Both Qutub Minar and the compound that houses it serve as tangible proof of Islamic influence in India. We had the opportunity to explore this minaret or “victory tower”, the first monument we visited on our trip through India just before the the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Call it Qutub Minar, Qutab Minar or Qutb Minar, take your pick. Whichever the appropriate pronunciation of its name may be, this site offers a pleasant walk through a historical place where contradictory ideologies coexist in harmony.
Between Two Religions
Hinduism persists as the predominant religion in India, according to the 2011 Indian census. However, Islam ranks second, followed by other religions in smaller numbers. In fact, India contains the largest Islamic population in the world outside of non-Muslim countries.
Given the short distance between South Asia (which houses India) and the Middle East, this influence is not entirely surprising. Trade and interaction between the two cultures predate the writing of many historical texts. Thus, the first conflicts between these groups were documented back in the 7th century.
Muhammad of Ghor (or Ghori … again reader’s choice), leader of the Gurid sultanate, was not the first Muslim to invade the Indian subcontinent. He wasn’t even successful on his first attempt. Ghori’s army was defeated in 1191 by the forces of Prithviraj Chauhan, regarded as the last Hindu king. A determined Ghori returned in 1192 and emerged victorious during the second battle of Tarain. With this win, Ghori established an empire, based in the Delhi territory, that would occupy much of India for more than three centuries.
Victory and Recycling
The area where Chauhan lived is said to have contained at least 27 Hindu and Jain temples. After executing Chauhan, Ghori passed on control of that area to Qutb al-Din Aibak, his former slave turned general, son-in-law and eventual successor. (How grateful!)
Ever faithful Aibak dismantled all the temples in the area, where he built the first mosque in India and named it Quwwat-ul Islam or “the might of Islam.” As a time-saving measure, the rubble from the demolished temples was reused in the construction of the mosque and its surrounding structures.
This particular decision gives the Qutub Minar complex its defining feature: the mixture of Islamic calligraphy and Hindu iconography in its decoration. The structures still standing contain traces of imagery like animals, human faces and gods like Ganesha from the original temples. This despite the fact that Islam mostly prohibits the artistic representation of living beings, mainly those of Muhammad, founder of the religion.
Qutub Minar: A Minaret Like No Other
The Qutub Minar minaret gives the entire complex that surrounds it its name. This tower was built between 1199 and 1220, during the Gurid and Delhi sultanates, as part of the original mosque. The tallest brick minaret in the world, this 72.5-meter (237.8-foot) tall structure includes five levels and 379 steps. Its interior has been closed to the general public since an unfortunate incident in 1981.
The function or rationale behind the Qutub Minar minaret is still in debate, according to our tour guide. Its speculated purpose was for performing those calls to prayer characteristic to Islam. However, certain theories suggest that it served as a lookout point and even for defense purposes such as the tower of a medieval fortress.
Qutub Minar’s Mausoleums, Marvels and Mishaps
After wars, earthquakes and the passage of time, only ruins of the Quwwat-ul Islam mosque still stand. However, there are other structures around the Qutub Minar complex that, like the minaret, remain intact. Such is the case with the Alai Minar, the base of another proposed minaret for the unfinished mosque.
The Alai Darwaza, another building in the area, served as one of the entrances to the mosque. It stands out because of its arches, its sandstone walls and its dome, the first true one built in India. From the Alai Darwaza’s inner chamber you can see the elaborate decoration of the ceiling of the dome, which appears to be assembled of diverse multicolored materials.
There is evidence that the mosque also served as a mausoleum in ancient times. The complex has several tombs inside such as the tomb of Imam Zamin, a cleric descendant of Muhammad himself whose birth name was Muhammad Ali. (A probable inspiration for a certain famous boxer). Emperor Alauddin Khalji was also buried there inside the madrasa, or seminary building, which he built in the early 14th century. The most striking tomb, with natural light and a white sarcophagus, belongs to Iltutmish, a former slave and eventual successor to Qutb al-Din Aibak. We’re starting to detect a pattern here.
The complex contains many other curiosities, such as the Iron Pillar of Delhi, a stainless steel marvel of metallic alloy with multiple ancient inscriptions. There is also Smith’s Folly, a failed contribution to the Qutub Minar by the British. An English major renovated the minaret in 1828 and added a non-existent sixth level. The decision was unpopular, it seems, since barely twenty years later the addition was removed from the minaret and moved into the garden.
Qutub Minar’s World Heritage
In short, there are multiple reasons to value the Qutub Minar complex. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) agreed in 1986, when it added Qutub Minar to its World Heritage List.
Whether to explore history, appreciate architecture, or feel at the intersection of two ideologies, Qutub Minar is a must-see on your trip to North India. For more information on Qutub Minar and other monuments of India, visit the official site for the Office of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Now, Some Tips
We recommend scheduling your visit to Qutub Minar between March and April to enjoy the commplex’s garden segments.
Get There Early
Qutub Minar is open every day from sunrise to 8:00 p.m., but the venue does not allow any more visitors after 6:00 p.m. We recommend arriving in the morning to avoid the crowds.
If you visit Qutub Minar on your own, the complex has nearby bus and subway stops. A taxi is another good option.
Protect and Be Protected
Like all monuments in India that have reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic, only online ticket purchases and a maximum of 2,000 visitors per day will be allowed, all of which must wear face masks.
If you wish to map your walk around Qutub Minar beforehand, or cannot manage to travel to India, Google Maps allows you to sightsee the complex via Street View.
Where to Find It
Seth Sarai, Mehrauli, Nueva Delhi, Delhi 110030, India
+91 112 465 4832