Qutub Complex


From the nomadic “Aryans” down to the British, in over 3,000 years, invaders have followed a path eastward, from lands beyond the Hindu Kush, for the fabled wealth of our country and the fertility of the plains.

One such ferocious horde was from Muhammad Gauri from Ghur who rode down at the end of the 12th century leaving a social and cultural impact that lasted for centuries to come. Though Islam had creeped into India since the 8th century, it was only with the Gaur invasion that Islam actually influenced the architectural contours of India.

The first point of contact between the two forces was one of friction. Fired by religious zeal, the soldiers of Islam set about destroying and despoiling the symbols and structures of the other. ‘It was the custom,’ records Qutbuddin’s chronicler, Hasan Nizami in the Taj-ul- Maasir, ‘after the conquest of every fort and stronghold to grind its foundations and pillars to powder under the feet of fierce and gigantic elephants.’ This destruction, historians agree, is the reason for the absence of Hindu monuments in the upper Indo-Gangetic plain, especially around Islamic centres such as Delhi and Ajmer.

As the fervour wore off, the conquerors settled down to build new structures with the remains of despoiled temples and palaces as it provided material for mosques and tombs in the new land. The Quwwat-ul- Islam Mosque in one such example. Later, these rulers decided to plan and build their own structures, particular to the Indian subcontinent, like the Alai Darwaza. Thus, was created a new school of art, Indo-Islamic school of Architecture, indigenous to the Indian subcontinent where Indian craftsmen used the Indian material like stone to build Islamic structures for the first time and also included Indian elements like chattris, chajjas and jharokhas in the structures and even the surface ornamentation changed from geometric patterns and calligraphic inscriptions due to prohibition of any representation in Islam to the beginning of intermingling of floral life, the earliest intermingling of which can be seen at the screen of Quwwat-ul-Islam at the Qutub Complex.

The evidence of all these phases are evident at the site of the Qutub Complex where structures have been erected continuously since the beginning of what is called the Delhi Sultanate up until the British era. However, to understand, truly, the Qutub Complex, one needs to understand the significance of the site on which the structures were erected.

Delhi has housed settlements for several millennia as Palaeolithic implements have been discovered from Anangpur, one of the largest prehistoric sites in India. Literary references also identify the city with Indraprastha, the grand city built by the Pandavas in Mahabharata. In fact, the Purana Qila has a village inside the Fort called Indrapat that was continuously inhabited from early historical to medieval times for around 3,000 years and includes evidences of the Mauryan times.

The city has remained the pivot of North India for over a thousand years since the triangular swathe of land between the Aravalli Hills and the Yamuna was fertile and also commanded the vital trade route from north-western mountains to the Ganga plains. The rulers Rajasthan considered Delhi a frontier town to expand into the fertile plains of Punjab while the Afghans believed that Delhi held the key to the fertile Indo- Gangetic plains.

Towards the end of the first millennium AD, the Tomars, a clan of Rajputs rose to prominence in the Aravalli Hills and the Tomar king, Anangpal II built his red fortress, Lal Kot in the 11th century that was later enlarged by Prithviraj Chauhan who defeated the Tomars. His citadel is called the Qila Rai Pithora, the first settlement substantial enough to be called a city at Delhi.

Prithviraj was ousted by Muhammad Gauri in AD 1192 who returned to his country, leaving his slave Qutub-ud-din Aibak, an efficient general to lay the foundation of the Delhi sultanate and take care of his “land” as his viceroy in his name in 1205 AD. It was on his master’s death in 1206 that Aibak crowned himself the Sultan of Delhi, starting the rule of the Mamluk or Slave dynasty, the first Muslim dynasty to rule northern India.

He did not build a new city but made Qila Rai Pithora his citadel, where, in 1199, he laid the foundation of the Qutub Complex. A century later Alauddin Khilji built the first Muslim city of Delhi, walling his camp, north of Qila Rai Pithora and called it Siri. Further, Ghiyasuddin Tughluq selected a site 8 kms east of Siri for his walled city and within four years, Tughluqabad had been laid out in neat grids.

