Delhi, the capital city of India is amongst one of the top cities visited by tourists visiting India. It is home to three World Heritage Sites: Humayun’s Tomb, Red Fort Complex and the Qutb Minar Complex, all located in three distinct parts of the capital city.
The Qutb Minar Complex is the oldest of the three heritage sites, and consists of several monuments. Most of them belonging to the early Delhi Sultanates and representing early Indo-Islamic architecture. One of which is the oldest Mosque in Delhi called the Quwwat-ul-Islam (Might of Islam) Masjid. However, our focus in this article will be on the Qutb Minar, which is the mainstay of the Qutb Minar Complex.
Muhammad of Ghor (which is in present day Afghanistan) conquered north India including Delhi in 1192 AD. He then returned home leaving his able General Qutbuddin Aibak in charge and based out of Delhi. In 1206 following Muhammad’s assassination, Qutubddin Aibak established an independent state with Delhi as its capital and started what we now call the ‘Slave Dynasty’ as he and his successors had been slaves. Qutbuddin built the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, which was used as the main congregational area for the newly conquered areas, over the debris of the demolished temples and is credited with making the first floor of the Qutb Minar in 1199. After his death, his son-in-law, Iltutmish took over as the king and completed the next 3 levels of Qutb Minar around 1220.
In 1336, the fourth floor of the Qutb Minar was damaged by lightning and was replaced by two storeys by the then ruler – Firoz Shah Tughlaq. He replaced the original red stone with marble and sandstone for these two storeys and added a cupola on the top. The Qutb Minar was once again damaged in an earthquake in 1803 and was repaired by the British under the guidance of Major Smith of the Royal Engineers. However, he was heavily criticised for this repair work, which were subsequently removed for being incompatible with the main structure. A cupola from his time can still be found lying in the grounds of the complex. It is now called Smith’s folly!
In earlier days one could go all the way to the top floor. On the northern side of y, there is a door, which leads to a spiral stairway that grants access to each floor. Entry was first restricted upto the first floor which still provided a panoramic view of the beautiful surroundings. However, in 1981, a tragic stampede in which several people died resulted in the Qutb Minar being closed to the general public. Permission to access the interior of the Minar can only be granted by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), who is responsible for maintaining the complex.
At 72.5 meters and 379 steps, the Qutb Minar is the tallest masonry minar in the world. Historians have proposed several reasons as to the purpose of the minar. Some say that it was to serve as a mazinah or the minaret of the mosque close by, from where the muezzin would call the faithful to prayer. However, given its height, it would not be practical for the muezzin to climb up and down the minar five times a day, so maybe it was used for this purpose from the first storey only. One speculation is that it could have been used as a watchtower to keep track of enemy movement. The most probable explanation however seems to be that of a Victory tower with multiple uses to assert the dominance of the new dispensation. Its inspiration was most likely the two decorative towers located in Ghazni City (central Afghanistan). These 12th century towers are among the last surviving remnants of the Ghaznavid Empire.
A common misconception is that the Qutb Minar was named after the founder of the slave dynast, Qutbuddin Aibak. However, the name was most probably derived from ‘Qutub Sahab ki Laat’, a name used by locals with reference to the Sufi saint Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki whose shrine is located nearby. Illtumush, under whose reign the minar was completed held the Sufi saint in great reverence.
A striking feature of the minar is the difference in the design and fluting from one storey to another. This could be attributed to the fact that it was completed/repaired by different people at different times. Around the tower are carved mouldings which contain the names of Qutbuddin and his master, Muhammad of Ghor along with the texts of the Quran and the names of Allah, all written in Kufic calligraphy. The projecting balconies are supported by intricately carved muqarnas. Those who want to explore more about muqarnas should study these in detail. Apart from pure decoration, these also offer support to the balconies.
Other notable monuments in this complex are: –
1. Alai Darwaza
2. Tomb of Imam Zamin
3. Tomb of Sultan Iltutmish
4. Iron Pillar
5. Alai Minar
6. Sultan Alauddin Madarsa and Tomb
7. Mughal Serai
Trivia: If you want to have a look of what the inside of the Qutb Minar looks like, catch the old Bollywood movie ‘Tere Ghar Ke Saamne’ starring superstars Dev Anand and Nutan. One of its hit songs ‘Dill ka Bhanwar Kare Pukaar’ was shot inside the Qutb Minar
1. Delhi – A thousand Years of Buildings – Lucy Peck, Intach – Roli Publications
2. Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi – Rana Safvi