not aware of any thorough assessment of Ibn Arabis influence
through a perusal of the secondary literature, I was struck, when beginning to read
Ibn Arabi for the first time, of how much of the work was, in a sense, already
familiar to me, through my limited exposure to the corpus of qawwal and Urdu
poetry. For example
Usk mukh ik jot hai, ghngha hai sansr
Ghngha me voh chup gay mukh par cal r28
His face is a light, and the world a veil.
He has hidden in the veil, drawing its edge across his face.
Chittick, The Influence of Ibn al-Arabi,p. 221.
Ibid., p. 219.
28
These lines are sung by Abida Parveen in the album Raqs e Bismil (2001). They serve as a prelude
to a song Zahid Ne, whose lyrics are by the poet Asghar Gondvi, but I am unaware of the author of
these lines.
26
27

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Here, in simple Indic imagery (the bridal veil/ ghngha) and language, we
have Ibn Arabis concept of existence being a set of veils or secondary causes
between God and our comprehension of God as the prime causes of existence.29
I could come up with innumerable other examples, but just two more for now
When we are stuck at a traffic light behind a car with an image of Sai Baba (a
Muslim faqir now treated as a Hindu deity) on the back window and Sabk Mlik
Ek (Everyones Lord is One) is written underneath it, are we not we face to face, in
however bizarrely transmitted and distorted a fashion, with the doctrine of wadat
al-wujd, the unity of all beings, closely associated with Ibn Arabi? When sitting
in the same car, at the same traffic light, listening to Jagjit Singh singing Ghalib
on the CD player
te hain ghaib se yih maz amin khayl men
Ghlib arr-e khmah nav-e sarosh hai
They come into the mind, these themes, from the invisible world
Ghalib, the scratching of the pen is the voice of an angel30
are we not we confronted with the idea, first comprehensively expounded by
Ibn Arabi, of an autonomous realm of the Imagination, outside of the psyche of
the author, from which poetic images and inspiration come?
Muzaffar Alam, in his Languages of Political Islam, has shown how the influence of Ibn Arabi was a dominant element in the political theology, as it were,
of both Muslim rule and intellectual and spiritual life for several centuries, well
into the nineteenth century. Based on my fieldwork experience, I would say that
Ibn Arabis influence continues to be pervasive in Islamicate (as opposed to
exclusively Islamic) South Asianot only in the rarefied realms of theology and
philosophy but in the realm of everyday life, in as much as everyday life was, and
continues to be, deeply affected by theology and philosophy. Here, I am arguing
not for a genealogy of discursive transmission of Sufi ideas (the theoretical works
that Chittick tracked down, for example) but rather for a tradition of valuation of
the imaginal, of seeing dreams and visions as their own inherently meaningful
form of knowledge.
Khayl, or imagination, was central to the thought and mysticism of Ibn Arabi.
According to William Chittick, Probably the most distinctive characteristic of
Ibn al-Arabis teaching is the stress he places upon imagination[he gives]
imagination a grounding in objective reality.31 The world of images is not purely
For a more detailed explanation, see Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge, pp. 4445.
In Frances Pritchetts online schematisation of Ghalibs divan, this is sher 13 of Ghazal 169. I
have used her translation of the ghazal, with only a minor change. See http://www.columbia.edu/itc/
mealac/pritchett/00ghalib/169/169_13.html?
31
Chittick, Imaginal Worlds, p. 11.
29
30

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subjective, but an objective reality out there, from which images and inspiration
are available, as for example in Ghalibs sher. This world belongs to the realm
of the ghaib, invisible to our usual senses, but which we can perceive through the
inward, spiritual faculty called by such names as insight (bashr), unveiling
(kashf ), and tasting (dhawq or zauq).32 In (not just) Islamic understanding, it is
the heart (qalb) that is the organ for these higher senses. According to Chittick,
Ibn Arabis, use of Khayl accords with its everyday meaning, which is closer
to image than imagination. It was employed to designate mirror images, shadows,
scarecrows, and everything that appears in dreams and visions33
I do not wish to dwell on Ibn Arabis cosmology of the imagination, as has
been done so productively by William Chittick and Henry Corbin, among others.
Rather, I want to explore briefly the possibilities that the idea of the imagination as
something external to the subjectrather than being purely subjective and internalopens up to us. In this, I am deeply influenced by sociologist Avery Gordons
radical reworking of Freuds ideas about the unconscious, the part(s) of our selves
that, according to Western psychology, are said to manifest in dreams and visions.
Gordon rejects the Freudian psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious as being
purely subjective, the individuals repression of socially unacceptable (often
primitive) wishes and ideas, traumatic memories and painful emotions that are
entirely subjective. She also draws attention to Freuds invention of the idea of the
unconscious
the Freudian unconscious he is inventing, the self-contained closed system,
inaccessible to worldly consciousness, accessible only to a certain kind of analysis competent in treating its symptoms Freuds science will try, once and for
all, to rid itself of all the vestiges of animism by making all the spirits or the
hauntings come from the unconscious, from inside the troubled individual, an
individual, we might note, who had become increasingly taken with the animation of the commodity world Freud will try to demystify our holdover beliefs
in the power of the world at large, hoping to convince us that everything that
seems to be coming at us from outside is really coming from this now shrunken
inside, tormented by its own immortality.34
Against the Freudian idea of the unconscious, Gordon then poses the idea of the
social unconscious, an unconscious that is not a closed, self-contained system, but
is formed by the constant interaction of the subject with the world around her
The unconscious is inconceivable outside of the worldly relations that structure
the encounter between myself and another and that bring that encounter inside
Chittick, Imaginal Worlds, p. 56.
Chittick, Ibn Arabi.
34
Gordon, Ghostly Matters, pp. 4749.
32
33

