Fire, spirits and reincarnation: the Magic of Delhi

Delhi is a city which fascinates me. As Tarun Tejpal, of in the Indian weekly news magazine India Today, writes: “Delhi has more layers of culture, civilisation and history extant in it than any other city in India, arguably, in the world.“  Not for the faint-hearted, it is a city which in the summer assaults the senses like few other places on Earth. The noise, oppressive heat, assorted smells, crush, and chaos of Shahjahanabad, the old city, have to be experienced to be believed.  The travel writer, William Dalrymple, in his wonderful book “City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi” described his first impression of Delhi thus: “From the very beginning, I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before… it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices.” Indeed.

Dalrymple explains that Delhi is a city reincarnated: over the centuries, at least seven cities have been built on the site where the current city stands. The city has been burned by invaders time and time again, and each time, it has been rebuilt, rising like a phoenix from the ashes. As you wander through the city, you catch glimpses of the architecture of previous dynasties, and this is what makes the city so culturally and historically rich. In the same way that the Hindus believe that a body will be reincarnated until it attains a state of perfection, Delhi appears fated to be reincarnated through the centuries. Some sufis (Muslim holy men or mystics) believe that the reason for this is that the djinns (invisible spirits composed of flame) loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted, and every dwelling and street corner is haunted by them.

Delhi is also one of the most wonderful places – perhaps my favourite place – to make street portraits. The city is brimming with colourful characters from every walk of life. The eloquent Dalrymple again: “All the different ages of man were represented in the people of the city. Different millennia co-existed side by side. Minds set in different ages walked the same pavements, drank the same water, returned to the same dust.

These two portraits were made in the only area of Delhi which has survived from the city of Tughlukabad – the Delhi of the Middle Ages – which is located on the edge of the latest incarnation of the city, Lutyens’ New Delhi.

Street portrait, Old Delhi, India (© Ian Mylam)

Street portrait, Old Delhi, India (© Ian Mylam)

 

Old Delhi, India (© Ian Mylam)

Old Delhi, India (© Ian Mylam)

 

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