In the 21st century Muslims no longer rule lands peopled by a majority of non-Muslims, but that was not the case before the 18th century. Wherever Muslims reigned, it was not unusual for them to assert the presence of their religion, Islam, by spectacular monuments, such as domes and towers, particularly the latter. Two such lands are Spain and north India, each having a monumental tower, both contemporaries — the Giralda at Seville in Spain (1184-1198) and the Qutb Minar in north India (1199 –c. 1369). The former may be aptly characterized as the queen of Muslim towers, and the latter the king. Pande’s book is the definitive treatise on that regal structure, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future; it supplants the book of J. A. Page on the Qutb Minar, published in 1938, as the authoritative treatise on the subject. Page’s own researches developed from those of the indefatigable Alexander Cunningham, undertaken in the 1860s and 1870s. The Qutb’s aesthetic qualities were noted by the first historian of Indian architecture, James Fergusson.
Pande’s book is logically structured, starting with the pivotal monument of the Mehrauli region, the ruined Might of Islam mosque and its minaret the Qutb tower, and then moving outwards to cover the entire region. After a brief Introduction that presents a conspectus of the monuments to be discussed, and a chapter that outlines the monuments’ ‘Archaeological and Historical Background’ (Chapter 1), the author proceeds to a description of the ‘Monuments – the Qutb complex’ (Chapter 2). The Muslims introduced the arch to a country accustomed to erect only trabeate or corbelled structures. The architects of the mosque preserved the arcuate appearance of its façade but constructed the arches in the manner of corbels. The mosque was begun in 1192 and completed in 1198. 1192 was a fateful year, when the last Hindu king of the central region of the Indo-Gangetic plain, Prith-viraja II, was defeated by Muhammad Ghori at Tarain. In that same year Ghori’s slave, Qutbuddin Aibak captured Delhi; the infidels were overcome by the “might of Islam” and had to be reminded of the fact – by a lofty tower. While his master was still alive, in 1199, Aibak laid the foundations of the “tower of victory,” a minaret from which the call to prayer could be proclaimed. The architects of the minaret were aware of its triumphal func-tion: an inscription of the time of Alauddin (r. 1296-1316) identifies it as just that: Srisulatran Alavadi vijayastambha: “Sultan Alauddin’s pillar of victory.”
Twenty-seven temples, Hindu and Jain, were demolished to furnish the mosque’s materials; some of their iconic carvings still survive. The tower itself was to have four storeys; Aibak erected just one: it was left to his son-in-law, Iltutmish, to complete the rest. Pande focuses on that tower, the Qutb Complex’s pre-eminent structure, in about six pages of text, and then examines the other edifices of the Complex, the Ala’i Darwaza and the tomb of Iltutmish. Indian architects eventually mastered arcuate construction and displayed their knowledge of it in the sandstone and marble Ala’i Darwaza, perhaps the most elegant of all the structures described in the book. As for the tomb of Iltutmish, it is a square building profusely decorated with Hindu motifs and Quranic inscriptions, ”one of the richest examples of Hindu art applied to Muhammadan purposes” in James Fergusson’s words.
From our center, the Qutb, we move outwards, to examine the “Monuments to the South and South-East of the Qutb Complex” (Chapter 3). Here the only significant structure, to my mind is Jamali Kamali’s mosque, an elegant structure in sandstone and marble, with five mihrabs and a high dome. Lastly, are the ‘Monuments in and around Mehrauli’ (Chapter 4). They include the tomb of Adam Khan, a general in Akbar’s army who murdered the emperor’s foster father and foster mother; at Akbar’s orders he was flung to his death from the ramparts of Agra fort. The book ends with ‘Practical Tips and Information’, a useful Glossary and Further Reading.
There is a frequent reference to Quranic inscriptions, but little information about their content. The knowledge of that content would help us clarify the meaning and purpose of the building where they occur. Be that as it may, we have here a solid work, but somewhat heavy reading. Still the bewilderment of some readers may be the delight of the specialist.
José Pereira is a writer and critic.