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as my own otherness I cannot explain without knowing something of the life


world from which the other camethe unconscious derives its characteristic
force from its role as the place where all the others out there in the world and
their life come inside me and unhinge my sense of self as they make me what
I am, as they live within me35
Having redefined the unconscious, Gordon proceeds to redefine the Freudian
notion of the Uncanny, which she sees not as the structure of feeling arising out
of being reminded of our own repressed impulses, but rather, Uncanny experiences are where the unconscious rejoins its animistic and social roots, where we
are reminded that what lies between society and psyche is hardly an inert empty
space.36 The Uncanny is the return, in psychoanalytic terms, of what the concept
of the Unconscious represses: the reality of being haunted by worldly contacts.37
Rather than trying to explain and elaborate on Gordons theories, I turn now
to a story of dreams and visions and their relationship to everyday life told to me
by Mohan Lal, who has been coming to Firoz Shah Kotla for over two decades. I
turn to these stories because they illustrate both the valuation and the persistence
of the imaginal as an integral part of the texture of everyday life in Delhi, and the
social nature of the uncanny, the engagement with others at the heart of the self
made strange, theorised by Gordon.
Mohan Lal lives in East Delhi, across the river, but was born in a historic suburb
of Shahjahanabad/Old Delhiin Paharganj, in the locality of Nabi Karim, in an
area not far from the fourteenth century shrine of Qadam Sharif. His wifes family
is from Sitaram Bazar in Old Delhi. His father-in-law was a devotee of Firoz Shah
Kotla, and Manohar Lal started coming to Firoz Shah Kotla in a time of financial
trouble, shortly after his father in laws death, when he had a series of dreams.
On a Wednesday night/Thursday morning, at a quarter to five in the morning, just
before the azn from the nearby mosque, he had a visionary dream, in which the
baba appeared to him and said, Son, come to us in the Kotla, we will see about
your matter. Some Mull J (Muslim preacher, a term often used disparagingly by
both Hindus and Sufi-inclined Muslims) is speaking some nonsense, Mohan Lal
thought, and ignored the dream. He ignored the same dream a second time as well.
The third time, the baba appeared in his dream, very, very angry. I have never seen
anyone as thick and shameless as you, the baba said to him in his dream. I have
been telling you to come to Kotla; that I will solve your problems, but you do not
come. This time Mohan Lal did not ignore the dream. He woke up and washed his
face and when he came back to bed, the dawn azn had begun, and his wife was
awake. He told his wife about the dreams he had been having, every Wednesday
night, in which an old Mulla, wearing a cap and with his back bent with age, kept
Ibid., pp. 4748.
Ibid., p. 49.
37
Ibid., p. 55.
35
36

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telling him to come to the Kotla, that he would solve his problems. As soon as
she heard this, his wife told him that this was their baba of the Kotla, and he was
showing his kindness to Manohar Lal, so why did he not go?
Mohan Lals fortunes improved after he started visiting Firoz Shah Kotla regularly. Then Mohan Lal told me the story of the time his son died and was brought
back to life. It was his youngest son, who was only five or six years old at the time.
As he was still very young, he still slept between his parents in their cramped apartment. Very early one morning, before dawn, Mohan Lals wife shook him awake.
Piyush had white foam on his mouth, and his eyes had rolled up into his head.
When Mohan Lal picked him up in his arms, he found that the child had emptied his
bowels, and he folded like cloth in his fathers arms. He was dead, Mohan Lal said,
finished. They had gone to bed on a Wednesday night, so it was Thursday now, the
babas day.38 He died on your day, Baba, you are responsible for this, Mohan Lal
screamed and cried. I will no longer believe in you or serve you. Mohan Lal was in
shock and could barely stand anymore. He woke up his younger brother, who lived
next door, and the brother took Piyushs body from him to take it to GTB Hospital,
the nearest big government hospital. They had no conveyance at the time, so the
brother stopped two policemen on patrol on a scooter, and one of them dropped
the brother, holding Piyush in his arms, to the gate of the hospital. This is what the
brother sawas they stopped at the gate an angel (farisht) descended from the
air, hovering atop the gate. Black blanket, a fakr kaor (a faqirs begging bowl)
and a stick. The figure extended his hand, and a noose of light came out and caught
the boy, and he started breathing. When Mohan Lal got to the hospital, Piyush
was sitting up in bed as if nothing had happened, laughing at his fatherPapa, I
am fine, nothings wrong with me, why did we come to the hospital? Mohan Lal
started crying. His son had died, he had seen and carried his lifeless body, and here
he was, alive again. In the morning, the doctor discharged him, and when they
were on their way back from the hospital, his brother told Mohan Lal what he had
seen at the hospital gate that night. For over a month after this, the young child
performed the gestures of wu/waz , the ablutions that Muslims perform before
prayer. And ever since then, the child, now a young man, has had a preference for
eating chicken, traditionally associated with Muslims, rather than goat (sacrificed
to the goddess Kali, and traditionally eaten by Hindus).
I have recounted Mohan Lals story here in some detail not because it is exceptional, but because it is particularly representative of the stories I heard at Firoz Shah
Kotla, and other such dargah sites in Delhi, distinguished only by its eloquence.
Many of the elements in his story are those found in other stories told of the baba.
First, the baba serves as a loving father-figure (in this case, standing in for the
absent father in law). Second, the image and presence of the baba are deeply linked
38
Jummerat, Thursday evening, the eve of the Jummah, the day of congregational midday prayers,
is traditionally the day to visit the graves of saints.

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to Islam. The baba appears in a dream, bearded like a Mulla, always just before
the call to prayer for the fajr (dawn) namz. Mohan Lal describes these dreams as
bashrat, a specifically Islamic term for a dream that brings good tidings. When
his child gets better after his near-death experience, he performs the bodily gestures
of preparing for Muslim congregational prayer every time he washes, and starts
eating like a Muslim, in his preference for chicken over goat. And the figure that
Mohan Lals brother saw bringing his nephew back to life wore a black blanket,
just like the Prophet Muhammad, known affectionately as Kl Kambl Wle.39
When he was telling me his story, a very cursory and abbreviated version of
which I have reproduced above, Mohan Lal asked me rhetorically, but not without
an undertow of wonder in his voice, do people of our (Hindu) mazhab (religion) do
waj? The wonder was in what he left unstated. If we do not do those bodily gestures in our religion, then how did my son know how to do them after his recovery?
Less uncannily, but with no less of a sense of wonder, we could ask how is it, that
despite not doing these things in our mazhab, non-Muslims at Firoz Shah Kotla,
like Mohan Lal, often have very Islamicate bodily deportments40 while praying to
the babas, and how their speech, and their letters written to the babas, are replete
with Islamic theology and linguistic elements. How do we understand the power
to heal misfortune and affliction that these Muslim figures present in dreams and
images have for people across confessional divides? How do we understand the presence of gestures and language metonymic of Islam in the practices of non-Muslims?
None of the above makes any sense if we understand Islam solely as a discursive tradition, following Talal Asad. Asad has argued that if one wants to write
an anthropology of Islam, one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of
a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts.41 Asad
formulated his influential idea specifically in opposition to an earlier mode of anthropology, exemplified for him by the work of Clifford Geertz and Ernest Gellner:
Yet for Geertz, as for Gellner, the schematization of Islam as a drama of religiosity expressing power is obtained by omitting indigenous discourses, and by
turning all Islamic behavior into readable gesture.42

39
Muhammad is referred to as the as the Kali Kambli Wale (The One with the Black Blanket) in
Indian Muslim devotional poetry, and songs. The Prophets cloak is also celebrated in the famous
Qasida al-Burda in which the thirteenth century Egyptian Sufi Al-Busiri praises the Prophet, who had
revealed himself to him in a dream, and put his own cloak on Al-Busiris shoulders. Al-Busiri woke up
from this dream able to walk after being crippled by a stroke.
40
Most characteristically, in the way people bring their hands together, cupped along the edges, like
Muslims do for dua, rather than the way one would join hands with both palms together, in front of the
image of a Hindu deity. Non-Muslims also bow towards the qibla, touching their heads to the ground,
in abbreviated versions of the rakat of Muslim ritual prayer.
41
Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, p. 14.
42
Ibid., p. 9.