Plan of Tughlaqabad

Due to the lack of drinking water Muhammad bin Tughluq returned closer to the original Rajput site and named it Jahanpanah, a walled enclosure between Qila Rai Pithora and Siri. Following which Firoz Shah Tughluq built his city, Firozabad, along the Yamuna.

Succeeding dynasties were so occupied with keeping their realms intact that they had little time to spare for city building.

Even Humayun and Shah Jahan eyed towards Delhi to build their cities and it thus remained the axis of the Mughal empire until the uprising of 1857, following which the British transferred the capital to Delhi, that has remained so until now.

After establishing the importance of the city of Delhi we can move on further to understanding the Qutub Complex, one of the significant monuments of Delhi. Though know for the lofty Qutub Minar that stands as a landmark around the area for miles, the structure also consists of structures like the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, Tomb of Iltutmish, Alai Minar, Alai Darwaza, the madrasa or school, and what is believed to be the Tomb of Alauddin Khalji along with many other structures that were added in due course of time.

Plan of Qutub Complex

After he had captured the authority of Delhi, Aibak realized that it was an unruly land of alien faith, so he sought to leave the imprint of his religion on them and got a mosque constructed at the city of Lal Kot in Qila Rai Pithora. This mosque is the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque that was made on the rubble of twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples in the years between 1194 and 1199, epitomizing the might or quwwat of Islam.

Conjectural Representation of the Qutub Complex

The mosque that is entered through the eastern facade is open on three sides and can be entered through the North and South directions also. Aibak created it on a high plinth of a Hindu temple called elbut-khana. It is a rectangular mosque with four iwans, three entrances and three bay riwaq on the eastern side while two bays are present on the North and South side.

Panoramic View of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque from the East

The top of the eastern arched entrance mentions in Naskh inscription that the mosque was created with demolished material of twenty-seven temple. Since the Indians do not read the script, intent of the inscription was to make the army of Aibak feel that they are superior since they were in a foreign country and were home sick and uncomfortable in the foreign land. The inscription also invokes God’s mercy for Aibak, the person who commissioned the mosque.

Ariel View of the Qutub Complex Showing the Courtyard and the Indian Domes

The ceiling that is corbelled with the Indian version of a dome can be seen, surrounded by at the bottom of the Dome with squinches of chiseled stones standing on the carved pillars that are clearly taken from the temple as we see many elements like the yakshas, gods, goddesses, kalashas and other elements. However, the faces of all human figures have been distorted as Islam does not allow the creation of human form. The courtyard is open to the sky and was entered through the North, South and East gateways, among which only the eastern remains. The flooring was done with huge pictures of stones. The several narrow slabs of stones on the top of the walls and roof of the mosque represented the gods and goddesses. On the western side, Aibak created upload sanctuary Hall and prayer hall, the group of which was originally supported by 5 rows of the tallest and finest pillars of the temple that would demolish.

Pillars of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque

The Qibla wall and Mihrab were also incorporated in the structure by Qutbuddin Aibak. The screen was created using red and yellow sandstone and central arch is flanked by 2 arched entrances on each side. On the central screen, Quranic verses in Arabic in Naskh style are present. Serpentine tendrills and undulating leaves have been detected.

In the covered verandahs on 3 sides are fitted with Hindu motifs like blooming lotuses, these pillars according to Carr Stephen were plastered initially that has now been removed. At each corner of the pillared floor 20 feet square balcony or Gallery with staircases in the thickness of the wall probably used as the Zanana by women.

Defaced Yakshas at the site

The screen that Aibak created incorporated a mixture of the Indian and Islamic motifs, especially the three dimensionality of Indian sculptures that was used to depict the Islamic motifs.

Screen at the Qutub Complex

This was the contribution of Qutub-ud-din Aibak, after him, Shams al-Din Iltutmish made a lot of changes to the structure. He expanded the mosque in line with the earlier models with three and four bays respectively, however, since he did not reuse the material from temples he had the liberty to not use the Indian motifs that his religion did not allow. Yet, he had to keep in sync with what his predecessor has created so that his construction did not stand out as much. He therefore created pillars that were simpler, yet followed the patterns that Aibak had used due reusing the rubble of the temples. It was during Iltutmish’s expansion that the Minar came inside the complex of the Mosque the height of which he increased from the first storey to three stories. It should however be noted that Iltutmish emalgamated the traditions beautifully, thus incorporating many elements from the Hindu belief including the kalashas.

