December 16, 2012

Qutb Complex, New Delhi

When the turbulent forces of Islam swept into the Indo-Gangetic plains at the end of the 12th century, its encounter with the flourishing Hinduism was that of non-alikes. The clash over-awed those who witnessed it, & left behind its markings – in stone – to surprise the coming generations with its might & scale. The man leading this clash, Muizzudin bin Sam, more popularly known as Muhammad, the Sultan of the kingdom of Ghur in modern Afghanistan, led an army into India with the mission of plundering the incredible wealth of the Indian kingdoms & to convert them into his fiefs. Having accomplished it in AD 1192 after defeating the army of Prithviraj Chauhan, he retired back to his kingdom, leaving his favorite slave, who was also the commander of his powerful army, Qutbuddin Aibak, in-charge of this newly conquered land. Holding sway over this land of a foreign religion, Qutbuddin decided to leave an imprint of his religion here. Being a fanatic Muslim, he ordered destruction of Hindu & Jain temples that already existed in the country & selected a site in the then capital “Dhillipura” (Delhi’s medieval name!!) where he would build his dream project - a massive mosque & an equally massive victory tower to display the might of his faith. The site of Qutbuddin’s choice coincided with the fortress of Lal Kot, the stronghold of the Tomar-Chauhan dynasty, the last Hindu rulers of Delhi & the clan to which Prithviraj belonged. Over time, successive rulers of Delhi took it upon themselves to complete, or expand, as might be the case, this project of Qutbuddin. & almost a millennia later, the ruins that remain of these structures fall into what is now known as the Qutb Complex, one of the World Heritage Sites located in the barren lands of Mehrauli, Delhi.

The Qutb Complex is perhaps one of those places that I have longed to visit for an incredible span of time – I am perhaps one of those rare Delhi inhabitants who had not seen the Qutb Complex till late in their lives (I am only 20 though, but its late considering that the complex is one of the first places parents/relatives take kids to in Delhi!! Sadly, my parents did not take me for a visit to Qutb, or any other monument/heritage structure for that matter, despite it being only one & a half hour drive away from my home). But not anymore, I visited the complex sometime back & to my utter surprise, it turned out to be a sheer delight!! More incredible than what the photographs show, & much larger & pristine than what the articles/blogs tell. I have always been fascinated with history & heritage, read a lot about the monuments & cities of India. Delhi, my home state, has been built several times, it always rises like a phoenix every time a new marauding army or some other catastrophe puts an end to one of its ruling dynasties/kingships. The forts & ruins of Mehrauli were one of the earliest cities of Delhi & have been inhabited ever since, thus making the region the longest continuously inhabited settlement in Delhi. I had read so much about the Qutb Complex & its neighboring monuments/ruins that I knew almost everything about these structures even before going there. But being there & standing under these majestic structures is an incredible experience in itself – the construction here is at such a gigantic scale that it takes one’s breathe away!! However, since there is so much to see in the complex, so many ruins, new & old, scattered across that I decided to break this one long post into several smaller ones (links at the bottom!!) since this way I can easily share a lot of details & the plethora of photos I took (seriously I took almost 400 photos in the complex itself!!).

The Qutb Minar

The most stupid thing about the complex is perhaps its ticket counter – it is situated across the road, opposite the complex - & I could see many tourists going behind the ticket counter to look for the entrance to the complex, but only to find a parking lot filled with buses & taxis. A.S.I. could at least have put signboards here outside indicating directions. The best thing perhaps would be the availability of “audio guides” – you can rent these from the ticket counter itself. All the monuments within the complex are numbered, & you can simply skip to the numbered audio clip in order to know more about its history & construction. The tickets themselves are electronically numbered & at the gatepost outside the complex, guards with electronic readers swipe your tickets to mark your entry into the complex. So far I haven’t seen a similar system in any other complex/world heritage site in India – at all other protected monuments you are simply handed a paper ticket that a guard tears into two at the entrance. Even though this electronic ticket system works without any glitches, I still don’t understand why it was implemented in the first place - the paper ticket seemed to be working just fine. I, like several others who observed this new system, sincerely hope that this system helps curb malpractices in manual ticket sale & revenue collection. Every year, the Qutb Complex receives more number of visitors than even the Taj Mahal, & generates approximately Rs. 100 million in ticket sales. (Reference - "Times of India" article)

