Haunting legacy

Print edition : January 20, 2017

The Qutb Minar as seen from the main entrance to the complex. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Balconies with mini alcoves separate the different storeys of the Qutb Minar. The first storey has alternate circular and angular flutings, the second has circular flutings and the third has angular flutings. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The madrasa complex that Alauddin Khalji built. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The Masid-i jami. The Qutb mosque has erroneously been called the Quwwat-ul-Islam, or the "Might of Islam". Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The interior chamber of Iltumish's tomb. One can see the squinch arches, pendentives and the marble mihrab (niche on the qibla wall) and cenotaph. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Imam Zamin's grave. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Vertical bands of Arabic calligraphy and leafy arabesques on the screen Qutbuddin Aibak constructed. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The courtyard of the Qutb mosque. The screen Qutbuddin Aibak erected around 1199 is on the left and the portion Iltutmish added lies on the right. In the centre is the Iron Pillar, which has not rusted or corroded in over 1,600 years. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The inscription on the Iron Pillar. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The Qutb mosque as seen from the south. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The incomplete Alai Minar. Alauddin Khalji had planned it to be twice as big as the Qutb Minar, but it was abondoned following his death. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

One of the calligraphic bands on the Qutb Minar. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Statues that once adorned temples. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Kirti mukha, a common decorative motif on the reused pillars of the Qutb mosque. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

A carved pillar in the eastern cloister of the Qutb mosque. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The Alai Darwaza. It was the first building in India to employ wholly Islamic architectural principles of construction in terms of symmetry and ornamentation. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

A horseshoe arch in the Darwaza with beautifully carved lotus buds on its underside. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The tomb of Imam Zamim where the dome rises from an octagonal drum decorated with a double row of kanguras (battlement motifs) and marble panelling above the chajja (eaves). Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Smith's Folly, the cupola that once rested on the top of the Qutb Minar and was pulled down on the orders of Lord Hardinge. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

THE Qutb Minar complex, located in the national capital’s southern precincts, at Mehrauli with the Delhi Ridge and scrub forests in the backdrop, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1993. The site’s larger historical connections get dwarfed by the height of the Qutb Minar, the tallest ashlar masonry minaret in the world. The Qutb complex is the site of some major historical developments in the subcontinent, including the transition from Rajput polities to Islamic kingdoms, the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, the development of Indo-Islamic architecture, and the emergence of Delhi as an imperial city. The Iron Pillar located within the complex also speaks of the significant advances India had made in metallurgy and casting.

Delhi before the Qutb

Rajput settlements at Surajkund and Mehrauli dominated the north Indian polity between the eighth and 11th centuries C.E. The Tomars founded Surajkund in the eighth century. The village of Anangpur, lying in midst of the remains at Surajkund, is popularly connected to the Tomar king Anangpal. Around the middle of the 11th century, Anangpal II shifted his base to the Mehrauli region and built a fortified town called Lal Kot. A popular legend connects the Iron Pillar to the Tomars. Chanda Bardai’s epic Hindi poem Prithviraja Raso narrates a story whereby one Brahman told Anangpal (also known as Bilhan Deo) that the pillar rested on the mythical serpent king Vasuki’s hood and was immoveable. Further, his rule would last as long as the structure stood firm. It is said that, out of curiosity, the king got the pillar dug out only to find the base smeared with Vasuki’s blood. Realising his mistake, he ordered it to be reinstalled. However, even after several attempts, it could not be fixed, and the pillar remained loose ( dhilli, in Hindi).

“Killi tau dhilli bhayi

Tomar bhaya mat hiin”

(The pillar has become loose

The Tomar’s wish will not be fulfilled)

The name “Delhi” is sometimes erroneously traced to this lore about the dhilli pillar.

