Whispering Stones of Qutb Complex: Forgotten Calligraphy and Hidden Symbols

The word ‘calligraphy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘Kallos’ meaning beauty, and ‘graphe’ meaning writing. The literal meaning of calligraphy as ‘beautiful writing’ is a bit shallow transliteration of the Arabic word ‘Khatt’ which is derived from three components – ‘line’, ‘design’ and ‘construction.’

Islamic calligraphy is strongly associated with the beautiful reproduction of chapters or verses from the Quran. It was and still is the main medium for artistic expression, since figurative art is prohibited on the suspicion of idolatry because the representation of human forms was considered a Christian iconography.

During the seventh century, when the Islamic community spread its wings to cover a vast area from Egypt and North Africa to Iran and beyond, two major Arabic scripts were developed. They were called Kufi and naskh. Kufi is believed to be linked to a small town in Southern Iraq called Kufa, while naskh was used as a copying script. Inscriptions on the coins, tombs, and monuments required Kufi script to become more square-ish and formal. Copying of sacred texts onto parchment, papyrus, and paper allowed ‘nashk’ to become more cursive. However, over the ages, both were simultaneously used on paper, coins, metal, and woodwork as well as on tombs and monuments. The first stone-inscribed Kufi scripts were found in Egypt. At the Qutb complex, you can see the simultaneous use of both scripts.

(north gate-vert

(Kufic inscriptions on the northern gateway. Decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The earliest copies of the Quran found to date back to the seventh century were written in a script that is considered a precursor to the Kufi Script. It had no vowels and its slanting lines were angled at 45 degrees to the right. There were only 17 letters without any vowels or dots, which were added later on after its discovery.


(10th century ceramic bowl with Kufic calligraphy, Brooklyn Museum, source: Wikipedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bowl_with_Kufic_Calligraphy,_10th_century.jpg)

By the eleventh century, Kufi was not only well established, it also had three distinct varieties. They were the foliated Kufi, where leaves formed the decoration of the letters, floriated Kufi, which had letters ending with flower motifs, and plaited Kufi, which had geometric or mathematical calligraphic forms which were designed by weaving together individual characters.

Ibn Muqla is considered the innovator of the cursive naskh script. He died in 940 AD in prison and his right hand was cut off by his enemies before that. Even with the cruellest punishment that could have come down on a calligrapher, he taught and passed on his skills to a group of students. His masterly skill is praised by Abu Hayyan at-Tauhidi who believed, “Ibn Muqla is a prophet in the field of handwriting; it was poured upon his hand, even as it was revealed to the bees to make their honey cells hexagonal.”


(Well-defined calligraphic inscriptions at the entrance of Imam Zamin’s tomb. Decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

As many as six sub-categories of naskh were listed by Ibn Muqla: sulus, naskh, rayhan, muhaqqaq, tawqi, and riqa. The whole calligraphic study of naskh became very complicated due to the large amounts of varieties of design variations. For example, nothing could be more confusing than to name a sub-category of naskh as naskh. The word sulus meant ‘third’ perhaps because third of every letter was inclined. It was also the root script for the rest of the naskh’s sub-categories. The Sulus is also referred to as Thuluth, because in Arabic the first ‘S’ is pronounced as ‘th’, and orientalists tried to imitate the Arabic pronunciation. But Persian and Turkish speaking people pronounce the first letter as ‘S’ and so it is written as ‘Sulus’ as well.


(Southern face of Alai Darwaza. Inscription decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

In the thirteenth century, as calligraphy spread from Iraq to Iran, it led to addition of two more scripts: ataliq and nastaliq. Ataliq means ‘teacher’ and had characters almost overlapping each other. Nastaliq was a very difficult script to read and was a hybrid made from the combination of ‘NAS’kh + a’TALIQ’.

Two centuries later, Turkish calligraphers introduced a new script called diwani. It was a font that was very pleasing to the eye and, as its name suggests, it looked like a majestic script. Turkey had another innovation in the field with the introduction of tughra, which was formed by arranging holy verses in the shape of animals. It was a creative technique used to disrupt the ban on drawing animal shapes. One example is an Arabic verse written in the shape of an elephant, complete with a howdah and a couple of people sitting inside the howdah. This tughra was written by Dara Shikoh and is part of the calligraphic collection of the Hamdard University Library, near Batra Hospital in Delhi.


                                               Architecture of Qutb Complex


By the time Delhi became the farthest outpost in the Islamic empire, the Saracenic art forms had already been developed in the Middle-East. With the Indian conquest by the Turks, a new template for architectural vocabulary was created by consciously incorporating both Hindu and Islamic elements, which is now known as Indo-Saracenic architecture.

