Two books, one published in the mid-19th century, and the other in early 20th century are crucial for an understanding of the history of Delhi. The first of the two books was Aasaar-us-Sanaadeed or Remains of a Past by Syed Ahmad Khan, later known as Sir Syed. Published in 1847, it was a serious and systematic attempt at documenting the major monuments of Delhi and continues to be a valuable source for historians. Maulvi Zafar Hasan’s comprehensive Monuments of Delhi published in 1916 listed more than 3,000 buildings and remains of monuments scattered between the Aravalis and the Yamuna.
In the last 100 years, more than a 1,000 of these structures have disappeared. According to official figures, we have barely 2,000 left; of these, just about 10 per cent or barely 200 are preserved by the ASI and the government of Delhi put together. If one begins to look for the number of protected monuments in Delhi, one is led to the official website of the Archaeological Survey of India that displays an alphabetical list of 174 monuments, without explaining the status of the monuments in any way.
Many of the monuments on this list do not exist where they are supposed to be located. For example, the list says that Lal Bangla is at Babarpur (Kaka Nagar) but it is actually located inside the Delhi Golf Club. The location of Kos Minar is shown as Babarpur-Bazipur (Kaka Nagar) while its actual location is inside the Delhi Zoo. The Nicholson statue and its platform are placed outside Kashmiri Gate, according to the ASI list. Both were removed to Coronation Park in the mid-1960s. Obviously, no one from the ASI has bothered to visit Kashmiri Gate since then. The website is new but its information has not been updated in decades.
It is in such a scenario that a decision has recently been taken by the Delhi government to promote historical sites with a reputation of being haunted. Some of the prime candidates are the abode of the polyglot djinns of Ferozeshah Kotla and the Jamali Kamali mosque, where shrieking voices begin to exercise their vocal chords past midnight.
To this list, the authorities could add the headless horseman of Anglo-Saxon extraction who is believed to come tearing down towards Daryaganj, where he was shot by hired assassins, or the ghosts who frequent Khooni Darwaza, or the ones that swing from nooses near the old district jail or the women in white who pass through walls, especially on moonlit nights.
If the authorities are interested in serious promotion of spooky locations, they will never run short of tourist attractions in Delhi. The ruins of the six earlier cities and many broken-down or empty buildings in the city of Shahjahan are particularly favoured by ghosts, djinns, witches, blood-sucking vampires and women with bewitching smiles whose feet face the wrong way and one never knows whether they are arriving or departing.
The number of haunted structures in the ruins of the seven Delhis would run into thousands. There is one behind Kali Masjid — everyone who lived there turned into a ghost and no one ventures into that street even in daylight. There are thousands of haunted homes and streets like the Gali Bhoot Waali in Nangloi or the Chor Minar, haunted by hundreds of headless thieves, and the ruins of Siri, the city built by Ala-ud-Din Khilji, thronged by thousands of headless Mongols.
What remains from the last 1,000 years of construction, abandonment, destruction and desertion are countless ruins of houses, broken-down havelis, deserted mosques, graves, mausoleums, temples, abandoned cremation grounds and dead streets, scattered through the cities and structures built by the Pals, Tomars, Chauhans, the Slave Kings, the Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Syeds, Lodis and the Mughals. The thousands of ruins have spawned millions of ghost stories and this is bound to happen in a land bursting at its seams with religious charlatans living off the faith of the gullible and the naïve.
One would have thought that some efforts would be made to protect what survives but that would be hoping for too much. The project to make Delhi a heritage city has already been scuttled. One would not be surprised if an argument is advanced that we do not care for our tangible heritage — as a people, we have a spiritual bent of mind and do not attach much value to material things.
And so we should not be unduly worried if the remaining 2,000 structures were to also disappear like the one-third that has vanished in the last 100 years. What we will not be able to see in the light of the sun, we will conjure from the dark depths of moonless nights, through our spiritual powers and our ancient knowledge of the occult.
The potential of the tourism of fear is immense. Every haunted pillar, post, arch and tree can be converted into a money spinner.
Sohail Hashmi is a Delhi-based historian.