Delhi Stories and Tips

Miscellaneous Monuments

The Alai Minar Photo, Delhi, India

The Qutb Minar, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, Alai Darwaza and the tomb of Iltutmish are the most striking of the monuments in the Qutb Archaeological Site complex, but that doesn’t mean these are the only structures here. There are other buildings here as well, not as beautiful or historic as the others, but worth stopping off and looking at anyway.

Among the most imposing (not necessarily attractive!) is the massive rubble heap known as Alai Minar. This was supposed to be a replica of the Qutb Minar, built opposite the more famous tower on the other side of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Sultan Alauddin Khalji (the same man who built the exquisite Alai Darwaza) commissioned the construction of the Alai Minar in the early 1300’s, but ended up abandoning the project. What’s left is the stump of what could have been an even more impressive structure than the Qutb Minar. Today, it provides a good idea of what the Qutb Minar would look like if you took off all the decorative stone cladding.

Behind the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque is another of Alauddin Khalji’s projects, a series of very plain single-storied buildings made of rubble and dressed with plain grey Delhi quartzite. This was the madarsa (in modern India, a madarsa is synonymous with a school of Islamic learning for children; in medieval India, a madarsa was an institution of higher learning. Other than the Quran, other subjects, such as medicine, logic and jurisprudence would also be included in the curriculum). The madarsa is very stark and unornamented: do, however, look at the arched doorways. You can see that the arches by now were true arches—keystone and all—but the trabeate beam, which in Aibak’s time had been used to hold up the weight, is still there, now used for decorative rather than functional purposes.

The madarsa of Alauddin Khalji surrounds three sides of a grassy rectangle behind the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Part of the madarsa complex, at right angles to the mosque’s screens, includes the tomb of Alauddin Khalji himself. Like the madarsa, this is very plain: just a square platform of rubble, sitting in a roofless square chamber made of the same rubble. Whether or not this is Alauddin’s tomb is also disputed; some feel that something so plain could hardly be the tomb of a sultan. On the other hand, a plain, unornamented tomb would conform to the tenets of Islam. What’s more, the rubble of the tomb was probably once covered with cladding or at least painted plaster, which may well have been fairly heavily decorated.

One tomb that does present a more ornate picture is the tomb of Imam Zamin,, a religious man who hailed from Turkestan but settled in Delhi in the early 16th century. He was, at least for a while, the head alim or scholar of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Imam Zamin built this tomb within his own lifetime, and was buried in it when he died in 1536 AD. It’s a small domed building standing just outside the eastern gate of the Alai Darwaza. Built over two hundred years after the Alai Darwaza, the tomb shows signs of how architectural fashions had changed in the intervening years. The intricate horror vacui has disappeared, giving way to more extensive use of carved jaalis (`filigree’ screens of pierced stone); the dome is more rounded than on the Alai Darwaza and is topped with a finial; and a chhajja—a dripstone or overhang—projects between the dome and the walls below. You’ll see two finely carved medallions in the shape of lotuses on either side of the doorway into the chamber: these too are a later development, more characteristic of Mughal architecture. The tomb of Imam Zamin has another example of a decorative element that evolved from a functional one: ornamental battlements, which were typically used on the ramparts of fortresses as defensive structures, form a pretty edge all around the base of the dome.

As you emerge from the complex, past the sarai and out of the main gate, keep a lookout on your right. Outside the complex, but within a fenced enclosure of its own, stands a very awkward looking structure that looks like a squat pyramid, steps and all. Beyond it, in another enclosure, stands a similar structure of about the same size, but in the shape of a spiral: it looks a bit like a periwinkle seashell sliced in half and placed on its broad end. Both structures are made of plain, unadorned stone and look utterly out of place. These are together known as Metcalfe’s Follies. Thomas Metcalfe was the Commissioner of Delhi in the mid 1800’s, and although his work was centred round north Delhi (Shahjahanabad—the area today known as Chandni Chowk and its environs), he made his weekend home in Mehrauli. The home he made is known as Dilkusha—it was in a tomb that he purchased and had renovated—and Metcalfe spent much time and effort in sprucing up the neighbourhood. Part of the `beautification’ he undertook was the building of the follies—false ruins—that were at the time popular in English landscape design. If Metcalfe had erected his follies in a more subdued part of Delhi, they might just have been interesting and quirky features; in the vicinity of something as awesome as the Qutb Minar, they stick out like a sore thumb.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip