Delhi Stories and Tips

The Qutb Archaeological Site

A parakeet at Quwwat-ul-Islam Photo, Delhi, India

The `Qutb Minar and its Monuments’ (as listed in the UNESCO World Heritage sites list) were designated a World Heritage site in 1993, conforming to the criterion that it is "an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history".

Whew. Let me put it the way I see it.

This is a place of soaring, splendidly carved medieval monuments with some delightful quirkiness that puts them in a class by themselves. There are lush green lawns, shady trees and flocks of bright green parakeets peering down at you, squawking cheekily from high ledges. There are, at least early in the morning, pleasantly few people around—a rare blessing in a country as crowded as India. And there is the chance to see one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in all of India: the grand victory tower known as the Qutb Minar.

The Qutb Minar and its surrounding monuments lie within the area known as Mehrauli, which has the distinction of being Delhi’s oldest continuously inhabited neighbourhood—people have lived here at least since the 8th century AD. As a result, you’ll stumble over a tomb, a mosque, a grave, a sarai or some other structure every few steps. An important landmark of Mehrauli is the dargah (tomb or shrine) of the Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, much venerated even today: his shrine is a major point on the Delhi pilgrimage circuit. In Islam, there’s a belief that the presence of a saint’s tomb confers sanctity on the area around it—which is why those who could swing it (typically the rich and powerful) would be buried near a saint’s dargah, in the hope that some of that sanctity would rub off on them. Mehrauli, thanks to Kaki’s dargah, is rich in tombs, and two sultans are buried next to the Qutb Minar itself.

Mehrauli is large, and the Qutb complex is a fenced-off section on the edge of Mehrauli. Although it’s called the Qutb Archaeological Site, don’t expect to see any digs; this is just a series of very interesting structures, all in close proximity to each other, standing cheek-by-jowl with the imposing Qutb Minar looming above. The first buildings appear just beyond the main gate: a series of arched cells on your right, with a domed mosque further on. These once formed part of a sarai, a traditional inn or rest house for visitors: a small mosque, stables and a well were integral parts of any sarai.

Beyond the sarai, the road curves to the left. At the corner is a small plastered building with a curved whaleback roof, and beyond it is the rather uninspiring rubble heap known as the Alai Minar (more on this later). Go on to the left, and you’ll come to the focal points of the complex: the Qutb Minar, the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, the Alai Darwaza, the madarsa and tomb of Alauddin Khalji, and the tomb of Iltutmish. These are the biggies here, and having a good look around, with some loitering to take photographs or exult over interesting little details, will take probably between an hour and a half to two hours.

The Qutb Archaeological Site is officially open from sunrise to sunset but it’s best to arrive a little after that, since the ticket counter may not be open! In winter (always the best time to visit Delhi) 8.15 or 8.30 A.M. is a good time to get there. The ticket counter is situated across the road, along with rest rooms, a perpetually closed and dingy souvenir shop, and a left luggage room where you can leave backpacks etc (women can carry handbags into the complex, but backpacks or other large bags aren’t allowed). Tickets cost Rs 10 for Indians and Rs 250 for foreigners. Still cameras are allowed free of charge, but you’ll need to pay a couple of hundred rupees if you want to do video photography.

A small eatery with plastic chairs sells aerated drinks, mineral water, potato chips and the like just inside the main gate of the complex. Outside the gate is a shop that sells film rolls and memory cards for digital cameras—both at highly inflated prices. Note that the Qutb Archaeological Site is accessible for wheelchairs.

One last tip: try not to go on a weekday if you can help it: the complex is often inundated with hordes of noisy schoolchildren who seem to treat the place more as a picnic ground than anything else.

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