Kalasha created during the time of Iltutmish

He also expanded the screen on the southern and northern sided using motifs that were different from those used by Aibak.

The pillars that he created during expansion are simpler than the ones during Aibak’s time but are still decorated to a limited level using petal designs.

However, the most important contribution of Iltutmish in the Qutub Complex is the creation of his tomb. It in square in plan on a high plinth. It has verses of Quran on it. The cenotaph is at the center and there is a marble mihrab.

Exterior of the Tomb of Iltutmish

The tomb is on the north-western side of the mosque. It is a single square room entered from three arched opening from all directions except the west as the western wall has three niches, the central one or the main mihrab is ornamented in white marble and is higher than the flanked ones on both sides. It appears simple from the outside and is faced with sandstone, while the interior is richly decorated with engravings of quranic verses written in Arabic, floral scrolls and geometrical patterns are seen in great variety.

The Central Mihrab on the Qibla Wall of the Tomb of Iltutmish

The original grave is in the basement and a tiered false tombstone has been erected exactly at the centre of the hall of which the dome fell down but the pendentives supporting it remain due to the absence of the drum and small squinches at the corners, it must have fallen down.

Cenotaph of Iltutmish

Ala-al-din Khilji was the 3rd ruler of the early Delhi Sultanate who made main contributions to the Qutub Complex. He extended the mosque further on two sides leaving only one entrance in line with the previous ones to create a way directly showing the Alai Minar, a Minar that he was trying to create, however, died even before the first level was completed. He even closed the entry to Iltutmish’s tomb from the mosque and erected the Alai Darwaza. Even his pillars were more orthodox than his predecessors.

The Alai Darwaza is the southern gate which is the only surviving gate that was erected by Khilji. It is square in shape, finely worked at with redsandstone and white marble. It has incises and relief work on it creating floral and geometrical motifs on the outer façade.

Alai Darwaza

On both the sides of intrados of the three true arched entrances, (except North), six cornered stars called the Star of David are present.

The northern entrance has a semicircular arch made of white marble and the upper part of square hole is decorated with horseshoe shade stalactite design supporting the squinches for making roof for the drum and dome of the terrace.

Jaali on the Alai Darwaza with Persian Inscription on the sides

Quranic verses and hadith are engraved artistically on its outer façade and Persian, central Asian and Indian elements can be observed.

Interior of the Alai Darwaza

The Alai Minar the other construction of Alauddin Khilji at the Qutub Complex is at the north of Qutub Minar, in front of extension of Khilji’s mosque. It is believed that he was trying to create a minaret double the size of Qutub Minar but died in the process. He died even before he completed the first floor. Thus, it stands as an unfinished minaret on a plinth. The four corners of the lowest plinth confirm that there was a temple at the site. The whole structure is now nothing but a huge, uneven and unplastered rubble.

Alai Minar

Behind the mosque, on the west is the Madarsa that was created by Alauddin Khilji. It has a series of cells, the entry to the courtyard which is entered through a big gateway on the North that now stands totally dilapidated. Of the eight western cells of which two are domed while two have an opening at the back. One of the domed rooms has squinches, with true arches and selected patterns below them. Towards the south, the central room is separated by passages on both sides and entered from 3 sides except the western one, Alauddin Khilji is buried here.

The Tomb and Madrasa of Alauddin Khilji

On the South there is a rectangular courtyard enclosed with the wall, having stairways to go up, presently, the tombstone in all these rooms are missing and structures are totally dilapidated.

Believed to be the Grave of Alauddin Khilji, the tombstone of which is missing

The iron pillar is installed in front of the main screen hall, and dates from the 4th century AD. Originally it had a Garud, the vehicle on Vishnu on top of it and was shifted from Mathura to Anga Pal in 10th century just in front of a temple at Lal Kot that was dedicated to the deity.

