This work of Catherine Asher is a remarkable contribution to the understanding of India’s heritage and India’s history. She studies Delhi’s Qutb Complex in its entirety that includes not only the minaret and the mosque but also the evolution of the village in its vicinity, now popularly known as Mehrauli. She chose, as she tells us, to focus on the entire site so as to investigate how the monuments relate to one another, to ponder over the changing relations and add people—sultans, patrons, saints, common masses—where possible, to the buildings, in recognition of the fact that they are much more than structures in stone. Enriched by the colour plates and illustrations, the book becomes even more engaging and attractive. Apropos Asher’s Preface, the book indeed is a valuable ‘bridge between popular literature available to the public and dense scholarly material that is inaccessible’ to educated, culture-conscious lay readers.
Emphasizing the significance of the Qutb complex as one of the most visited heritage sites of India, next only to Taj Mahal, Asher reminds that while the complex has acquired the status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its inscription on the World Heritage sign mentions only the Qutb Minar and its immediate monuments. There is no acknowledgement of the neighbourhood structures that formed a vital part of the urban environment in which the Qutb is located. Through this study, Asher attempts to analyse the reasons that attract a large number of visitors not only to Qutb Minar and the Qutb Mosque but its surrounding sites as well, comprising the dargah of Qutb al-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki and the Archaeological Park. She also investigates the visitor’s understanding of the several buildings that lie within the area of Mehrauli. The author traces the evolution of the area of Mehrauli (then known as Yognipura) from 1060 when the Tomar Rajputs shifted their capital there, near the temple of Yogmaya. While the area had inadequate water supply, it was probably chosen by the Tomars for its raised rocky ridge, known as Lalkot, as ideal for defence purpose. Asher points to the conflicting scholarly opinions whether Lalkot was ever held by the Chauhan Rajputs. In popular understanding Lalkot is considered to be Prithviraj Chauhan’s royal capital of Delhi but Asher reiterates that it was perhaps simply a military garrison to defend the Chauhan capital of Ajmer. It appears, the author asserts, that the original Lalkot continued to be the citadel from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. Subsequently, it was occupied by Mu’izz al-Din Muhammad bin Sam, the Ghurid ruler from Afghanistan, who left behind his officer, Qutb al-Din Aibak to consolidate Ghurid rule in Delhi. Excavations carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the 1990s confirm the enlargement of Lalkot under Qutb al-Din Aibak and his successors. In the sixteenth century it came to be known as Qila-i Rai Pithora, though Asher prefers to call it Lalkot (Rai Pithora is a variation of Prithviraj and suggests it to be Prithviraj Chauhan’s palace, of which Asher is not convinced) in her discussions throughout the book. ASI excavations have determined that the Delhi sultans lived in Lalkot till the fourteenth century. Ala al-Din Khalji fortified it at this time but later shifted to the new city of Siri. Asher, however, is not much impressed by the ASI excavations, which she alleges are partial and have not unearthed the entire site. She argues that these excavations have not attempted to differentiate the areas built by different rulers; neither have the excavations provided a complete picture of findings; yet details have been provided without larger conclusions. In this regard, she makes a distinct mention of the work of BR Mani, who gives a more comprehensive report.
Locating Delhi in the world of Ghurids and Aibak, Asher narrates that the Ghurid rule lasted until the assassination of Mu’izz al-Din in 1206. It was Aibak who extended and consolidated authority and power. Probing why the Ghurids may have decided to stay in India, the author suggests that it could have been for reasons of monetary gains and territorial expansion. She completely rejects the rhetoric of the chroniclers of the Sultanate period that it was motivated by the desire to eliminate the land of the infidels and repopulate it with Muslims. There are hardly any evidences to support this claim or that of mass conversions or that of temple destruction. Temple destruction, if any, was a political issue, not practised by the Muslim rulers alone, who are alleged to be iconoclasts but several Hindu kings who seized images of Gods and destroyed temples of their Hindu rivals.
