In 1192, Muhammad bin Sam, the sultan of Ghur in present-day Afghanistan, crossed the Indus river. This was not his first visit to India, and an alliance of Rajput rulers in northern India – determined to make it his last – assembled its armies at Tarain to confront him. But they were defeated, and in the following year the Ghurid forces reached the Yamuna river and swept into Rajasthan to take possession of both Delhi and Ajmer, cities associated with the legendary Rajput leader Prithviraj Chauhan.

This outcome seems to have taken everyone by surprise. It inspired – either at the time or (more probably) later – an epic Rajasthani poem, the main source of our knowledge of Prithviraj, celebrating his heroism and lamenting his defeat. The conquest may even have surprised the victor himself and was probably not what he intended. His expedition was planned as a temporary raid, following a well-established pattern. A few generations earlier, in the opening decades of the twelfth century, another sultan, Mahmud of Ghazni, had made a series of almost annual incursions into india. He targeted rich temple towns because his object was not conquest but loot.

Muhammad of Ghur had already imitated this example once and possibly had the same purpose again. He certainly had no plans to settle, given India’s uncongenial climate and the need to return and protect his homeland.

But having occupied the Rajput territories, he left behind his principal general, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, to rule in his name as a Ghurid viceroy. Things continued in this way for over a decade with Qutb-ud-din based in Delhi. But when Muhammad of Ghur was assassinated in 1206, rather than pledging his allegiance to his successor, Qutb-ud-din declared himself independent, thus establishing a new political entity, known as the Delhi Sultanate.

The history of Delhi from this moment on is fairly well- documented. Parts of the cities built by Qutb-ud-din and his successors still survive, as do court histories that record their trials and triumphs. But it is perhaps not surprising to find that many people are dissatisfied that the history of India’s capital city should begin with a defeat at foreign hands. Nationalist historians, and even dispassionate antiquarians, would like to be able to flesh out the period before the conquest. The problem is that what we have is scanty and inconclusive.

There is, to begin with, a strong and long-standing tradition that associates Delhi with Indraprastha, the capital of the Pandavas, heroes of the national epic, the Mahabharata. Believers point to a village, surviving until a hundred years ago, called Indarpat, contained within but predating the Purana Qila, a fort of the Mughal period. The site is certainly ancient, but professional historians and archaeologists tread warily in a field that mixes emotion, religion and politics. They have excavated some potsherds of a type known as “painted greyware”, which is dated to c.1000 BC, but it requires a leap of faith to see this as evidence in support of the myth.

From the more immediate pre-conquest era, we have a few names – such as that of the ruler Anang Pal – and some locations that are clearly connected with them, such as Anangpur. We have coins and potsherds. There are even some significant monuments, like the large masonry reservoir known as the Suraj Kund, believed to have been built in the tenth century. But these fragments of history are strung together by doubts and questions, rather than by facts. Did rulers like Suraj Pal, known only from bardic sources, really exist, and if so, when? How do the kings mentioned in various inscriptions relate to each other dynastically?

Excavations of pre-Islamic ruins near Anang Tal | Wikimedia Commons (CC by 2.0)
Excavations of pre-Islamic ruins near Anang Tal | Wikimedia Commons (CC by 2.0)

Despite the uncertainty, a traditional scholarly view persists that Delhi’s oldest and probably first fortification wall, known as Lal Kot, located at the south-western extremity of modern Delhi, was built by the Tomar Rajputs in the eleventh century. Some time in the twelfth century this fort was captured by another Rajput clan, the Chauhans, who came from Sambhar in Rajasthan.

