Various people had assured me that Delhi’s Qutab Minar was the tallest minaret in all of India, so I was slightly disappointed when I did some research and discovered that it was only the second tallest, after Fateh Burj in Punjab. But Qutab Minar, which towers above the Delhi neighbourhood served by the Metro station of the same name, is still pretty impressive. Started in 1192 but not completed until 1368, the minaret soars up from the middle of a site of ruins, courtyards, pillars, pavilions, lawns, hedgerows and trees called the Qutab Complex, which has been designated a UN World Heritage Site.
The 73-metre-tall Qutab Minar consists of five segments of grooved, pale-reddish sandstone and marble. It’s crowned by a circular viewing platform, although the public no longer have access to the stairs that climb up to this. Somebody told me that people aren’t allowed to ascend the minaret because, in the past, an occasional visitor would commit suicide by jumping off the top. Again, though, when I did some research, I was told something different. According to Qutab Minar’s Wikipedia entry, those stairs are out-of-bounds because 45 people, most of them children on a school excursion, died there in 1981. A power cut plunged the minaret’s interior into darkness and, in the ensuing panic, the stairs became the scene of a devastating stampede.
The Qutab Complex stands below the flight-paths of nearby Delhi Airport, and every five minutes or so while I was there an airplane would seem to narrowly buzz past its summit like a giant, fixed-in-its-course wasp.
Once you manage to stop admiring the minaret itself, there’s much more to see in the complex around it, including the remains of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, various tombs and a massive stump of packed rubble called Alai Minar that, during an audacious but never-realised building project in the early 14th century, was intended to form the core of a new tower that would have been twice the height of Qutab Minar.
Actually, you could spend a whole day just looking at the patterns engraved on the slabs of stone standing amid the ruins. These are astonishingly intricate – latticed, spiralling, gridded, knotted, whorled, weaving and petalled. As your eyes follow them up the stonework, however, you eventually reach a point where the patterns give way to broken, misshapen summits that are now the domain of pigeons, squirrels and occasional green-coloured parrots.
A word of warning is in order, though. If you want to study those amazing carvings, you’ll likely be exasperated by the never-ending stream of tourists who get in the way of your view. Countless folk will insist on posing for Smartphone pictures in front of the stonework, making peace signs and striking cutesy poses. Not for the first time – this thought has occurred to me too in Angkor Wat, Tunis and Rome, where my attempts to study some beautiful old ruins were similarly hampered by thousands of posing, self-obsessed ninnies with an insatiable hunger for having their photographs taken – I reflected darkly that in all probability the stonework will still be there, as gorgeous-looking as ever, long after those preening humans have aged, withered, died, rotted and crumbled into nothing.
Thankfully, the Qutab Complex is big enough to let visitors have some private, peaceful space away from the crowds. A trip there won’t necessarily unleash your inner sociopath. In fact, even if I hadn’t been interested in its historical side, the grounds – crisscrossed with long dark tree-shadows while the green spaces between them bake in the afternoon sunshine – would have made it a perfectly acceptable place to spend an hour in. Also, I couldn’t help noticing the cacophony of birdsong there. In becoming a UN World Heritage Site, the complex evidently turned into something of a wildlife sanctuary too.