the story of qutub minar

Prologue

Perhaps it would be more apt to title this post: Stories about Qutub Minar. As in plural.

Apart from being Delhi’s most iconic monument, it is steeped in multiple stories and a whole lot of firsts, making it unlike any other in the city. To top it, it is not the handiwork of any one ruler or dynasty, but is a collaborative effort spanning 800 years with even an East India Company officer adding his own bit to it—a Bengal-styled chhatri perched on top of the tower, which was thankfully brought down twenty years later.

So, here are Qutub Minar’s most famous stories. The spunk behind its stones. 😊

Why was it built?

For a long time, there was a quandary about Delhi’s 800-year-old, and the country’s largest, stone tower.

Whilst general opinion placed it as a minaret for the muezzin to call out the faithful to prayer, it seemed a tad bit improbable. After climbing 379 steps, the equivalent of 27 floors across a height of 72.5 metres, the gentleman would have been rather breathless once he reached the top, and his voice too faint to be heard by those far below at ground level.

Till one day its uncanny similarity to the 62-metre-high Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan came to light, and its purpose as a victory tower was revealed.

Mohammed Ghori who had attacked Delhi in 1192, went back to Afghanistan and in 1194 erected a tower in his native land to commemorate his victory over Prithviraj Chauhan III. Ten years later, Qutub Minar was built on the conquered lands to celebrate the very same victory.

Sultan Iltutmish’s tomb, one of India’s earliest tombs, opens to the sky, sans any roof.

Two Battles and One Love

The Qutub Minar Complex is not a large one. Compact, it is a combination of monuments huddled together, all a few steps from each other. Yet, within its boundaries it holds remnants of the very crux of Northern Indian history—the epicentre of Delhi’s first city—which set forth seven centuries of Islamic rule in Northern India and Delhi as an Islamic capital.

It all started with two battles and love according to a medieval epic poem called Prithviraj Raso written by Chand Bardai, a court poet.

Prithviraj Chauhan III was the Rajput ruler of Ajmer and Delhi in the 12th Century. Jaichand, the King of Kannuaj envied him, but nonetheless, gave Prithviraj his full support. When Mohammed Ghori first attacked Delhi in 1191, Prithviraj Chauhan III was able to win the war.

As luck would have it, after winning, he fell in love with Jaichand’s daughter and eloped with her. This angered Jaichand to such an extent, that he not only withdrew his support, he also sided with Muhammad Ghori when the latter attacked again in 1192. This time around, Prithviraj Chauhan III lost the battle and was taken captive to Afghanistan where he was tortured and blinded.

Moral of the story. It is important to get along with one’s father-in-law.

Left: Brahmi script inscription on the Iron Pillar dates it to the 4th Century and Emperor Chandragupta II; Right: A reused Jain temple pillar with mason marks and a defaced human figure in the Quwwat al-Islam Mosque.

Kili Dhili Katha, Story of the Loose Nail

Another story, and this one predates Delhi’s 1192 conquest, has to do with the miraculously rust-proof iron pillar which stands in the courtyard of the Quwwat al-Islam Mosque. Dating back to the 4th Century, it was brought to its current location from Udaygiri by the Rajput Tomars who ruled Delhi from the 8th to 11th Century.

According to prevailing legends the pillar pinned down Vasuki, the Serpent king, and whosoever uprooted it would bring about the end of their own rule. To check if this were real [the serpent part of the legend], one of the rulers, Anangpal Tomar II, had it uprooted and sure enough it emerged covered in blood.

Though he immediately had it reinstalled the pillar was now a little Dhili [loose]. Some claim that is where Delhi’s name originates from. Oh, and yes, he was defeated as well by the Chauhan dynasty.

Some Interesting Facts

Having taken over Delhi, Mohammed Ghori and his men were quick to mark the territory as their own, by dismantling the existing 27 Hindu and Jain temples and creating a mosque out of them. This was soon followed with a victory tower named after the 13th Century Sufi saint Qutub ud-din Bakhtiyar Kaki from Kyrgyzstan whose shrine still stands in the nearby Mehrauli Village.

Qutub Minar, the victory tower, is a fascinating structure with carefully thought-out detailing. For instance, its tapering appearance is accentuated by its dimensions and flutings—the diameter at the base is 14.4 meters in comparison to 2.7 meters at the top. A circular staircase winds its way inside to the top and is ventilated with slitted windows fed into the creases. Over time, the tower has tilted by half a meter. That is pretty miniscule for a stone edifice that is 800 years old!

Alai Darwaza served as a grand entrance to the extended Quwwat al-Islam Mosque. It was built in 1311 by Sultan Alauddin Khilji and is topped with India’s earliest surviving true dome.

An Ensemble of Magnificent Firsts

Talking about firsts, four Sultans of the Delhi Sultanate [1206 – 1526] were responsible for the main architectural treasures within the Qutub Minar Complex. They were also the drivers behind the journey of Indo-Islamic architecture from a starting point of a cut-paste mosque and corbelled arches to true arches, use of indigenous elements such as eaves, jaalis [stone screens] and Hindu motifs in Islamic architecture, and the wondrous soaring dome.

Sultans Qutub ud-Din Aibak, Iltutmish, Alauddin Khilji, and Firoz Shah Tughlaq each added to the ensemble, collaborating in perfect sync. At times renovating and building on a previous structure and at others creating something completely innovative and new.

Before the 13th Century, the practice of building tombs for the dead was non-existent in Delhi. Sultan Iltutmish started the tradition with one for his son, Sultan Garhi, and his own lavishly embellished tomb inside the complex. He was also way ahead of his time, having enough faith in his daughter Razia to appoint her as his successor.

The oldest madrasah in Delhi is in this complex as well, courtesy of Sultan Alauddin Khilji, himself an illiterate, and one of Indian history’s most powerful rulers who likened himself to a second Alexander the Great.

Epilogue

Qutub Minar Complex, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, has seen the rise and fall of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal Empire, British Colonial rule, right up to India’s independence.

It has seen it all. And survived it all.

Imagine how many other stories it must have heard and seen that we cannot even fathom of. ❤

[Click on an image below to enlarge it and read the caption. Use the arrow keys to navigate through the set.]

NOTE: You may also like to read
A Heritage Buff’s Guide to the Eight Cities of Delhi

7 thoughts on “the story of qutub minar

  1. In 1978 I visited the site and was able to put my arms around the rustless iron pillar. I can’t remember what this meant for me, long life? Nowadays it is fenced off and you can’t touch it. I was also able to climb half way up the tower, but this isn’t allowed now because of a traffic accident.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, long life! 🙂 You were lucky you were able to experience it at a time when it was so much more accessible. Mass tourism inevitably ruins monuments, and the subsequent need to control access. It’s a catch 22 situation. These monuments need to be seen and appreciated, but that’s also when most harm happens to them.

      Like

  2. As always, I learn a lot from your posts, Rama. I used to think that Qutub Minar was built as a minaret for the muezzin. The fact that it actually functioned as a vertical version of a triumphal arch is really fascinating. When you said the tower had tilted by half a meter, I was wondering if a modern stabilizer (or anything else with the same purpose) has been put in place to prevent further leaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bama. I used a fantastic audio guide to explore it. Credits given in my last post on the eight cities of Delhi. Nope, there’s no modern contraption to prevent further tilting. That’s the incredible part, or rather one of it. That it has only tilted by half a metre in all these centuries! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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