November 21, 2012

Alai Darwaza, New Delhi

This article is part of the series about Qutb Complex, Delhi. Refer Pixelated Memories – Qutb Complex for the composite post.


“It is about a century more modern than the other buildings of the place, and displays the Pathan style at its period of greatest perfection, when the Hindu masons had learned to fit their exquisite style of decoration to the forms of their foreign masters…This building, though small – it is only fifty-six feet square externally, and with an internal apartment only thirty-four feet six inches in plan – marks the culminating point of the Pathan style in Delhi. Nothing so complete had been done before, nothing so ornate was attempted by them afterwards…Externally, it is a good deal damaged, but its effect is still equal to that of any building of its class in India."
– James Fergusson, 19th century architectural historian and explorer 

After returning successful from his Deccan campaigns, Alauddin Khilji (reigned 1296-1316 AD), the second Sultan of the medieval short-lived Khilji Dynasty that ruled over vast territories extending from North India and Pakistan to Bengal in east and Deccan in south, decided to show his gratitude to God by embarking on an ambitious project to enlarge the mosque built by Qutbuddin Aibak and extended by Shamshuddin Iltutmish, previous rulers who established Muslim rule over India and helped propagate it further respectively. Alauddin’s ambitions had no seams – he planned to expand the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in Delhi to over three times its original size, add ceremonial gateways to the mosque in all directions, provide for a massive madrasa (Islamic school for religious learning) adjacent to the mosque, build more floors atop the already existing Qutb Minar and even add a new minaret nearby that was supposed to be twice the height of Qutb Minar (see links in the end). But the Sultan died soon after initiating his new projects, only a few of them could be completed, the rest were abandoned. The Sultan’s new minaret – the Alai Minar – stands nearby with only its first floor completed, his madrasa which also houses his tomb is in ruins, the extensions he made to the mosque are almost all lost to the ravages of time and nature, of the four gateways he intended to give to the mosque he could build only the southern one. Incidentally this gateway – the Alai Darwaza – built in 1311 AD, is now the prestige of the mosque and the entire Qutb Complex (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) by extension.

Chiseled to perfection - Alauddin's ornamental gateway

Noteworthy for its architecture, the gateway, built of red sandstone and furnished with an inlay of white marble in the forms of bands and panels, is actually more of a small square room than a literal gateway. Sitting atop a high plinth, it is pierced by arched doorways on all its sides – the one facing the mosque is slightly circular, while the rest are horse-shoe shaped arches with arrow-like indentations across their curved surface – interestingly, only the face facing the mosque courtyard is devoid of any ornamentation, the other faces are literally brimming with decorative designs taking the form of geometric patterns and Quranic inscriptions in advanced calligraphy. Exceptionally symmetrical, it appears not to be a work of mortal humans. Distinct from the earlier structures within the Qutb complex, it is the first structure in the country to employ true Islamic construction practices, especially symmetry and geometrical accuracy, and was a product of the architectural acumen and skilled handiwork of the Turkish artists whom the Sultan specially brought to India and who shaped the stone with their chisel and blades according to the Sultan’s fancies. Moreover, the gateway is historically one of the most important buildings in the entire complex since the architecture employed in its erection had just made crossroads in the Indian subcontinent – the use of true arches and proper domes as opposed to trabeated arches or squinches supporting the massive domes was a result of the architectural knowledge imparted by the builders brought in by the Muslim overlords of a largely Hindu country with Hindu architectural and artistic practices. On the outside, bands of marble and sandstone add a certain flair to the gateway’s surface – these bands, depicting various geometrical and floral patterns, cover the gateway’s entire surface, even forming a pattern so as to lock with the stairs symmetrically too, the patterns are such exquisitely carved that one is forced to reflect upon the merit and skill of the craftsmen who sculpted these. 

An old illustration of the gateway - Contrast the abundance of vegetation and creepers with the modern, dry, lifeless setting. In comparison to this illustration , the present "restored" gateway looks plastic-like! (Photo courtesy -

Travelling through India, the famous 19th-century American orientalist painter, Edwin Lord Weeks, who also happened to be a renowned travel writer and an avid student of architectural history, extolled the magnificent gateway thus –

"A remarkable and rare use of the Moorish horseshoe arch occurs in the building known as the gateway of Alah-ou-din at Old Delhi, erected about 1310. This is regarded as the most ornate example of Pathan work, similar to that of many other Mussulman buildings, resembling in some respects the entrances of the mosque at Cordova, (although) many of the ornamental details and patterns are purely Hindoo, and of course peculiar to India."

The carvings and patterns contrast with the low dome of the gateway, a plain structure devoid of any kind of adornment except a small circular finial. Again, inside the chamber, fairly simple work on the concave surface of the spherical roof contrasts with the wonderfully designed recessed corners and patterned doors. Arching jaalis (stone lattice screens), sculpted with great labor, cover the walls and act as a source of natural light for the chamber.

The high walls, with their embellishments and motifs present numerous photography compositions, and once the sun is high in the sky, the light entering from the jaalis and the doors and the receding shadows inside form supplementary patterns, there for all to see. The various features of the gateway, deteriorated over time, were extensively restored by Major Smith of the British Royal Engineers in 1828. Major Smith also restored the Qutb Minar and the Quwwat mosque and is also credited for the construction of the cupola now referred to as Smith’s Folly (refer Pixelated Memories - Smith's Folly).

The multiple patterned bands ornamenting the exterior walls of the gateway near the base - such is the precision with which  these bands have been carved that they even lock with the staircases!

I was recently reading “Delhi: Past and Present” by historian H.C. Fanshawe, here is how he extols the striking gateway –

“The Alai Darwazah is not only the most beautiful structure at the Kutab Minar, but is one of the most beautiful specimens of external polychromatic decoration not merely in India, but in the whole world, while the carving of the interior may challenge comparison with any work of the kind. Both exterior and interior merit detailed and leisurely examination” 

Inscriptions frame the arched doorways of the Darwaza, and refer to “Abul Muzaffar Muhammad Shah” (Alauddin Khilji) as having been responsible for the extensions and facelift of the mosque. Gazing at the gateway one wonders what striking specimens of architecture the Sultan would have conjured up had he lived long enough to build all the gateways and the intended Alai Minar.

The view from the hillock that faces the Qutb complex on this side. The small tomb adjacent is that of Imam Zamin, a priest at the Qutb mosque (Photo courtesy -

Location: Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open: Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 10; Foreigners: Rs 250
Photography charges : Nil
Video charges: Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station: Saket Metro Station and Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach: Taxis, buses and autos can be availed from different parts of the city. One can avail a bus/auto from the metro stations.
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Facilities available: Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links - 

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