The Chauhans of Ajmer overran the Tomars in the 12th century. They expanded the city walls (from a circumference of 3.6 kilometres to one of around 8 km) and the new city, Rai Pithora, became almost four times the original size. Prithviraj Chauhan, one of the most celebrated of the Chauhan kings, was defeated by Muhammad of Ghur (from Afghanistan), who was in control of Afghanistan and Punjab. Soon after, Ghuri returned home leaving the control of Delhi and Ajmer to Qutbuddin Aibak (from Turkestan), his favourite slave and also his army commander. Upon Ghuri’s death in 1206, Qutbuddin Aibak assumed independence and laid the foundations of what came to be known as the Delhi Sultanate. Delhi became his capital.

The Qutb mosque & the Iron Pillar

One of Qutbuddin Aibak’s first and foremost tasks was to create a congregational mosque, and the new conqueror chose the former citadel of the Hindu rulers as the site for it. This was a turning moment in the history of the subcontinent. Islamic and Indian religious and art traditions came face to face. Islam had a distrust of the portrayal of the human form. Islamic arts instead revolved around the representation of the abstract: calligraphy, geometry and arabesque. This was confronted with a tradition that celebrated sculptural depictions of deities, mythical characters, humans, animals and plants. According to the foundational inscription attributed to Qutbuddin Aibak and placed over the eastern gate, which now forms the main public entrance to the mosque, 27 Hindu and Jain temples were destroyed to build the structure. The art historian Barry Flood says the Qutb mosque, or Delhi’s first Friday mosque ( masid-i jami), was celebrated as a wonder by 13th and 14th century chroniclers and geographers writing in Arabic and Persian from as far away as Egypt.

The plinth of the earlier complex was enlarged to around twice its original size to build a platform to accommodate what is now erroneously known as the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. The spolia of the temples provided the ready-at-hand material to build the rectangular open courtyard, the pillared cloisters and the qibla wall indicating the direction of Mecca. Scholars say the absence of mortar or any cementing agent in indigenous architectural techniques facilitated the reuse of the spolia. Pillars from Hindu temples, preferably those carrying floral motifs, were used to build the colonnades. Upon a closer look, one can still see the remains of divine and human sculptures on the pillars in the prayer hall. The carvings include typical Hindu architectural motifs such as the bell and chain, vases and kirti mukha (a stylised face). The colonnades on the other three sides of the mosque have much higher roofs supported on two, sometimes three, pillars stacked over one another. The qibla wall on the west has completely disappeared and a path runs over the site. Small entresol apartments reached by narrow staircases were laid at the four corners of the mosque to provide secluded accommodation for the zanana (women).

In the centre of the mosque’s courtyard now stands the famous Iron Pillar, which weighs over six tonnes and is around 23.6 feet (7.08 metres) tall (of which 3.6 feet, or 1.08 m, is buried below the ground). The inscription records its erection by a mighty king called Chandra, who was a devotee of Vishu, as a dhvaja stambha (lofty standard) on the “Hill of Vishnupada”. It also celebrates his military prowess. The king has generally been identified as Chandragupta II (C.E. 375-413) of the Gupta dynasty. Made of pure malleable iron, this pillar has not rusted or corroded in over 1,600 years, a remarkable testimony to the superior metallurgical skill of ancient Indians.

Many historians and archaeologists have assumed that it was Muslim rulers who placed the pillar within the Qutb mosque as a statement of conquest. R. Balasubramaniam, who explored the metallurgy and iconography of the pillar, contends it was originally located at the Udayagiri caves (near Vidisha) in Madhya Pradesh associated with the worship of Vishnu—an argument later endorsed and elaborated upon in the archaeological research done by Michael Willis. The historian Sunil Kumar says that it is true that later Muslim rulers such as Firoz Shah Tughlaq and Akbar transported Asokan pillars and placed them as trophies in Delhi and Allahabad respectively. However, there is absolutely no evidence in the case of the Qutb to warrant such an assumption. According to a strong bardic tradition, it was Anangpal who brought the pillar here from an unspecified place. It is popularly believed that anyone who can join his/her hands around the pillar while standing with his or her back to it will be granted a wish. Crowds thronging to do this used to be a common sight until the site administration erected a fence to keep them out.

