Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mehrauli: Qutb Minar Complex

A highly decorated prayer niche. Part of the large mosque next to the Qutb Minar in Mehrauli. This part of the complex dates from the early 13th century, and was constructed by Iltutmish, the second ruler of the Mamluk, or Slave, dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. This panel displays a variety of different decorative motifs, including two varieties of Arabic calligraphy. The carvings on the row furthest to the right are in an early Arabic script called Kufic, which seems to have developed in the fourth century, well before the advent of Islam. The earliest surviving Korans were written in the Kufic script, and the system of writing was used by a number of groups of central Asian Muslims who were culturally similar to the Mamluks. The carvings on the next row over are fairly stylized representations of leaves and vines, while the third row consists of more Arabic carvings, in this instance in the much later Nashki script. 

My blog posts on Delhi have largely focused on the more obscure, or at least less touristy, places in that vast city. Yet, sometimes, it's good to go back and visit the classic sites. I've already done a blog post on the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, and at some point I'm going to do a post on the interesting things to see in Mehrauli Village, which I visited a few months ago. That being the case, it seemed fitting that I should do a write up on what most people come to see when they travel to Mehrauli, namely, the Qutb Minar and the complex of early Sultanate buildings around it. 

The Qutb Minar is hardly off the beaten path. In fact, by some estimates, it's India's most visited tourist attraction, beating out even the Taj Mahal (probably due to the Qutb's very close proximity to an international airport). Despite this, the Qutb Minar isn't particularly well known outside of India. The first time I can remember seeing it was in an old obscure Bollywood movie from the seventies (it had something to do with a poor kid struggling on the I recall, it wasn't very good). While the Taj is for many people the very symbol of India, the Qutb Minar is, at best, and big weird tower in Delhi. 

Yet, in some ways, the Qutb Minar would perhaps make a better symbol for India than the Taj. Work on the minaret  began in the 1190s, just after the city's conquest by Muhammad Ghori, whose general and governor for the region, a Turk by the name Qutbuddin Aibak, would go on to found the first great Islamic kingdom based in Delhi, that of the Mamluks. The Qutb Minar therefore comes from the very earliest period of Islamic building in India, a time when many of the features we associate with classic Indian Islamic architecture had yet to develop, and the builders had to rely to a very large extent on Hindu artisans. This resulted in numerous Hindu motifs being incorporated into the Islamic buildings, creating a genuine synthesis of Islamic and Indian artistic sensibilities. Though the Taj is arguably the more beautiful building, it is also more "foreign" to India, as it represents a much more fully developed stage Indo-Islamic architecture, where the indigenous elements, though still present, are more thoroughly masked, while some of its most striking features, such as its pietra dura inlaid stonework, are purely foreign innovations. However the Qutb Minar, though it is a monument to a non-Indian religion, is nonetheless a building constructed with the skills available to the Indian builders of the period. 

A view of the Qutb Minar at dawn, from Smith's Folly. The two buildings next to it are the Alai Darwaza, dating from the early 14th century, and the tomb of Imam Zamin. I visited the Qutb Minar first thing in the morning. This was right at the point in the day where the sun started to burn through the early morning fog/smog (fmog?) endemic to Delhi. Here you can clearly see each level of the structure. The first was constructed by Qutbbudin Aibak. Three more were added to that by his successor Illtutmish. Over time, the uppermost level was damaged, and then removed and replaced with two new levels by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in the latter half of the 14th century. Hence the variation in style between the first three levels and the last two. The three Mamluk levels are made of sandstone, while the two Tughlaq levels are composed of marble.  Smith's Folly was an addition the British made to the Qutb Minar during a period of restoration in the early 19th century. It was originally a cupola that would go on top of the Minaret, but it was soon deemed to be stylistically out of place, so it was removed from the building and placed in that lawns nearby. Now it provides one of the best views of the Qutb Minar in the complex. 

Looking straight up at the Qutb Minar, just as the sunlight was getting stronger. Surprisingly, there is still some debate as to exactly what purpose the Qutb Minar served. It is frequently said that the building was meant as a tower from which a muezzin could climb up and issue the call to prayer for attendees of the mosque that was built next to it. But there's a problem with this theory, namely, that if the muezzin climbed to the top of the minaret, it would be impossible for anyone to hear him. He might possibly be able to be heard from the balcony on the first floor, but if the building was meant specifically for giving the call to prayer, why build the other three floors? Other sources describe the Qutb Minar as a giant watch tower, or a huge landmark to announce the location of the adjacent mosque, while some still implausibly maintain that the structure is actually a pre-Islamic Rajput building. What the minaret seems to be modeled on is another tower in Afghanistan, built by the same empire that Qutbuddin Aibak branched off from, called the Minaret of Jam. The purpose of that building seems to have been simply to commemorate the triumph of Islam, and it seems fairly certain that the Qutb Minar was built for the same reason, even if it also probably served other, more mundane functions associated with the mosque. But the main point of the thing seems simply to have been to impress, which it most certainly does, even after 800 years.

