A Tower Like None Other

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by phileasfogg on February 15, 2009

Finally, the pièce de resistance: the Qutb Minar, the world’s tallest free-standing stone tower.

Qutbuddin Aibak commissioned the Qutb Minar as a victory tower (not, as some believe, as a minaret from which the muezzin at the Quwwat-ul-Islam could call the faithful to prayer). Like the mosque, the tower symbolised the power of the new ruler. Incidentally, there’s no end to the theories floating about regarding the origin of the Qutb Minar; some believe it to be of Hindu origin, possibly even erected by Prithviraj Chauhan, whom Mohammad Ghori defeated and displaced. Why Prithviraj Chauhan should have decorated the outside of his tower with verses in Persian escapes me.

The Qutb Minar has had a chequered history. Although Qutbuddin Aibak began building it in 1199 AD, his death in 1210 AD meant that his successor Iltutmish had to take over. Iltutmish added two more stories to the tower. The three-storied tower stood around for over a century and a half before a much later ruler, Firuz Shah Tughlaq, commissioned renovations at the Qutb Minar. He also added two more stories to it in 1368 AD, bringing the total to five stories.

During their stint in Delhi, the British, not to be left behind, did their bit. They added red sandstone parapets bounding the balcony of each storey, and began repairing the broken carving. In the 1820’s, a military engineer, Major Robert Smith, supervised the putting back of slabs of calligraphy which had collapsed over time. Smith knew no Persian, and obviously didn’t think it necessary to call in a Persian scholar to assist him, so the present calligraphy, running in broad bands across the face of the tower, is gibberish. And Smith didn’t stop there—he also got built a small circular pavilion of red sandstone, which he placed on top of the tower’s fifth storey; this was topped by a wooden pagoda, which in turn had a flagstaff on top.

Fortunately enough, a bolt of lightning shot the pagoda and the flagstaff off the tower. Lord Hardinge (Governor General and Viceroy, 1910-1916) on a visit to the Qutb Minar, declared that the pavilion was ugly and should be taken down immediately. It was, and now stands on the adjacent lawn—it’s known as Smith’s Folly.

The Qutb Minar is constructed of rubble masonry, dressed with red sandstone. The tower’s sides are multifaceted: semicircular alternating with angular, all of it very striking, with bands of carving every few feet. These are mainly calligraphy, but with some floral and geometric elements too. On the side facing the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque is the entrance to the inside, which is kept locked, after numerous accidents and suicides. If you’re really keen on seeing what the Qutb Minar looks like on the inside (it’s unexceptional), have a look at this clip from a 1963 Bollywood film—the song was filmed inside the Qutb Minar.

Lastly, a little bit of trivia: the tower is named not after Qutbuddin Aibak, who began building it, but after the saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki.

The Qutab Minar Complex (Qutb Minar)
Delhi, India


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