An Indian minaret, with a Ghaznavid taste: the Qutb Minar

it becomes Indian and painstaking, and loses its freedom

It is quite ironic that the last monument Byron visited in his trip was neither in Afghanistan or in Iran: on the 21st of June 1934 he visits the Qutb Minar and with this, ends the long list of monuments of the Road to Oxiana. The most careful readers can argue that the travelogue did also open with the description of a monument that was not Iranian of Afghan, and it is true. And in that case, I decided not to include it in this project. But there’s a reason: in the case of Qutb Minar, Byron’s eye and description is clearly influenced by the monuments he has visited that far, and in a way, the Qutb Minar is treated as a monument of that same travel.

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General view of the minaret. Photo by Muhammad Sirajul Islam (archnet).

We can infer all this from the couple of sentences Byron writes about this minaret:

“It was curious at the Kutb to see ornament in the Seljuk style carved out of stone instead of stucco. The virtue goes out of it in this other material; it becomes Indian and painstaking, and loses its freedom.”

While when describing the first Arab-Islamic monuments he visited, Byron focused more on European features, here the connections he makes are with the Iranian monuments.

The Qutb Minar, apart from its decoration that reminds Byron of the Seljuks, also bears another similarity with Iran: it is a minaret built as a landmark, a victory tower, and it is not necessarily related to the rite of the prayer. This is something that happens quite frequently in Iran, for instance in the minaret of Khusrawgird, or the one of Jam, just to name two. But the list is long.

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Detail of the second-story balcony and decoration. Photo by Aftab Jalia (archnet).

This minaret was built in 1999 by Qutb al-Din Aybak, who was the first Sultan of Delhi from 1206 to 1211. The name that the patron decided to give to the minaret, Qutb Minar, underlines the commemorative function of the monument. Qutb refers of course to the name of the patron. Also, qutb means ‘axis’. The minaret is to be understood as a symbol of Islam, or even better as a symbol of the victory of Islam over the land.

As Byron rightly noticed, the decoration has Iranian influences, even if it is not related to Seljuks, but to Ghaznavids:  influences from the Minaret of Jam and of Siyah Posh are visible.

The building and maintenance of the minaret have been a huge enterprise, just from the start. With a total height of slightly more than 72 meters, with a total of 6 stories. When the patron died in 1211, only the first story was completed. The construction was resumed by his successor Iltutmish (r.1211 – 1236) who added three stories and completed the construction with a dome. After that, Firuz Shah Tughluq, commissioned the construction of the 5th and 6th stories, which were built in 1368, when restoration works were also carried out.

Each section of the minaret displays a different decoration and between the stories, there are projecting balconies, supported by muqarnas.

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Detail of a calligraphic band. Photo by Aftab Jalia (archnet).

The construction phases, repairs included, are recorded in the inscriptions that decorate the monument, which also includes Qur’anic texts.

The minaret the Byron disliked (more or less disliked) has become a symbol of Islamic rule in India and is one of the tallest minarets ever built. Ibn Battuta defined it “one of the wonders of the world – which has no parallel in the lands of Islam”.

It is a reminder, to these days, of the Islamic rule in India.

Sources

I do suggest to check Archnet first of all since it is always one of the best resources for images and the architectural history of the monuments.

I also found a really well-made Google Arts&Culture project on the Qutb Complex, which I suggest to check.

Other useful sources include:

Catherine B. Asher, Architecture of Mughal India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York 1992, pp.  4, 293.
Balasubramaniam,
The World Heritage Complex of the Qutub, Aryan Books International, New Delhi  2005, pp. 76-96.
Surendra Sahai, Indian Architecture: Islamic Period, 1192 – 1857, Prakash Books India, New Delhi  2004, pp. 14-18.
Andreas Volwahsen and Henri Stierlin (eds.),
Islamic India, Benedikt Taschen,  1994, pp. 15-18, 39-42.

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