Delhi Stories and Tips

Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque

Carving detail from a screen at the mosque  Photo, Delhi, India

Walking past the sarai and then the Alai Minar, the first building you’ll come to is the Quwwat-ul-Islam (`might of Islam’) Mosque. This name appears to have been applied to the mosque only from the 19th century onward, but the mosque itself is much, much older. It is, in fact, the oldest mosque in Delhi and one of the oldest in India, construction having begun around 1191 AD.

The Quwwat-ul-Islam owes its creation to a man named Qutbuddin Aibak, the first of the Slave Sultans. The Slave Sultans were literally that—slave succeeding master, rather than son succeeding father. Aibak’s master, Mohammad Ghori, had invaded Delhi, ousting the Chauhan rulers of Delhi; when Ghori retreated, he left Aibak behind to rule. Aibak, in his stead, was succeeded by one of his slaves, Iltutmish. But while he was in power, Qutbuddin Aibak did his bit to leave his stamp on the landscape of Delhi, and this mosque is part of that grand plan.

Since religion was (still is, for that matter, at least in India) an important aspect of political power, one of Aibak’s priorities was to emphasise the fact that Delhi was now under the sway of Islamic rulers. Also, Delhi has had a long tradition of recycling building material. These two factors together resulted in the use of existing masonry to build the new mosque. And where did Qutbuddin Aibak find building material? In twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples in the vicinity, from which his builders happily picked out elements—pillars, lintels, oriel windows, etc—which they used to construct the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque.

The intriguing features of the mosque begin at the main gateway to it. This, you’ll notice, is in the form of an arch with a triangular `filling’ of stone in the upper part, with a broad beam of stone below. They’re two very distinct elements: the arch (which made its way to India from Central Asia, where it had arrived with the Romans) and the trabeate beam (an indigenous technique). Unfortunately, at the time the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque was built, the arch was too new a concept for local masons to grasp. They were probably shown illustrations of the arch the Turkic Aibak was familiar with—but they didn’t understand the logic behind the keystone or the structure of the arch. What they created, therefore (which is what you see in the gateway) is a false arch—it looks like an arch, but it’s actually a series of stone blocks placed one above the other in the shape of an arch; there’s no keystone. And, since there isn’t a keystone, a substitute was needed to hold up the weight of all that masonry. The solution? A trabeate beam: a heavy stone lintel lying across the top of the two gateposts, bearing the weight. Amusingly enough, even after Indian masons mastered the true arch, the combination of arch and beam continued to be used, now as a decorative element.

Ascend the short flight of steps up through the gateway and you’ll enter a pillared cloister that surrounds a vast paved courtyard. The intricately carved pillars are evidence enough of the origin of the Quwwat-ul-Islam: all of them, at least on this side of the mosque, are carved in patterns that are very obviously not Islamic. Orthodox Islam forbids the depiction of any living thing, but you’ll find plenty of human figures—musicians, dancers, demons, etc—carved into these pillars. Interestingly, none of the pillars here follow the same pattern: each is unique.

In the centre of the courtyard (known as a sehan in Islamic architecture) is a tall iron pillar surrounded by a railing. This was, till a few years ago, a major attraction: popular belief had it that if you stood with your back to the pillar and folded your arms around it—and you were able to clasp your hands together—your wishes would be granted. Everybody who came by tried their hand (or arms!) at it, because of which the pillar suffered. Thus the railing, which cordons it off.

Do take a look at the pillar, though. It’s very historic, since it dates back to about the 3rd century BC and was cast at the orders of King Ashok. The pillar bears an inscription praising the bravery and other virtues of a king called Chandra (nobody seems quite sure who this could be, since India has known many Chandras). The iron contains a high level of phosphorus which is supposedly responsible for protecting the pillar from rust—it’s been standing for a good while now, braving the elements, and there isn’t a spot of rust on it.

How the pillar came to be in the sehan of the Quwwat-ul-Islam is anybody’s guess; but there was once a legend that anybody who moved the pillar (not an easy task, since it weighs six tonnes) would lose his kingdom. Perhaps Aibak found it here when he began building the mosque, and didn’t want to take any chances by shifting it—who knows?

Beyond the iron pillar is my favourite part of the Quwwat-ul-Islam: the huge sandstone screens that mark the west. (A brief word of explanation here: the function of a mosque, at its very basic, is to mark the direction of prayer, i.e, the direction of Mecca—which in India is the west. A mosque, therefore, can be as simple as a wall with a marking on it to show that it points west. This marking, known as the mihrab, is invariably an arch which is often profusely decorated). West, in the Quwwat-ul-Islam, is marked by a series of magnificent carved screens in the form of huge, soaring arches (again, like at the gateway, false arches). These are of rubble dressed with sandstone in a myriad shades: buff, grey, gold, red—fitted in haphazardly, all of it very striking rather than higgledy-piggledy. And the carving is breathtaking: huge tendrils, lotus buds and flowers fill broad panels, interspersed with bands of Quranic inscription. This is a prime example of what is known as horror vacui decoration—a `horror of empty space’—every single inch is carved.

Once you’ve admired the screens, move off to your right (if you’re facing the screens), through the doorway and out of the sehan and its surrounding cloister. Here you’ll find more screens, an extension of the ones inside. Although they look similar, these (unlike the inner screens) were erected not by Qutbuddin Aibak but by his successor, Iltutmish, about 35 or 40 years down the line. Have a closer look at the carving, and you’ll see that Islamic influences had begun creeping into decoration: the flowing calligraphy of the inner arches has been replaced by more angular calligraphy, and the flowers have given way to more conforming geometrical shapes. The Hindu stonecarvers were beginning to learn!

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