The corbelled-arch screen

According to an inscription on the south face of the central arch, Qutbuddin Aibak constructed the screen around 1199 and both Shamsuddin Iltutmish (1211-36) and Alauddin Khalji (1296-1316) extended it. However, only the additions Iltutmish made are visible now. Possibly modelled on the masqura, or screen, fronting the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, it clearly reinforces the Islamic character of the monument. Built of rubble masonry and covered with carved red sandstone, the screen represents one of the first systematic attempts towards the construction of an arch. Arcuate construction and arch-making techniques were first used by the Romans, and then they spread to West and Central Asia. Over a period of time, the true arch—raised by means of wedge-shaped blocks ( voussoirs) of stone arranged in a radiating half circle with a keystone at the centre—became a standard feature of Islamic architecture. The new conquerors of north India wanted their architecture to replicate the arches and domes of their homelands. However, they did not have with them skilled and experienced Islamic architects and craftsmen. So, they had to rely on the experience of Hindu stone workmen who were trained in the trabeate architectural technique, which is based on the use of beams and lintels laid between pillars. The result was an innovation called the corbelled arch —built by progressively laying blocks of stone in a row whereby each level projects marginally beyond the row below. This was the technique used to construct temple entrances.

The resultant corbelled-arch screen was embellished with vertical bands of Arabic calligraphy and leafy arabesques (intertwined ornamental decoration), both forming important parts of the Islamic art tradition. The art historian Vidya Dehejia says Arabic lettering preserved the divine word of the Quran and holy texts, and phrases were duplicated, mirrored and used as ornamentation in Islamic architecture. The calligraphy on Qutbuddin Aibak’s screen uses Naksh characters, which weave beautifully with continuous stems and with a series of symmetrically arranged secondary stems. According to the archaeologist J.A. Page, the Hindu craftsmen turned each calligraphic stroke end into a little floral burst. The kalasa (Hindu ritual vessel) carvings at the base of the structure also reflect Hindu influences. The additions on the screen made by Iltutmish adopt advanced forms of Islamic surface decoration. The Arabic lettering shows a sophisticated combination of the square Kufic and the elaborate and intricately carved Tughra (highly stylised script evolving out of the imperial Turkish calligraphy of the Ottoman Empire) characters.

Contested history

Made of red sandstone and marble, the Qutb Minar is a 73-metre-tall tapering tower with a diameter measuring 14.32 m at the base and 2.75 m at the peak. Inside the tower, a circular staircase with 379 steps leads to the top. Following an accident in 2000 involving the death of several children, the staircase was closed to the public. The Minar currently consists of five storeys separated by four projecting balconies. The first storey has alternate circular and angular flutings, the second has circular flutings, while the third has angular flutings. The fourth and fifth storeys have no flutings at all. A series of elaborately carved stalactite pendentives and mini alcoves support the balconies and transfer their weight to the Minar.

Like the mosque, the Minar also has a contested history. Who built the structure, more specifically the first storey? How did the structure get its present name? What function did it serve?

The 19th century Islamic reformist and philosopher Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had attributed the first storey of the Minar to the Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan. It is said that Prithviraj Chauhan built the structure so that his daughter could view the river Yamuna every day as a part of her daily worship. On the basis of inscriptional evidence, descriptions in contemporary accounts, and the style of architecture—which looks dissimilar in design from the towers the Rajputs erected such as the “pillars of fame” ( kirti stambhas) or “pillars of victory” ( jaya stambhas)—most historians say that Qutbuddin Aibak erected the first storey.

