In March 2006, during the days I spent as Visiting Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) (Delhi), I had the privilege of paying a visit to the Qutab Minar complex in south Delhi, a UNESCO World Heritage site that movingly embodies the richness and depth of India’s cultural heritage. The site is a short rickshaw ride away from the university, and its minaret is even visible from some of the faculty windows. ** Surrounded by a flowery park that plays home to parakeets and squirrels, the Qutab Minar is dominated by the highest tower in all India, the minaret (‘minar’ in Urdu) that gives the site its name (Qutab refers to Qutab-ad-Din, the Turkic conqueror who was Delhi’s Muslim ruler from 1206 to 1210 CE). The minaret, 73 metres high, consists of five tapering stories. It was commenced under Qutab-ud-Din and completed under Feroz Shah Tughlaq in 1368. The site includes the remains of India’s oldest surviving mosque, the tomb of a Sufi saint, the ruins of a madrasa, the remnant of a never-finished second minaret and much more. Large parts of the complex are the result of the Muslim appropriation of motifs and materials from the earlier Hindu temples on the site, and apsara-like figures thus coexist with abstract decorations and geometrically shaped pillars. ** The oldest element on the site is an iron pillar dating from the very early Hindu epoch, seven metres high and with inscriptions in Sanskrit and Pali stating that it was erected to Vishnu in honour of the conquests of King Chandragupta II (4th century BCE). Tradition has it that those who stand with their back to the pillar (or, today, to its railings) and meditate will have their deepest wish granted. The story further has it that the pillar was put where it is by Bhima, the strong-armed hero from the Mahabharata. Today, the Qutab Minar site as a whole stands as a reminder of the depth contribution of both Hindu and Muslim traditions to Indian civilisation – a symbol of syncretism and intercultural dialogue, for these our troubled times. ** Here too are 6 photos from the site – taken variously by myself or Antonia Navarro Tejero or our guide, Murad.
The Qutab Minar site (Delhi): history as syncretism