Qutb Minar – A slave king’s legacy

S Balakrishnan

Shh! As the whole nation is under lockdown due to Corona Virus threat, let me take you on a secret trip to Qutb Minar that has many credits to it – with a height of 72.5m/237.86 ft., this is the tallest brick minaret in the world! Naturally, this is also the highest tower (of the past era) in India. Of course, in modern India’s metros the residential towers easily surpass 800 ft., four times its height! This was initiated by a slave-turned-king. Within the complex is a mosque, the earliest extant built by Delhi Sultans, hence the oldest in northern India, whose southern gateway is the first building employing Islamic principles of construction and ornamentation. There is a much older iron pillar that has not rusted for more than 2000 years! With all these features, Qutb Minar complex, no wonder, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
The foundation for the 821-year-old Qutb Minar was laid in 1199 AD by Qutub’d-Din Aibak / Qutb al-Din Aibak. Even as a boy from Turkestan he was sold into slavery in Persia, but by grit rose to the position of general of Muhammad Ghori, a king of  Ghurid dynasty from part of Iran. On the passing away of the king Muhammad Ghori, Qutb became an independent king of the Ghurid territories in northern India of which earlier he was in charge. This later evolved into the Delhi Sultanate. He, however, ruled just for four years (1206-1210) only, when he instantly died falling from his horse while playing a sort of polo game. This, in short, is the story of the minaret’s founder.
Now, coming to the history of the Minar, it was meant to be used by the mu’azzin (announcer) to give calls for prayers by Muslim citizens. Qutb raised it up to the first storey, the base of which has a diameter of 14.32m. Three more storeys were added by Shamsu’d-Din Iltutmish, his 2nd successor (1210-1236) and later his son-in-law also; one more was added by Firuz Shah Tughlaq (AD 1351-88), thus raising the total height to 72.5 m (237.86 foot); the tapering tower has a diameter of 2.75m on the top. The minar was repaired by Tughlaq and Sikandar Lodi (AD 1489-1517). Major R. Smith also repaired and restored the minar in 1828. The top floors of the minar were destructed by lightning and rebuilt by Tughlaq with white marble in contrast to the red sandstone of the original construction, which is clearly visible. Because of natural disasters like lightning and earthquakes, Qutub Minar is said to be 2ft. off the perpendicular position, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy.  
A few kilometers south of Delhi stands Qutub Minar built of red and buff (yellowish-beige) coloured sandstone in what was originally Qila (Fort) Rai Pithora founded in 1052 by King Anang Pal II. The outer wall of the minar has alternating angular and rounded flutings; the interior of the minar has 379 steps. Each storey has a decorated balcony supported by stone brackets that encircle the structure. Arabic and Nagari inscriptions in different places of the minar have quotes from Quran, besides notes that reveal the history of Qutb and its maintenance, like when it was repaired, etc.
The tomb of Iltutmish (2nd successor and son-in-law of Qutb) is also located within his complex. Iltutmish was, in fact, one of Qutub’s favoured slaves and married Qutb’s daughter after Qutb’s demise. His tomb is a plain square chamber of red sandstone, profusely carved with inscriptions, geometrical and arabesque patterns in Saracenic tradition on the entrances and the whole of the interior. Motifs like wheel, tassel etc., remind of Hindu designs.
What is a minar without a mosque?  Well, Qutbu’d-Din Aibak had started construction of a mosque a year earlier in AD 1198 itself. The Quwwat-ul-Islam (“The Might of Islam”) Mosque to the north-east of minar is the earliest extant mosque built by the Delhi Sultans and the oldest in northern India. Its rectangular courtyard is surrounded by cloisters, erected with the carved columns and architectural members of 27 Hindu and Jaina temples demolished by Qutbu’d-Din Aibak, as recorded in his inscription on the main eastern entrance. Later, a lofty arched screen was erected and the mosque was also enlarged by Shamsu’d-Din Iltutmish and Alau’d-Din Khalji. The latter had also constructed the mosque’s southern gateway, ‘Ala’i-Darwaza’, in AD 1311. This has to its credit as the first building employing Islamic principles of construction and ornamentation.
Alau’d-Din Khalji was probably jealous of Qutbu’d-Din Aibak earning name and fame because of the Minar. So he wanted to build another minar within that complex itself, twice the size and height of Qutub Minar but could not complete beyond the first storey which stands incomplete at 25m height on his demise. This Ala’i Minar, though a coarse structure, is another star attraction there that you can’t miss to notice. The Qutb complex also houses a madrasa, many graves, tombs, another mosque and architectural remains of the past.
An Iron Pillar in the courtyard of Qutub Minar complex is a significant piece because it is more than 2000 years old but has not rusted! It bears an inscription in Sanskrit in Brahmi script of 4th century AD, according to which the pillar was set up as a Vishnudhvaja (standard of god Vishnu) on the hill known as Vishnupada in memory of a mighty king named Chandra, from where Anang Pal had it shifted it to this fort. A socket atop the pillar was probably for an image of Garuda fixed there.
Visitors would also find an odd cupola / chatthri standing out of place in the courtyard. It has its interesting story. The 1803 tremor had permanently damaged the cupola atop the Minar. So Lord Wellesly, the British Governor-General of India, ordered Major Robert Smith to recreate one such atop the minar. By 1828 Major Smith had, instead, designed and erected a Bengali-type Hindu chatthri that was a misfit atop the Islamic minar. It was so out of place atop the Minar that in 1848 the then Governor-General of India, Hendry Hardinge, had it removed and dumped it on the lawns. So, there it lies as a testimony to Smith’s Folly and named as Smith’s Cupola.
A stampede in the tower’s staircase due to electricity failure in December 1981 caused the death of 45 visitors. This led to the ban of visitors to climb the stairs to its storeys. The complex is generally open from sunrise to 8 PM.
It has been almost two decades since I visited Qutub Minar. It was a hot day in May 2003 but we were there early in the morning to catch a glimpse of India’s tallest tower. Recently, a small magnetic fridge sticker made of marble dust caught my eye in Kanyakumari, of all the places – it is a cute replica of Qutub Minar priced at 70 rupees. This piece has kindled my desire to visit the tower again, now that I have also gathered so much interesting information that I wasn’t aware of at all earlier. Qutub is calling but Corona is lurking!
The writer can be reached at  [email protected] / 9840917608 Whatsapp