The image of the Qutb Minar is synonymous with Delhi. Much like India Gate, we find it on practically every book, pamphlet, publication on Delhi. There is no avoiding it in school textbooks or school picnics either! We have grown up reading about it, taking visiting relatives to the Qutb (that was before the Saket malls came up). The fact that it is one of the better maintained sites in Delhi has added to its popularity with both locals & tourists alike. And it also has a World Heritage Site tag to boot. There is no doubt to Qutb’s importance to history & much of it is deeply contested. Our heritage walk here focused less on the Qutb Minar itself but more on the relationship of the Qutb to the surrounding monuments, their development in Delhi’s history & the anecdotes about people who shaped the site & thereby our ‘experience’ of it.
There are three main parts to the complex: the mosque, the screen on the Western side & the Qutb Minar & our walking tour was woven around the development of these three parts by different people at different points of time. The Delhi Sultans who contributed to the site are Qutbuddin Aibak, Shamsuddin Iltutmish & Alauddin Khalji. In popular memory Qutbuddin Aibak, the first ruler in the ‘slave dynasty’ is most easily identifiable with Qutb Minar. These are facts drilled into our memory through those endless history classes we all dreaded at school. The Qutb is said to have been named after him too. However, this is a contested fact whether Aibak actually even started building the Qutb. The Quwwat ul Islam mosque is definitely attributed to him but the Qutb Minar is mostly considered the work of Iltutmish.
The mosque is one of the most interesting monuments to be seen in north India. The reason being it is built from material taken after demolishing Hindu & Jain temples that stood on the site. So the profusely carved pillars & ceilings of the temples became the colonnaded walkways around the courtyard of the mosque. However, it wasn’t a happy scenario given that all this infidel material: images of Gods, Goddesses were now part of the mosque. The only solution was disfiguring them & covering them up with plaster. Today, we see the pillars without the plaster, but with the damaged figurines. Some of these are numbered & mason’s marks & even dates written in Nagari. The Quwwat ul Islam mosque is the first congregation mosque in India & for many it has become along with Somnath & Ayodhya, a symbol of Muslim intolerance towards Hindus throughout the medieval period. However, historically, demolition of temples & monuments of rival or defeated kings had been a common practice even before the coming of the Turks in north India.
The mosque courtyard incorporates the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi. It is probably the standard of a Gupta king which was put here by one of the Tomars who ruled from Delhi. The amazing bit is the fact that the metal has withstood rusting through the centuries! Also there are many legends associated with this pillar, one of them being that if you stand with your back against the pillar & wrap your around it & manage to make your fingers meet, then your wish will come true! Bollywood has happily depicted this belief in the movie ‘Cheeni Kum’. Over the years many a backs have rubbed against the Iron Pillar, which got the Archaeological Survey of India concerned about its well being. The practiced was stopped some years ago by enclosing the Iron Pillar in an iron railing.
The lofty screens on the western side of the mosque are great examples of ‘Indo-Islamic’ style of architecture. The screen was enlarged & extended by both Iltutmish & Alauddin Khalji. Iltutmish’s tomb is a gorgeous piece of work, an excellent blend of calligraphy with traditional Indian motifs like lotus flower & kalash (earthen pot). The tomb is completely covered in stone carving in white marble & red sandstone. It is also the earliest example of the use of the squinch arch in construction in the subcontinent.
Close by stands the Alai Minar. Alauddin Khalji had the reputation of being an ambitious king. Looks like he decided the Qutb Minar & its Jami Masjid was not grand enough & hence started the construction of a tower twice the size of the Qutb. Alauddin died before he could complete it & only the first storey had been built. And none of his successors tried working upon the Alai Minar. The Alai Darwaza which stands to the south of Qutb Minar is a surviving gateway to Alauddin’s extension to the mosque. There were others like it but they do not survive. Behind the mosque screen, further west, there is a ruined complex which is believed to have been the madrasa of Alauddin Khalji & his tomb. The latter is complete ruined with only a grave to identify it as a burial place. No inscriptions or decoration survive on the façade.
Besides Aibak, Iltutmish & Alauddin there are two more Delhi Sultans who have added to the complex. The first is Firuz Shah Tughluq, who repaired the top storey of Qutb Minar after it was damaged by lightning. He replaced the damaged portion with two smaller storeys, in marble & sandstone. They look distinctive from the three lower storeys of the Minar. After him, Sikander Lodi also carried out conservation work in the complex. This site is not the only instance of repair carried by these two Sultans. Firuz Shah repaired Hauz I Alai (now Hauz Khas), the tomb at Sultan Garhi; Sikander Lodi repaired the tomb of Firuz Shah at Hauz Khas. Much later, during the colonial period, first Robert Smith & later Gordon Sanderson carried out extensive repairs at the Qutb. Robert Smith’s legacy although is doubtful: he felt the Qutb Minar was incomplete & topped it with a pavilion in red sandstone. When the Viceroy came along & saw Smith’s addition, he was aghast & promptly told him to take it off! The pavilion now stands in the lawns to the east of the Qutb Minar & is better known as Smith’s Folly! Smith also messed up while conserving the inscriptions of the entrance to the Qutb Minar: he replaced them in the wrong order! Contemporary scholars on Indian architecture like James Fergusson & Alexander Cunningham were furious at this. Gordon Sanderson seems to have been more sensible. He has been honoured with a memorial in form of a sundial which stands close to Smith’s folly.
(posted by Kanika Singh & Kavita Singh, team members, Delhi Heritage Walks)