Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Qutab Minar, The Iron Pillar

I have this thing when I travel now, that I have to go do stuff. This may seem obvious - of course you do stuff, go see stuff when you travel, why else do you go? But I do it with a certain intention now. I have a mission. I have this blog, I have my half-assed online journalistic integrity. Now, I feel that I have to go out and throughly experience tourist attractions for the world.

I don't like being in the same room as myself, either.

The Qutab Minaret. I actually missed this during my last visit to Delhi, and I knew I needed to redress my ancient wrongs. The Qutab Minar is located a bit outside the Connaught Place/Janpath/Lodhi Gardens orbit, and as such, requires a bit of a traffic-heavy haul to get over there. It's absolutely, one hundred and ten percent, worth it.

The Qutab Minar is a truly singular object. It stands as a true anachronism, something that Should Not Be. It's hard to believe that a tower so tall and so strong was built so terrifically long ago. Even harder to believe that it's still standing. It's closest counterpart, is, I suppose, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Minar leans too. Albeit significantly less. Interestingly enough, the Tower of Pisa and the Qutab Minar began construction within 26 years of one another.

The Minar is believed to have been begun by one Prithviraj, the last Rajput ruler to sit on the Delhi throne. The heroic and ill-fated Prithviraj was defeated in battle by the Afghan Mohammed Ghori, who had been making progressively more successful inroads into India from his capital in Ghor - an area that possessed capitals at Ghazni and Lahore. Rajasthani folk songs have it that Prithiviraj, after his capture by Ghori, was asked to showcase his supposedly superior skill at archery. The cruel Ghori then put out Prithiviraj's eyes with hot irons to render the game more interesting for his royal pleasure. Ghori then mockingly shouted, "Go, shoot! Be sure you are accurate!" Little did Ghori know that the clever Prithiviraj was so adept at archery that he could accurately fire his bow by use of sound alone. Ghori was shot through the heart. To avoid capture, Prithviraj and his dear Afghan friend stabbed each other to death.


The historical truth is, I'm afraid, less romantic. It's believed that Ghori, after the capture of Prithviraj, consolidated his power and then appointed Qutb-ud-din Aibak to rule Delhi, rendering him the first Muslim Emperor of India. It was the Sultan who is considered to have completed the first incarnation of the immense project, constructing the Minar to celebrate Ghori's 1192 victory over the Rajputs. (No one is sure if it was constructed on the base of a triumphal Rajput tower, or was an independent invention of the Muslim invaders). The Minar was thoughtfully placed smack dab on the Lal Kot, the former citadel of the desposed Tomar and Chahuan dynasties, the last Hindu rulers of India. Even more thoughtfully, 27 Hindu and Jain temples were broken apart and used to construct the Minar and the buildings of the larger Qutub Complex. Shades of the Ayodah case?

Details from the Qubbat-ul-Islam mosque.

Earthquakes damaged the minar on a couple of occasions in history, but in each occasion, the building was repaired. Firoz Shah Tughlaq pitched in, and Sikandar Lodi did also. In 1794, an earthquake damaged Firoz Shah's pavilion addition. A British engineer, one Major Smith, decided to stick his own pavilion up there instead. The eyesore was eventually removed in 1848 by Lord Hardinge, and is referred to rather contemptuously as "Smith's Folly." It's still on display, if you'd like to have a look.

Nowadays, the Minar functions as a convenient landmark for lost Delhi-ites, and is a justly beloved tourist attraction. No, you can't climb up it. Prior to 1998, visitors were permitted to climb up to the third floor. But in that fateful year, 25 school children died in a tragic stampede due to a panic spurred by electrical light failure. This forced the authorities to close the place up for good. The Minar's unsurprising popularity among Delhi's suicidal population was another extenuating factor.

The inscriptions on the minar - as can be seen here - are mostly selections from the Quaran. There's also notices from the rulers who repaired or added onto the minar as well, including notes from Sikander Lodhi and Firoz Shah.

The Qutab Minar complex is dominated by the Qubbat-ul-Islam mosque, built from destroyed Jain and Hindu temples. It's not in a particularly good state of repair, but it's fascinating to walk through its decaying galleries and try to work out which parts derived from which religious tradition.

