Above the foundations of Lal Kot, the “first city of Delhi” founded in the eleventh century by the Tomar Rajputs, stand the first monuments of Muslim India, known as the Qutb Minar Complex. One of Delhi’s most famous landmarks, the fluted red-sandstone tower of the Qutb Minar tapers upwards from the ruins, covered with intricate carvings and deeply inscribed verses from the Koran, to a height of just over 72m. In times past it was considered one of the “Wonders of the East”, second only to the Taj Mahal; but historian John Keay was perhaps more representative of the modern eye when he claimed that the tower had “an unfortunate hint of the factory chimney and the brick kiln; a wisp of white smoke trailing from its summit would not seem out of place”.
Work on the Qutb Minar started in 1202; it was Qutb-ud-Din Aibak’s victory tower, celebrating the advent of the Muslim dominance of Delhi (and much of the Subcontinent) that was to endure until 1857. For Qutb-ud-Din, who died four years after gaining power, it marked the eastern extremity of the Islamic faith, casting the shadow of God over east and west. It was also a minaret, from which the muezzin called the faithful to prayer. Only the first storey has been ascribed to Qutb-ud-din’s own short reign; the other four were built under his successor Iltutmish, and the top was restored in 1369 under Firoz Shah, using marble to face the red sandstone.
The Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque
Adjacent to the tower lie the ruins of India’s first mosque, Quwwat-ul-Islam (“the Might of Islam”), commissioned by Qutb-ud-Din and built using the remains of 27 Hindu and Jain temples with the help of Hindu artisans whose influence can be seen in the detail of the masonry and the indigenous corbelled arches. Steps lead to an impressive courtyard flanked by cloisters and supported by pillars unmistakeably taken from a Hindu temple and adapted to accord with strict Islamic law forbidding iconic worship – all the faces of the decorative figures carved into the columns have been removed. Especially fine ornamental arches, rising as high as 16m, remain of what was once the prayer hall. Beautifully carved sandstone screens, combining Koranic calligraphy with the Indian lotus, form a facade immediately to the west of the mosque, facing Mecca. The thirteenth-century Delhi sultan Iltutmish and his successors had the building extended, enlarging the prayer hall and the cloisters and introducing geometric designs, calligraphy, glazed tiles set in brick, and squinches (arches set diagonally to a square to support a dome).
The Khalji sultan Ala-ud-Din had the mosque extended to the north, and aimed to build a tower even taller than the Qutb Minar, but his Alai Minar never made it beyond the first storey, which still stands, and is regarded as a monument to the folly of vain ambition. Ala-ud-Din also commissioned the Alai Darwaza, an elegant mausoleum-like gateway with stone lattice screens, to the south of the Qutb Minar.
The Iron Pillar
In complete contrast to the mainly Islamic surroundings, an Iron Pillar (7.2m) stands in the precincts of Qutb-ud-Din’s original mosque, bearing fourth-century Sanskrit inscriptions of the Gupta period attributing it to the memory of King Chandragupta II (375–415 AD). Once topped with an image of the Hindu bird god, Garuda, the extraordinarily pure but rust-free pillar has puzzled metallurgists. Its rust resistance is apparently due to its containing as much as one percent phosphorous, which has acted as a chemical catalyst to create a protective layer of an unusual compound called misawite around the metal. The pillar was evidently transplanted here by the Tomars, but it’s not known from where.