November 08, 2012

Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, New Delhi

India has seen riots in the name of religion, mosques & temples have been destroyed by one community or the other, either to forward their petty constituencies, or in retaliation. Yet India is perhaps the only country where religion exists in every nook & cranny – films are made on religious issues, TV serials depicting the ancient lore of Mahabharata & Ramayana are household names, political parties are accused of being run by religious groups, or being “pseudo-secularists”, & as a recent Hindi movie put it bluntly “The population going to temples far outsmarts those going to schools”. The Quwwat mosque, literally translating to “the might of Islam”, is perhaps the earliest example where this religious zeal, or fanaticism rather, comes into daily social life & administrative affairs. When the Sultan of Ghur (in modern Afghanistan), Muizuddin Muhammad bin Sam, more popularly known as Muhammad Ghuri, invaded India in 1192, he met a fierce resistance in the form of the troops organized by the Rajput Prithviraj Chauhan. Yet he was able to reroute the “Hindu” army & establish “Islamic” rule over India. But he did not stay long in the country to oversee its affairs, & left for his kingdom leaving behind his slave & army commander Qutbuddin Aibak. Now Qutbuddin was a very loyal servant, he wanted to forward his master’s name & claim even more. Also he was a man guided by his religious zeal, even his name translates to “the Staff of God”. Guided by these two precise reasons, he began construction of the massive tower called Qutb Minar to celebrate his master’s victory over the infidel land, & the adjoining Quwwat mosque to act as a beacon of faith for his soldiers fighting in an unruly land of foreign religion & incessant enemy attacks, & also to send a message of the strength & battle competency of his Islamic forces to his enemies.

The roof of one of the temples that Qutbuddin destroyed, now incorporated within the mosque framework 

He ordered destruction of several temples of Hindu & Jain religions, & 27 of them were razed to provide building material for the Quwwat mosque. Since then has continued the tradition of Muslim Sultans felling temples in the country & occasionally Hindu right-wing groups destroying mosques built by the same Sultans over their religious grounds. In all this conundrum, what I find the most intriguing is the question "why did the Sultans fell the temples in the first place?” What were the reasons, apart from their beliefs & abhorrence to infidel religions, to undertake such extreme steps, despite often being connoisseurs of art & architecture & themselves being learnt scholars well-versed in several arts, languages & poetry?? Qutbuddin destroyed these temples because these were not in accordance with Islamic tenets that forbid representation of deities & humans & other living beings. & yet used the same material that he detested in the construction of his mosque, after some minor disfigurement – just enough to deface the sculptures but retain their overall design & largely Hindu identity. Couldn’t he bring himself to destroy those flawless pieces of art?? Why did he leave the celebrated Iron Pillar standing at its original position despite destroying the temple around it?? Couldn’t he bear the loss of this metallurgical wonder?? 

Another roof left intact. Do observe the well-proportioned stonework in the roof features.

In an aside from this, Feroz Shah Tughlaq, often given the sobriquet of “the architect-emperor”, built several canals, palaces, fortresses, mosques & madrasas, laid roads, repaired existing tombs & other structures (including Qutb Minar), & built his magnum in the form of the huge capital city called Feroz Shah Kotla (refer Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla for more details & photographs of Feroz's citadel), but he destroyed the famous Jwalamukhi Temple in Nagarkot & Jagannath Temple in Jajnagar after successful military campaigns to these kingdoms. However his inconsistent iconoclasm is revealed when he brings the Ashokan Pillars from Meerut & Topra to be put up in Delhi (one of them stands in Kotla Feroz Shah, the other exists near Hindu Rao Hospital). Why did he not destroy these pillars?? Finbarr Flood in his essay “Islam, Iconoclasm and the Early Indian Mosque” argues that these temple-destructions should be seen as political measures rather than religious ones. Mostly the Muslim Sultans destroyed only those temples that were close to the Indian kings, while often systematically preserving & providing financial assistance to other temples. Their only motive in doing so was (Courtesy - Sarson ke Khet - Four Ghurid Mosques) to shatter the relationship between the king & deity, & to disrupt the belief that the king’s authority to rule stems from the divine rights bestowed upon him by the Hindu Gods. Of course, Finbarr doesn’t explain the levy of Jazia (religious tax) on Hindus & other religious sects by Muslim rulers. In the memoirs called Taj-ul-Maasir, Hasan Nizami, Qutbuddin’s chronicler, notes “It was the custom after the conquest of every fort & stronghold to grind its foundations & pillars to powder under the feet of fierce & gigantic elephants”. 

