Indian History Part 54 The Slave Dynasty Section III The Story of the Qutb Minar

Canberra, 30 October 2016

The name Qutb Minar in Delhi is spelt in many different ways: Qutub Minar, Qutab Minar, Kutub Minar, Kutb Minar and also as one word Qutubminar. This document will use the most common one, Qutb Minar. Ancient monuments provide the researcher with reliable information regarding the early conditions of a particular country, especially in cases where written records are non-existent, are unreliable or when they have been lost in antiquity. This situation is particularly applicable to the historical context in India where the monuments unfold the facts and events as they took place in the early and medieval periods. Most monuments normally serve a specific purpose at the time of their construction. If the motivation for their erection can be clearly interpreted it provides a comprehensive insight into the incidents and episodes that influenced the flow of history. It is with this objective that the story behind the building of the Minar is being narrated.

For a number of centuries, the Qutb Minar was considered a column raised by Qutb ud-Din Aibak to commemorate the capture of Delhi from the Rajputs. However, a different story is recorded by Mabel Duffi in her acclaimed book Chronology of India, published in London in 1899.

Mabel Duffi’s Account – Dated 1899

Mabel Duffi claims that the famous Muslim saint Qutb ud-Din Bakhtyar Kaki of Ush (Uch?) arrived in Multan during governor Qabachah’s rule and then moved to Delhi while Iltutmish was the sultan. Iltutmish is said to have offered him the post of Shaikh ul-Islam, the senior most clergy in the land, but Bakhtiyar declined the offer. He is reported to have moved back to Baghdad and died near that city on 7 December 1235. [This claim is contrary to the fact that the Khwaja died near Delhi.] Duffi reports that the Minar was erected and named in his memory.

There is reference to the Minar in many histories both by Muslim historians of the time, as well as by later-day English and Western historians and archaeologists. In all these references only the name ‘Qutb’ associates the structure with Aibak the first Sultan to rule from Delhi. The chronicles and histories uniformly credit the construction to his son-in-law and successor to the throne, Iltutmish.

For 12 centuries before the capture of Delhi by the invading Muslim armies in 1193, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions had intermingled and flourished in an unquestioned manner in the sub-continent. The Buddhist emperors and kings were great tower-builders, calling them ‘jaya-stambhas’ or victory towers. The Jains also followed suit. The Chinese were influenced by these constructions and copied them while embellishing them with their own architectural style—essentially converting them into lofty pagodas. The Muslims, when they took over the governance of North India followed the same trend, excelling the originals in their splendour and magnificence.

The founding of Delhi, called Indraprastha in ancient times, is attributed to King Yudhistira of the Mahabharata and the city claims a fabulous antiquity of having been established before 3000 BCE. Some historians place its initial institution even before that of Jerusalem, considered one of the oldest cities in the world. This is folklore mixed with mythology with only peripheral and circumstantial evidence that cannot be authenticated with any level of assurance. The debate is on-going. From a purely factual historical perspective Delhi can be assumed to have become the capital of a viable kingdom only in the mid-11th century. Its enhanced status as a capital is attributed to the Rajput king Angapala who was also the founder of the Tomara dynasty. He built the Lalkota or Red Fort in Delhi in 1060. The European historians who in later years chronicled everything they could find in the sub-continent, particularly the monuments of North India, had a penchant for attributing all exquisite architectural testimonials and developments in science to the Muslim rule. This has resulted in the loss of understanding regarding the phenomenal achievements that was part of the Indian sub-continent much before Islam even existed as a religion. It is unfortunate that even today in the 21st century, there is still no concerted effort to put the narrative straight. There is no doubt that the period of Islamic rule in the sub-continent is of enormous importance in history, not only of the Indian sub-continent by itself but also of the world at large. However, the lack of a coherent narrative of the Hindu period does not excuse the misrepresentation of the developments that should and must be attributed to the Hindu rulers of the Indian kingdoms.

Who Built the Qutb Minar – Speculations

There is a great deal of speculation regarding the origins of the Minar and the king who ordered its construction. There is a story, still prevalent, that it was built by the great Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan to ensure that his daughter could have an uninterrupted view of the River Yamuna from the palace. This legend, passed through the ages in the oral tradition has no reliable authentication. However, it does raise the question of the origin of the structure—was it a Hindu building that was altered, or even completed, by the Muslim conquerors; or a fully Islamic building constructed by the Sultans after the Muslim capture of Delhi. There are sufficiently vociferous advocates for each proposition.

