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In the late twelfth century, the Ghurid dynasty, whose homeland was just northwest of Kabul in Afghanistan, extended its power throughout northern India. For a time, the Ghurid state encompassed all the territory from Herat to Bengal; its rule was significant in bringing Central Asian Islamic culture to India. The Turkic slave commanders of the Ghurids established the Delhi Sultanate when the Ghurid empire disintegrated.

Almost immediately upon taking Delhi in 1192, the Amir Qutb al-Din Aibak, the commander of the Ghurid sultan's army, demolished some of the existing Hindu and Jain temples and ordered that a major mosque be built. One can see today in this Quwwat al-Islam (The Might of Islam) mosque evidence of the previous Hindu temple. An iron pillar, probably dating from the fourth century, still stands, although the mythical bird or Garuda, symbolic of Vishnu, which once crowned it, was removed. Since the mosque seems to have been built in some haste (it was completed in 1197) Qutb al-Din had to use local materials and artisans. On the west end of the structure, the pillars of the previous Hindu temple were left in place. Elsewhere, pillars were cannibalized and re-used, in some cases retaining anthropomorphic imagery which normally was forbidden by Islam. Hindu architectural forms were used in the ceilings of the arcade around the main courtyard of the Mosque. Although the large screen of arches on the west side of the mosque was new, the arches themselves were the corbelled ones of Indian tradition, not the radiating arch which was being used elsewhere in the Muslim world. (Corbelling closes a space by projecting inward the higher courses of stones.) As the mosque was expanded and new buildings added around it in subsequent decades, there continued to be considerable experimentation, as the local architects learned new techniques from their Muslim employers.

A visitor to Qutb al-Din's mosque is struck first of all by the Qutb Minar, a minaret which is the highest of any in the world, rising nearly 230 feet (approximately 70 m.). Foundations were laid later for another minaret, which, if built, would have towered 476 feet. The first four stories of the minaret were completed under Qutb al-Din and his successor Iltutmish between 1200 and 1215, and the fifth story added in the fourteenth century. Arguably the Qutb Minar was not built primarily as a place from which to issue the call for prayer, since a muezzin's voice would hardly have been heard from the top. It seems likely that its purpose was symbolic, indicating the Axis of the Universe. The minaret is divided by several decorative bands of Quranic verses and balconies supported by the characteristic Islamic muqarnas (stalactite) decoration.

The famous Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, who sought out centers of Islamic culture, was very anxious to visit India. When he dictated his travel account years later, he described the great mosque in Delhi as he had seen it in 1333:

The Cathedral Mosque occupies a vast area; its walls, roof and paving are all constructed of white stones, admirably squared and firmly cemented with lead. There is no wood in it at all. It has thirteen domes of stone, its minbar is also of stone, and it has four courts. In the centre of the mosque is the awe-inspiring column of which nobody knows of what metal it is constructed...It is thirty cubits high...At the eastern gate of the mosque there are two enormous idols of brass prostrate on the ground and held by stones, and everyone entering or leaving the mosque treads on them. The site was formerly occupied by a budkhana, that is idol temple, and was converted into a mosque on the conquest of the city. In the northern court of the mosque is the minaret, which has no parallel in the lands of Islam. It is built of red stone, unlike the stone used for the rest of the mosque, for that is white, and the stones of the minaret are dressed. The minaret itself is of great height; the ball on top of it is of glistening white marble and its "apples" are of pure gold. The passage is so wide that elephants can go up by it. A person in whom I have confidence told me that when it was built he saw an elephant climbing with stones to the top....The Sultan Qutb al-Din wished to build in the western court an even larger minaret, but was cut off by death when only a third of it had been completed... [H.A.R. Gibb translation.]

One of the early additions to the Great Mosque was the complex of rooms known commonly as "Ala al-Din's School," even though we cannot be certain of its original function, and it undoubtedly was built well before the early 14th-century reign of Ala al-Din. The building is of particular interest for its various experiments in constructing domed ceilings. One example shown here (the dome is not extant) shows the use of radiating arched ceiling vaults simultaneously with corbelled pendentives to create the octagonal transition space from the hall to the dome.

The first really independent Sultan of Delhi was Qutb al-Din's son-in-law, Iltutmish (ruled 1211-1236). In the last year of his reign he commissioned his own mausoleum, located just to the northwest of the great mosque. The west wall of the structure was closed in order to place there the elaborately carved mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca). Traditional Indian construction techniques were used in the corbelled arches and dome, although the prominence of a dome (no longer extant) was very much a feature of Islamic tradition. In order to make the transition from the square of the hall to the round dome, squinches were used at the corners to create the octagonal shape on which the dome could be placed. The use of squinches for this purpose was another Islamic architectural feature, seen here for the first time in India. Although Quranic verses are used abundantly in the carving, they are interspersed with various Indian decorative motifs.

Another of the important buildings connected with the mosque is the Ala-i Darwaza, the southern gate, built in 1311 under Ala al-Din, who is eulogized in Persian verses inscribed on the outer wall. A number of its features became common in later Indian Islamic architecture, notably the mixed light and dark masonry, the spearhead decoration of the arches, and the use of screens carved from stone. The structure of the dome and its supports suggests that the local architects had not yet mastered the more sophisticated techniques of dome construction practiced elsewhere in the Islamic world. In contrast, the high arches in each facade are amongst the earliest using Islamic world techniques. Such large arches and the adjoining modified blind arcades are common features in later Islamic buildings.

Finally, we note two of the later buildings in the vicinity of the great mosque. One, adjoining the Ala-i Darwaza, is the tomb of Imam Zamin. The second is the tomb of a Sufi saint located near the entrance to the mosque.

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© 2001 Daniel C. Waugh.
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