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Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli review: Not mere structures in stone

Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli Catherine B. Asher Marg Publications ₹2,800
Rana Safvi 09 December 2017 19:35 IST
Updated: 07 December 2017 22:03 IST

A scholarly, well-researched work traces the history of the second most visited monument in India

Most people only see Mehrauli as the place which houses the iconic Qutb Minar, the second most visited monument in India. But there’s much more to Mehrauli than the Qutb Minar and its surrounding monuments. This was the first city of Delhi and is still a living city with its unique heritage and monumental remains.

Catherine Asher’s Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli is a very welcome book. Her approach of looking at the evolution of the area from its inception to present day, providing historical context and linkages is a very useful one for students of history and architecture.

Asher’s method of studying how the monuments relate to one another and their changing relations ‘recognising that they are much more than structures in stone,’ differentiates it from other region-specific books on monuments.

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The extremely well-researched book, armed with a long bibliography, puts many things in perspective including reuse of material from religious and secular monuments, and use of religious architecture by kings for stamping their authority in newly conquered regions. The Qutb Complex was certainly ‘intended visually to display Ghurid authority’ aimed more at Ghurid armies and rivals rather than citizens of Delhi, says Asher.

In the age of WhatsApp forwards, a scholarly analysis of reuse of Ghaznavid material for Ghurid buildings in Afghanistan shows that this method wasn’t so much influenced by religion as practicality. Reuse was thus very much in vogue and perhaps that’s why they used it in Delhi as well. This was a common phenomenon in Delhi as the stripping of the external casing of Balban’s tomb, Khan e Khana’s tomb, indicate.

Coming at a time when there’s a heightened sense of wrong on the part of majoritarian Hindus, her analysis of the attack on Delhi by Muhammad Muizuddin bin Sam is enlightening.

Rigid vs moderate voices

She mentions that the chroniclers of Muhammad Muizzuddin bin Sam were certainly indulging in hyperbole when describing the size of his army in the second battle of Tarain as well as while highlighting the reasons for his conquest. As she says, it was for territorial and monetary gain and there is little evidence to suggest mass conversions. The cremation site of the famous 11th century Jain monk popularly known as Dada Bari, which is next door to the Qutb Complex, was left untouched. She says that “recent work shows that only temples deemed to have political significance were destroyed by Muslim armies, just as in earlier times Hindu kings captured images of gods and destroyed temples of their enemies who were also Hindu.”

The book attempts to address the issues of both camps — those who believe the Ghurids and their successors transformed Delhi and other areas under them, through coercion, with forced conversions into an abode of Islam, and others who take a moderate view.

Asher raises interesting questions on hotly debated topics of coercion, stamping of supremacy versus appreciation and aesthetics.

Prof. Irfan Habib in a lecture on Delhi’s architecture through the ages had pointed out that the name of the mosque in the Qutb Complex was Qubbatul Islam or dome of Islam and not the more muscular Quwwatul Islam in use from the 19th century. This becomes important when Asher poses the question of whether the elements of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism were left intact on the pillar because the Ghurids appreciated the art of the Indian artisan or because it was a statement of Islamic supremacy. Another example of this Indian aesthetic appreciation is Iltutmish bringing the iron pillar from Udaigiri and installing it in the courtyard of the mosque.

Asher makes another important point that the calligraphy with its emphasis on admonitions directed at non-believers is for the unorthodox within the large multi-ethnic Muslim community, as non-Muslims even if they entered the mosque would not have been able to read it.

Many misconceptions have been sought to be cleared and emphasis laid on the Indian influence in the Alai Darwaza in its red and white usage of marble and sandstone. This was copied by Mughals too to highlight Indian and Islamic roots. Sikander Lori’s use of red and white to repair the Qutb Minar also appear to be a visual statement of his intent to revive Delhi’s status to what it was in Khilji times.

In an age of short attention spans, emphasis on believing rather than investigation, reliance on forwards especially with regards to monuments built by Muslim kings, an academic yet reader-friendly book is most welcome. Its format and language are easy to follow and grasp the attention of every reader. I just wish that the book was priced within the common man’s reach.

Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli; Catherine B. Asher, Marg Publications, ₹2,800.

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