Once inside the complex gates, the first structure one notices are the arches under which one has to pass through. These two arches were added to the complex much later by Mughal emperors & formed part of what was once a Serai (inn for travelers & state guests). The Serai exists only in parts now – remnants of walls here & there, some semi-collapsed rooms & several chattris (small dome-like structures supported on thin pillars). However the mosque adjoining this Serai, called the Mughal mosque still exists & is located next to the Complex’s in-house publication shop. The Mughal mosque, though appearing to be dilapidated, has been maintained in a rather unusual manner – its insides have been painted with bright colors – orange, pink & white – giving it a rather funky touch.

The Mughal Mosque

The Qutb Minar stands in the background, a sentinel made of red sandstone, looking over all the proceedings that take place under its (high) watch. Qutbuddin, whose own name means the “Staff of God”, wanted this tall minaret to symbolise his eternal faith & act as an axis for Islam, hence he named this minaret Qutb Minar or “Axis of God”. However Qutbuddin himself was able to complete only the first floor of the minaret, the latter floors were added by other rulers of Delhi, including Qutbuddin’s son-in-law Shamsuddin Iltutmish (1211-36 AD). Feroz Shah Tughlaq (1351-88 AD), the guy who constructed the fortress of Kotla Feroz Shah, also added two floors made of white marble to the minaret after one of the floors built by Iltutmish was destroyed by a lightning strike. Qutbuddin had perhaps wanted his minaret to stand next to his mosque as a victory tower commemorating the establishment of Islamic rule over India. However several contradicting & at times absurd (although interesting) theories also exist about the construction of the Minar, do refer the long post about the minaret for the same. The Qutb Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world, surpassing by several meters the Minaret at Jam, Afghanistan, that inspired Qutbuddin to embark upon his minaret-building project.

One enters the huge rectangular mosque built by Qutbuddin inside which Qutb Minar stands – his real intentions behind building this mosque were to overawe his new subjects & provide a symbol of faith to his war-fatigued soldiers. 27 temples – some of Hindu religion, other belonging to Jain faith – were fell & local artisans were employed to use the building material from these temples to construct this mosque in order to show the “Quwwat” or might of Islam. Hence the mosque came to be called Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. In Qutbuddin’s time, Qutb Minar used to stand outside the mosque, but when Iltutmish ascended the throne of Delhi after murdering Qutbuddin’s son Aram Shah, he decided to enlarge the existing mosque & even included the mighty Qutb Minar within its four walls.

The symmetrical cloisters of Quwwat Mosque

One can notice large arches that once formed part of the mihrab (the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, to be faced by Muslims when offering prayers). These arches form part of the screen constructed by Qutbuddin in AD 1199 & were extended by both Iltutmish & Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316 AD). However, only the original arches & the additions by Iltutmish exist today. The Hindu craftsmen employed to build this arch screen had never seen calligraphy on any structure & when ordered to weave Quranic inscriptions in the screen of the mosque, the artisans found themselves at a loss. They left their individualistic marks in the screen in the form of floral carvings & tendrils at the end of these calligraphic strokes. The mosque & its screen arches display a fusion of Hindu & Islamic art forms unlike any other in the world.

In front of this arched screen stands the famous “Iron Pillar”. It is said that the pillar predates the complex by several centuries & formed part of a Vishnu temple. Known globally for its non-rusting properties, this pillar too has its fair share of stories & myths. Many claim that if you are able to grasp the pillar in your arms with your back towards it, your dreams would come true. Being superstitious, the people of the country (& some foreigners too) had started trying the task, their sweat causing corrosive damage to the pillar. Hence in order to protect the pillar, the A.S.I. decided to encircle it with an iron grille – of course this one does get rusted with time.

The mosque has several small arched entrances & windows (many covered by jaalis (stone fretwork), others open), one amongst these is called Alai Darwaza (“Alauddin’s Doorway”). As the name suggests it was built by Alauddin Khilji, & standing on a very high pedestal, this doorway is actually more of a small room, itself pierced on four sides by large arched doors. The Darwaza is very beautifully decorated with designs & geometrical patterns on both inside & outside surfaces. The symmetry in these patterns is simply mind-numbing, the artists went so far as to even cut the designs so as to form locking patterns with the stairs leading down the pedestal.