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Asad, on the other hand, wishes to see the gestures, the bodily practices of
Muslims, as already (and only) legible through the texts that come prior to them
(and of disagreements between texts as to the correct form of practice), through
the discursive tradition that he sees as a field of power and authorisation. While I
find the idea of Islam as tradition valuable and vital, I find Asads idea of Islamic
tradition as solely and primarily discursive, and the explicit hierarchy between
discourse and practice to be limiting. If Islamic traditions are to be understood only
as limited to Muslims (as they are by Asad), and contingent upon the authorised
transmission of discourse in and as a field structured by power, how do we understand the presence of gestures and language metonymic of Islam in the practices
of non-Muslims, who are normatively outside the field of authorised practice and
discursive authority? How do we understand, in other words, the visions of Mohan
Lal, and the bodily gestures of his son performing the gestures of wu/waz when
washing up, in the days after his seemingly miraculous return to life?
While the above questions may be ultimately unanswerable, my experiences
and conversations during fieldwork lead me to suggest thisto understand Islam
as solely a discursive tradition is a limiting move. We need to broaden the idea of
tradition to include dreams and visions, bodily movements and senses, ethical
dispositions, and modes of affect. The contents of this broadened idea of tradition
are not in a subservient relationship to discourse understood to be always prior
and antecedent to them. (Rather, I would suggest, we need to overturn the priority
of discourse, by considering, for example, the dreams and waking-visions of the
Prophet Muhammad himself, without which there would be no Quran, and no
discursive tradition to speak of.) We also need to be open to the idea of the transmission of tradition outside the over-determining structures of power and authority
and (linked to these) identity, and consider other ways in which tradition can be
transmitteddreams and visions, for example.
We do not need to subscribe to Ibn Arabis elaborate cosmology to realise that
being open to dreams and visions as valid forms of knowledge and experience can
change our ways of being and acting in the world. Take Mohan Lal, for example.
When he speaks of his experiences of Muslims outside of the space of Firoz Shah
Kotla, he is full of contempt and vitriol. After all, discursive knowledge of the
history and presence of Islam and Muslims in India has been subject to violent
rewriting and erasures over the past two centuries, so much so that casual, everyday hate-speech against Muslims is a pretty common fact in north India, including
among people like Mohan Lal, non-Muslims who frequent Muslim shrines. But in
his dreams and visions, a Muslim figure, a Mulla who he was initially unwilling to
listen to, brought him counsel and good fortune. The vision of a black blanketed
Muslim figure akin to the Prophet Muhammad brought his son back to life. Through
his dreams, the Musalmn zubn spoken by the baba, not so different perhaps
from the Urdu that he probably heard every day in the streets of Nabi Karim or
in Dilshad Garden but could not acknowledge discursively, publicly as anything
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related to him, becomes an integral part of his theological vocabulary, his way of
understanding his self in relation to the world. Being open to dreams and visions,
thinking that these bring fundamental truths, leaves us open to surprise and wonderment, to possible selves and beliefs and knowledges and actions that we might
not consciously have been open to.
To open ourselves to the idea of Islam as a visionary tradition is to broaden both
the content of the tradition and its receivers. It is to open ourselves to the idea of
tradition (and hence of history) not just as a linear continuum, but inclusive of all the
breaks and the strange byways of inspiration, all the ways in which the unconscious
work of dreams confounds and challenges the assumptions of our waking selves. It
is to open our idea of tradition to a deep interpellation with the trance like quality
of everyday life, and the everyday as the site of engagement with the life of the
other43in other words, to a conception of history in which dreams and the invisible, so much a part of everyday Islamicate life, are given their proper due.44 It is
to open ourselves to the possibility of disciplines that allow, in Foucaults words,
The double articulation of the history of individuals upon the unconscious of culture, and of the historicity of those cultures upon the unconscious of individuals.45
The Hearts Two Eyes
He [Ibn Arab] frequently criticizes philosophers and theologians for their
failure to acknowledge its [the imaginations] cognitive significance. In his
view, aql or reason, a word that derives from the same root as iql, fetter, can
only delimit, define, and analyze... According to Ibn Arab, the heart has two
eyes, reason and imagination, and the dominance of either distorts perception
and awareness. The rational path of philosophers and theologians needs to be
complemented by the mystical intuition of the Sufis, the unveiling (kashf) that
allows for imaginalnot imaginaryvision...
William Chittick46
Are there experiences of the past that cannot be captured by the methods of the
discipline, or which at least show the limits of the discipline?
Dipesh Chakrabarty47
43
Here I am drawing my inspiration from the recent work of anthropologists Das (Life and Words;
Engaging the Life of the Other) and Khan (Of Children and Jinn). Their work on urban life in South
Asia is marked by a sense of the everyday as a site of trance, illusion and danger. Through their work
one also gets a sense of dreams and visions being an integral part of the work of everyday life, especially
in negotiating the dangers and attractions of sectarian and religious others.
44
See also Aquil, Sufism, Culture and Politics and Digby, The Dreams and Reminiscences of Dattu
Sarwani.
45
Foucault, The Order of Things, p. 79.
46
Chittick, Ibn Arabi.
47
Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, p. 107.