According to the inscriptions on the Minar, which mention the entire history of the builders, repairs and architects, Iltutmish, his successor and son-in-law, added the next three around 1220. Inscriptions indicate that the structure was struck by lightening in Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s time, but no details about any repairs are available. Lightning struck the Minar again in 1368-69 and knocked off the top (fourth) storey. Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who was the sultan then, built two more storeys in red sandstone and marble and also added a cupola. The Minar was repaired again in 1503 by Sikandar Lodi when it was struck by lightning.

In 1802-03, the cupola fell off and the whole tower was damaged by an earthquake. This time, Major R. Smith, working as an army engineer under the rule of the East India Company, was assigned to do the repairs. He was riding high in confidence those years having designed St. James’ Church and Kashmere Gate. However, there were several problems associated with the repairs of the tower he undertook. The facing stones that had fallen were put back without any regard for order. The inscriptions, therefore, became difficult to read. A Gothic-style balustrade (railing) was added to the projecting balconies, but it stood out as it was of a different shade of stone. Finally, a new cupola was put on the top, which met with enormous resistance both within and outside the colonial order. Smith attracted the wrath of architectural bigwigs such as James Fergusson, Alexander Cunningham and Page of the Archaeological Survey. So huge was the outcry that Lord Hardinge, the then Governor General, had it taken down in 1848. Known as Smith’s Folly, the cupola now lies in the outer lawns of the Qutb complex.

It has not been established with certainty whether the Qutb Minar is named after Qutbuddin Aibak, who commissioned its construction, or Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, the famous Sufi saint. According to historians, the name Qutub or Cootub Minar became popular only in the British period. Two common names by which the Minar is referred in contemporary accounts are “Qutub Sahab ki Laat” or “Mazinah of the Juma Masjid”. “Qutub Sahab ki Laat” comes from the staff of Bakhtiyar Kaki. His staff was believed to pierce the sky and, like the pir himself, connect the heaven with earth and provide stability and shelter to human beings. In popular cosmology, he was regarded as the Qutb, the “axis around whom the world revolved”, or Qubbat al-Islam, the sanctuary of Islam. No inscription on the Minar, however, mentions the saint’s name, though Iltutmish greatly respected him as a spiritual master.

The second name, “Mazinah of the Juma Masjid”, is related to the functionality of the mosque. The structure was to serve as a mazinah, or minaret, of the congregational mosque from where the muezzin would call the faithful to prayer. However, given the height of the Minar, it would have been difficult to climb it five times a day. Also, calls from the top storey would not have been audible to those on the ground.

The historian Rana Safvi says the Qutb Minar served more than one purpose. It may have served as a mazinah but only from the first storey. It may have also served as a watchtower to monitor enemy movements. However, the most probable function, Safvi says, would have been as some kind of a victory tower; it would not only have struck awe in the heart of local people but also stamped the authority of the ruler on visitors, giving all those who had come from faraway places such as Afghanistan a psychological boost.

Iltutmish’s tomb

Unlike the Minar, Iltutmish’s tomb in the complex has a relatively less contested history. Iltutmish himself built it around 1235. Erected just five years after what is believed to be the tomb of his eldest son, Nasiruddin Mahmud (Sultan Ghari), it is strikingly different and bears a distinctly Islamic character.

The Islamic tomb, Vidya Dehejia says, introduced a novel form of architecture in India. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains had traditionally cremated their dead, and with the exception of Buddhist stupas, no commemorative funerary monuments had existed in India. In addition, by building a tomb while he was still the reigning monarch, Iltutmish introduced a practice followed by most of the later Islamic rulers.

The basic design of Iltutmish’s tomb consists of a single square chamber roofed by a corbelled dome. To support the dome, the square chamber was converted into an octagon by means of squinches and pendentives. This was the first monument in India to use the squinch arch as an architectural device. The corbelled dome, possibly constructed by means of concentric rings of masonry, collapsed as the Hindu craftsmen were as yet unfamiliar with the technique of constructing a true dome. According to some accounts, Firoz Shah Tughlaq tried to replace the fallen dome but it did not survive. The mortuary chamber was kept beneath the cenotaph. Its interior has Quranic verses (in both Naksh and the combined Kufic and Tughra characters) carved in red sandstone as also inscriptional mural decorations. The carvings include chapters from the Quran that speak of paradise as the reward for the true believer. Marble finds a limited introduction in the tomb and is used for the construction of the central mihrab (niche on the qibla wall) and also the cenotaph.

