Qutub Minar Opens a Window Into India's Complex Religious & Political History

On 24 May, the ASI opposed a suit seeking "restoration of 27 Hindu & Jain temples inside the Qutub Minar complex."

8 min read
Hindi Female

Twenty years ago, in his essay, “Qutb and Modern Memory,” Professor Sunil Kumar took one back to an ad campaign in a national newspaper that “asked its readers a rhetorical question: ‘Can you imagine Delhi without the Qutb?’”

In the essay, which is a part of his book The Present in Delhi’s Past, he further wrote:

“Its ruins are presented today as a part of ‘Indian’ antiquity, a part of each citizen’s inheritance which he or she can cherish. One mosque out of several from the twelfth century has gained this doubtful honour. Indians are asked to take pride in ‘their’ Minar – we are told that it is one of the tallest free-standing minarets built out of stone and mortar. Nationalistic pride, however, is short-lived and the Qutb monuments lead to a host of ambivalent reactions.”

Kumar was a professor of medieval history at Delhi University’s Department of History, and his essay on modern memory of this towering monument answers most of the questions that surround the Qutub Minar today.


‘Changing Existing Structure Would Be Clear Violation of the AMASR Act’: ASI

On 21 May, speculation was rife that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had been directed to “excavate” Qutub Minar to ascertain who, in fact, built this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Was it built in the 12th century by Qutb-al-Din ai-Beg, the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate or was it built much before that by Chandragupta Vikramaditya of the Gupta Empire in the 5th century?

On 24 May, Tuesday, the ASI opposed before a Delhi court a suit seeking "restoration of as many as 27 Hindu and Jain temples inside the Qutub Minar complex."

A civil court judge had dismissed a suit which had alleged that the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque (adjoining the Qutub Minar) was built in place of a temple complex and sought restoration.

As per Live Law, the ASI responded:

" is submitted that there is no denial of the fact that there are a number of sculptures existing within the Qutub Minar complex. However, it will be contrary to the provisions of the AMASR Act, 1958 (Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act) to agree to the contention of the respondents or any other person claiming a fundamental right to worship in this centrally protected monument."
On 24 May, the ASI opposed a suit seeking "restoration of 27 Hindu & Jain temples inside the Qutub Minar complex."

Details of "Hindu sculptured lintel," "stones," and "ceiling" at the Qutub Minar complex

(Photo: "Memoirs of the ASI" by JA Page, published in 1926.)

The ASI further stated that the "basic principle of protection/conservation is not to allow starting of any new practice in a monument declared and notified as a protected one under the Act. Revival of worship is not allowed wherever it is not practiced at the time of protection of a monument."


This comes as a part of the Hindu right's fresh ‘movement’ to question the origin of monuments built by Islamic rulers of different periods.

While the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura are already in different stages of litigation, the Allahabad High Court recently dismissed a petition demanding the opening of “22 sealed doors at the Taj Mahal.”

All three sites are in Uttar Pradesh, a communally and politically sensitive state.

Now, the Qutub Minar in Delhi, too, finds itself under the spotlight with former ASI regional director Dharamveer Sharma claiming that the monument was a “sun tower” in the 5th century during the Gupta empire rule.

As soon as the excavation speculation made headlines, GK Reddy, the Union Culture Minister, stated that “no such decision has been taken.”

An ASI official told The Quint, “There is no paperwork right now on any excavation work to be done or on the iconography of idols at the Qutub Minar. As of now, things are as they always have been.”

The Indian Express reported that the ASI has recommended that “visitors should be given detailed information on various Hindu and Jain idols located in the complex through appropriate signboards.”

Before one goes any further into the present state of affairs, it is only fair to look back at history.


Understanding the Qutub Minar Complex

The construction of the Qutub Minar and the adjoining Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque was started by Delhi Sultanate’s first ruler, Qutb al-Din ai-Beg (or Qutub al-Din Aibak) in 1191-92 (12th century).

Professor Kumar wrote, “The construction of the mosque…relied heavily upon material derived from plundered temples. The temple spoils were used randomly, but ingeniously, within the mosque. Column shafts, bases…with Hindu or Jain sculptures and iconic motifs were placed one upon the other to attain a certain height of the roof.”

In fact, 'A Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi' chapter of the Memoirs of the ASI by JA Page, published in 1926, notes that "the mosque, built, it is said, upon the site of a demolished Hindu temple and constructed piecemeal with materials from twenty-seven others..."

On 24 May, the ASI opposed a suit seeking "restoration of 27 Hindu & Jain temples inside the Qutub Minar complex."

"Hindu columns" at the Qutub Minar complex

(Photo: "Memoirs of the ASI" by JA Page, published in 1926)

The footnote by Page even refers to 14th century scholar-explorer Ibn Batuta, and quotes him: "Before the taking of Delhi it had been a Hindu temple, which the Hindus called Elbutkhana but after that event it was used as a mosque."

The memoir even mentions the inscription on the "inner lintel of the eastern gateway" of the mosque that says, "...the materials of 27 temples, on each of which 2,000,000 Deliwalas had been spent were used in the (construction of) the mosque."

There is also an “iron pillar” of the Gupta period that is a part of the complex, and in the footnotes on this, Professor Kumar wrote in his essay: “Although there is absolutely no evidence to warrant such an assumption, all historians and archaeologists have concluded that it was the Muslims who placed the iron pillar within the Qutb mosque.”
On 24 May, the ASI opposed a suit seeking "restoration of 27 Hindu & Jain temples inside the Qutub Minar complex."