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In Ibn Arabis view, rational and imaginal knowledges were not opposed to
one another, but complementary. Each of these ways of knowing would be incomplete without the other. On the other hand, as Dipesh Chakrabarty writes, the
discipline of history has its own limits, and these are defined by rationality and
narrative possibilities
Any account of the past can be absorbed intothe mainstream of historical
discourse so long as two questions are answered in the affirmative: Can the story
be told/crafted? And does it allow for a rationally defensible point of view or
position from which to tell the story?48
But the dreams and visions of saints amidst these ruins, the primary experiential
modes through which devotees access these saints, allow neither for rationality
nor for narrative. Is this why Bashiruddin Ahmad, an inheritor both of the modern
British traditions of writing history and of Islamic philosophy, refrained from
writing history when it came to the saints among the ruins, present in dreams and
images to the simple believers who flock to their shrines? Knowing perhaps that
a rational, historical investigation into the true antecedents and origins of the saint
was in a sense antithetical to their imaginal, presence for their believers? The mode
in which he writes around (as opposed to about) the dargahs present among these
ruins is in the self-consciously disenchanted mode of the positivist historian, full of
measurements and proofs and sources and dates. This is, however, not a mode that
predominates in his writing, as it does in Syed Ahmad Khans writings on Delhi.
Even Bashiruddin Ahmads driest, most factual accounts are usually preceded by
a poetic epigraph, often mystical, to set the mood for the readers reception of
the monument. His accounts of known saints, such as Nizamuddin Auliya, have
separate sections on the kashf o karmat (visions and miracles) of the saint.49
Bashiruddin Ahmads text, while being in many ways similar to the first edition
of Syed Ahmad Khans Asar al-Sanadid (and self-consciously trying to update and
replace the latter) is in many ways a very different text. Written in an early twentieth century Delhi still haunted by the violence and destruction of 1857, and aware
of a world changing all too suddenly with the building of a new capital at Delhi,
Bashiruddin Ahmads text privileges the imagination at many points, as the only
way to connect to the lost Mughal past. Consider his writing about Qudsia Bagh,
a Mughal garden to the north of Kashmiri Gate which was devastated during the
Siege of Delhi in 1857, and by British town planning afterwards.
Now it is not a garden, it would be more appropriate to call it a jungle. No
big building has survived, nor has any flowerbed. Now there is no palace and
no pavilion. Yes, but in some places there are mounds of the rubble of broken
48
49

Ibid., p. 98.
Bashiruddin Ahmad, Waqiat, vol. 2, pp. 77276.

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buildings. Look at them and from them assume that here there was a palace
and there a paviliona memory of past magnificence and greatness and adornmentthe broken remains are competing with the destructive and annihilating
speed of this age and by showing their example that is this desolation was once
revelry. Here greenery would ripple. Here canals would run. Here fountains
would splash. Here there were parties and feasts. What you today call piles of
rubble were magnificent palaces arrayed with delicately worked goods. In these
kings and their consorts, princes and princesses and their entire retinue used
to wander. This piece of ground that you are crushing with your feet has once
kissed the feet of the EmperorWhere the ground today is being irrigated with
the piss of cattle, once whole bottles of the fragrance of rose and screwpine were
emptied. In short, what was once the place of luxury and magnificence, now that
very same place is a house of grief and a picture book for shedding tears.50
Bashiruddin Ahmad and his contemporaries lived in a world in which the landscapes of memory were irretrievably altered. One had to imagine, from piles of
rubble, the grandeur of former palaces. Much of the urban fabric of the Old City
had been destroyed or altered beyond recognition. Many of the storytellers and
memory-keepers of the city had either died in the British retaking of the city or fled,
never to return. Tens of thousands of books and documents had been destroyed.
Memory was already a pale and tenuous ghost barely lingering in the city when the
British building of the new capital at Delhi brought in further destruction, further
erasures to this already fragile and ghostly landscape of memory.
The road that goes from Delhi to Nizamuddin, the measure of which is about
four miles; on both sides of it, far on each side, even the smallest bits of land are
now empty of graves, towers, mosques, homes, wells. The plain on the right side
was cleared on behalf of the GIP [Great Indian Penisular] Railway and Raisina
[New Delhi]. That leaves the plain on the left side, in which there is the Khas
Mahal, the Sarai of Azimganj, etcetera, it is in the same conditionthat till Arab
Sarai and Humayuns Tomb, actually it should be said that till where the eye
travelsan absolutely clean, flattened plain can be seen and only one or two
ruins or a broken, fallen dome has remained, if at all. In this flattened plain, the
plough has come in, crops are waving. Where buildings with their heads to the
sky once stood, there is now jungle.51
In his Introduction to the book(s), Bashiruddin Ahmad explicitly states that he
wishes to leave a record of these buildings because they are the only way to connect
to the people of the lost (that is, pre-colonial) past

50
51

Ibid., pp. 46667.


Ibid., p. 671.

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So in this transient world (lam-i fn) if there is any permanence to anyones


memory its face is precisely the reconstruction of these buildings, mosques
and graves etc. which are mentioned in this book and thanks to which till now
their dear names are engraved as if on stone on our hearts and minds, and by
repeatedly seeing which we gain perspective on the past, and whose seductive
views are the whip to our negligence and from our mouths the sounds of praise
[for the past] grow loud and strong.
Dsh b aql dar sukhan bdam
Kashf shd bar dilam shl cunad
Guftam a myih hamah dnish
Dram al-aq bat sawl cunad52
Last night I was conversing with my intellect;
A few covers were uncovered to my heart.
I said, Source of all wisdom!
In truth, I have a few questions for you53
The punctuation of Bashiruddin Ahmads prose by this ghazal is telling in
its bringing together of elements usually held apart, such as the intellect and the
heart. The deployment of a couplet which uses the word kashf, the unveiling
that allows for imaginal vision among the Sufis, to punctuate and emphasise
Bashiruddin Ahmads reasons for writing what is supposedly a rational antiquarian
history is significant. It tells us that in post-1857 Delhi, imaginal vision, which had
hitherto largely been restricted to essentially theological contexts (visions of ones
pir, visions of God), was now being deployed in what we could consider historical
contexts as well. Or, to put it another way, the spiritual vision which had earlier
only turned to God now also gazed upon the pre-colonial ruins of Delhi. The imaginal was privileged as the only way to connect to a past now irretrievably lost to
the usual forms of memory. Bashiruddin Ahmad was not alone in this. There are
many examples from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Delhi, when
those attempting to write about 1857 or pre-1857 Delhi show a particularly vexed
relationship to discourse and a privileging of imaginal vision. As a prelude to his
vivid description of the happenings of the Phlwlo k Sair (The Procession of
Flower sellers, one of the most prominent fairs/festivals of late Mughal Delhi)
Faratullah Beg writes

Bashiruddin Ahmad, Waqi at, Vol. 2, p. 7. The paraphrasing from the Introduction is from pp. 37.
I am grateful to Pasha Mohamad Khan and Manan Ahmed for help with translating the Persian
shers.
52