Iltutmish had doubled the size of the Qutb mosque by extending its colonnades and prayer hall outside the original enclosure. Political conditions following his death and up to the time of Alauddin Khalji, foreign invasions and internal law and order issues were not conducive to the development of architecture, and no monuments were erected in the Qutb complex in this period.

Page says that Alauddin Khalji was ambitious in his political and architectural designs, and his projected extensions at the Qutb were aimed at dwarfing the efforts of his predecessors. His great dominating screen archway and the Alai Minar were reflections of this design. His plan was to build a pillar twice as big as the Qutb Minar, but it was abandoned following the death of the sultan. Alauddin Khalji also constructed a madrasa. It is built in dressed grey quartzite around a simple quadrangular court that can be entered on the north side through a triple gateway. The rooms are arranged in two rows: one running from north to south and the other running from east to west. They have true arches and conspicuous keystones. In the middle of the east-west wing of rooms lies a large square structure covered originally by a dome (now fallen off) and a projecting portico. This is believed to be the tomb of Alauddin Khalji. One is however unable to trace the cenotaph or the grave. The most impressive of the sultan’s constructions at the Qutb, however, is the Alai Darwaza.

Alauddin Khalji commissioned a major expansion of the Qutb mosque. The colonnades of that extension towards the north have now largely disappeared but remains can still be seen. However, one can see the impressive ceremonial gateway he built in 1311. Safvi says that this gate in the south was envisaged as one of the four gates to the complex; one gate was planned for the north and two gates for the eastern side of the complex. The historian M. Mujeeb points out that the Alai Darwaza, as originally planned, consisted of a domed chamber (17.2 square metres) with three entrances and a fourth archway leading into a portico projected into the enclosure of the mosque. There were also extensions on the east and the west to combine the Darwaza harmoniously with the enclosure. The dome, which looks rather low from outside, is not a separate unit of the structure but the roofing of a vault, the height of which when seen from inside is impressive. The dome has an opening at the top that is capped by another small white marble dome.

The arched entrance to the north is semicircular while others are in the shape of a pointed horseshoe. The entrances are decorated with beautifully carved lotus buds on the underside while the red sandstone walls have ornate carvings, latticed stone screens ( jaalis) and inscriptions of verses from the Quran and the Hadith in Naksh. The inscriptions on the eastern, western and southern entrances contain references to Alauddin Khalji, and an epigraph around the east gate ascribes the construction of the gateway to him. The historian Swapna Liddle says that the inscriptions are mainly praises of the sultan, who is referred to among other grandiose epithets as the “second Alexander”.

Vidya Dehejia says that the Alai Darwaza is the first building in India that employs wholly Islamic architectural principles of construction in terms of symmetry and ornamentation. Another Islamic decorative theme is seen on the facade of the gateway, which is embellished with carved geometric blocks of red sandstone and white marble, a simple prelude to later elaboration of decorative geometry into a major art form. Its visual principles were those of repetition and symmetry, and the basic design of the circle was developed into squares, triangles, polygons, hexagons, octagons and stars. In later Islamic monuments, one pattern is frequently superimposed upon another in reversed colours and materials with striking effect.

