Cityscape: Every night, the Mehrauli Archaeological Park transforms from the ordinary into something menacing and majestic, and you don’t need to believe in ghosts to feel frightened

The mornings here are mundane, really. The roads boast of auto fumes that give you niggling little headaches and traffic jams that ruin your day before it has really started. Mehrauli in the sunshine is very human, very prosaic, and its archaeological park is just another beautiful heritage site, spotted with crumbling monuments standing witness to a glorious past.

It’s the night that changes things. Viscous shadows cast eerie spells and whisper little tales of terror into susceptible ears. At night, the harmless gate into the park transforms into gaping black hole, inviting you into its ominous arms. It’s no wonder that though open round the clock, Mehrauli’s Archaeological Park is usually deserted at night, with rare footsteps breaking the heavy silence.

Thing were a little different last Saturday though, and if you happened to drive by the Qutub Minar ticket counter, you’d have seen an inordinate number of people huddled together, shuffling and shifting to keep out the early winter chill, their faces half-lit by a lone street lamp’s faded glow. Over a hundred ghost seekers from various points in the city were brought together by Asif Khan Dehlvi to attend Delhi Karavan’s heritage walk, Ghost Parables in the Shadows of Delhi. Drawn to the promise of discovering a Delhi punctuated by stories of fakirs and djinns, bloody battles and vicious phantoms, they followed Dehlvi into the park, it’s pitch dark terrain lit by a sliver of the moon and not much else. Someone had remembered to carry a flashlight, but shared amongst a hundred odd people, it didn’t amount to much.

For Dehlvi, neither did the walk. “Personally, I think it failed. I was hoping for around 25 people… a small, intimate, quiet group.” Somehow, Dehlvi’s open invitation had snowballed and he found himself surrounded by a small crowd, buzzing with loud whispers and occasional witticisms. For Dehlvi, and most others, the mood was considerably dampened. “The previous walks have been smaller, but much more effective. It’s not easy to feel afraid with so many people around. I almost cancelled the walk but couldn’t bring myself to do it. Everyone was so enthusiastic.”

Despite the crowd, it was impossible to ignore the slightly eerie atmosphere inside the park. The fog lay heavy and close to the ground, and as it rose, it melted into the darkness. The trees, the bushes, the silhouettes of domes and pillars, every thing was black, and set against this, Dehlvi’s haunting tales couldn’t help sounding grim and forbidding, never mind a few ill-timed jokes from the audience. You don’t often see Delhi so quiet, so deathly still. Surrounded by mementoes from its past, the city felt palpably old.

We were led to the first couple of stops, and amidst the ruins of Quli Khan’s tomb and Sir Thomas Metcalfe's Guest House, Dehlvi recounted his personal experiences and encounters with the paranormal. While the stories itself had only a whiff of ghostliness, set against menacing and labyrinthine jungles, they took on a greater meaning. “I’m often here at night. I’ve picked up stories about Mehrauli from the guards here, as well as the fakirs who roam these grounds at night. Once in a while, I run into others like me, people researching the supernatural” Dehlvi is of the firm conviction that Mehrauli has more history than the rest of Delhi, and while he won’t try and convince anyone else, his own belief in the paranormal is unshakable. “I’ve researched Mehrauli from old books, read Urdu and Hindi scholars and talked to innumerable Sufis, fakirs and historians. This place is steeped in history, and through these walks, I want people to experience a little bit of that.”

Moving on from the dome, we navigated steep steps bathed in shadows, overcoming the more human fear of spraining an ankle or breaking a bone. When we finally reached a raised mound, a sort of hillock capped by a domed canopy, our eyes adjusted to the dark and we could just about make out the outline of Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb, lying low to our left. The site is home to several stories of good and bad djinns, and eerie, unexplained experiences. “It’s said that if you enter the courtyard with evil thoughts and intentions, a strong invisible force will push you out.” The pillared majesty of the Qutub Minar was visible, looming over the dark trees and casting a sort of ancient glow to the gathering.

“Sometimes, I sit here alone, reading or listening to music, and a gust of wind, strong enough to shut my eyes, will hit my face. Not a leaf moves in the vicinity. This wind just touches me.” Dehlvi has had several such experiences, and after sharing a few with the group, he let them take over. The storytelling, interesting but short-lived, rescued the somewhat restive group’s dwindling enthusiasm. The real winner of the night, though, was a quick but very effective stop at Ghiyas-ud-din Balban and his son Khan Shahid’s graves. From the young Prince’s tomb comes a lingering, fragrant odour of ittar or perfumed oil, offered everyday by an old man who lives in the Mehrauli basti, and after everyone had smelt it, Dehlvi recounted the story of Khan Shahid’s violent death at the hands of the Mongols.

Just as the jokes and banter started dying down and the world inside the park finally seeped in, the walk ended. Too soon, we found ourselves at the exit, surrounded by street lights and honking cars and reality checks from the human world. It was a strangely subdued, silent group that emerged, though, and while no one could boast of a ghostly encounter, something had indeed brushed our shoulders inside the park. Perhaps it was just the faintest bit of history, perhaps a little more.

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