December 06, 2012

Qutb Minar, New Delhi

Two questions have perhaps always confused historians & scholars when it comes to the famous Qutb Minaret in Delhi – One, who constructed this mighty minaret, & what was the purpose of its construction?? & two, why was the minaret named as it is??
If the first question was answered, the second could be easily explained. But that’s wherein the problem lies – nobody knows who constructed the Qutb Minar in the first place. Perhaps one of the most widely known spots in Delhi, the Qutb Minar is full of enigmas & among the several theories in circulation, here are a few more commonly heard ones –
  1. The minaret was constructed by ancient Indian kings for the famous astrologer-mathematician Aryabhatta to climb up away from the city life & lights & study the night sky. 
  2. Hindu Rajput ruler Prithviraj Chauhan built the minaret for his wife/daughter to climb upon to view the slowly slithering river Yamuna from as part of her daily morning prayers. 
  3. The minaret’s construction was started either by Prithviraj or his uncle Vigrahraj to serve as a watch tower for the Hindu kingdom ruled by Chauhan dynasty, but was completed by Qutbuddin Aibak, the slave & army commander of Muizuddin bin Sam aka Muhammad Ghuri, when he led his master’s Islamic forces to victory against Prithviraj in AD 1192. 
  4. The minaret was entirely constructed by Qutbuddin Aibak as a victory tower commemorating his master’s ascension to the throne of India after defeating the forces led by Prithviraj. 
  5. The minaret was constructed by Qutbuddin Aibak when he became the Sultan of India after his master’s death, but as a tower for the muezzin to climb on & call the faithful Muslims for prayers in the adjoining Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque that was commissioned by him to display to his Hindu subjects & the world at large the might of Islam. 
  6. Iltutmish, who became Sultan after killing Aram Shah, Qutbuddin’s son, built the minaret & named it after Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, popularly called Qutb Sahib, a leading Sufi saint of that period who used to live & is buried nearby. 
Bewildering!! The first three points can of course be disregarded, given that neither the pillar is so old, nor does it show any signs of Hindu art or design, rather it boasts skilled Islamic calligraphy & patterns (more on that later). But then none of the records of that period attribute the minaret to Qutbuddin or Iltutmish either. It is much later, when the minaret was damaged by lightning & repaired by later kings that Iltutmish’s name popped up. But modern history books credit Qutbuddin for the minaret’s construction. My friend Vikramjit Singh, who is perhaps one of the most learned authorities when it comes to the built heritage of Delhi, suggests that the tower was built by Iltutmish & wrongly attributed to Qutbuddin by the writ of some clerical/historian error. I would highly recommend his take on this issue here – Vikramjit Singh Rooprai - Untold Story of the Qutub Minar

An enigma after more than 800 years of its construction

The most accepted theory is actually a mix of all these claims, & propounds that Qutbuddin started the construction of the Qutb Minar at the site of Prithviraj’s fortress-capital Lal Kot as a victory tower but died much before he could complete it. He left behind only the ground floor of the minaret which comprises of alternate circular & triangular fluting. Inscriptions carved in the minaret give us its complete history, including the commencement of construction & subsequent repairs, though the shoddy work by some of the later restorers have rendered most of these inscriptions unintelligible. After ascending the throne of Delhi, Iltutmish decided to fulfill Qutbuddin’s unfinished legacy & added three more floors to the tower. The first floor therefore features only circular fluting, while the second floor boasts of triangular fluting only. These fluting are very precisely aligned so as to create a highly symmetrical structure. The minaret till this part is built of red sandstone & is calligraphed with bands of Quranic inscriptions.

The three original floors - Notice how the lowest floor has alternate circular & angular fluting, the next has only circular fluting & the third has only angular fluting.

Sadly, the third floor was destroyed when lightning struck the tower in AD 1368, & we have no idea of what it looked like. Feroz Shah Tughlaq (AD 1351-88), the architect-emperor of Delhi, who took an uncanny interest in building new cities (read Feroz Shah Kotla, Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla) & repairing existing structures, replaced the remnants of the third floor with two comparatively smaller floors of his own. Fatuhat-i-Ferozshahi, a chronicle of Feroz’s rule notes that he “repaired the minar of Sultan Muizuddin, which had been struck by lightning, & raised it higher than before”. This is congruent with the fact that Feroz added two small floors which together were slightly taller than the fallen floor of Iltutmish. It must be noted that Iltutmish’s floor was more proportional to the bottom floors as compared to these replacements. By the time Feroz became the emperor of India, Indian art & architecture were Islamized to a large extent & the Muslim rulers had become habitual to the use of stone & marble that was easily available in India. Hence his additions feature the use of smooth panels made of white marble & contrast with the overall red of the tower. Feroz went ahead to even add a cupola atop the tower, thus crowning the minaret with his own extensions. 

One of the marble floors added by Feroz

Sikandar Lodi too repaired the minar after lightning again struck it in 1503 AD. Sikandar refers to the Qutb Minar as “the minar of his majesty Shamshuddin (Iltutmish)” in his memoirs. But nature had its way again, & lightning again destroyed Feroz’s cupola & damaged the other floors. The British were gaining a foothold in India then & Major Robert Smith of British Army Engineers was asked to repair the damaged minaret. Smith too couldn’t bear the lure to add more floors atop this already huge minaret & crowned it with his own Bengali-style cupola. Before nature could intervene again, Lord Hardinge, then Governor-General of India, ordered Smith’s cupola be brought down & cast it away to a corner of the Qutb Complex where it still lies, christened with the horrific title of a folly, viz. Smith’s Folly (refer Pixelated Memories - Smith's Folly). Nonetheless, Smith has been largely appreciated for his restoration & conservation work within the Qutb Complex. Since then several glass tubes have been embedded within the structure of the minaret to monitor seismic activities. If the tubes break, it would act as a signal to the archaeologists & engineers to begin pre-emptive restoration work. The minaret is already slightly leaning some two feet off the perpendicular as a result of the various lightning storms & earthquakes it has withstood in the past 800 years. Given its tall height, the tower is literally asking for lightning attacks. “Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice” is complete bullshit!! Lightning always hits the tallest point in a neighbourhood, & the Qutb Minar is a glaring example of the same.