Just next to the Alai Darwaza is the beautiful tomb of Imam Zamin or Imam Muhammad Ali. Probably an important official in the service of the congregational mosque, he had come to Delhi from Turkestan during the reign of Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) and constructed the tomb during his lifetime. This structure is interesting from the point of view of tomb architecture. It is a simple square structure with a dome (covered in plaster) rising from an octagonal drum decorated with a double row of kanguras (battlement motifs) and marble panelling above the chajja (eaves). The four walls are perforated with red sandstone jaalis, characteristic of the Lodi period. There is a marble mihrab in the west, and the entrance in the south is also done in marble as is the cenotaph and some decorative reliefs in the interior. The remaining buildings in the complex do not have a direct archaeological connection with the mosque or the Minar. There are remains of a Mughal sarai (rest house) towards the entrance archway through which visitors now enter the complex. To the north of this s arai are the dilapidated remains of a late Mughal garden containing the ruins of some graves in the centre and of a mosque in the western wall.

Politics and debates surrounding the mosque

The religious pre-eminence of the Qutb mosque continued until the early decades of the 14th century, following which new imperial capitals were built around the older centres of Delhi, each with their own congregational mosque. However, as the art historians Ebba Koch and Flood argue, its aura was sufficiently powerful to inspire attempts at appropriation—either through interventions on its material fabric or by replication of its characteristic features—in some later monuments. The historian Mrinalini Rajagopalan points out that the mosque comes into visibility again in the late 19th century with the developments in photographic technology and its use in documenting Indian antiquities; growing interest in and professionalisation of heritage preservation by colonial bureaucrats; and the emergence of urban history as a new genre of scholarship, as seen in the publication of Syed Ahmad Khan’s Athar ul-Sanadid in 1847. Flood says the reused pillars of the Qutb mosque were cast in plaster and shipped in the 1870s to London for display as a part of the representation of the subcontinent in the architectural courts of the South Kensington Museum.

The mosque has also remained a political site in emergent scholarship. Sunil Kumar says there are broadly three kinds of representations. Syed Ahmad Khan, Page, J. Horowitz and Cunningham have primarily focussed on the redeployment of materials relating to Hindu and Jain temples within the mosque. This formed a symbolic statement about Islam’s victory over idolaters and its conquest and hegemony over an infidel population. They say this is reinforced by the name by which the mosque was known in the past: Quwwat-ul-Islam, or the “Might of Islam”. The second group—consisting of scholars such as Michael Meister, Mohammad Mujeeb and later A.B.M. Husain—puts forward a more secular narration. It emphasised the importance of indigenous craftsmanship for the realisation of Islamic architecture and the presence of Hindu hands in designing and constructing the mosque.

The third group, represented by Anthony Welch and Robert Hillenbrand, stresses the “Might of Islam” framework even more strongly, calling it an uncompromising Muslim celebration of conquest. It argues that the building material, architectural forms and the epigraphic texts of the congregational mosque asserted the unity and cultural uniqueness of Muslims.

One of the most controversial features of the mosque is the foundational inscription at the eastern gate, which commemorates the expropriation of temple materials. This needs to be interpreted in the larger historical context of India’s medieval past, when, as Sunil Kumar argues, there was considerable disunity and contestation within the groups defined as “Hindus” and “Muslims”. The historian Richard H. Davis points out that Hindu rulers also plundered temples and frequently treated idols as war trophies and publicly displayed them as statements of conquest. Most such temples, as the historian Richard Eaton suggests, were tutelary temples housing deities that presided over specific polities; their destruction constituted and heralded the end of the dynastic lines associated with them. Flood argues that the replacement of tutelary temples with congregational mosques amounted to a rewriting of the urban space that was both pragmatic (allowed the Muslim community space to fulfil the requirements of ritual prayer) and ideological (signifying the supersession of the old political order and the permanence of the new). Vidya Dehejia contends that Qutbuddin Aibak was appropriating for Islam the heart of the previous Hindu stronghold. Further, the practice of building new sacred structures in existing sacred places was common across cultures: Christians built a Gothic cathedral in the middle of a mosque in Cordoba, Spain.