Close on some of the inscriptions on the side of the minaret, a little later in the day. 

Close on the first floor balcony, and the top of the part of the structure built by Qutbuddin Aibak  (with the addition of parrots for scale and added visual drama).  Though the Qutb Minar is impressive from a distance, it's only when you get up close to it that you get the full effect. That slightly silly looking railing you can see on top of the balcony was another British addition from the first half of the 19th century. Of course, then you were probably allowed to climb up the thing, and I suppose the Brits didn't want people falling off.  

The second floor balcony, which is basically a less ambitious version of the first floor.

The altogether more threatening looking third floor. 

Surrounding the Qutb Minar is a large collection of early sultanate buildings, many of them incorporating fragments of earlier Rajput temples, along with a few Mughal structures. By far the most important building in the complex, other than the Qutb Minar itself, is the mosque. This is usually referred to as the Quwwat Ul-Islam, or Might of Islam, mosque, though that name was only given to it relatively recently. The mosque is one of India's earliest, and is rather a puzzling collection of ruins: The main prayer hall was built by Qutbuddin Aibak, and then additions were made both by Qutbuddin Aibak's successor Illtutmish and then by Alauddin Khilji, but they both failed to complete whatever it was they were planning, the result being that the complex is characterized by many awkward arrangements and unfinished buildings. 

Some of the building materials used in the Quwwat Ul-Islam Mosque are famously parts of Rajput Jain and Hindu temples which the Muslims dismantled after taking the city. The whole complex was built on the ruins of a large Rajput fort called Lal-Kot. Strangely, therefore, the Qutb Minar complex, despite being a monument to the triumph of Islam, is the largest and best preserved collection of ancient Hindu ruins in Delhi. Virtually all Hindu temples in Delhi before the 12th century were destroyed by the invading Muslims. Therefore the temple columns which the Muslims incorporated into their own buildings are some of the very few fragments of the pre-Islamic history of Delhi that come down to us. 

The tomb of Imam Zamin. I've found conflicting information on who Imam Zamin was. Lucy Peck in her Delhi: The Architectural Heritage says that nothing is known about the man, while claims that he was a saint from central Asia.  This building actually comes from a much later period than most of the structures in the Qutb Minar complex. The dates from both sources agree (well...archnet says 1538, Lucy Peck says 1539). That puts it in the early Mughal period, just before Humayun was kicked out of India and Sher Shah Suri briefly took over. The vast majority of Mughal architectural achievements were still to come at this point, and this tomb would seem to have more in common with earlier Sultanate constructions. I do believe that this is the only building from this period within the ticketed monument, though the Jamali Kamali mosque and tomb in the adjacent Mehrauli Archaeological Park are from about twenty years earlier. 

An opening into the Alai Darwaza, a finished gateway to an unfinished extension of the Qutb Minar mosque planned by Alauddin Khilji. The building dates from the early 14th century, after the introduction of true arches. Alauddin's plans called for a much bigger mosque compound with four large gateways, though this is the only one which ever actually came into being. Alauddin Khilji is one of the more important and interesting rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, and he leaves behind a decidedly mixed legacy. The man appears to have been one of the greatest campaigners ever to rule in Delhi, and in his capacity as a military leader seems to deserve credit for successfully defending India from the Mongols. But the downside of this was, instead of the Mongols overrunning most of India, Alauddin Khilji's armies penetrated further into the sub-continent than any Muslim invaders had previously. And while with later Muslim dynasties, such as the Tughlaqs and to an even greater extent the Mughals, we can talk about them incorporating their conquests into pan-Indian empires, many of the campaigns launched by Alauddin Khilji, such as those in South India, seem to have been more concerned with plunder than with actually placing those areas under Sultanate control. He also imposed stringent economic reforms, the purpose of which were ultimately to fund his military machine. They consisted in higher taxes and strict price controls on important commodities such as grain, the measures being enforced by severe punishments. Opinions vary widely as to the success of these measures. The Wikipedia article on the man gives one the impression the entire society benefited from them. Lucy Peck, who is my main source on the actual buildings in Delhi, gives a mixed appraisal of the market reforms, saying that they mainly served to benefit the Muslim aristocracy while greatly disadvantaging the Hindus. John Keay in his India: A History portrays the reforms as being successful only in the short term, and I suspect that his version of the events is the most accurate. The result of fixing such low prices on so many commodities was that profits went down with the prices, reducing purchasing power and finally putting people right back where they started. Additionally, the whole scheme depended on a huge network of spies and government agents, who were ultimately a part of Alauddin Khilji's military machine, an organization that only functioned with Alauddin Khilji at the controls. Once he died, his kingdom went immediately into decline, and the economic reforms he had tried to instate evaporated. 