The Iron Pillar is another one of those delicious historical mysteries. It's considered a wonder of the metallurgial world, mainly because no one is entirely sure how it was made, or how it has managed to withstand corrosion for so long. The 22 foot high pillar is a deep, light-consuming black and is positioned incongruously in the middle of the Qutab complex, about where it used to function as the centrepoint of the Jain temples destroyed to build the Minar. It may have been fashioned around AD 375-413, but it may derive from as far back as 912 BC. At 98% pure wrought iron, its incredible ability to withstand the stressors of rain, weather, pollution and idiot tourists is truly remarkable. It's believed to have been erected by one Chandragupta Vikramaditya - the inscription on the pillar indicates that it was put up to honor Lord Vishnu. Among Chandragupta's sentiments:

" He, on whose arm fame was inscribed by the sword, when, in battle in the Vanga countries (Bengal), he kneaded (and turned) back with (his) breast the enemies who, uniting together, came against (him);-he, by whom, having crossed in warfare the seven mouths of the (river) Sindhu, the Vahlikas were conquered;-he, by the breezes of whose prowess the southern ocean is even still perfumed..."

It has a nice ring to it. I intend to have a really bitching triumphal pillar put up before I die.

Legend has it that if you can wrap your arms around the pillar backwards, you'll be granted good luck. Tragically, they've built a fence around it so you can't try your look. Seems like a great way to throw your back out to me. Unless you happen to be an NBA player with nightmarish orangutan arms.

This is the Alai Darwaza or main gateway to the Complex, built by the second Khiji Sultan of Delhi around 1311 A.D. It's a remarkably lovely thing, decorated in sandstone and marble, with delicate stone-working around it. It's thought that this was the first building in India to use the heavy influence of Islamic (Turkish) architects. It certainly has aged gracefully. And is quite photogenic.

The dome of the tomb of Imam Zamin, on a very rainy day. Imam Zamin is thought to be a Turkestani Sufi saint who emigrated to Delhi around 1500 AD - during the time of the Mughal ruler Humayun. He had the foresight to build the tomb before he kicked off in 1539. He obviously must have had some impressive pull with the top brass to warrant such a memorial. (Another mysterious figure, who rates little mention even on the all powerful Internet. This is like catnip to the aspirant historian. Catnip).

Someone's getting Told here, methinks. As for what this is? Probably part of Alauddin Khilji's tomb and madarsa (Islamic religious school).

More pilfered and/or re-appropiated columns. That's an argument waiting to happen.

I was quite keen on the small and forgotten Mughal Mosque, tucked away to the right of the complex's entrance. As the name indicates, the mosque is a product of the late Mughal period, though the exact ruler who ordered it built is not indicated on the signage. It was apparently restored in the late 90's by a Britsher - it's unclear if these were the 1990's or the 1890's. There is next to no information about the pretty little mosque or its origins online, which almost adds to the appeal. I came upon it on a wet day, and the mosque's mossy exterior and the quiet drip-drip-drip of water off the palms surrounding it created a mysterious and lovely ambience. I waved to the sweeping woman inside, who waved back. And then I left.

The Delhi Wallah has a superior post to my own on this little hide away.

Milling around the complex.

The Qutab Minar is a popular tourist attraction, and hosted an unfortunate infestation of that common Indian species, the Sexually Frustrated Teenage Boy. A brief bit of sociological research will reveal the sad truth: Indian teenagers are even more sexually frustrated then teenagers in Western countries. And you thought you had it bad at age 16, you decadent westerner. At least you didn't have to put up a dowry, a couple of goats, and a pledge of eternal fidelity to get some action in the backseat of Mom's minivan. Furthermore, Indian entertainment often promotes the idea that all European women, especially blondes, are sex-crazed minxes who will dispense erotic favors beyond the reach of human imagination to anyone who asks. They ask.

This massive store of sexual frustration often manifests itself, curiously enough, in stealth photography. Whenever I'm taking a picture of something at an Indian tourist attraction, there will generally be at least four or five giggling young men taking photographs of me. They rarely ask me, of course. I think they really believe I don't notice. I found out during my last visit that it is not a good idea to agree when a young Indian guy asks for a photograph with you. This provides a handy excuse for putting their hand on your shoulder and then slowwwwllyyy working said hand south down to one's boob. Fooled me once. You get the picture.

If I'm in a bloody-minded mood, I wheel around and demand 10 rupees a picture. They almost always refuse, but at least it sends them skittering away again. For at least three minutes or so.

I always wonder what the boys do with those pictures. Are they actually getting an erotic thrill out of cellphone pictures of a sweaty blonde girl with a camera in a modest outfit, muttering to herself about the Lodhi sultanate and aperture speed? Is that really hot-hot-hot?

I don't know, either.

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