53

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In the age of Bahadur Shah it [the fair] had such vigour that it was outside [the
powers of] description. If you want to see what the Procession of Flower Sellers
was like in that time, then close your eyes and I will show you.54
It is a puzzling request to be asked to close the eyes in the very act of reading.
Of course, one could argue that in a city with high level of illiteracy and a strong
oral tradition, much of the work was meant to be read out rather than read. But
this momentary demand for the blindness of the reader (or listener) is prefaced
by the statement that discursive description (bayn) is incapable of capturing
what the Phlwlo k Sair was like, and the reader/listener needs to exercise the
gift of imagination, of insight rather than sight, without which merely reading (or
hearing) the text would be ineffectual.
In one of his essays lamenting a vanished Delhi, Rashid ul-Khairi wrote a paean
the persistence of memory even within a landscape of ruins, where the eye that
merely sees the apparent (chashm-i hir bn) has nothing to hold its gaze.
The garden of love has been ruined and the colorful flowers of civility and
politeness have burned to ashes but Shahjahanabad still hides within its breast
those bones which in the countries of life made flow such rivers of humanity that
they irrigated the world. When finding some free time from the apparent dignity
of the Abode of Government [British New Delhi] the traveler enters these ruins
where he is greeted as a guest by the cooing of the dove and the silence of the
fruitless trees, then first of all the grief of the ruin shakes hands with him, gusts
of sorrow-fated wind embrace him. And those few scattered and broken bricks
that still identify the graves of the praise-worthy dead call out their welcome
at his reception. There is nothing here to relieve the eye that sees appearances.
Those eyes are needed here which see with contemplation and read with silence.
Every leaf of this jungle, every brick of these graves, every atom of this dust is
a book, a history, a lesson. This is not a meeting of the living, but a gathering
of those who once shone in life with the radiance of the full moon.55
In the aftermath of destruction, the past becomes present for Rashid ul-Khairi
among its ruins, through the inner eye, the eye of the imagination. He was known
as muavir-i gham, the painter of sorrow, and he turned his grief at the destruction
of Delhis lifeworlds into a nostalgic theory of knowledgea way of making the
lost past present to oneself by standing amongst its ruins.
The privileging of imaginal vision amidst the ruins of post-1857 Delhi did not
happen only among the literati of Delhi. After both 1857 and the end of Emergency
in 1977, we have the growing veneration of saints among fourteenth century ruins
(Pir Ghaib and Firoz Shah Kotla respectively), and the presence of these saints
54
55

Baig, Bahadur Shah aur Phul Walon ki Sair, p. 8.


Rashid ul-Khairi, Dilli ki Akhri Bahar, pp. 6263.

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in dreams and visions. I believe that the growth of an imaginal relationship with
the pre-colonial past (as embodied by the ruins) is not just (in common with the
texts of the literati) a counter to the disruption of the usual modes and locations of
memory-work, but also the posing of a certain moral vision56 of the past against the
injustices and cruelties of the present. The saints are the imaginal form (or if you
prefer, the embodiment) of this moral vision that becomes increasingly important
with the exponential growth of violence that marks the relationship of the poor
to the colonial and post-colonial state. This moral vision of the past becomes
anchored to medieval Islamic ruins because of their link to a certain normative
idea of justice linked to a particular historical experience of the presence of Islam
in India. I will first explore a possible genealogy of this moral vision, and then turn
to the specific moments and sites of the emergence of this vision in the aftermath
of trauma and disruption.
Moral Vision: The Afterlives of Wahdat-ul-Wujud
The first time I asked Hafiz Sahib about Bijay Mandal, he said that this is a kacahr,
an adlat (an office, a court of justice), pr Dill k adlat (a court of justice for all
of Delhi). In this characterisation as a court of justice, this place is similar to other
sacralised medieval ruins in Delhi linked to pir babasall of which are considered
courts of justice. This is also a characterisation shared with other dargahs and
mazars across the subcontinent, as they are part of a larger ritual vocabulary that
Carla Bellamy refers to as dargah culture, the unique culture of shrines identified
as Muslim holy places, which (unlike mosques) are open to non-Muslims for
prayer and supplication. Such shrines are usually (but not always) built around the
grave of a Muslim holy man, revered by Muslims and Hindus. Justice, in Bellamys
analysis, is central to the understanding of the ritual and efficacy of Muslim holy
places. As her work on the shrine of Husain Tekri Sharif shows, the legitimacy
of Muslim shrines continues to derive from their use of court symbols and legal
language; pilgrims (non-Muslim and Muslim) are still healed in the modalities of
justice, by bearing witness to what has been done to them, and their testimony is
witnessed by both fellow victims and saints; and dargahs continue to offer pilgrims
a means to seek justice and judgement with real world consequences.57
This unique culture is linked to what Muzaffar Alam has called the Sufi intervention in the politics of the pre-modern Indian Muslim states.58 To radically simplify
Alams thesis, the Islamic polities of pre-modern India dealt with the problem
of having a largely non-Muslim population by following political theory which
56
Here I draw inspiration from Ashis Nandys idea of mythology as remembering a moral past.
Mythologization is also moralization; it involves a refusal to separate the remembered past from its
ethical meaning in the present (Nandy, Historys Forgotten Doubles, p. 47).
57
Bellamy, The Powerful Ephemeral.
58
Alam, Languages.

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broadened the scope of what was understood as sharia to be more expansive