The side of the Alai Darwaza. Alauddin Khilji's additions to the Qutb Minar complex would seem to characterize the man as someone who was extremely talented and yet hopelessly over ambitious. The Alai Darwaza is one of the most impressive buildings in the complex, and indeed in all of Delhi, yet it is also the only part of the grand scheme for a much bigger mosque that actually materialized.  

Ornamental niches on the Alai Darwaza, with parrot. 

Jali screen window in the side of the Alai Darwaza.

A large Star of David on the inside of the entrance to the Alai Darwaza. The Star of David frequently appears in Islamic art, and is often seen as a decorative motif on historical Islamic buildings throughout India. 

Alauddin's Madrasa, one of the few structures in the Qutb Minar Complex that Alauddin Khilji actually completed. This view is looking through what is said to be Alauddin's Tomb. The madrasa contrasts markedly with the Alai Darwaza as it is totally lacking in decoration, the outside layering of the building having been stripped off long ago, presumably  to provide building material elsewhere.

Iltutmish's Tomb. Iltutmish was the third ruler of the Mamluk Sultanate. Once a slave of Qutbuddin Aibak, he overthrew Aibak's son (who was only on the throne for about a year) in 1211, and was in power for the next two and half decades, making his reign the longest of any ruler during the Mamluk dynasty. His time on the throne seems to have been largely occupied both with suppressing revolts in what were theoretically the eastern provinces of the Mamluk domain, and with dealing with the successive waves of central Asian refugees being swept into India by the campaigns of Genghis Khan and his immediate successors. After his death in 1236, the kingdom descended into a long period of instability, during which Delhi had it's only female ruler, Iltutmish's daughter Razia.  Although Qutbuddin Aibak started construction on the Qutb Minar, it was Iltutmish who finished it. He also started work on an extension to Aibak's mosque which, like Alauddin Khilji's, was never completed. 

Looking through the south entrance arch of Iltutmish's tomb. It is not known if the tomb once had a dome or not. It certainly looks as though one belongs there, but there is some debate as to whether the walls of the structure, which are surprisingly thin, would be able to support one.  There is a possibility that the tomb was always open to the sky, as it is now, in order to fall in line with an oft ignored Islamic belief that a gravestone must be exposed to the elements in order to be blessed.   

Corner arch in Iltutmish's tomb.

The Alai Minar, perhaps the world's greatest monument to failed self aggrandizing vanity projects. The Alai Minar was an attempt by Alauddin Khilji to build a minaret twice the size of the Qutb. He only managed to finish part of the first story before his death, and his successors never felt moved to keep going with the project. Now the weird unfinished rubble mass sits forlornly north of the mosque, ignored by the vast majority of visitors. 

The great arched screen at the western end of the Quwwat Ul-Islam mosque, behind which was once the mosque's prayer hall. This part of the mosque, along with the first story of the Qutb Minar, are the earliest Islamic structures in the complex, having both been built during Qutbbudin Aibak's brief reign. 

The arches of the Quwwat Ul-Islam mosque must rank among India's most pronounced Hindu-Islamic artistic syntheses. Here, the form of the structure is Islamic, as are the various decorative motifs such as the calligraphic carvings and the renderings of  plant life. But the actual artisans who built the screen were almost certainly Hindus who would have used methods familiar to them from working on temples. The arch here is not a true arch that takes the stresses from the surrounding structure, true arches having not yet arrived in India. Rather, the construction is trabeated, with the individual blocks of masonry on both sides of the arch extending further outwards the higher up they go, the blocks finally meeting each other at the top, the lower blocks being held in place by the weight of the blocks above them. This was a method that was well established in India, yet here it is being used in the construction of arches that on first glance look like the true arches of classical Islamic architecture. 

Incredible carvings on the side of the arch. 

Carvings on the side of the Quwwat Ul-Islam arched screen. Though the decorative motifs here, such as the Arabic calligraphy and the depictions of plant life, are common features in Islamic buildings throughout the world, the very exuberant, dense, high relief, and somewhat less stylized, manner in which they have been rendered is unusual, and much more in-keeping with Hindu artistic sensibilities than with those more often associated with Islam. Though the carvings do not include representations of living beings (the depiction of which Hindu sculptors excelled at), the work here still has a remarkably un-Islamic lack of restraint. 

Stone vines and flowers, on the Quwwat Ul-Islam mosque screen. 

A prayer niche on Iltutmish's extension of the mosque. Here, the carvings and calligraphy are more restrained, and also even more highly stylized, than on the earlier portions of the mosque. It's remarkable that the style of the carvings evolved so much over the course of only a few decades. The shallower relief carvings here, while still incorporating many indigenous elements, are nonetheless more typically Islamic. 

