Travelogue Review - City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

edited December 2018 in Book Reviews

City of Djinns

by William Dalrymple, 1993, 350pp.
TLDR: 5 out of 5 for a beautifully written and sympathetic travelogue with plenty of interesting historical fodder.

I first read this many years ago and decided to re-read it after I finished reading Kim. The subtitle, A Year in Delhi tells you pretty much exactly what you get - an account of Dalrymple and his wife's year in Delhi.


Like most travelogues, this book features a few of the author's trials and tribulations, but it offers much more than that, for during his stay Dalrymple delves into the history of the city. So the reader is treated to a book that weaves back and forth in time, telling us what the city as like way back when, an then revealing it again in 1993. He covers a wide variety of topics, from historic people and places to the state of modern eunuchry, partridge fighting, and sufism. And the book has some great characters, like partridge aficionado Punjab Singh (whose name is surely an Indian version of Indiana Jones) and archaeologist B.B. Lal.

One of the more interesting characters is Pir Syed Mohammed Sarmadi, a very successful fraudulent dervish:

"A hugely fat sufi with a mountainous turban, and elephantine girth, and a great ruff of double chins, he operates one of the most profitable faith healing businesses in India. One of Sarmadi's forebears was beheaded by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb after he wandered into the imperial presence stark naked, shrieking out sufi poetry."

"Everyday, Sarmadi sits cross-legged in his surgery between ten and five, with a short break for a kebab at lunch. It is a small room, and Sarmadi fills a great deal of it. Its walls are lined with powders and sacred texts, framed monograms of Arabic calligraphy and pictures of the Ka'ba at Mecca. There is a continuous queue of folk waiting to see him, and Sarmadi keeps the queue moving. Each petitioner gets about two minutes of his time. Sarmadi will listen, breaking his concentration only to clean his fingernails or to gob into his golden spittoon. When finished, Sarmadi will wave his peacock fan and blow over the petitioner, recite a bit of the Quran, write out a charm or a sacred number, and place it in an amulet. He will then dismiss the supplicant, having first received his fee of fifty rupees, a week's wage for an Indian labourer."

He also relates some of the stories of past visitors, like Dargah Quli Khan, who visited the city between 1737 and 1741 and reported on the local orgies:

"Hand in hand, the lovers roam the streets, while [outside] the drunken and debauched revel in all kinds of perversities. Groups of winsome lads violate the faith of the believers with acts which are sufficient to shake the very roots of piety. There are beautiful faces as far as the eye can see. All around prevails a world of impiety and immorality. Both nobles and plebians quench the thirst of their lust here."

Dalrymple later reflects on the modern city:

"Modern Delhi is thought of either as a city of grey bureaucracy, or as the metropolis of hard-working nouveau-riche Punjabis. It is rarely spoken of as a lively city, and never as a promiscuous one. Yet, as I discovered that December, the bawdiness of Safdar Jung's Delhi does survive, kept alive by one particular group of Delhi-wallahs. You can still find them in the dark gullies of the old city, if you know where to look."

We are also exposed to the writing of Niccolau Manucci, son of a Venetian trader who ran away from home at 14 to become a con artist, trickster, and artilleryman in 1660's India. It is partly through his eyes that we learn of Shah Jahan and his in-fighting children Dara, Aurangzeb, Jaharana, and Roshanara.

Of Aurangzeb, he says:

"Although Aurangzeb was held to be bold and valiant, he was capable of great dissimulation and hypocrisy. Pretending to be an ascetic, he slept while in the field on a mat of straw that he had himself woven . . . He ate food that cost little and let it be known that he underwent severe penances and fasting. All the same, under cover of these pretenses he led a secret and jolly life of it. His intercourse was with certain holy men addicted to sorcery, who instructed him how to bring over to his side as many friends as he could with witchcraft and soft speeches. He was so subtle as to deceive even the quickest witted people."

And he tells us of Ibn Battutah, who resided for 8 years in Delhi in the 1330's and 40's with Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluk as a patron. Now, the sultan was a complete bastard (in a pique of anger at the citizens of Delhi, he once gave the entire citizenry 3 days to completely relocate themselves to another city 40 days walk away, and when a blind man and a cripple were found still in the city, he had one ejected by catapult, and the other dragged to the new city behind a horse (only his leg arrived). But he liked Battutah (mostly) and at one point decided to send him on a diplomatic mission to China.

And so Battutah found himself at the head of an entourage of 1000 mounted bodyguards and a long train of camels carrying gifts, such as 100 concubines, 100 Hindu dancing girls, gold candelabras, brocades, swords, and gloves embroidered with pearls. Behind the camels came the most valuable gift of all - a thousand thoroughbred horses from Turkestan.

But only 100 miles into his journey, his train was attacked by Hindu rebels (the country was full of rebels) and Battutah was separated from his group and captured. He managed to escape and re-join his party. At Calicut on the Malabar coast, he loaded everything onto four dhows to sail to China, but lingered on shore for Friday prayers. A sudden storm blew up, grounding and breaking up the boats. The slaves, troops, and horses all drowned. Not daring to return to Delhi, he hightailed it to China on his own.


City of Djinns is a wonderful book, full of anecdotes to bring the current city alive, and with a broad enough swath of ancient and medieval history to feel like a history book as well as an adventure. Dalrymple is sympathetic to Delhi culture and his prose betrays both a love of people and a great sense of place. The book won several awards and was adapted into a 3-part documentary series for the BBC. It scores five out of five for me.



Introduction to the TV series

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