than legalist Islamic law, and thus being inclusive of the laws and life ways of
other communities. This political theory came out of the philosophy of the unity
of all beings (wadat al-wujd), a philosophy usually traced back to Ibn Arab;
and the Sufis who believed and practiced this doctrine (which made them stand in
opposition to narrower definitions of Islam) also made a deliberate intervention
in politics from the thirteenth century onwards, giving an ethical direction to the
state, orienting it to a justice beyond the narrowly legalist definition of sharia.
Alams thesis is the most elegant historical explanation for why the ritual and built
forms of dargahs are so similar to those of pre-modern royal courts, and why, as
Bellamy notes, the healing power of dargahs is (still) linked to ideas of justice
and judgement, even for non-Muslims. An anecdote reproduced by Muzaffar Alam
from the Ahlq-i Jahngr, a treatise on ethics for rulers written in the time of the
seventeenth century Mughal emperor Jahnagir, illustrates this perfectly:
Dular, the eunuch, the kim (governor) of Panipat, had imprisoned a Hindu
on the pretext of a crime then released him on payment of a huge sum. But the
kim...pressed for more money. The Hindu then fled and took shelter in the
hospice of the Shaikh [Sharaf al-Din]. When Dular heard about this, he insisted
that the shaikh hand over the fugitive and threatened him with dire consequences
... The shaikh did not budge. Subsequently, the kim decided to ride to the hospice. But no sooner did he enter the threshold of the hospice that the kim was
thrown from his horses back...and instantly killed....The shaikh did not touch
him; he had simply hit the wall with his prayer carpet when he noticed Dular
entering...And then he wrote to the Sultan: Brother Ala al- Din Khalji, keeper
(shana) of Delhi territory, accept greetings from Sharaf of Panipat, and then
note that I have slapped Dular and sent him up to the sky. He had turned insane
and had begun giving trouble to the people of God. Send another person here as
soon as you get this letter or else the shana of Delhi will also be dismissed.59
The khanqahs and dargahs of the Sufis were,60 and continue to be, open to
everyone irrespective of their faith or their caste. One of the recurrent refrains I
hear from non-Muslims at Firoz Shah Kotla about the babas is that despite being
Muslim, Yih Hind Musalmn ka farak (farq) nahn dekhte, sab se muhabbat karte
hain (They do not discriminate between Hindus and Muslims, they love everybody). In the malft (collections of sayings) of the early Chishti saints, there
is often mention of Tantric Jogis, and of spiritual competitions with them, which
Ibid. pp. 7374.
This is a broad generalisation, but the khanqahs of the Chishtiyya tariqa were certainly open
to non-Muslims from at least the early-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, following the evidence of
the malfuzat literature. See Digby, Wonder Tales of South Asia, pp. 22133, and Siddiqui, The Early
Chisti Dargahs.
59
60

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the Jogis would invariably lose.61 While much has been written about these spiritual competitions and their significance, little has been said about the grounds of
hospitality on which these competitions were possible. In many of the stories these
encounters take place in the khanqah of the Sufi. Even those with whom the Sufis
had hostile, competitive relationships (and even this hostility was characterised by
an intimacy with and knowledge of the Other) were welcome in their khanqahs.
It is apt that the epithet of the pre-eminent Sufi of the sub-continent, Muinuddin
Chishti of Ajmer (d. 1230), is Gharb Nawz, one who is hospitable to strangers.
And to date, dargahs remain places where those who are estrangedfrom their
families, from their communities, from themselvescome to find succour, and
always find a welcome.
In everyday Hindi and Urdu, gharb has shifted away from the multiplicity of
its meanings in Arabic and Persian and come to mean just poor. The word has
literally become impoverished of its meanings. The stranger, the foreigner, the
wanderer, the eccentric, all the gharb welcome to the dargah of Gharib Nawaz,
have all become normalised to the poor. Meanwhile Khayl has shifted in meanings too, and gained rather than losing. Khayl, while still referring to thought and
imagination, now also refers to thoughtfulness, to taking care, khayl rakhn. How
do we understand this shift?
In The Languages of Political Islam, Muzaffar Alam shares the detailed biography of Shah Abd al-Razzaq Bansawi, a Sufi from Avadh in the late seventeenth
and early eighteenth centuries.62 Bansawi was renowned for his mystic visions,
and for his active engagement with Hindu religious figures, many who were in
relations of discipleship to him. In his visions, Bansawi saw the Lord manifested
as the Hindu deities Rama and Krishna, and could bless others with these visions.63
Such a vision was very much in keeping with the tradition of Ibn Arab himself
who had visions of all the prophets before Muhammad. Within a wujud (follower
of wadat al-wujd) strand of Indian Muslim thought, Rama and Krishna would
be considered pre-Islamic prophets sent among the Hindus.
In Ibn Arabis terms, the cultivation of the imagination allows the mystic, the
Sufi, to see God in all his manifestations. The oft quoted poem from Ibn Arabis
Tarjumn al-Ashwq (The Interpreter of Desires) illustrates this perfectly
My heart can take on
any form:
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,

Digby, Wonder Tales, pp. 2233.


Alam, Languages, pp. 98114.
63
Ibid., pp. 108109.
61
62

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Kaba for the circling pilgrim,


the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Quran.64
It is the imagination then, khayl , which makes the mystic aware that God is
the root of all diversity in the cosmos, and everyone, irrespective of the diversity
of their religious paths, is deserving of his mercy. It is the imagination then, that
underlies and precedes the ethics65 which make the sufi stand up for justice beyond
the shara, and makes the dargah the space of refuge and succour even for those
who are strangers to Islam.
Hardam Khayali means one who imagines with every breath. But it can also
mean, in the sense that Hafiz Sahab first gave to me, one who takes care with every
breath. It is the history of Sufism in India, and its link to an idea of impartial justice,
that brings together the visionary and pastoral functions of the pir, that expands the
meaning of khayl to khayl rakhn. It is this history that is made present through
the image of the pir. Whether Hardam Khayali is merely an imaginary name or
whether it has some real basis, of this we have no information, wrote Bashiruddin
Ahmad. And now his lack of concern with this seems more understandable. For
it is the imagination that both underlies and makes possible the moral vision that
emerges among the ruins of the pre-colonial past in the aftermath of colonial and
post-colonial violence.
Pir Ghaib and Firoz Shah Kotla: The Sacred
as History, The Sacred Against History
In her article on the revolt in Delhi and its afterlife, Nayanjot Lahiri reminds us that,
While the British commemoration of their victory was deliberate, creating as it
were, a palpable landscape of heroism and conquest that can be archaeologically
located, hardly any physical traces of the resistance offered by Delhis residents
exist. A populace that has been brutally suppressed cannot be expected either to
commemorate sites of resistance or to set up memorials.66
The whole of the northern Ridge was made into hallowed ground for visiting
British tourist-pilgrims, full of memorials and inscriptions recounting British
actions and sacrifices during the Siege of Delhi. Pir Ghaib or the Observatory
had been at the epicentre of the fighting during 1857. It was one of the landmark

Sells, Gentle Now Doves of the Thornberry and Moringa Thicket.