The case for its Hindu origin is strongly advocated by Sir Sayyid Ahmad in his Urdu work Asar-i-Sanadid, which is a descriptive account of the archaeology of Delhi in Urdu, published as a lithograph in 1847. It was later translated by Carr Stephens and published as the Archaeology of Delhi. Ahmad gives four reasons for his belief that the Minar was in the beginning a Hindu structure. However, all of them are rather flimsy and can be disputed with vigour. The first reason is that there is only one ‘minar’ as opposed to the Islamic practice of always having two minars next to the mosques or masjids. This is not conclusive proof since early Muslims built a number of mosques with single minars, as seen in Ghazni and other places. The practice of building two minars was only established at a much later stage in the development of the religion. In his argument Ahmad obviously has not taken this fact into account. Second, the Qutb Minar is not erected at one end of the mosque that it is supposed to service, but is detached. However, there are any number of instances of minars across the Muslim world that are not congruent with the mosque they are attached to, and therefore, even this reasoning can be discarded as an invalid reason to believe the Hindu origins of the structure.

The third reason provided by Ahmad is that the entrance of the Minar faces north, which is avowedly a Hindu practice, whereas normal Muslim constructions have the entrance facing east. However, older mosques in other parts of the world are seen to face north, making one believe once again that in the early times of the development of the Islamic religion the placement of the entrance was done purely for convenience rather than in adherence to any laid down rule or an established practice. At least in the period of the construction of the Qutb Minar no laid down convention could have existed. It is also noteworthy that the entrances to Hindu temples did not always face north. The fourth reason given is that Hindu constructions always begin without any raised platform or plinth area, whereas Muslim constructions start on a raised platform. Even this assumption is wrong since a number of early mosques are seen to have been built without a plinth and many Hindu temples are built on platforms as high as 20 feet. It is seen that Ahmad’s arguments claiming Hindu origins for the structure are not authentic and can be discarded.

There are two facts that were brought out clearly by Walter Ewer in a paper on the ‘Inscriptions on the Qutb Minar’ published in Calcutta (Kolkatta today) in 1822 that further refutes the Hindu origins of the Minar. One is that the three lower stories of the Minar are built of red sand stone whereas none of the Hindu ruins surrounding the Qutb Minar of the same antiquity use this stone. It can be assumed that the Hindu constructions were devoid of this type of material and therefore the monument could not have been built during Hindu rule. The second is that the entrance passage and the staircase of the Qutb Minar both have arched doorways. At the time when it is proposed that the building of the structure was being undertaken by the Hindus, it is clear that Hindu/Indian architects did not possess the knowledge and skill to construct arched doorways. Therefore, the Minar could not have been constructed by Hindus. Both these facts can be ascertained without any doubt. The Qutb Minar is of Muslim design and construction and is an Islamic edifice.

Who Built the Qutb Minar – Historic Sources

There are two definitive sources that can determine the origins of a monument—written chronicles and the inscriptions on the monument itself. In the case of the Minar, the contemporary records of historians are predominantly from Muslim chroniclers and the inscriptions on the structure speak for themselves. The historical chronicles available regarding the Qutb Minar are written by Muslim authors who were fundamentally chronicling the progress of the Islamic Empire. The construction of the Minar is only yet another building to be documented. The historians unabashedly praise and extol the virtues of the ruling class who were their patrons. However, a number of the chronicles also stigmatise rulers who were not considered just and condemn them as disgraceful people who were not treading God’s path. Since this was the case the information regarding the Qutb Minar can be considered generally impartial judgement and trusted as correct.

There are a number of works that mention and also explain the building of the Qutb Minar, and five of them can be considered to be the major works that provide clear information. First, is the Taj-ul-Massir, meaning ‘The Crown of Exploits’ by Hasim Nizami, which is devoted almost entirely to the life and rule of Qutb ud-Din Aibak. The record covers the period 1191-1217, which is seven years after the death of Qutb ud-Din. A surprising facet of the chronicle is that although it mentions Iltutmish in certain parts there is not even one mention of Aram Shah, Qutb ud-Din’s son who claimed the throne for eight months after his death. More important to this narrative is the fact that this record ascribes the great mosque of Delhi, the Jami Masjid, to Qutb ud-Din while there is no mention connecting him to the Qutb Minar.

