Qutb and Mehrauli: The Past and Present of an Iconic Site

In Delhi’s Qutb Complex, Catherine B. Asher goes beyond Mehrauli and Delhi to look at the afterlife of the iconic tower that is the Qutb Minar.

Qutb Minar. Credit: lensnmatter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Qutb Minar. Credit: lensnmatter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Mehrauli is truly a magical place. The average visitor skims but the surface, marvelling at the towering Qutb Minar and taking a cursory stroll through the other buildings that lie within the popular UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Qutb complex. Those who go beyond, into the neighbouring village, may visit the shrine of the Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, or a restaurant. There is now, of course, a smaller group of more adventurous explorers who are discovering the treasures of Mehrauli – particularly in the village and the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, mainly through the medium of increasingly popular ‘heritage walks’.

But though one may visit these monuments and learn the stories that lie in this locality’s long and eventful history, there are many layers that lie awaiting a more rigorous and meaningful analysis. A scholarly study by a leading art historian is, therefore, a very valuable addition to what is admittedly the rather sparse literature on the subject.

Catherine B. Asher’s Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli starts by setting the monuments of the Qutb Complex within the physical space and history of Mehrauli, and in the context of its many historic structures. Construction on the oldest congregational mosque of Delhi and its attached monumental tower began in the late 12th century, and was commissioned by a newly-arrived political power, the Turks – under Muizzuddin Muhammad bin Sam, also known as Muhammad Ghori – as part of a capital complex that comprised fortifications, palaces and water works. Many structures had of course already been standing there, the legacy of the earlier regimes – those of the Chauhan and Tomar rulers.

Catherine B. Asher
Delhi’s Qutb Complex: the Minaret, Mosque and Mehrauli
The Marg Foundation, 2017

Some of these relics of the earlier period were appropriated and modified, such as the city wall. Others were cleared away and their materials reused. Notable here are a number of temples, destroyed during the conquest, whose stones were used to build the congregational mosque. Asher relies on recent research to analyse the complex nature of this appropriation and reuse, and its cultural ramifications. The systematic way in which the various elements were placed in the newly constructed mosque suggests that they were not treated as random spolia. For instance, the largest and most elaborately carved pillars were used in the western arcade, the part of the mosque closest to Mecca, and therefore the direction in which the congregation faced.

While the tower, the mosque, royal tombs and some waterworks were commissioned by the rulers, significant construction in Mehrauli in that period is attributable to the many other inhabitants of the capital city. Important remnants include mosques, tombs and shrines of Sufi saints, which added a layer of Islamic sacred spaces, in addition to the pre-existing Yogmaya Temple, an ancient site dedicated to a revered goddess, and the 11th century Dadabari Jain temple.

Over the succeeding centuries, as the centre of power shifted and the capital moved to newer sites in Delhi, the character of Mehrauli shifted in favour of its spiritual significance, as the site of important shrines. The book describes many of the religious structures – dargahs, tombs, mosques, temples, a church and a Buddhist centre, that have been constructed here right up to modern times. It also details the many secular structures that were built as Mehrauli became a popular resort for those fleeing the crowded conditions of urban life in the capital city. These structures included mansions, gardens, the 19th-century palace of the last two Mughal emperors, and British ornamental ‘follies’. The overwhelming impression is one of the continuing importance of the site. This importance was reinforced through longstanding traditions, not only of religious observances such as the Urs of the Sufi saint, but of festivals like the Phool Walon ki Sair. The latter was instituted by the later Mughals in the early 19th century, and involved veneration of both the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and the Yogmaya Temple.

Catherine B. Asher. Credit: University of Minnesota website

Asher has gone beyond Mehrauli and Delhi to look at the afterlife of the iconic tower that is the Qutb Minar. She shows us how strong its impact was on later structures, which mimicked its form in miniature, either as freestanding towers or engaged columns. Examples of such appropriation range from structures as far flung as the Qutbuddin Mubarak Khalji’s mosque in Daultabad, to several in Delhi itself, for instance the 16th century mosque in Lodi Garden.

And yet the meaning of the original tower and its attached mosque is not uncontested. There have been suggestions, expressed first by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, that the Qutb Minar was built by the Chauhans. While this is an opinion that is not generally espoused, at least by an educated readership, more common is the interpretation of both mosque and tower primarily as signifying the triumphalism of Islam. This is done on the one hand through an emphasis on the temple destruction associated with the site. On the other, it is fostered by the ASI signage and publications calling the mosque Quwwat al-Islam, literally, ‘strength of Islam’. This name, in fact, was not used for the mosque before the 19th century.

Asher questions many of these popular ideas, which often have their roots in colonial scholarship. She follows recent scholars such as Finbarr Flood, whom she refers to several times, in asking for a more nuanced reading of the site and what it signified in the past. Yet she does not break free of some of the more well-entrenched notions. Dichotomous ‘Islamic’ and ‘Indic’ traditions are treated as a given, without going into details of the motifs that are seen on the early Sultanate architecture to analyse their roots. The problem of the discipline of history becomes very apparent in such cases. A scholar of ‘Islamic’ art and architecture is trained to see the Qutub complex as Islamic architecture. The author, while she makes detailed comment on the calligraphy that adorned the early Sultanate structures, has no comment on the use of motifs like the lotus and the kalash, Indian motifs which also feature in the surface decoration. These motifs, in fact, persisted as an integral part of the ornamentation of mosques and tombs in Mehrauli and elsewhere, through the centuries, till the end of the Mughals.

Moreover, while it is important to study the architectural creations of the Ghurids in Afghanistan, as Asher has done, to understand their buildings in Delhi, it may not be enough to trace the roots of Ghurid architecture in Afghanistan merely to the previous ‘Islamic’ dynasty – the Ghaznavids. There were examples of pre-Ghaznavi art and architecture that abounded in the landscape – notably the great Gandhara tradition. It is time that its significance for later developments is also studied.

On the whole, however, the book is a valuable resource and informative read on a very important archaeological site. The inclusion of a large number of contemporary photographs and also archival images, match the scholarship, and live up to the standards set by the Marg series of scholarly volumes.

Swapna Liddle wrote her PhD thesis on the cultural and intellectual history of 19th-century Delhi. She is the author of Delhi: 14 Historic Walks and Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi.