December 06, 2012

Mihrab Screens, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, New Delhi

Hinduism & Islam are two very different religions – different in almost every aspect, from their customs & religions, to their belief systems & lifestyles, as well as architecture & construction. When it comes to construction, Islam is a comparatively much simpler religion, the mosque & the towers being relatively simple structures with ornamentation consisting of geometrical patterns, designs & Quranic inscriptions. Hinduism, on the other hand, is known far & wide for its varied forms of architecture, the better-than-life representations of humans, flowers, animals & deities. Abounding with more than 330 million Gods & Goddesses within the Indian subcontinent only, along with its plethora of life-form depictions, Hindu artists of India & South-East Asia at large have excelled at creating stone masterpieces with their blade & chisel, their art & craft continuing in the same form over millennia – one looks at the erotic sculptures of Khajurao (Madhya Pradesh) & the modern representations of God in Akshardham (New Delhi, refer Pixelated Memories - Akshardham Temple Complex), & is forced to wonder at their uniqueness. It is no wonder that when the adventurous forces of Islam led by Muizuddin ibn Sam aka Muhammad of Ghur (Afghanistan) first swept into the Indian subcontinent to face the mighty Hindu army led by the Rajput Prithviraj Chauhan, it was a battle between unequals. Prithviraj’s army was routed, & within a short span of time, these Muslim invaders settled in India & the relative periods of peace-time saw them shifting their attention from wars & defences to the culture & traditions that existed within the country. The new rulers of Delhi Sultanate took to wanton destruction of the Indian sculptures & temples, irrespective of the faith they represented (Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain), often replacing the said temples with mosques, & many a times utilizing the debris & construction material from the felled temple for construction of new structures. Hindu artists & craftsmen were forced to work at these new buildings, & were required to construct these structures while keeping Islamic tenets of art & architecture in mind. The artists, who were used to constructing only pyramidal temples & palaces till now were asked to build mosques, minarets & domed chambers. Often the artists, facing unforeseen situations & demands from their new masters, innovated with the material at hand, creating new architectural forms. The Islamic architecture too underwent a gradual change, thus the Sultans started burying their dead in large, fancy tombs & inlaying their forts & tombs with precious gems & stones, a practice almost unseen in the Islamic world, except perhaps in Egypt. Since Islam forbids the representation of any kind of life form, initially the Muslim rulers & commanders decreed the destruction of Indian sculptures & representations, but over time the Indian style of adding floral motifs & medallions & imbibing creeper-like curved line forms in their buildings started making an appearance in Muslim buildings too. A new fusion art was created by merging several key features of both these forms, stunning enough to awe the spectators, & unique enough to allow classification. This sea change in both these religion’s architectural practises is glaringly visible in Qutb Complex, New Delhi. While we have a huge Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque moulded out of the remains of 27 Hindu & Jain temples that were destroyed by Qutbuddin Aibak, the slave & commander of Muizuddin ibn Sam, we also have the mighty Qutb Minar where calligraphy bands of Quranic inscriptions are bordered by magnificent floral bands (Links at the end of the post).

The arched screens of the Qutb/Qutub Mosque (Photo courtesy -

But nowhere is this gradual Islamisation of Indian art, or rather Indianisation of Islamic patterns & designs, more visible than in the screens of the Quwwat mosque that Qutbuddin constructed in AD 1199. The screens are actually large arches that form one of the smaller sides of the rectangular courtyard of the mosque. While Qutbuddin only constructed three arches as part of his original plan for the mosque, today we see remains of several more arches. These were added later by Shamshuddin Iltutmish (1211-36 AD) & Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316 AD), later Sultans of Delhi who extended the Quwwat mosque & added several new features in order to show their gratitude to the Almighty.

The screens were fashioned after the “Maqsara” (Screen in front of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina) & used to function as the Quwwat mosque’s mihrab (wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims when offering prayers). The central arch constructed by Qutbuddin measured 16 metre high & 6.7 metre wide. The other two arches added by Qutbuddin on either side of the central arch were significantly smaller, but similar in design. 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. The Hindu artists left the mark of their religion on these Islamic screens in the form of calligraphic strokes woven in stone that end in beautiful petals & tendril bursts. Moreover the Hindu craftsmen had never before seen or used arches in their construction practices, as the Hindu architecture is trabeate in nature & makes use of stone beams & panels to join two separate points/pillars instead of arches. Now forced to visualize in stone their master’s demands, the intelligent craftsmen that they were, the Hindu workers came up with a new architectural form employing corbelled arches – stones place atop each other to form a door-like structure, the inner sides of which were then rounded off to give an arch-like appearance. The innovative craftsmen were able to fool around their masters by adding a few triangular stone pieces at the apex of the arch to give it the appearance of a true arch!! The Quranic inscriptions that fill these screens, surrounded by panels of floral designs, seem not to be the work of mere humans. Notes Hasan Nizami, the chronicler of Qutbuddin, in his book Taj-ul-Maasir “..upon the surface of the stones were engraved verses of the Quran in such a manner as could be done on wax..”

Notice how the calligraphic strokes culminate into floral bursts

By the time Iltutmish ascended the throne of Delhi after murdering Aram Shah, Qutbuddin’s son & successor, the Muslims had imported some of their architectural knowledge to India & taught the same to the Hindu artists. Thus we see the use of fairly complex calligraphy characters & advanced Islamic designs in Iltutmish’s screens. These were however similar in overall form & design to Qutbuddin’s arches. Both Qutbuddin & Iltutmish were fairly dependent on construction material pilfered from existing temples within the country, but decided to build these arches with material fresh from quarry & carved according to their own specifications. This is in contrast with the overall structure of the Quwwat mosque & the extensions made by Iltutmish, which both are constructed from material obtained after destroying Hindu-Jain temples. The arches built by Alauddin did not survive the test of time & have been lost to nature.

The mosque & its screen arches display a fusion of Hindu & Islamic art forms unlike any other in the world. & the intricate designs, in all their majesty, glistening in the morning sun, outrival all other structures built even with modern technological aids. A marvel, simply worth observing from up close!!

Location : Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open : Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee : Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250 (Free for children upto 15 years of age).
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 - Akshardham Temple Complex
  2. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar
  4. Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque

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