The second record, Tarikh –i-Jahan-Kusha, ‘History of the Conquest of the World’, by Ala ud-Din Juwaini, who was known to contemporary Western scholars as Ata Malik Juwaini, brings the narrative up to the year 1257. In this book there is no mention of the great mosque or the Minar. The reason could be that the focus of the writer was more on the expansion of the physical empire and recording of the construction of monuments did not take the fancy of the chronicler. Moreover, at the time of writing the account, the great mosque would not have attained the exalted status that it did in later years to merit special mention. The third is Tarikh-i-Alai written by Mir Khusru and details the construction as well as repair work of older monuments undertaken by Ala ud-Din Khilji during his rule from 1295-1316. The Qutb Minar features somewhat prominently, even though in an indirect manner, in this chronicle. It states that Ala ud-Din had decided to construct a ‘lofty’ minaret to be a pair to the one that belonged to the Jami Masjid, obviously a reference to the Qutb Minar. It is reported that the Sultan wanted to raise his minaret so high that it could not be rivalled. However, it is equally obvious that the construction was never undertaken since no second Minar exists. By oblique reference information regarding the Islamic connection of the Qutb Minar is provided.

The fourth is a book written by Shams-i-Siraj called Tarikh-i-Firozeshahi, ‘History of the Sultan Firoze Shah’, which covers the period 1351-1388. It refers to the large pillar or minaret in the Masjid-i-Jama or the Jami Masjid in Old Delhi raised by Sultan Iltutmish. The chronicle goes on to say that it was the practice of all great kings to construct lasting memorials to his power and that the Minar was Iltutmish’s construction to keep his name alive. The fifth is a minor work in terms of its length and is written by the Sultan Firoze Shah himself, titled Fatuhat-i-Firozeshahi, ‘The Victories of Firoze Shah’. The book provides a list of buildings, edifices and monuments that were in disrepair and which he caused to be renovated. The text very clearly mentions the repair and increasing the height of a ‘minara’ or minaret that was raised by Muhamad of Ghazni. There is also mention of many other structures that were repaired and the name of the original builder is ascribed correctly in all instances. There is no mention of the Qutb Minar although the tomb of Qutb ud-Din Aibak is mentioned as having been repaired. In case the Minaret was built by Qutb ud-Din it is certain that this book would have mentioned it as such.

None of the contemporary literature of the time mentions Qutb ud-Din as having even started the construction of the Minaret, but almost all of them confirm him as the Sultan who built the Jami Masjid. It can therefore be conclusively assumed that the Minaret was not constructed by Sultan Qutb ud-Din Aibak. Much later in history, Babur the founder of the Mughal Empire, mentions the Minaret of Ala ud-Din Khilji in his autobiography. The reference to Khilji’s minaret is obviously because of the repair work undertaken on the minaret during his reign, as proven by the chronicles of the time. The inference that can be drawn from Emperor Babur’s personal writing is that as late as the 16th century, the Minaret was not commonly known as the Qutb Minar, but only as a minaret adjoining the great Jami Masjid. However, from the writings that have been discussed above it is clear that the Qutb Minar was constructed by Iltutmish.

Who Built the Qutb Minar – Inscriptions

Qutb Minar as a monument is shrouded in mystery since there is no official document of the period that mentions the sanctioning of the construction by the sultan and there are no accounts of the expenditure involved in creating this magnificent structure. However, the inscriptions on the Minar provide information from which some awareness of the background can be derived. For ease of understanding, the inscriptions that have been singled out for explanation have been numbered I to III.

Inscription I & II. Inscription I mentions the repair work carried out on the Minar in 1368 on the orders of Sultan Firoze Shah. Inscription II states that the Minar was built by Sultan Shams ud-Din Iltutmish and was subsequently repaired in 1503 by Secunder, son of Behlol, after it was damaged by a lightning strike. This is significant since it clearly attributes the ownership of construction to Iltutmish, although the inscription was probably made after the restoration was completed in 1503.

Inscription III. This inscription puts to rest all doubts regarding the sultan who had the monument constructed. It states, ‘Iltutmish was the builder of the Minar’ and also ‘order was given for erecting this Minar during the reign of the great Sultan Iltutmish.’ The name of Qutb ud-Din Aibak appears on the lower-most band of the Minar. After considerable deliberations historians have agreed that Aibak’s name appears on the column as an acknowledgement by Iltutmish of the beneficence of his mentor and father-in-law. Gratitude and gratefulness impelled Iltutmish to engrave Qutb ud-Din’s name on the monument that was built to celebrate his own rule.