Flood adds a new level of complication by ascribing the foundational inscription to Iltutmish rather than Qutbuddin Aibak. Looking at the chronological and linguistic anomalies as well as the form of the inscription, he argues that the inscription should be dated several decades later than the cited date, 587/1191-2. The original text, he argues, was in fact in place in the 1220s during the reign of Iltutmish. Its general emphasis on extirpation of idolatry finds an echo in Quranic passages inscribed on those sections of the Qutb Minar that Iltutmish added. Flood says that the sultan also re-erected the Iron Pillar in order to perpetuate the memory of his rule. Pre-conquest Indian kings would routinely appropriate, recontextualise and reinscribe antique pillars. In the 1220s and 1230s, the mosque became the repository of highly charged objects that invoked both the recent past of Islam in India and the more distant epic past of Indian kings. The invocation of multiple pasts, Flood contends, was integral to an endeavour to construct collective memories around which a community divided by ethnicity, political affiliation and sectarian affinities could adhere and cohere.

Sunil Kumar addresses one of the central points in this debate. He claims that the name of the mosque, Quwwat-ul-Islam, perceived as a reference to the triumph of Islam over an indigenous form of Hinduism, is in all probability the modern corruption of an older name, Qubbat al-Islam, that meant “Sanctuary of Islam” or the “Axis of Islam”. The name Quwwat-ul-Islam does not occur in any extant inscription or any Sultanate chronicle, and Syed Ahmad Khan was the first to refer to Delhi’s masid-i jami by that name. The name stuck. The term Qubbat al-Islam was at first ambiguously used by the contemporary chronicler Minaj-i Siraj Juzjani for Iltutmish’s Delhi and later applied to define the spiritual domain of Bakhtiyar Kaki. It was transformed into Quwwat-ul-Islam and used for the Qutb mosque. The name coincided closely with the military persona of the first constructor of the mosque and his proclamation of the new political order built out of the rubble of temples.

The minar-mosque conundrum

The stark difference in the relative impressions visitors have of the Qutb Minar and the mosque forms another haunting legacy of the site and its historiography. The Minar has been readily appropriated by the postcolonial nation state as a singular object of reverence and pride and celebrated as an architectural marvel in newspapers, textbooks and media campaigns. When the Qutb Minar was declared a World Heritage Site, its standing as a historical and architectural icon got reinforced even beyond the country’s borders. Sunil Kumar and Mrinalini Rajagopalan point out that while tourists, antiquarians and scholars see the Minar as evidence of architectural grandeur, the reactions to the mosque are comparatively ambivalent or negative. The dominant impressions visitors have of the mosque are those of conquest of Hindustan by Muslim rulers, fanaticism and violence, Islamic iconoclasm, Hindu trauma and communal distinctions and strife. Unlike the Minar, the mosque impresses visitors with its images of destruction, power and might.

Sunil Kumar argues that the contemporary historical image of the Quwwat-ul-Islam is a backward projection of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in post-Partition India rather than an accurate reflection of its medieval context. He says that visitors to the site should be educated about its complex political and religious past.

The spolia of the temples forms only a small part of the multilevel history of the mosque and the Minar. It also includes stories of independent Muizzi Amirs (who could raise military, wage war and compete with each other) such as Bahauddin Tughril, the governor of Thangir (in Bayana), who sought to improve the economy of his appanage by attracting merchants and well-known men from different parts of Hindustan and Khurasan and who constructed a similar mosque in Bayana; Sufi dervishes such as Nur Turk, who collected a large following near Delhi, condemned the ulama of the majority community and even attacked the Qutb mosque; popular saints such as Nizamuddin Auliya, whose tomb emerged as the most venerated shrine of Delhi; the popular veneration of Bakhtiyar Kaki; and the historiography of Syed Ahmed Khan and his successors.

The tilt in the scholarship concerned with the site is perhaps as, if not more, dangerous than the tilt reported in the Minar in its south-west side. So, when there are plans by the government to build an ambitious first-of-its-kind skywalk at the Qutb, there should also be systematic efforts to relieve the monument complex of the burdens the past has imposed on it.

Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender violence, culture and heritage.