Delhi's Iconic Tower


Member Rating 5 out of 5 by koshkha on November 7, 2010

Delhi is a city of spectacular buildings but if one single building could be considered the city's icon, it would probably be the Qutab Minar tower. Others may disagree with me, citing the Lotus Temple or the Red Fort as contenders for that crown but for me the world's tallest brick minaret takes a bit of beating. I've been to the Qutab Minar three times now. The first visit was on my first day of my first visit to India nearly 15 years ago. The second was four years ago with some friends and for my sister and her girlfriend's first visit to India, it seemed appropriate to make the Qutab Minar their first big destination.

The Qutab Minar is one India's best known UNESCO World Heritage Sites but it used to be rather difficult to get to. It's in the far south of the city and was a long and time-consuming drive. With the opening of the Yellow line on the Metro it's now a lot more accessible. Since we were staying only one stop away on the Metro, it was particularly easy for us. We hopped on the Metro and off again just a few minutes later. The Metro isn't exactly on the doorstep and despite going over first thing in the morning, the day was very hot and sweaty. We picked up two auto-rickshaws for 40 rupees each and were dropped outside the entrance just a few minutes later. Grab a big bottle of water before you go in as there's nowhere to get drinks once you enter.

Tickets are bought from a booth on the opposite side of the road from the entrance. The line for locals was very busy but the line for foreigners was very short. Don't feel guilty about your good fortune – you're paying 250 rupees to go in compared to 10 rupees for locals so you've earned a bit of queue jumping as well as a prettier ticket stub. We handed over 1000 rupees to cover the four tickets and then went to the entrance. Before joining the queue for security checks we picked up two audio guides (100 rupees each) as a good way of avoiding being nobbled by any of the many official guides. We told the ones who approached us that we'd been before, didn't want a guide, didn't care that they thought that we'd miss out by not taking their services, and ploughed on leaving them in our wake.

Guides at big Indian attractions can be a real nuisance. A few are fantastic and can make the whole place come alive with their historical insights, their wit and their knowledge of the things that you'd otherwise miss. Most though are intensely irritating bullies and the worst are almost impossible to understand. My husband has the concentration of a goldfish and loves to leave me tearing my hair out trying to make sense of some barely understandable charlatan. The audio guides are therefore a lovely alternative – especially for visitors who aren't native English speakers and are therefore even more likely to struggle to understand a guide. There's a good choice of languages to choose for and the audio guide gives you the chance to take the place at your own speed and in the order that you want.

India is very security conscious country so you and your bags can expect to be searched on the way in. There's a small bookshop near the entrance that sells a very detailed guide to the site but personally I find these official guide books quite difficult to follow and rather dry to read. Close to the shop are several small stone pillars which people were queueing to stand on. This is the best place on the site from which to attempt a cheesy photograph of yourself pretending to touch the top of the tower.

I switched on my audio guide and got stuck in to the tour. The guide is narrated by several characters – a young local girl, a Sufi saint called Qutab Shahi and various people involved in the long history of the site. There's a small map provided that we followed more or less (although sometimes we were in completely the wrong part of the site and my sister did get totally confused at one point. The Qutab Minar is the main attraction – a giant tower that stands 238 feet tall and was built as a minaret to call the faithful to prayer at the nearby mosque. At the base it's 40 feet in diameter and just 9 feet at the top and there are spiral staircases going up the inside of the tower. Building work started in 1199 and was allegedly intended to celebrate a Muslim victory over the Rajputs a few years ealier. It took more than 150 years to build and three rulers were involved, each adding their own style to the successive levels. The outside is decorated with carvings and calligraphy.

Whilst the tower is the main attraction it's only one of many buildings on the site. There are several interesting tombs, some artefacts from the days of British rule including a sun-dial and Smith's Folly – a strange pink canopy that was once placed on top of the Minar, a large mosque and the base of a second giant minar whose construction was abandoned. The mosque dates to the same period as the minaret and is said to have been the first mosque built in Delhi. I pointed out to my husband how much the pillars looked like ones we'd seen in Hindu temples in Hampi the year before and somewhat reassuringly, my audioguide confirmed a few minutes later that many of the pillars had been plundered from up to 27 Hindu temples that had been destroyed in the area and that even those that weren't stolen, were probably made by local builders who only really knew how to do that style of pillar.

A later part of the mosque construction is the giant wall of arches which is decorated in Koranic verses. This faces Mecca and was originally the Qibla wall of the mosque. In front of it stands one of the mysterious iron pillars that never rust. Apparently there are several of these in the Delhi area and they are much older than the rest of the site. The pillar carries an inscription dedicating it to the god Vishnu and to Chandragupta the second, a 4th Century leader. On my first visit 14 years ago it was still possible to touch the pillar and superstition said that if visitors make a wish it will come true if they can reach their hands round behind their backs and clasp them together. For many years now the pillar has been fenced off and this is no longer possible.

In amongst these architectural marvels there's a salutary lesson about pride and ambition. Alau'd din Khalji wanted to make a second minar that would be twice as high as the Qutab Minar. As the architect of the second great Delhi city, known as Siri, he perhaps got a bit carried away with his ambition to make a tower from which you could see all the way to the Arabian sea. Unfortunately he got sick and his supporters and successors didn't share his vision for the bigger minar and all that stands today is the unfinished base part which is absolutely enormous. Each time I see this I hope I can be forgiven for mixing up my religions and being reminded of the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel.

Of the two tombs we visited, the tomb of Sultan Iltutmish is the larger, less conventional and more impressive. He was the first ruler of Delhi to build his tomb inside the city and was the father of the first and only Sultana who ruled the city. The tomb has no roof which is unusual but the experts aren't sure if there once was one that's now lost or if it was always open. The other tomb is of Imam Zamin and was built 3 centuries later than the other, dating to the 1500s. It's pretty with stone jaali screening and a small domed roof. Next to the Imam Zamin tomb is the Alai Darwaza, the only remaining gateway to the Qutab Minar.

It took us a couple of hours to see the Qutab Minar site and no matter how many times I go back, I still do the full tour because there's so much to see. Generally I also learn a bit more about Indian history between each visit and find new things to inspire and intrigue me. I see no reason not to keep going back whenever I can.
The Qutab Minar Complex (Qutb Minar)
Mehrauli
Delhi, India

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