City Monument - Qutub Minar Complex, Mehrauli

City Monument – Qutub Minar Complex, Mehrauli

Qutub View

379 steps to heaven.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Size matters, sometimes adversely. Lightning has twice damaged the Qutub Minar, India’s tallest stone tower.

This five-storeyed red and buff sandstone tower, with marble trimmings higher up, massaged the ego of three early Islamic rulers: Qutubuddin Aibak who laid the foundation and supervised the first storey’s construction in the 12th century; Iltutmish who built the second, third and fourth; and Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who built the fifth stretching the minar to its present height of 72.5 metres. The British too made their addition. The balustrades that surround the balconies are Gothic.

As part of the Quwwatul Islam mosque, it is no surprise Quranic inscriptions cover the walls. Some historians believe that Qutb Minar was named after Qutubuddin Aibak who commissioned the erection. Others cite Bakhtiyar Kaki, the sufi saint popularly known as Qutub Sahib, whose shrine lies in the same neighbourhood.

The sufis say the tower is symbolic of Kaki’s staff and that it connects earth to heaven. If that is true, then this is the shortest route to heaven – just 379 steps.

Alas, the entry is closed for safety reasons. That doesn’t discourage the heaven-seekers. In 2006, the Qutub Minar received more visitors than the Taj Mahal.

While the Qutub Minar itself looms large, its complex has other equally engaging distractions. There are mosques, tombs, gateways and gardens.

This beautiful rubble has a disturbing history. As Delhi’s first grand mosque of the late 12th century, Quwwatul Islam was made from the stones of Hindu and Jain temples that the conquerors destroyed after driving the Hindus out of Delhi in 1192. Built by Qutubuddin Aibak, South Asia’s first Muslim ruler, and later enlarged by Iltutmish and Allauddin Khilji, the mosque’s columns and pillars in its cloisters are elaborately carved with disfigured Hindu idols. Tourists walk under the lofty arches and pose against graves, not caring that they are moving around a jumble yard of ancient conflicts. It gives the illusion that the past is dead.

The unknown tombs, collapsed gates and massive stone slabs dispersed on the floor indicate that times have moved on. Politically correct people can whitewash the history by describing the complex as a rich condensation of Hindu art applied for Muslim purposes.

Now back to the monuments themselves … Alai Darwaza, a gateway built by Alauddin Khilji, was the chief entrance to the Quwwatul Islam mosque. Elaborately decorated with Quranic inscriptions and floral motifs, this mix of red sandstone and white marble is among Delhi’s most beautiful gateways. The barricaded iron pillar in the mosque’s courtyard, dating from the 4th century, shows no rust.

Do not be taken in by the plain look of ltutmish’s square tomb. The exteriors are stark but the interiors are lavishly ornamented with geometrical and arabesque patterns, including Hindu motifs such as lotus and diamond. The ruler’s tombstone stands on a platform on which college girls pose for photographs.

If you get too awed by the supposed invincibility of emperors, turn to Alai Minar.

Commissioned by Khilji, it was intended to be double the Qutub Minar’s size. A mere 25-metre high heap of stones, it could not be completed. The emperor died and he too has a tomb in the complex. But the grave is missing.

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