City of Djinns: A Year In Delhi by William Dalrymple
The foppish, snobbish Indian Muslim nobility were no different from the French and English aristocrats. They were as cultured, sophisticated and sensual. Eighteenth century Indian Muslim aristocrats visiting each other exchanged poems like the Restoration wits — with one difference: the poems were not self-composed but written by popular contemporary poets and copied beautifully in the finest calligraphy.
Sex was the ruling passion. Elephants would be seen standing outside courtesans’ houses in old Delhi in the evenings while the noblemen were entertained inside. A famous courtesan used to appear in society completely nude — decorated only in body paint. The paint was ingeniously applied, however, to create the illusion she was fully dressed.
These and other vignettes enliven City of Djinns, William Dalrymple’s wonderful book on Delhi. He has a hundred tales to tell, about present-day Delhi and the past. But most fascinating are the ones about Mughal India.
Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the famous Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, was highly sexed. He had innumerable affairs; there was even gossip about his relationship with his favourite daughter, Jahanara. Manucci, the Italian traveller, alluded to him “harvesting his own fruit” without sounding the least bit shocked. The noblemen and generals, however, did not like their wives’ affairs with the emperor — and he had to pay for it in the end. His son, Aurangzeb, seized the throne, throwing him into prison and killing his other sons.
Aurangzeb was the most religious of the Mughal emperors — and the most bloodthirsty. He persecuted Hindus and Sikhs and destroyed temples, sparking rebellions across the country. Had it not been for him, her family would still be ruling India, said a woman who claimed to be descended from the Mughals when Dalrymple met her in Delhi.
Mughal rule continued in Delhi long after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 — the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah, was deposed and exiled to Burma by the British only after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. But his misrule certainly started the disintegration of the Mughal empire. However, it was so rich and grand at the height of its power that it took a long time to crumble apart. Not even the invasion of Nadir Shah, who sacked Delhi and killed thousands of people and took away the famous Peacock throne with the Kohinoor diamond in 1739, destroyed Delhi of its grandeur. The sex and high life, pomp and ostentation continued, seducing even the British when they came to Delhi.
Dalrymple describes how some of the early British administrators embraced the Mughal lifestyle and had their own harems of Indian wives.
But Mughal rule was marked not only by pomp and ostentation. There also continued the mystic tradition — not just of the Hindus but of the Muslim pirs or holy men and dervishes who had arrived in India with earlier Muslim rulers, long before Babur, the first Mughal, swooped down from Kabul.
Dalrymple writes of the Sufis, who have thrived in the Indian subcontinent more than in most Muslim countries. He vividly describes Sufi gatherings in Delhi and the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan. City of Djinns actually takes its name from a Sufi belief that there are djinns or spirits in Delhi.
I have barely scratched the surface of the book. Dalrymple also writes about the Sikhs and Punjabis in Delhi, the Muslims who left Delhi and settled in Karachi, Pakistan, when India was partitioned in India. He writes about Anglo-Indians or Eurasians and the British colonials. But he is at his best when he writes about Muslim rule, old Delhi and the Muslims who continue to live there.
City of Djinns is one of the most captivating books ever written about India.