Down the Darwaza’s pedestal & up another pedestal in front of it, one reaches the tomb of Imam Zamin. A saint from Turkestan who decided to settle in India during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi in 16th century, Zamin was perhaps some important official in Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, which explains the location of his tomb bang next to the mosque. However historians date its construction to the time of Mughal emperor Humayun. The small tomb houses a marble sarcophagus, a well-chiselled mihrab & some very symmetric fretwork in the carved stone walls.

A small doorway breaks the continuity of the low courtyard walls of the pedestal on which stands Zamin’s Tomb. In the surrounding grounds, one can spot the ruins of several room-like structures, an extremely small wall mosque standing atop another high pedestal & a sundial affixed atop a circular piece of stone. Standing neaby is the cupola constructed by Major Smith of British Royal Engineers, now referred to as Smith’s Folly. At one time this cupola surmounted the Qutb Minar, but it was subsequently brought down, & now lies ignored in a desolate corner of the complex, with some brooms & squirrels for company. 

The ruined Wall Mosque

Moving along the periphery of the Quwwat mosque, towards the back of the arched screens are ruins of massive rooms & chambers – these formed part of Alauddin’s Madrasa – a religious school he added to the mosque. Within a part of the Madrasa, Alauddin himself lies buried, but the dome of his tomb fell away a long time back. The Madrasa & Tomb sub-complex runs almost parallel to the shorter sides of the rectangular Quwwat mosque.

Situated some metres ahead of the madrasa is the tomb of Iltutmish. It is interesting to note that after having made so many additions & contributions to the complex, both Iltutmish & Alauddin decided to be interred here, Built of red sandstone, Iltutmish’s tomb appears a simple structure from the outside – striking calligraphy & patterns embellish one of its sides, the other three are plain. But on the inside, the tomb is lavishly carved with so many intricate designs, it is simply a treat to look at, & one simply gets confounded thinking about all those designs & wondering what to photograph & what not to. One excellent thing about the complex is that it is very disabled-friendly, & ramps exist along almost every structure, including Iltutmish’s & Alauddin’s tombs, for ease of wheelchair access.

Having run around & photographed to my satisfaction almost all the built monuments within the complex, I next headed to the Alai Minar, a large rubble-dressed tower built by Alauddin which was intended to be twice the size of Qutb Minar, but could not be completed due to the untimely death of Alauddin. 

Smith's Folly (Background - Qutb Minar, Alai Darwaza & Zamin's Tomb)

The Qutb Complex, despite once being the capital of the Muslim Sultans, fell out gradually from map after Alauddin Khilji built his nearby fortress of Siri & abandoned the existing capital of Lal Kot with most of his population. The Complex was soon reclaimed by wilderness & turned into the ruins that we see today. Magnanimously, these ruins still betray their once stunning grandeur.

Studded with sophisticated calligraphy, ornate designs & patterns, & replete with exemplar craftsmanship, Qutb is one of the most fascinating monuments in Delhi. Hopefully I shall be returning to Mehrauli sometime soon to visit other nearby heritage structures. The place has certainly found a way to my heart. Returning back, I even spotted one of Metcalfe’s Ziggurats peeping out of a grilled complex besides Qutb Complex. Anxious to return & explore more of the area!!

Open: Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee: Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250 (Free for children upto the age of 15).
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: 3 hrs
Facilities available: Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Alai Minar
  3. Pixelated Memories - Alauddin's Tomb & Madrasa Complex
  4. Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb
  5. Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb
  6. Pixelated Memories - Iron Pillar
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats
  8. Pixelated Memories - Mihrab Screens, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque
  9. Pixelated Memories - Mughal Serai
  10. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar
  11. Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque
  12. Pixelated Memories - Sanderson's Sundial
  13. Pixelated Memories - Smith's Folly
  14. Pixelated Memories - Tarikh-ul-Islam Mosque


  1. Where is the silkboard article dude ?
    waiting for that...

    1. This one?