Saturday, February 12, 2005

Qtub Minar

Another entry for Eggplant.:

Travelling on business is very different from travelling on holiday. On the bright side, your company will shoulder almost all the expenses (and they'll even pay you!) On the downside, your time really isn't your own and you have to adapt your schedule to the needs of the business. All the same, that doesn't mean you can't squeeze in some fun by being flexible. I applied this philosophy when I went to India some years back.

My company gave me a very hectic schedule that would take my colleague Farhana and me through seven cities in nine days. I can still name them all: Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, New Delhi, Pune, and Mumbai. India is a wonderful country with a very vibrant culture but we travelled through it so fast I could take only small samples at best.

Fortunately, Farhana and I did have a three-day stop at New Delhi, and one of the days coincided with a Sunday. And what should you visit when you go to New Delhi? That's right, the Taj Majal! Only...we didn't go to the Taj Majal.

The Taj Majal is actually a three-hour drive from the city proper of New Delhi. We did plan on going, but at the last minute we had problems with the transportation arrangements. Admittedly, we were very disappointed but we made up for it by touring the city of New Delhi instead. It turned out that there was still a lot to see.

Being a place with a long and rich history, New Delhi is dotted with ancient temples and monuments. Many of them are within the city itself and are accessible via taxi. But decidedly, the most fascinating was Qtub Minar.

Built entirely out of red sandstone, the Qutb Minar stands at a dizzying height of 72.5 m, roughly the equivalent of a modern-day 25-storey office building. Its base is 14.32 m in diameter and it tapers upwards to a diameter of 2.75 m at the top. What's even more impressive is that it was built in the 12th Century! Talk about ancient!

The Qutb Minar has a long and colorful history. It is so named because it was ordered built by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the first Muslim ruler of South Asia. Qutb-ud-din was a Turkish slave who rose through the ranks to become a general. As general of the Turkish army, he conquered most of Northern India. At the death of his king, he in turn was elected as the new sultan. He then moved his capital to Lahore, then onwards to Delhi. He was known as a fair and just king who established an efficient administrative system of government.

After he defeated the last of the Hindu Kingdoms, Qutb-ud-din decided to erect the Qutb Minar as a symbol of the invincibility of Islam. Its purpose, as the inscription on its base says, is "to cast the shadow of God over the East and West." The tower was based on the design Muslim prayer tower from which muezzins would issue the calls to prayer. The tower itself stood within the complex of the Quwwatual Islam mosque.

The Qutb Minar, however, seems to have a symbolic rather than a functional structure. At a height of 72.5 m, the muezzin would hardly be heard by the Muslim faithful. And to climb up the 379 steps of the tower five times a day seems like excessive penance for a holy man.

Qutb-ud-din laid the foundation in AD 1196 but he only lived to see the first storey finished. Qutb-ud-din died in 1210 after he fell from his horse while playing a game of polo. His successor Shamsu'd-din Iltutmish continued the construction of the tower, adding an additional three storeys.

At its height, the Qutb Minar was a veritable lightning rod. According to the Nagari and Persian inscriptions at its base, it was damaged twice by lightning. In AD 1368, a bolt finally knocked off the top floor. The then-sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq restored it and added two more storeys so that its present structure stands at five storeys.

The tower also survived several earthquakes. In the early 19th century, an earthquake damaged its crowning cupola. A British engineer, Major Robert Smith, replaced it in 1829 but it looked so out of place that the governor had it removed in 1848. Architectural faux pas notwithstanding, the earthquakes have taken their toll and the Qtub Minar actually leans two feet from its perpendicular axis.

It's not just its height or its age that impresses, though. The Qtub Minar itself is a thing of beauty to behold. Its red sandstone surface is buffed smooth and it is decorated in the Islamic fashion of carved leaves and Arabic script. Marking off every storey is a balcony encircling the tower and supported by stone brackets. The balconies are decorated in honey-comb sculpture. All told, the work is very consistent and finely finished, indicating that it was a labor of love for the artisans who took part in its construction.

A gate and anteroom, similarly decorated with sandstone carvings, leads to stairs inside the tower. Although it would have been a hearty challenge to climb up the 379 steps to the top, the tower has long since been closed off to public access. Several people have died, falling off the top of the tower. In 1979, several schoolgirls died in a stampede when an earthquake struck and people panicked.

While the tower is the highlight of the complex, it is by no means the only edifice. Next to the tower is the Quwwatual Mosque, also built by Qutb-ud-din. It is the earliest of the surviving mosques built by the Delhi sultans. The mosque is a rectangular courtyard enclosed by cloisters erected from the carved columns taken from Hindu and Jain temples that Qutb-ud-din's armies destroyed.

A bit to the north of the Qutb Minar stands the incomplete Ala'i Minar. Alau'd-din Khalji, another sultan, wanted to build a tower that was twice the size of of Qutb-ud-din's tower. However, he could only complete the first storey. All that remains of this foiled ambition is a rough unfinished edifice that stands 25 m, or roughly the height of an 8-storey office building.

Other constructions of note in the area are the Iron Pillar dedicated to a king, the tomb of Iltutmish, and graves of various other unknown figures.

All told, the trip to the Qutb Minar was a worthwhile and satisfying one. It's easily accessible and won't take a large chunk of travel time to get to. I highly recommend it as one of the stops in your New Delhi itinerary.

Next time, though, I will have to visit the Taj Majal.


  1. So where are you working now? Or is it a matter of national security...

  2. Hi, Migs. Thanks for dropping by.

    Work? Seriously, I'm not working. Well, I do help out at the store in Dumaguete and Davao, but it's nothing that requires serious effort. So I'm really just doing pretty much what I like.

    This situation won't last forever, but I thought I'd give it a shot before I'm really not able to do this anymore.