Ornamentation and decoration of the columns at the Qutub Minar complex

(Photo: "Memoirs of the ASI" by JA Page, published in 1926)


The second phase of the construction occurred during the reign of Shams al-Din Iltutmish (Beg’s son-in-law) and was completed around 1229-30 (13th century).

The third phase of construction was done in the early 14th century during the reign of Turko-Afghan ruler ‘Ala’ al-Din Khalaji, and repair work was carried out again in the late 14th century during the reign of Firoz Shah of the Tughlaq dynasty.

“In the reign of Firoz Shah, an earthquake damaged the two top storeys. Firoz Shah repaired the Minar and added a little pavilion at the top. It was repaired again by Sikandar Lodi in 1505. Later, in 1794, the Minar was damaged again,” wrote historian Pervical Spear – an Englishman who taught history at Delhi’s St Stephen’s college – in his 1943 book Delhi: Its Monuments and History.

Over years and editions, the book has been updated and annotated by revered historian Narayani Gupta and writer Laura Sykes.

In the additional notes in the chapter on Qutub Minar, Gupta and Sykes add that “the case for the Hindu origin of the Minar is given by Rai Bahadur Kanwar Sain in an article that was published in 1934. He thinks that it was started by Vigrahraja, Prithviraj’s uncle and predecessor.”

Sain was a well-known civil engineer from Haryana, who was the chairman of Central Water and Power Commission, and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1956.

In the footnotes, which should be widely read, Gupta and Sykes write: “No scholar today seriously suggests that the Minar is of older origin than the Turkish rulers. We know that Hindu masons were employed to build the Minar because they left behind messages in the form of carved graffiti in Devanagari.”


Why Was the Qutub Minar Built at All?

To answer this question, one has to understand the politics of the region at the time. Author and historian Swapna Liddle, who has written extensively on the Qutub Minar complex, told The Quint:

"There is no doubt that temples were destroyed. The targets were temples that were symbolic of the old regime, which were either built by old rulers or their officials. When you are talking about Aibak or Iltutmish, you must remember that they are of a time when the Delhi Sultanate was still being formed. This is the time when they are just military leaders, they are holders of the legacy of Mohammad Ghori. After Ghori, the region is divided between many military commanders – it's not just Aibak, there are others also. So, whether it's Aibak who starts building the Minar or Iltutmish who finishes it, they are trying to establish that they are the inheritors of the legacy of Ghori."

The building of the Qutub Minar was a political move to prove supremacy.

Liddle said, "These military heads have to prove themselves, not to the Indians but actually to the other military leaders. Various generals of Ghori were fighting amongst themselves for supremacy in the territory. It was a way of proving a point to the political rivals."

This is also a point made by Professor Kumar in his essay, where he wrote, "In the context of a fragmented political environment of the ‘north Indian sultanates,’ rather than a unitary dominion of the Delhi Sultanate, that we need to situate Qutb al-Din ai-Beg’s urgency to appear as the protector of the fortunes of the Muslim community.”

He wrote that the construction of the mosque was in fact a “part of his effort to impress the Muslim congregration of his military and pious virtues.” Professor Kumar calls the “destruction, desecration and appropriation of temple artifacts” an “unexceptional event during conflict between rival Hindu kingdoms in the Middles Ages.”

He wrote that in Beg’s “statement of conquest,” there was “no sense of appropriation of authority,” and that it signified instead the “arrival of alternate traditions of governance in Delhi.”

City chronicler and author Rana Safvi added that when the Qutub Minar was given the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, even then it was recorded that the mosque was built after destroying the temples. Safvi said, "Historian Catherine Asher says that the fact that they defaced the murti but kept the bell and the chain design shows that they were appreciative of the Indic art. They did not hide it. It was a political domination move."

Meanwhile, Spear, in his book Delhi – Its Monuments and History, wrote that the Qutub Minar was “probably built as a tower of victory.”


Qutub Minar: As It Stands Today

Last week, a news channel interrupted its day’s routine with breaking news of “Hindu idols” being found at the Qutub Minar complex, which was mistakenly (and embarrassingly enough) identified as a “Mughal-era monument.”

An ASI official, while vehemently denying that the Qutub Minar is a Mughal-era monument, told The Quint, “The cultural information board at the complex put up by the ASI mentions that the mosque was built over the 27 demolished temples. This board has been there for years. The idols they claim to have found are not new, they have always been there.”

Early this month, 44 people – members of right-wing organisations United Hindu Front (UHF) and Rashtravadi Shiv Sena – were detained by the Delhi Police after they chanted the Hanuman Chalisa outside Qutub Minar and demanded that it be renamed “Vishnu Stambh.”

In this context, one must read the 20-year-old essay by Professor Kumar, in which he concludes:

“More than any large tome or pedagogical instruction, the Qutb provides an opportunity to educate visitors about the complex fragmented political and religious world of India’s Middle Ages, a time when there was considerable disunity and contestation within the groups defined as ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims… The spoils of the Hindu and Jain temples are only a part of the story of the Qutb.”

He wrote that efforts should be made to explain the “multi-levelled history of the mosque and the minaret to the visitors. Instead, it is the extreme nationalist ideologies prevalent in India which filter our understanding of the Qutb.”

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