In Delhi's Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli, Catherine B. Asher presents a longue durée history of one of Delhi's most iconic monuments: the Qutb Minar and its adjoining mosque. This beautifully produced and amply illustrated book also devotes much-needed attention to the many smaller structures that surround the UNESCO-protected site of the Qutb complex in the rapidly developing neighborhood of Mehrauli in South Delhi. Writing for a broad audience, Asher brings together a vast amount of academic literature, covering topics from the origins of the Qutb complex in the late twelfth century to its expansion in the thirteenth century to its subsequent revitalization in the early modern and colonial periods. Mindful of the contemporary controversies surrounding the Qutb complex—particularly the view taken by Hindutva nationalists who point to Hindu elements in the mosque as proof that Islam was established in Delhi through a violent subjugation of indigenous Hindus—she offers a nuanced view of reuse as political strategy rather than religious antagonism in medieval northern India. Nonacademic readers will undoubtedly profit from this thoughtful account of one of Delhi's most historic neighborhoods. Lessons abound too for architectural and urban historians who work on controversial sites and disputed pasts—Asher demonstrates how they can make their scholarship available to a wide audience without compromising rigor or critical analysis.
While the book offers many new insights, three themes that run throughout are particularly noteworthy. The first is the Qutb complex as the crossroads of aesthetic vocabularies and craftsmanship, extending from modern-day Iran to the eastern and southern tip of the Indian Mughal Empire and also incorporating Victorian fashions of architecture and landscape. This analysis does much to complicate the long-standing, if not entirely accurate, perspective that the Qutb complex originated in a violent clash between invading Muslim armies and an indigenous non-Muslim, mostly Hindu, population—a reading that is supported by the reuse of Hindu and Jain columns and lintels in the mosque's courtyard. Asher's reading of this reuse is more nuanced. She notes that the Ghaznavids and the Ghurids of Central Asia employed Indian craftsmen long before their armies established themselves in the subcontinent in the late twelfth century. The handiwork of Indian craftsmen working with Hindu motifs and figural decoration survives in various examples, including a twelfth-century marble frieze found in Ghazni that depicts a seminude female figure accompanied by a musician and stylized representations of animals. This familiarity with Hindu imagery means that by the time the first Ghurid rulers of Delhi began the Qutb mosque in 1196–97, they found it only natural to repurpose materials from the temples and forts of their Hindu predecessors for their own structures. Asher also rightly points out how visual symbols that once belonged to Delhi's Hindu communities were appropriated and translated by the new Muslim rulers. Particularly compelling examples are the brass chains and bells carved into Hindu temple columns, symbols that also appealed to a Muslim audience, signaling the Qur'anic invocation of lamps suspended by brass chains. In the twelfth century aesthetic forms traveled not only across religious boundaries but also across media. Asher points out the similarity between the deeply carved bands of lotus creepers and vines on the screen of the Qutb mosque and Indian block-printed textiles. As she suggests, the Qutb complex's monumental stone screen itself may have been built as a kind of khuza—a temporary victory arch usually built from timber and decorated with textile panels to celebrate a successful military expedition. The monumental screen built by the Ghurid Qutb al-Din Aibak (r. 1193–1210) in 1198 can therefore be seen as a frozen khuza, woven textile panels ossified in stone.
