The cities of Delhi: How the sultans built citadels of Qutub and Siri
The Delhi Sultanate, founded by Qutubuddin Aibak, built five cities in its over 300 years of rule. In Part 2 of our series, we looks at the remnants of these structures
A group of tourists are trying to fit the Qutub Minar in their frame with the aid a selfie stick. After stretching and adjusting, they have what they want: the quintessential Delhi photo.
The Qutub Minar appears in almost everything related to Delhi: in stamps, guidebooks, Bollywood songs and depictions of the city skyline. It is among the monuments that get the highest tourist footfall in India. Yet, neither the Qutub site nor the surrounding Mehrauli, with the accumulated history of settlements dating back to 11th century, are fully understood by locals or tourists.
This means that in Mehrauli, heritage sites are often neglected. On the other hand, the Qutub site is perfectly preserved, but one interpretation of the site has been allowed to eclipse, often erase, other meanings.
The many meanings of Qutub
The Qutub Minar, the Quwwat ul Islam mosque that stands beside it and a new fort north of the mosque formed “the nucleus” of Delhi’s first iteration as an imperial city, wrote historian M Athar Ali. According to Ali, this site was the original “Old Delhi” or Dilli-i-Kuhna, its name during the 14th century.
The Sultans, in the 300 years of their rule in Delhi, built five cities, remnants of which exist to this day.
Qutubuddin Aibak, the founder of the Delhi Sultanate, started building the Minar around 1192 AD, but it was his successor, Iltutmish, who finished the project. Aibak was the trusted general of Turkish sultan Muhammad Ghuri, who wrested Delhi from Prithviraj Chauhan. For the first two centuries of the Sultanate, the area now called Lal Kot in Mehrauli was the centre of the sultans’ rule. They started building their city around Qila Rai Pithora, Prithviraj Chauhan’s fortress, appropriating and extending older structures.
The Minar was built close to the Lal Kot site. Its name is derived from Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, a Sufi mystic who lived during Iltutmish’s time and whose dargah is nearby. Sufis devoted to Bakhtiyar Kaki believed that he was the Qutb, the axis around whom the world revolves, and the Minar was his staff, and hence it was called “Qutub sahib ki lath”, though this oral legend is only recorded in the 18th century.
The Quwwatul Islam mosque near the Minar, Delhi’s first “Jami Masjid” or Friday mosque, was built using material from 27 local temples that were destroyed by Aibak. The Archaeological Survey of India’s signage at the spot states this fact, as do tourist booklets and guidebooks. Over the years, the interpretation of the site has come to rest on the mosque as an icon of the might and authority of Islam.
Catherine B Asher, who teaches at University of Minnesota and has written extensively on several books on Indian art and architecture since 1200 , locates this in larger historical context. “It was only the very first Muslim rulers who enter a newly taken area use spolia (reused materials) to construct the first mosque,” said Asher. “Note that Aibak’s mosque uses older material, but then the additions by later Sultans, Iltutmish and Ala al-Din Khalji, do not use any older materials.”
How the pillars were chosen for the prayer hall is also significant. The anthropomorphic images, discouraged in Islamic religious contexts, were carefully removed. Instead, the pillars which displayed carved chains and bells were chosen. The Turkish sultans had not brought any masons along, so when the local Hindu masons were asked to carve Arabic texts from the Koran, they embellished them with floral patterns, usually found in temples.
In his essay, Qutub and Modern Memory, Sunil Kumar, who teaches medieval history at Delhi University, shows how historians have played a role perpetuating one interpretation. By the 13th century, the sobriquet of Delhi was the Qubbat ul-Islam, which means the Dome of Islam. Later, in the early 19th century, it came to be called Quwwat ul-Islam, a more strident term meaning Strength of Islam. But Kumar says it is Sir Sayid Ahmed’s Asar-ul-Sanadid, an authoritative tome published in 1847, that records the mosque as being called ‘Quwwat ul Islam’ without any reference, and the name has stuck ever since.
“Today the Qutb complex is considered by the right as a symbol of Muslim conquest,” said Asher. “The name (Quwwat ul Islam) is perpetuated, and the sense of a hostile Islamic community associated with it.” By way of example, Asher pointed to labels installed at the site by the ASI. “Were these to be removed and updated,” said Asher, “it would be a start in a more accurate understanding of the Qutb complex and the historical events of the Sultanate period.”