A recent ethnography of dreaming in contemporary Cairo explores precisely this question of
imagination and ethics, of dreaming and its relation to ethical self-fashioning. Mittermaier, Dreams
that Matter.
66
Lahiri, Commemorating and Remembering 1857, p. 36.
64
65

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British positions on the Ridge from which rebel-held Delhi was besieged and
bombarded.
Interestingly, it is only after 1857 that we get an account of the weekly native
gathering at Pir Ghaib, and its massive popularity.67 This account of the weekly
gathering at the shrine of pir Ghaib in 1882 was written by the great Urdu writer
Rashid al-Khairi (18681936) in 1933, based on his childhood memories. Writing
fifty years later, in an essay entitled Jahn bd k uj hu samn (The ravaged
picture of a [once] populated world)68, Rashid ul-Khairi is already mourning the
passing of this mel (fair), its fading away from the calendar of the city. But his
account of Pir Ghaib suggests that a defeated and subjugated population had other
ways of connecting to their past and reclaiming a landscape and a history now
ostensibly lost to them. The essay begins
Among the blossoms of Delhi that were uprooted along with the passing of
Delhiwallahs (the old-time inhabitants of Delhi) was the fair of Pir Ghaib, which
Delhiwallahs (have) celebrated for years after the Rebellion. Every Thursday
from 4 oclock people would gather and the people of art and skill would show
off their wonders and get praises.
Rashid al-Khairi then gives a vivid description of the massive crowds that came
up from Shahjahanabad to participate in the mel, and the different activities they
would be engaged in, from wrestling to grilling kababs. Crucially, Rshid al-hair
relates the mel of Pir Ghaib to 1857, and the exile and death of the last Mughal
emperor.
The year 1882 is close to its end. Its been twenty years since the Emperor died,
but time is confronting the emotions of Dilliwallahs with its full force. The
beauty of their faith has not been annihilated yet, they remember their emperor
in moments of happiness and sadness. And even if the lullabies of eternal separation have patted them to sleep and closed their eyes, the scars scorched on the
heart come forth in some fashion or the other from the broken platform of
the dargah the call to prayer would echo in the wildernessAt the time there
was no such thing that would affect hearts, but it would be hard to find a stony
hearted one from whose eyes the tears were not streaming.
Both the story of Chandrawal village, which claims Pir Ghaib as their own
special sacred site, and the story of the hereditary Muslim caretakers of the shrine,
67
We know from Mirza Sangin Begs Sair ul Manazil that a dargah known as Pir Ghaib existed
in the 1820s, corresponding to where we know the structure to be now. But, it does not seem to have
been an important enough site to merit more than a line from him. And in the 1840s and early-1850s,
neither of the two editions of Syed Ahmad Khans Asar al-Sanadid even mention Pir Ghaib or Firoz
Shah Tughlaqs Kushk-i Shikar on the Ridge.
68
Rashid ul Khairi, Dilli Ki Akhri Bahar, pp. 10810.

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a family now living in Beriwala Bagh (a Muslim dominated area in Sabzi Mandi,
just west of Old Delhi), are also linked to 1857. The marble plaque outside the
village chaupl (gathering place) of Chandrawal says
This is the historic chaupl of those who sacrificed their lives and property to
help India gain its Independence during the Independence Movement of 1857
and shocked and awed the English government and had the name of their village
Chandrawal written in gold letters in the history of independence, and of their
freedom fighter descendants.
While the board tries to fit the story of what happened to Chandrawal in 1857
and after into a broader national, heroic history, the oral history I heard from
Vijindar Khari and his father was much less about heroism and much more about
the trauma of the post 1857 British retaliation, much less about the gold letters of
independence and much more about the jn aur ml k balidn mentioned in the
plaque, the sacrifices of life and property. In 1857, the Gujjars of Chandrawal village, among other things, sacked the estate of Thomas Metcalfe, which was built
on their grazing grounds. In retaliation, much more of their land was confiscated
after 1857 for the expansion of the European Civil Lines, and their village was
relocated from near the river to its present location to make way for the Chandrawal
water-works.69
The story of the hereditary caretakers of Pir Ghaib also relates to 1857. In 2006,
I spoke to Rahmat Ali, the then caretaker of Pir Ghaib, and he told me that it was
his grandfather who had started coming to Pir Ghaib on Thursdays in the aftermath
of 1857. Just before the tumult of 1857, a group of Muslim men left Delhi for Haj.
One of them was a man called Ashraf Ali, from Paharganj. Returning after things
had quieted down, on his way back to the suburbs of a devastated city, he came
to Pir Ghaib, and found peace here in the Northern Ridge, in what had been the
epicentre of the fighting during the siege of Delhi. He came back every week after.
He lived to be over a hundred. Twenty-five years after 1857, in Rashid al-Khairis
account, a massive congregation from the old city was gathering at Pir Ghaib, and
being moved to tears by the memory of an emperor who had been lost to them after
the brutal British crushing of the rebellion. While the congregation of Pir Ghaib
is much smaller today, it has continued, and the major proportion of people who
come to Pir Ghaib, and find succour for their problems and ailments, are from a
village that was displaced as a direct consequence of 1857.
When people mourned their vanished (ghyab) king at the dargah of the invisible (ghaib) saint, were they not mourning (and holding on to) ways of being suddenly rendered past? Could it be that in the aftermath of calamity, of life-worlds
destroyed, the medieval walls of Pir Ghaib, located in the heart of the modern
69
For more details on the British remaking of the landscapes north of Delhi after 1857, see Amin,
Past Remains, and Lahiri, Commemorating and Remembering 1857.

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re-consecration of the landscape, became metonymic for all that was lost? And that
it was at this site where the lost past (and the loss of the past) was most tangible,
most materially present, that the presence of the saint allowed for the remaking of
communities, the reaffirmation of life in the present? The vengeful British conquest
of Delhi and the subsequent pillaging and destruction of the city was monstrously
cruel and unjust. The figure of the pir is, as we have seen, deeply linked to justice.
The growing sacredness of Pir Ghaib at the same time as the British remaking of
the laws and landscapes and life-ways of post-1857 Delhi seems to be both ironic
commentary and apotropaic magic.
One of the most striking aspects of contemporary practice at Firoz Shah Kotla
is the deposition of letters. People write letters addressed to the jinns, letters in
which they detail their afflictions and miseries and problems, and ask the baba(s) for
succour, for intercession with God, and deposit these in various niches and alcoves
all over the ruins. There is a very conscious sense here, often spoken aloud, of a
sarkr or government of the jinn. For those who know something about fourteenth
century Delhi, this is a cause for astonishment. For letters addressed to rulers by
the populace play an important part in the history of Tughlaq rule. We know this
from Ibn Batutas accounts of Muhammad bin Tughlaqs court.70 It is eerie to see
the Tughlaq past, and its ideas and forms of justice, come alive in the ruins of a
Tughlaq palace in twenty-first century Delhi, albeit in a transformed fashion.
From oral accounts I have collected of peoples memories of Firoz Shah Kotla
from the 1920s and the 1940s, the place, particularly the mosque, was thought to
be the abode of jinn even back then, so almost a century ago, and possibly even
longer. From documents I have recently looked at in the Delhi State Archives,71
it became clear that there was some kind of venerated mazr at Firoz Shah Kotla,
when the ASI, under Gordon Sanderson, first started conservation work there in
1914. There seems to have been a trickle of people going and praying there in
the 1960s and early-1970s as well. But it was only in 1977, a few months after the
end of the Emergency, that we have the first record of people starting to come here
in the hundreds,72 a number which has since grown to the thousands. This seems
70
We know from Ibn Batuta (Rihla, pp. 84, 94) that on two days a week, Muhammad bin Tughlaq
used to sit personally for an nazar fil Mazalim (the consideration of injustices) in a large open hall.
In this he seems to have been following the exhortations of the eleventh century Persian scholar and
statesman, Nizam al-Mulk TusiIt is absolutely necessary that on two days in the week the king should
sit for the redress of wrongs... to give justice, and listen to the words of his subjects with his own ears,
without any intermediary. It is fitting that some written petitions should also be submitted if they are
comparatively important, and he should give a ruling on each one (Nizam al-Mulk, Siyasat-nama, p.
14). This legal form of direct access and complaint to the king was known as the shikwa, a word which
still carries the connotation of grievance or complaint in modern UrduHindi.
71
CCO, File 166/1914.
72
ASI, File 24/76/77-M (T) [Monument (Tourism) Section]. Popular recollection agrees with the
file in placing the beginnings of the massive popularity of veneration at Firoz Shah Kotla in the months
after the end of the Emergency.

