Disclaimer: The travel involved in writing this article took place weeks before the first positive case of COVID-19 in the city. However, as I was extremely occupied in the last few weeks, I didn’t find the time to write this article. Hope you guys are staying safe at home.
When you think of Feroz Shah Kotla, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For many, it’s Anil Kumble taking ten wickets in a single innings, or Sachin Tendulkar scoring his 35th test century and breaking Sunil Gavaskar’s record of having the maximum number of test centuries in a career. But the famous cricket ground (now renamed the Arun Jaitley Stadium) gets its name from an adjacent 14th century mediaeval fortress – the OG ‘Feroz Shah Kotla’, if you will, built by the emperor Feroz Shah Tughlaq, which, in my humble opinion, makes for even cooler stories.
Some Background About Feroz Shah and the Other Tughlaqs
The Tughlaqs were a Central Asian Muslim dynasty to rule over most of the Indian subcontinent (at its peak) between 1320 and 1413. The dynasty was founded by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, who was earlier known as Ghazi Malik. He was the governor of Punjab under the emperor Khusro Khan of the Khilji dynasty, when he was invited by some members of the Khilji aristocracy to stage a coup against the unpopular king. After taking the throne of Delhi, he ordered the construction of a new capital city – Tughlaqabad, where a fort was built that was never completed and destined to lie in ruins forever.
His son Muhammad bin Tughlaq succeeded him, and conquered large parts of the subcontinent to expand the reach of his kingdom. He built himself a new capital city in Delhi named Jahanpanah, but later moved his capital to Deogiri in the Deccan (which he renamed Daulatabad) – only to move it back to Delhi.
Muhammad bin Tughlaq was succeeded by his nephew, Feroz Shah Tughlaq, who ruled for 37 years – from 1351 to 1388, and built several new cities around Delhi – namely Hisar, Jaunpur, Firozpur, Fatehabad, and most importantly Firozabad, which was to be his capital city. At the centre of the city was to be his fort – the Feroz Shah Kotla.
The Feroz Shah Kotla: What Remains Today?
The Jami Masjid
The complex is home to the Jami Masjid (not to be confused with the Jama Masjid built later by Shah Jahan), one of the oldest mosques in the city still in use. Surrounded by a large courtyard, it was built in quartzite stone and covered with limestone. When the notorious Turko-Mongol ruler Timur (also known as Taimur or Tamerlane) raided the city of Delhi in 1398, he visited the mosque to offer prayers and, according to legend, was so spellbound by its magnificence that he was inspired to create a mosque of similar stature in his capital city of Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan).
The Main Citadel and the Ashokan Pillar
The fort is adorned by a 13.1 metre tall obelisk at the top that is actually an Ashokan pillar dating to the 3rd century BC, which was brought here on Feroz Shah Tughlaq’s orders from Topra near Ambala in modern-day Haryana when the fort was being built. The fort was dismantled in parts by subsequent rulers, who reused the building material for other construction projects.
The stone in the pillar was engraved with text in a curious script which, at the time of the installation of the pillar on top of the fort in 1356, no one knew the meaning of.
Around 500 years later, in the year 1837, a British scholar named James Princep, deciphered the text in the Brahmi script on the pillar, with the help of Brahmi text discovered on other pillars and tablets in the Indian subcontinent. The inscriptions describe his policies and an appeal to the people of his kingdom and future generations in matters of dharma and morality.
“Let stone pillars be prepared and let this edict of dharma (religion) be engraven thereon, that it may endure unto the remotest ages.”Part of the inscription on the Ashokan pillar at the Feroz Shah Kotla, deciphered and translated by James Princep in 1837.
The Story of the Jinns
As per Islamic mythology, jinns or djinns are immortal supernatural beings who were supposedly created out of smokeless fire (as opposed to humans, carved out of clay). They can live for centuries and can have families of their own. They are neither angels nor demons, and have shape-shifting abilities to travel long distances in unusually short periods of time and connect with people from different eras. But what do they have to do with the Feroz Shah Kotla? It is believed that they live there.
We don’t know when the belief that the fort is home to jinns originated, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that jinn-seeking became popular here. It was the year 1976, Indira Gandhi was in power, and the country was going through a period called the Emergency, where many fundamental rights of citizens ordained by the Constitution of India were suspended. Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi were leading a campaign to demolish slums near Turkman Gate in Old Delhi in an effort to ‘cleanse Delhi of slums’ and move poor people to distant peripheral settlements. Many locals resisted government efforts. Many were killed.
One of those men recently rendered homeless by the government’s demolition drive, who went by the name ‘Laddoo Shah’ moved to the Feroz Shah Kotla and started living here, and was overcome by a strange spiritual energy that he reportedly felt there. After the end of the Emergency in 1977, newfound popularity thanks to Laddoo Shah meant that people from the Old City and from bastis across the Yamuna River (inhabited predominantly by families evicted from the Old City) began to flock to the fort in large numbers to seek an audience with the jinns.
It became a common practice to come to the Feroz Shah Kotla with written requests and submit them to the jinns, who were believed to sit together at midnight and grant wishes to those seeking them. Anand Vivek Taneja, an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, has written extensively about the folklore of jinns at the Feroz Shah Kotla, including a book titled ‘Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi’, and he writes that devotees coming to the Feroz Shah Kotla believe in an established hierarchical bureaucracy of the jinns at the fort. At the top (literally and metaphorically) is the Lath Wale Baba, the jinn who resides near the base of the Ashokan Pillar (also known as the lath), with several other jinns below him in administrative hierarchy, living in various alcoves and niches inside the fort complex. As a result, devotees need to make sure the correct department gets their application – which is often why many bring multiple photocopies of written requests, often affixed with passport-sized photographs and submit them inside windows and alcoves at the fort.
Visiting the fort is a truly fascinating experience, and it sees its maximum number of devotees on Thursdays. However, all historic monuments under the ASI are closed indefinitely due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and you are advised to stay at home until it is safe to venture outside.
The fort is walking distance from the Delhi Gate Metro Station on the Violet Line.
All pictures used in the article are mine unless otherwise mentioned. Please do not use or reproduce them without permission. Thank you.