Iron Pillar at the Qutub Complex

It is 10 times shorter than the Qutub Minar and consists of 99% wrought iron which has kept it rust resistant over the years. The pillar has inscriptions of King Chandra who was considered to be the King Chandragupta Maurya of the Mauryan dynasty and the pillar was therefore called the Ashokan pillar. However, it has now been recognized as King Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty that came later.

Brahmi Inscription on the Iron Pillar

The Qutub Minar, present on this site was erected as a symbol of supremacy of Islam, there probably was a candle on top since there is a presence of a burning place. Feroz Shah mention the name Minaret or Sultan Muizzudin Sam also known as the Lat of Qutub Sahib probably rerferring to what we call the Qutub Minar.

The Qutub Minar

It is believed that only the first story of the Minar was completed by Aibak and the next three were raised by Iltutmish. It was finally raised to the fifth story during the repair work done by Feroz Shah Kotla.

There are inscriptional bands on each story of the Minar. The first story has six decorative inscriptional bands including, in sequence verses from the holy Quran, talks about Qutubuddin and Mohammad Gauri, holy Quranic verses, eulogy of Muhammad Gauri, the ninety-nine names of Allah or the almighty and finally another band of holy Quran verses. Other than these, on top of the Northern entrance is written “you make a mosque for him, he will make a house for you in heaven”. The first story also mentions the repair work that was done by Sikandar Lodi. And as we move on to the second storey we find two bands of inscriptions, one praises Iltutmish and the second has verses from the Quran. There is also an inscription at the doorway that mentions the command of completion of the Minar given by Iltutmish.

Inscriptional Band on the Qutub Minar

The 3rd story has two bands in which the first one mentions the name, titles and eulogy of the Iltutmish while the second band has a scroll pattern. There are also praises of Iltutmish at the doorway and the name of the architect is mentioned as Mohammed Aamir Koh.

The 4th and 5th storeys are round in shape and have different designs and Motifs.

There are projected balconies that separate each story by a railing of red sandstone that was supported with a honeycomb pattern that was created by small arched niches one on the other in recessing position at the bottom. It is worth noting that each balcony is supported by different types of stalactite patterns and therefore follows a different pattern on every floor. Initially these balconies were having railings with independent stepped kangooras that were removed and replaced by Robert Smith for safety purposes.

One of the Balcony at the Qutub Minar

The tomb in front of the eastern façade of the Alai Darwaza, is the Tomb of Md. Imam Zamin, made of sandstone, it is placed in an open courtyard on a high platform that had alcoves now only seen on the western and southern sides. The southern façade has an entrance on top of which there is an inscription in naskh characters, they are also finely polished with white stucco and covered with perforated jaali on all sides and in the centre of the room lies the white marble tombstone and above it, the dome is decorated with ribbed pattern. On the jaali or the screen of the west wall is the mihrab that is bulged out on the outside of the exterior. The parapet and the upper portion of the octagonal drum is surmounted with a hemispherical dome with a finial on the top.

Tomb of Imam Zamin

Another important structure at the Complex is Major Smith’s Cupola which is a canopy or chhatri. It is believed that during the time of Feroz Shah Tughlaq a Cuppola was added to the height of the minaret which was later damaged due to an earthquake and a new cupola, made of red sandstone was erected at the top by Major Smith. However, since the cupola did not match the aesthetic appeal, grandeur and architectural form of the Qutub Minar, Lord Harding instructed Major Smith to take the cupola back on ground. It is not placed in the complex on a round platform, semicircular dome is supported by six pillars that are coming out from a lotus, reducing its thickness upward. The spearhead blocks are decorated at each corner of three feet high railing on its parapet of red sandstone. Each opening of the cupola is having engrailed or cusped arched, Bangla-roof style caping and at the spandrels are blooming lotuses. At the centre of its ceiling there is a hole that probably must have supported a finial at the top.

Major Smith’s Cupola

Therefore, the Qutub Complex has been built on a the remains of an important city and have gained even more importance since then, never once losing its significance in the subcontinent. Not only did it gain significance momentarily, but has remained an important site since then through the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal rule, the British rule and even post-independence as a major tourist attraction. Hence, the site deserves all the attention that it gets for withstanding the test of time.


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