The most famous member of this dynasty, Prithviraj, also known as Rai Pithora, doubled the size of Lal Kot and renamed it after himself, Qila Rai Pithora, only to lose it soon afterwards to the invading armies of Muhammad of Ghur.

~~~

The Ghurid general, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, developed the fort that he had wrested from Prithviraj Chauhan, strengthening its defences and constructing within it the new buildings required for the first capital of the sultanate. These included a congregational mosque, aptly (though probably only later) named Quwwatu’l-Islam, the “Might of Islam”, and the towering Qutb Minar, standing at its south-eastern corner.

Some of the material remains of the Rajput period survive in recycled form. As the archaeologist YD Sharma noted, an inscription at the eastern entrance proudly records how no fewer than twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples, perhaps dating from the Tomar period, which once stood in the Qila Rai Pithora or in its vicinity, were demolished to provide material for the building of the Quwwatu’l-Islam. The colonnade that encloses the mosque’s earliest and inner courtyard is entirely composed of temple columns.

Intricate stone carvings on the cloister columns at Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque | Gary Ho via Wikimedia Commons (CC by 2.0)
Intricate stone carvings on the cloister columns at Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque | Gary Ho via Wikimedia Commons (CC by 2.0)

Though here redeployed in the service of a different religion, they still bear the carvings that relate to their former use: depictions of hanging bells, overflowing pots, the mask-like kirtimukha or “face of fortune”, abundant foliage and even, in a few cases, figures of human form.

It is hard to know whether Qutb-ud-din appreciated this exquisite work. Many of the columns have been cut and reassembled to make them fit, which hardly suggests a connoisseur’s eye, and it is possible that the carving was once concealed under plaster. Some Hindu idols were originally inserted face down at the thresholds, which indicates a more plausible interpretation of the whole project as a gesture of intimidation over those he had conquered. So too does the Qutb Minar, the tower that stands outside but looms over the courtyard. Nearly 240 feet high, this minar is rather taller than is required for the muezzin to give the call to prayer – indeed anyone calling from the top would go unheard – and it makes more sense as a splendid tower of victory. It certainly casts a long shadow.

Qutub complex | Sakeeb Sabakka via Flickr (CC by 2.0)
Qutub complex | Sakeeb Sabakka via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

~~~

If Qutb-ud-din, by building his mosque out of dismantled temples, intended a gesture of mastery and control, then it rebounded on him as the temple columns give the mosque a decidedly Indian character. The colonnades do not look like parts of a mosque in any other country where Islam had spread. Some such thought seems to have struck Qutb-ud-din (or some think his successor) because a screen of high-pointed arches, modelled on the buildings of Seljuq Persia, was added as an afterthought across the front of the prayer hall, screening some of the columns from view.

The idea seems to have been that inserting a row of pointed arches across the western side, towards which the devout faced while at prayer, would make the whole thing look less like a temple and more like a mosque.

Up to a point, it does, but even this revision was not entirely satisfactory. the arches may have the pointed outline that is distinctive of Islamic architecture worldwide, but the technology of arch construction was little known, if at all, in India at this time, and the Indian masons employed to do the job used their own traditional trabeate (post and beam) system. The arches are composed not of voussoirs (wedge-shaped pieces arranged like a fan) but of horizontal layers of stone, carved into shape. Variations in the colour of the stone make this visible even on a casual inspection from the ground. As a result, the screen may be more Islamic in appearance than the rest of the mosque, but it is still Indian in method.

Approaching the screen reveals Indian hands in another respect: it is covered in carved ornamentation. Much of it – notably the swirling organic scrolls – is derived from designs customarily used in temples; not in this case plundered from actual earlier temples but made new and adapted to a new purpose. Around the arches run Quranic inscriptions. The masons have faithfully copied a calligraphic model, but they have not been able to resist adding their own flourishes, filling every available gap with scrolling creeper and bursting bud. The Arabic letters sprout Indian flora.

This early beginning set the tenor for all subsequent sultanate and Mughal architecture. The patrons might have looked beyond India’s borders for inspiration or for building specialists, but they also engaged, willingly or by necessity, with Indian conditions: its climate, its building materials and the expertise of its craftsmen. This gives the Islamic buildings of India a distinctive aesthetic, despite their many similarities with the buildings of Persia and elsewhere. The architecture of the deserts of central and west Asia – composed of brick and tile – is translated on india’s fertile plains into an architecture of richly carved stone, worked by Indian expert hands.

Excerpted with permission from Delhi Darshan: The History and Monuments of India’s Capital, Giles Tillotson, Penguin Viking.