Tracing the Origin of the Name

Since the inscriptions prove without any doubt that the Minar was built by Iltutmish and not Qutb ud-Din, the obvious question that arises is, why was it named Qutb Minar? Further it was not commonly called the Qutb Minar even in mid-16th century, when the Mughal Babur visited it. Normally the column was referred to as the Minar of Shams ud-Din. The Minar’s association with the sultan Qutb ud-Din can be explained today, although confusion did prevail for some centuries regarding the person after whom it was named.

Historical records prove that Qutb ud-Din Aibak was a virtuous and just ruler, generous to a fault. His unstinting generosity had earned him the title ‘Lak Baksh’, meaning the giver of lakhs of rupees, even during his lifetime itself. (A lakh is equal to one hundred thousand in Indian accounting practice.) Qutb ud-Din’s worth and ability as a king is uncontested and there are copious records available regarding the day-to-day administration of his court. However, there is no mention of the Minar or his association with its construction in any of the chronicles that detail his rule. It is now clear that presuming that the Minar was named after Sultan Qutb ud-Din was a genuine mistake made by European historians when they were translating the Persian chronicles. The word ‘Qutb’ attached to the Minar in the chronicles made them assume that it meant the sultan, without ascertaining from other sources whether another Qutb, of some stature, existed at the time of the construction or immediately after. It is now clear that at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century, two Qutb ud-Dins graced the Islamic world—one a sultan and the other a saint.

The Sultan and the Saint

‘The first impressed the Mohmedan world by his prowess, exploits, justice and munificence as a warrior, a statesman and a ruler. The other was famous as the “principle pole of the globe of sanctity, and sun of the sphere of guidance, that exhibiter of divine illumination and fountain of illustrious miracles”. The one was a materialist, the other an occulist.’

R. N. Munshi

The History of the Kutb Minar (Delhi), pp. 67-8.

The Life of Khwaja Qutb ud-Din Bakhtiyar

Khwaja Qutb ud-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki of Uch in Transoxiana was the son of Kamal ud-Din Musa who died when Qutb was 18 months old. As he grew to adulthood, he studied under a number of renowned saints in Baghdad and then moved to Afghanistan. He resided in Afghanistan for some time and therefore is claimed by the Afghans as their titular saint, known by the name ‘the Afghan Qutb’. He then travelled to Multan during the viceregal rule of Qubachah and attended on Baha ud-Din Zakariya, a well-known and senior saint of the time. Subsequently he moved to Delhi during the reign of Iltutmish.

It is reported that on hearing of the Khwaja travelling towards Delhi, Iltutmish went outside the city to personally receive the holy man. Subsequently on the death of Delhi’s Chief Imam, Islamic priest, Iltutmish offered the position to Qutb ud-Din. However, the offer was declined and Khwaja Qutb ud-Din continued his low key existence of normal teaching and austere livelihood. Abul Fazl’s book Awliya-i-Hind, Saints of India, mentions that Shaikh Badr ud-Din and Shaikh Sharaf ud-Din, both of Panipet and themselves subsequently to become renowned saints, were disciples of Khwaja Qutb ud-Din of Uch. It is obvious that the people of Delhi held the Khwaja in very high esteem. He died on 7 December 1235 and is buried in Delhi. His tomb continues to be a place of pilgrimage even today.

It is a recorded fact that Sultan Iltutmish had great respect and reverence for ascetics and pious holy men. He was particularly respectful towards the Khwaja who graced his capital. Iltutmish named the Minar for Qutb ud-Din Uch and not for the sultan who preceded him. The tomb of the saint is close to the Qutb Minar. Since the naming of the Minar is obviously for the saint, there remains only the reason for the sultan to have constructed it to be examined. The reason for the construction could be any of the three following, or even a combination of them. First, it could be a victory pillar or ‘vijay stambh’ modelled on the practice of the largely defeated Hindu kings of North India. Second, it could have been built as the muezzin’s tower to call the faithful to prayer at the great Jami Masjid nearby. Third, it could actually have been conceived and constructed as a memorial to Khwaja Qutb ud-Din Bakhtiyar who was held in great esteem by the sultan. This seems to be the most likely reason for its construction.

Irrespective of the reason for Iltutmish to have constructed the monument, it preserves the memory of its builder who was undoubtedly the most illustrious of the Slave Dynasty and by its name identified a sultan or a saint.

The Measurements of the Qutb Minar

As it now stands, the Minar is 238 feet and one inch in height; the base diameter is 47 feet and three inches, with the upper diameter being only nine feet. It is a tapering shaft that has been divided into five stories, ornamented at intervals by bands and balconies. Initially there were 360 steps in its circular ascending stair case with 19 more steps being added during the repairs carried out on the instructions of Feroze Shah.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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