Portion of the mosque, along with Alai Darwaza (the domed chamber) adjoining it.

Back to the topic, the Quwwat mosque is the oldest mosque in India, built almost a millennia back, yet it does not show any signs of its old age, & has not lost its aura & grandeur. Enclosing a large rectangular courtyard (65.2 X 45.4 metres), the mosque is built on the site of an existing Hindu temple called “Elbut-khana” (accounts of Ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveller & chronicler to India & Asia). The entire mosque stands on a high platform, & as one climbs up the stairs & enters the mosque, some of the features that are immediately noticeable are – Qutb Minar standing near a corner of the mosque, the Iron Pillar standing in the centre of the courtyard close to the side opposite the Qutb Minar (see Pixelated Memories - Iron Pillar), giant arches that stand close to the Iron Pillar & give the impression of being one of the sides of the mosque (but without any continuation with any of the existing portions of the mosque), a few graves also lie in the courtyard of the mosque (but I don’t know whom do they belong to), & besides several entrances & latticed windows there is a large gateway called Alai Darwaza situated very close to the Qutb Minar. The mosque constitutes of the open courtyard which is surrounded on three sides by cloisters, the only distinguishing feature of these being that the roofs rest on very intricately carved pillars. These pillars were part of the temples that Qutbuddin destroyed – the pillars from Jain temples have geometrical patterns & lines engraved on them, while those from the Hindu temples are sculpted to show sophisticated Brahminical motifs such as Kalash (a ceremonial pot) overflowing with creepers & fluids (maybe wine & nectar) signifying prosperity, bells, lotuses & other flowers. The fourth side, or whatever is left of the elaborate arches, also functioned as mihrab (wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims when offering prayers). I don’t think I am qualified enough to pass a critique on these terrific sculptures. Hence I would just post (a lot of) photographs of these pillars & cloisters. 

Cloisters surrounding the open courtyard (I was trying to take not-so-cliché photographs!!)

Walking under these cloisters, noticing the rows of these elaborate pillars & their different designs, one also comes across the unique temple ceilings that break the monotony of these simple stone & rubble cloisters. These ceilings are such wonderful pieces of art, orange-red-yellow in colour, one mistakes them for being made of wax rather than stone. 

More cloisters - This one seems a rather cliché image!! Also visible is the cup of one of the temple roofs.

Plaques were installed within the walls of the mosque by Qutbuddin & offer details of the mosque’s construction that went on from 1192-1198 AD under the authority of Muizuddin ibn Sam. Also it has been mentioned that 27 temples were annihilated to make way for this mosque. Qutbuddin calls the Quwwat mosque a Jami mosque (mosque used for Friday congregational prayers), & given that he built his own capital over Prithviraj Chauhan’s city of Qila Rai Pithora (close to Qutb Complex), he might just have appeared every Friday for prayers at the Quwwat mosque. The mosque is so large that one has to spend more than an hour going through its courtyard & observing the various designs on its pillars & screens.

The original plaque installed by Qutbuddin

The screens were a much later addition to the mosque. Qutbuddin initiated their construction & built a large central arch (6.7m wide and 16m high) & two smaller side arches. The screens are carved with borders of Quranic inscriptions & geometrical designs. However since they were carved by Hindu artisans, who excelled in the depiction of life forms, one notices an abundance of floral designs along the length of the screen, even the calligraphic strokes end in beautiful petals & floral bursts. 