If many aesthetic tributaries merged at the Qutb complex, it was also the meeting point for a wide-ranging cast of characters, including rulers, mystics, poets, painters, travelers, and historians, each of whom claimed Delhi in his or her own way. This is the second theme that runs through the book, which reveals architecture to be much more than handsome compositions of brick and mortar. That multiple generations of Hindu and Muslim rulers left their mark on the Qutb complex is well known. Traces of pre-Islamic rulers, the Tomars (eleventh century) and the Chauhans (twelfth century), survive in the surrounding infrastructure of stepwells and fort ramparts. Aibak and his successor, Shams al-Din Iltutmish (r. 1210–36), laid the foundations of the Qutb minaret and mosque that we recognize today, while Ala al-Din Khalji (r. 1296–1316) began a massive expansion of the complex in the fourteenth century. Tughluq and Lodi rulers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries restored or added to the complex, inscribing themselves into what was by then an established architectural genealogy of Islamic patronage of the Qutb complex. Even Mughal rulers, who preferred to build forts and mosques in Agra and Lahore, or entirely new cities such as Fatehpur Sikri and Shahjahanabad, could not escape the lure of the Qutb complex. Asher notes that India's first Mughal king, Babur (r. 1526–30), visited the graves of Sufi saints and Sultanate emperors in the vicinity of the complex after his victory over Ibrahim Lodi in 1526. Babur, whose descendants established one of the most powerful empires of India, thus paid homage to the Sultanate rulers who had established Islam in Delhi three centuries earlier. Several later Mughal courtiers, such as Adham Khan and Muhammad Quli Khan, chose to be buried in tombs near the Qutb complex, away from their own Emperor Akbar's (r. 1556–1605) capital in Agra. While this narrative of imperial building over several centuries is well known, Asher's retelling highlights how each of these architectural projects was closely intertwined with the personality of the ruler in power at the time. The authority of Delhi's Muslim rulers was both buoyed and challenged by several charismatic Sufi mystics, including Bakhtiyar Kaki, who lived and taught in the vicinity of the Qutb complex and who was eventually buried there in 1236. Bakhtiyar Kaki's grave became hallowed ground, and his persona continued to exercise formidable influence over Delhi's rulers long after his death. The last Mughal ruler of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837–58), like his predecessors, considered Bakhtiyar Kaki his spiritual leader. Bahadur Shah Zafar patronized Bakhtiyar Kaki's dargah (grave enclosure) with visits and funds for upkeep, and he planned to be buried near the saint, a wish that was destined to remain unrealized, as he was exiled by the British to Rangoon for his alleged support of the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857. Other travelers to the Qutb complex—from the North African Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century to the Persian Dargah Quli Khan and British painters Thomas and William Daniell in the eighteenth century—were captivated by the majesty of the complex and the many structures that grew up around it.
Although Asher begins her book with a close study of the several monumental structures of the Qutb complex, she also deftly addresses the history of an entire neighborhood. This third theme of the book treats the Qutb complex as part of a larger urban conglomeration shaped by faith and power over eight centuries. Asher tells a compelling story of Mehrauli—the surrounding neighborhood that grew out of and around the Qutb complex—as a compendium of modest and grand monuments, big and small personalities, and enduring traditions and creative reinventions. For example, the ceremony of presenting a tapestry of fresh flowers to cover the grave of the Sufi saint Bakhtiyar Kaki and presenting fans to the nearby Yogmaya temple originated in the early nineteenth century, when a distraught Mughal queen sought to ensure her son's safe return to the court. The tradition was revived in the 1940s and survives today as the Phulwalon ki Sair (Parade of Flower Sellers). Tourism began in earnest in the area in the second half of the nineteenth century and is now one of the primary vectors of local development. By offering a regional perspective through which to view the Qutb Minar and its adjoining grand mosque, Asher reminds us that even the most spectacular monuments derive a considerable part of their power from the urban life that surrounds them.
One of the greatest mysteries of the Qutb Minar, still unsolved, is the original purpose of this thirteenth-century, 238-foot stone tower. Asher debunks the notion that it served as a minaret from which the muezzin would sound the call to prayer, suggesting instead that it was probably built as a victory tower, following precedents in Herat and Jam. While it remains unclear whether Delhi's earliest Muslim rulers, Aibak and Iltutmish, meant for the Qutb Minar to be an axis mundi, in this clever book it certainly emerges as such—the architectural pivot of a vibrant constellation of monuments, historic actors, and artistic production spanning more than eight hundred years. In terms of both aesthetics and historical craft, then, Asher's book is a fitting tribute for one of Delhi's oldest and finest monuments.