Within the Qutb complex, the two structures that have generated debate are the Qutb Minar and the Qutb Mosque. There have been debates on the character and origin of Qutb Minar i.e., whether it was built as a minaret or whether, as Sayyid Ahmad Khan in his Asar al-Sanadid and several others espoused, it was a converted Hindu temple stambha (tower). As Alexander Cunningham investigated the prototypes in Ghazni and other parts of Afghanistan and read the inscriptions on the minaret, it was established that it was built by Aibak and further expanded and extended by his successors and that it was indeed Muslim in its origin. Another controversy centres on the name of the mosque in the Qutb Complex. Known as Quwwat al-Islam (Strength of Islam) mosque, particularly in colonial texts and a few contemporary ones, it ‘underscores a sense of rapacious behaviour’ of the Ghurids and the Delhi sultans. ASI too has used the name universally to label the site. However, Asher asserts that this was not its original name. The twelfth century inscriptions referred to it as imarat (building) or masjid (mosque). Historians like Sunil Kumar have argued that the name Quwwat al-Islam is a corruption of the term Qubbat-i Islam (sanctuary or dome of Islam) used for Delhi in the thirteenth century. David Lelyveld, on the other hand, exemplifies that contrary to the contemporary times, the name Quwwat al-Islam did not arouse any militant feeling in the nineteenth century. Regardless of these arguments and given the current global Islamophobia, Asher prefers to refer to the multiple structures as the Qutb Complex.
Narrating the growth of the Qutb Complex, Asher discusses the evolution of the congregational mosque in Aibak’s city of Delhi. Aibak, on assuming power, felt the immediate need of a mosque to legitimize his authority. In Islamic tradition, it was mandatory that the khutba be read in the name of the new ruler in the Friday namaz. The first mosque was therefore built partially of spolia i.e., previously used material, visible in the exterior as well as the interior of the mosque. The use of spolia has been a subject of obsessive concern for academics and other writers since the nineteenth century; the debate is on what the spolia meant to the patrons and users. The suggestions have been disparate. Some have argued that the human-like images were defaced; others observe that their nose and/or eyes were removed to dehumanize them and several others have stressed on the use of plaster on reused pillars to hide the images of deities. In this context, FB Flood’s arguments appear sensible and rational. He sees no logic in the removal of the anthropomorphic imagery in only a few cases if they were to be ultimately covered by plaster. More significantly, as Asher points, the interest of the Ghurid sultans in Indic aesthetics and their appreciation and patronage of Indian carving seems to have determined the appearance of the mosque. Flood argues that the spolia was not used randomly but followed a discreet plan i.e., beautiful portions were used and those images which appeared unacceptable to Islamic contexts were removed. Should these observations then be accepted to counter the claims that the Delhi sultans were iconoclasts!
There were no large-scale constructions at the Qutb Complex for almost 300 years from the mid fourteenth century to the seventeenth century. Although there are no evidences of Mughal imperial buildings in the vicinity of Mehrauli, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan was apparently deeply impressed by the artistic design and ornamentation of Qutb Minar. The fluted design of the Minar’s shaft is used as ornamentation in many of Shah Jahan’s mosques. Ebba Koch suggests that the reproduction of this style is most evidently seen in Shah Jahan’s hunting tower at Hashtsal near Uttam Nagar in Delhi. During the later Mughal period in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, gates, graves, a sarai, wall mosques and structural mosques were added to the Qutb Complex. The area of Mehrauli, where the Complex is situated has continued to grow in its cultural and religious diversity; the site has several mosques but there are also gurdwaras, a church, and a Jain temple.
Mehrauli and the Qutb Complex within it, is prominent for its cultural value, its heritage and its historicity. Catherine Asher exemplifies these characteristics cogently and with remarkable lucidity. The content is interesting and informative. The coloured photographs and the illustrations make the book extraordinary and alluring. A necessary read for not only those who are interested in history or architecture or heritage but all those who wish to know a little bit of Delhi and its surroundings!