The famous Delhi Iron Pillar. This is the oldest single element of the Qutb Minar complex, and of all of Mehrauli for that matter, having been around 800 years old by the time the Muslims arrived. It was not forged in Mehrauli, but instead seems to have been brought there at some point by the Rajputs, though from where is a matter of debate. An inscription on the side of the pillar states that is was first placed on "Vishnupada Hill" by a certain king "Chandra," but, while there are a number of theories, the actual location of Vishnupada is unknown. "Chandra" is generally regarded to be Chandragupta II of the Gupta dynasty, though there's a problem with this as well, namely, that there were a number of other important "Chandras" at roughly the same time, and the inscription never mentions the word "Gupta." It is largely taken up with extolling Chandra's achievements, and the pillar itself seems to have been a monument to the man, and a way of legitimizing his dynasty's rule. There is reason to believe that it was once topped with an idol of Garuda, though that has since been lost.  

Close on the Sanskrit inscription on the side of the Iron Pillar, written in an early Indian writing system called Brahmi. The pillar has a number of extremely unusual characteristics, which once made it among the world's foremost metallurgical mysteries. For one, the iron of which the pillar made is of a purity that would not be matched in Europe until the 19th century. Even more extraordinary is the fact that after around 1700 years of exposure to the elements, the pillar has barely rusted. Recently, this has been explained by the high amount of phosphorous used in the forging process. This phosphorus, some of which wound up in the object itself, caused the formation of a protective film composed of a substance called "Misawite" when it reacted with oxygen in the air. This film, which is very slowly growing, has protected the pillar from further corrosion. Thus, though the pillar has rusted, it's rusted in an usual way which has prevented it from corroding as much as one would expect. Incidentally, if one looks up "Misawite" online, most of the hits one gets are articles about the Delhi Iron Pillar.

Colonnade on the north side of the Quwwat Ul-Islam mosque, where Hindu temple columns have been stacked up one on top of another. The building materials here came from 27 Hindu and Jain temples that were destroyed by the Muslims. Usually, this act of destruction is portrayed as simple Islamic iconoclasm on Qutbuddin Aibak's part, though there are those who argue that the disassembly of the temples had political rather than religious motives. It is worth pointing out that Hindu rulers regularly destroyed each other's places of worship and appropriated each other's idols, as doing so was regarded as a way to weaken the other ruler's power. It certainly seems to be the case that the destruction of a conquered ruler's temples was common practice in India before the Muslims took over in Delhi, and it is likely that Qutbuddin Aibak was aware of the political significance of what he had done. Yet, given that Qutbuddin Aibak was not a Hindu himself, it is unlikely that he would have viewed the Rajput temples as being the source of any genuine power for those who built them. It is also telling that Qutbuddin Aibak demolished temples elsewhere in India, and that the destruction of Hindu shrines was often seen as a deed of great merit by the Ulema of various rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. Another possible, if rather more prosaic, motive behind Qutbuddin Aibak's destruction of the temples might have been that he simply needed to get his hands on large quantities of dressed stone. Since Hindu temples from this period were built without mortar out of carved blocks stacked on top of each other, disassembling and reassembling them is not that difficult. Certainly, in modern times, to restore an ancient stone Hindu temple that has collapsed is not that much of a technical challenge, while for Qutbuddin Aibak, building a whole whole new structure out of the already carved pieces of a Hindu temple would be vastly easier than starting from nothing. The real motivation behind the destruction of the temples was probably a combination of all three of the above motives, though in all likelihood Qutbbudin Aibak viewed the destruction of the idolatrous places of worship as a good and righteous deed, and therefore in his own mind that was probably his chief justification. Whatever the case may be, his actions do not smack of religious tolerance.  

A kirtimukha, or stylized monstrous face motif, that one encounters in Hindu and Buddhist temples all throughout Asia, at the top of one of the Quwwat Ul-Islam mosque pillars. Given the Islamic proscription against the depiction of living creatures, it seems odd that they would allow there to be so many of them on display in a mosque. It is usually assumed that carvings were covered with white plaster, though there is apparently no direct evidence support this.

Column with various typical Hindu decorative motifs,  including vases, kirtimukhas, and yali's (mythical elephant/lion hybrids). 

Close on a fairly classic Hindu temple column. Note that many of the motifs that appear here would not be out of place elsewhere in the mosque, in particular the representations of plant-life.

So, that was the Qutb minar complex. Like I said above, at some point I'll get around to the least visited part of the vast complex of historical ruins in and around Mehrauli: Mehrauli Village itself....though it may be a while, so, stay tuned!

Smith's Folly, the cupola that the British briefly added to the Qutb Minar, and then took down after only a few decades because they thought it looked silly. 

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