An artsy shot!!

The fact that the minaret has largely withstood the ravages of time & nature has been attributed to the use of lime mortar & rubble masonry in its construction, which are both tremor-absorbing agents. Also the minaret stands on rocky landscape, which further mitigates the impact of earthquakes. However the minaret is being more damaged by rainwater seepage through its structure, increasing its tilt by several more degrees. The A.S.I. has started implementing several measures to arrest the condition & prevent a further deterioration. 

The tapering tower is 73 meters tall & its diameter decreases from 14.32 meter at the base to 2.75 metre at the top. Unlike the adjacent Quwwat mosque (see Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque), the minaret is Islamic in its construction, & features Islamic patterns such as Quranic inscriptions & calligraphy, & Hindu patterns appear only in the small floral bands that flank these inscriptions. 

Inscriptions galore..

What I found the most interesting were the projecting balconies of the minaret that separate the different floors. These balconies are so skilfully constructed out of stone that they appear like very delicate bee combs. The details are carved out so meticulously, adhering to all the basic principles of geometry & Islamic architectural practices, & even today the intricate patterns tend to attract & bind one’s gaze. This type of design – a series of mini-arches supporting a series of brackets that together hold the entire balcony - is referred to as stalactite vaulting & features throughout Islamic construction & architecture. The arches of the minaret are corbelled in nature – the straight pieces of stone are placed in order & then their inner corners are rounded off to give the complete structure an arch-like appearance. The Indian artists set to work on these structures by their new masters were unaware of what arches were as Hindu architecture is largely trabeate (makes use of stone panels & beams to fill space, as in above entrances & in ornamentation work), & hence they came up with this new technique of building corbelled arches. Creative, right?? 


One can see a door on each floor opening up to the balcony, & a total of 379 steps make up the staircase leading to the top of the world (or Delhi at least!!). Major Smith has often been criticized for adding Gothic features to the doorways when he was restoring them. But a close inspection shows that these additions are not Gothic in nature, but resemble the kanguras (battlement-like decorative work) that actually do make an appearance in the later Indo-Islamic architecture, especially in the doorways above the first floor of the Qutb Minar itself. I still vividly remember the thrilling climb up the narrow & winding staircases of the gigantic minarets of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi (though they too are small when compared to Qutb Minar, refer Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid) & would have loved to climb to the top of the Qutb Minar!! But the Government has closed the minaret for public entry since the year 1981 when a power outage & subsequent lights-out led to a stampede within the minaret & death of several visiting school children.

Door to nowhere

The Qutb Complex has been included in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites & attracts more tourists than the famous mausoleum called Taj Mahal!! A picture of the minaret also features on the cards & tokens issued by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, & the HOHO Bus Tour of Delhi also makes a stop at the Qutb Complex. I gave the complex a miss when I went for a HOHO tour almost a year back.

Alauddin Khilji (AD 129-1316), a later emperor of Delhi, initiated the construction of the Alai Minar within the Qutb Complex. It was supposed to be another victory tower commemorating his successful military campaigns in central India & was to be twice the height of Qutb Minar. Sadly, Alauddin died before he could give a concrete shape to his minaret & left behind only the undressed ground floor. One is again forced to return to the question of who built the Qutb Minar, because if Qutbuddin is credited for commencing its construction, he too died leaving behind only the ground floor of his minaret. If his successors took up his unfinished business, why did not, or why could not, Alauddin’s successors do the same?? Read about the Alai Minar here – Pixelated Memories - Alai Minar

One last click

The victory tower of Qutbuddin was inspired by the Minaret of Jam (Afghanistan) from what I have read. But what if the other group is right & this wasn't a victory tower, but a religious tower. In fact, Qutb Minar literally translates to “Axis Minaret”, & given that Qutbuddin himself was a fanatic Muslim who destroyed several Hindu & Jain temples to construct his Quwwat mosque, he might just have wished for a religious super-tower to act as a new axis for his faith. In that case he would not have intended the minaret to be so high, right?? Maybe he just wanted it to be a single floor high, else how would his muezzins be heard from the tall tower. Maybe that’s why lightning struck the tower again & again!! Now ain’t I also speculating like several of the historians who delved into these mysteries & left behind more questions than answers!!

The minaret of Jam (Photo courtesy -

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 - Alai Minar
  2. Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid
  3. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque
  6. Pixelated Memories - Smith's Folly


  1. Well written & good photos too..

  2. A lot of research went into this post..Visited Qutub Minar when I was a school kid 20 years back

  3. Very intricate photographs and indepth commentary. Pleasure packed. Good work

  4. If Indians were unaware of the Islamic arches then how come they came up with perfect geometrical design?

    1. Corbelled and trabeate arches - basically lintel-and-beam designs adjusted as required. The concept and evolution of arch in Indian architecture is explained in the article above.