The story of Siri
Mehrauli and the Qutub site continued to be important even after the Sultanate waned. In 1290 AD, Jalaluddin Khilji, a commander in the Mamluk army, orchestrated a coup against the weakened Sultanate and ascended to the throne. The Khiljis were ethnic Turks but they had long settled in Afghanistan, intermarried with Afghans and adopted their customs.
Jalaluddin built his capital and palace in Kilokheri, near present-day Maharani Bagh, of which nothing remains. Six years later, in 1296, he was murdered by his nephew and son-in-law, Alauddin Khilji, at the banks of the Ganga.
During the thirty years of their rule, the Khiljis staved off several attacks from hordes of Mongols. The threat of Mongol raids forced Alauddin to fortify the city and build a new capital at Siri, an area that spans present-day Green Park, Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat. The fortified city contained a palace and a hall called Hazaar Sutoon (Hall of a Thousand Pillars). Only fragments of the Siri fortress survive, but there are many gruesome legends around it.
Ziauddin Barani, the 13th century chronicler of the Sultanate, writes that after one particular Mongol attack, Alauddin vowed vengeance. His revenge was so exacting that, said Barani, “All the fear of the Mongols entirely departed from Delhi.”
After a battle, 8,000 Mongols were taken as prisoners and their heads were cemented on the walls of the fortress of Siri. This is why, goes a popular legend, the fort was called Siri (“head” in Hindi).
Yet another grisly tale attaches itself to Chor Minar, a tower that stands near a roundabout in Hauz Khas Enclave today. Mongolpuri, in today’s West Delhi, was the site of a colony settled by Mongols in the 13th century. During one of the raids, the local Mongols were tempted to join their brethren. An enraged Alauddin wiped out Mongolpuri in retaliation, fixing their heads on spikes on Chor Minar.
These legends seem to exaggerate an image of Khilji as a cruel, fearsome barbarian. According to Asher, this is based in myth, not fact. A focus on Alauddin’s military campaigns also overshadows his contributions to revenue reforms or introducing price control measures in the market.
“He made many conquests, a good deal of them celebrated in texts by Amir Khusrau. To show his authority, he did destroy the temples of his enemies… then gave permission for them to rebuild,” said Asher. “By the 14th century, Ala al-Din was considered a great ruler. This appreciation had nothing to do with Islam, but rather how he introduced many productive administrative reforms that improved taxation systems.”
Mehrauli beyond the Qutub
As one of the capital city’s biggest revenue earners, the Qutub is well-preserved. But that cannot be said of Mehrauli’s various other historical ruins of palaces, dargahs, baolis, tombs.
The living, breathing Mehrauli is a cultural artefact in itself, dotted with the remnants of Delhi’s oldest cities. It has been continuously inhabited since the time of the Tomars; it served as a capital to Prithviraj Chauhan and the Sultanate rulers; and it is home to summer palaces by Mughals and the British.
But present-day Mehrauli is not taking care of its historical monuments. Chaumachi Khan’s tomb in Nai Basti has been half swallowed by encroachment. Zafar Mahal, the summer palace Bahadur Shah Zafar II built in 19th century, is severely threatened.
Swapna Liddle, the convenor of INTACH, a heritage conservation that has restored many historical buildings in Mehrauli, says buildings have come up around Zafar Mahal, though construction around monuments is prohibited.
The Mehrauli Archaeological Park was developed by the Delhi Development Authority and INTACH, in part, to address this problem. But Liddle said even the park is in poorer shape than it was ten years ago.
“The major problem is that chunks of the park have been encroached upon,” said Liddle. “Not the main area, but the outlying parts.” In some cases, wary government authorities have responded by fencing and locking away monuments, making them inaccessible. “INTACH has been asking that the DDA develop a comprehensive plan for the management of the park as a whole,” she said.
INTACH has approached the Delhi High court in the matter, but what can save these monuments is people. Liddle said she’s heartened by growing public interest in heritage, as evinced by heritage walks organised in the city. “It is important to make people understand the importance of heritage,” she said. “You can’t care about something you don’t understand.”