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significant, given how destructive the Emergency was for the Old City and how
many people were displaced from the Old City to resettlement colonies across the
river. Like with Pir Ghaib, the people who come to Firoz Shah Kotla come from
very specific geographical areas. Old/Delhi Shahjahanabad (including Turkman
Gate) and its old suburbs, such as Paharganj, and from Jamn pr (across the river)
in East Delhi. Those who come from East Delhi often have family connections to
the Old City. They were either forcibly removed to the slum colonies far across the
river in the 1960s or 1970s, or moved out of the increasingly congested Old City
to the nearer parts of East Delhi.
While the past becomes present at Firoz Shah Kotla, in forms of letter writing,
in the geographies of its congregation, in the names of jinn73the rituals here are
also a new and unprecedented thing in the life of the city. The letters to the jinn,
while recalling medieval understandings of justice, also gesture to something else.
The letters are often photocopied, as if when applying to a government office
multiple photocopies of the same letter can be found in various niches and alcoves
of the ruins, as if they are applications sent to the different departments of a modern
bureaucracy. The letters are almost always accompanied by clearly legible and
detailed address, and increasingly, with photographs. The desire for justice, even
from the jinns, cannot be fulfilled, in the age of the UID,74 without submitting the
data needed to be recognised as a citizen of the state. There is a telling irony in
the fact that people petition the government of the jinns for justice, while using
the bureaucratic forms and mechanisms of the modern state when, as Emma Tarlo
observes, the poor in Delhi relate to the state principally through the market. Basic
amenities, such as land jobs, electricity, water and paving are things, not provided
but purchased in exchange for votes [and] money.75
Most striking of all, in the practices at Firoz Shah Kotla, is how integral fear is
to them. One of the ritual centres within Firoz Shah Kotla is a dark subterranean
passage under the fourteenth century mosque adjacent to the pillar, where there are
seven vaulted, windowless rooms known as the St Dar. Every Thursday, people
traverse this passage, lit only by candles, and enter each room, turn by turn. The air
is thick with incense and bodies and the echo of murmured voices and the squeaking of bats and the whirring of their wings overhead, and the only light is that from

73
Nanhe Mian is one of the named jinns venerated at Firoz Shah Kotla. The name can be found
both in late-eighteenth century rekhti poetry, Urdu poetry written (mostly) by men in womens voices
and idioms, as well as in late-nineteenth century reformist Urdu literature decrying womens practices
of venerating the jinn. See Argali, F. ed. Rekhti: Urdu ke Namvar Rekhtigo Shairon ke Kalam ka
Mukammal Majmua .
74
In recent years, the Government of India has launched a programme to develop a Unique
Identification Number (UID) card, a unitary form of identification with biometric data that will eliminate
the various diverse kinds of government issued IDs and collate all the data of citizens in one centralised
database. This has led to much consternation among those concerned with civil liberties.
75
Emma Tarlo, Unsettling Memories, p. 11.

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the guttering candles. The people thronging the space become ghostly, appearing
and disappearing spectrally through the thick fog of incense. The incense, after
visiting all seven of the rooms, overwhelms both smell and vision. At the best of
times, even after repeat visits, the experience is unnerving. While the Emergency
is seldom spoken of at Firoz Shah Kotla, the terror of that time seems to be made
manifest in the rituals at Firoz Shah Kotla in these subterranean chambers, in the
very fact of the veneration of the jinn.
Jinns are scary and unpredictable, by all accounts, even though the ones at Firoz
Shah Kotla are supposed to be pious and kindlygood jinns, as it were. My own
experiences at the site, and the accounts of all the people I have talked to, indicate
that fear is an integral part of the experience of Firoz Shah Kotla, especially in the
dark subterranean chambers of the St-Dar. The fear of the jinns, and the overcoming of that fear by addressing the jinns personally is an oft-repeated narrative, as
is being prepared for the jall (awe, majesty, might, power) of the jinns. Jall is a
term long associated with Sufis, and it is usually opposed to their jaml (beauty),
or abr (patience). At Firoz Shah Kotla, the jall is the dominant characteristic
associated with the jinns, with the other two terms seldom being mentioned. But
in contemporary Delhi, the jall of the saint seems to have slipped from awe to
something more akin to wrath and rage. The stories of the jall of the jinn are very
often to do with the unpredictable, wrathful vengeance they wreak on those who
(often unwittingly) disrespect them. To become part of the congregation here is to
overcome, and come to terms with fear, rage and unpredictabilityall of which
form and shape the texture of life in contemporary Delhi.76
In the rituals and practices at Firoz Shah Kotla, in the smells and sounds and
images and emotions that one encounters here, a whole history of the city is made
present for the congregationvanished forms of justice, the weight of bureaucratic
procedure on the lives of the poor, the terror and unpredictability of the Emergency
and of everyday life in post-Emergency Delhi. This article has made some attempt to
understand and to translate, as it were, this knowing and its imaginal, spectral forms,
which are an integral part of the lives of people in the city, and of their connection
to the past. For how else, amidst its ruins, metonymic of all the devastation it has
gone through, can one possibly attempt to write a history of this seemingly amnesiac
city and the layered textures of its everyday life with any hope of doing justice?
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