The mosque's screens - Sadly only Qutbuddin's original screens & Iltutmish's additions remain now (Photo courtesy -

Besides the screens are several sections that clearly show the remnants of Hindu architecture – bell-&-chain motifs stretch across the length of these pillars, while several deities & nymphs look on from the top of these pillars. Although these have been disfigured, yet are very easily identifiable. Since Qutbuddin put Indian artisans to work on his mosque, these pillars simply show the malleability of the artists & craftsmen who simply moulded a mosque from these remains, & that too according to the specifications of their new lord. Even many of the dome-like roofs are directly sourced from Hindu temples, & it is interesting to note how several columns of varying designs were accommodated in a mishmash to create this fairly extravagant mosque with no attention to the uniqueness of these pillars. & yet the symmetry these artists obtained, setting two (& even three) rows of pillars around the courtyard. As Percy Brown in his book “Indian Architecture: Islamic Period” put it bluntly “the first Islamic building in India of dressed stone was, at its best, a patchwork of older material, beautiful in detail, as its arcaded aisles were composed of pillars carved in the most perfect Hindu style, but as a whole a confused and somewhat incongruous improvisation.”. 

Hindu designs on the mosque's pillars

When Qutbuddin constructed the mosque in the name of his master, it was not as large & spectacular as it is today. Qutb Minar was supposed to be an adjoining victory tower. After his master’s death, Qutbuddin crowned himself Sultan of India (ruling from 1206-10 AD) & began what was to be later known as the rule of the Slave Dynasty. Shamshuddin Iltutmish (1211-36 AD) ascended the throne after assassinating Qutbuddin's son & successor Aram Shah, & added greatly to the proportions & might of this mosque & extended it to even include the gigantic Qutb Minar within its courtyard. Iltutmish also added new screen arches in continuation with the ones built by Qutbuddin. Portions of these arches still stand, although in discontinuity, since most of them were destroyed over time. These arches show a difference in design when compared to Qutbuddin’s arches, since by now the Hindu artists too had starts understanding Islamic construction practices & used nature depiction in their sculptures to a comparatively lesser extent. Later another ruler of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316 AD), again extended the mosque & added more screen arches. However Alauddin’s arches are now lost due to the ravages of time & weather. He also added a new gateway to the mosque, christened as Alai Darwaza after him, that still exists & extols the craftsmanship of the artists & sculptors who built it. 

Disfigured deities atop one of the pillars

Ironically, the decline of the mosque began during the reign of Alauddin who shifted his capital to the newly built citadel of nearby Siri & abandanod the previous capital of Lal Kot/Qila Rai Pithor which had continued to be the seat of Delhi sultanate since Qutbuddin established his so-called “Slave rule” over India. Read more about Alauddin's love-hate equation with God here - Pixelated Memories - Alauddin's Tomb & Madrasa Complex

One of my favorite specimens from within the mosque - A temple roof that now surmounts one of the cloisters of the mosque

I would have perhaps advised you to go see the mosque yourself, but then I hope the photographs here did their charm (OK, I concede I am proud of these pics, they came out good, didn't they??).

Location : Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open : Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee : Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250
Photography charges : Nil
Video charges : Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station : Saket Metro Station & Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach : Taxis, buses & autos can be availed from different parts of the city. The structures are quite a walk from the metro stations & one will have to take bus/auto from there on.
Time required for sightseeing : 30 min
Facilities available : Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Alauddin's Tomb & Madrasa Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla
  4. Pixelated Memories - Iron Pillar
  5. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  6. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar


  1. You ought to be proud of those photos..they certainly are stunning!!

  2. Sarthak GuptaNovember 08, 2012

    History overdose :(

  3. For once I thought that you clicked that picture(the mosque screens) and I was surpriZed. But soon I realized it was from wikipedia.. :-P
    Good job.. I liked the matter.. And the pics as well..
    Your critic
    Niyati ;-)

  4. All i can say is that you have a lot of patience. Keep it up !

  5. Claudia Angela ShanSeptember 09, 2014

    the magical pov makes the fourth photo gorgeous

    1. Thank you Claudia. The lines make this picture work for me.

    2. Claudia Angela ShanSeptember 09, 2014

      I'm not agree ,I noticed only now the lines ,I think that is the pov u choose,that creates a lot of episodes insequence. But this is my perception

    3. Claudia, to each, his/her own :)