In the Delhi Sultanate, spanning across the five dynasties of Slave, Khilji, Tughluq, Sayyid and Lodi, the monuments in the Qutb Complex were constructed and expanded only during the reigns of three sultans: Qutb ud-din Aibak, Iltutmish, and Allauddin Khilji from 1192 to 1316.

The Qutb Complex was built in three distinct phases. The first construction was done by Qutbudin Aibak from 1191 to 1200. The area was then enlarged by his successor, Iltutmish, until 1230. The last phase of expansion was by Allauddin Khilji during his reign from 1296 until 1315 AD.

These structures are the earliest Islamic architecture in India and offer an insight into the culture’s unique building style. Although there had been similar conquests by Arabic tribes in Sindh since 8th Century AD, there are hardly any monuments left behind to refer to and compare.

east gw2

east gw3-vert

(English transliteration of Arabic inscription panel on the inner lintel of eastern gateway by Zafar Hasan, published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

An inscription on the inner lintel of its eastern gateway reads, “The materials of 27 temples, on each of which 2,000,000 Deliwals had been spent, were used in (the construction of) this mosque.” In this construction overhaul, one must admire how the local craftsmen had skilfully assembled pieces of fallen temples to meet the new demand by stacking them to achieve a common height,  re-using corbelled domes of temples, smoothing or chiselling off sculptured figures or turning them inwards. No wonder that the naskh characters on Aibak’s great screens, inscribed by local Rajput craftsmen by copying the strange alien letters from their new masters, look less authentic than the similar inscriptions on Iltutmish’s great screen extensions. This was because, as soon as mass immigration of skilled workmen would have commenced from Persia, the motifs became more and more accurate. With the passage of time, as the Qutb Complex was extended, we see less of Hindu elements and more of the Saracenic influences. Newer architectural experimentations that involved designers picking and choosing fewer local elements while dropping or rejecting others.  Therefore, there is no better place than the Qutb Complex at Delhi to study how the first hesitant steps were attempted by the Turk masters, who were initially totally dependent upon local artisans to carve out their songs on stone, and how they developed a new style over the time.

The entire complex was built in three phases overlapping each other in the shape of nested rectangles, most of which are already gone and can only be conjectured. As we walk past the Mughal-era scalloped gateways at the entrance and turn left to enter the mosque, we must be aware that perhaps two more gateways would have stood in our way before we could reach the eastern entrance to the oldest mosque in Delhi.

Qutb image2-page-002

(‘Bird’s Eye-view of the Qutb’ by Gordon Sanderson, Plate XI, “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The monument is full of inscriptions which are partially gone and even those remaining are not fully legible. It was Syed Ahmed Khan, who helped with the translations; as a young man, he seated himself in a basket on a rope-swing and hung it from Qutb Minar’s balconies in order to record its inscriptions. He did this prior to 1847, when he published his book Asaaar-us-Sanaadeed’ or “Delhi’s Remains.”  Sir Syed, as he was called later, founded the Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College that would become Aligarh Muslim University in 1921. The English translations of the inscriptions were published in 1922 by Zafar Hasan of ASI in his ‘List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments- Vol 3’, and in J.A. Page’s 1926 ASI publication of ‘A Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi.’


                                                          Mosque Gateway


Today, the eastern gateway marks the entrance to the mosque enclosure, which was part of the innermost structure of the three nested rectangular layouts. The arched doorway gives the first example of such an amalgamation of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Built into the heavy low lintels under the arched gateway, stands out a plaque with a line written in curiously sharp and angular Arabic fonts. Its striking characteristics are the long strokes, shooting out from the line of text below. This a typical Kufi script that is named after a place in Southern Iraq called Kufa where it originated.


(The arch entrance showing kufic inscriptions and decorated with a ‘kirtimukh’ and a row of hanging temple bells and flower garlands. Inscription decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The Arabic inscriptions in the entire Qutb complex are either verses from Quran, eulogies written for the king, or records of historical events. The brief line in Arabic – whose few last words on the left have disappeared – must have been the only instruction from a Turk overlord to a group of local artisans to reproduce on stone and beautify the rest of the space around it as per their own creativity. The translation of the line reads:

“This mosque was built by Qutbu-d-din Aibak. May God have mercy on him who should pray for the faith of this good builder.”


(Ferocious-looking ‘kirti-mukh’, a talisman to ward off evil, decorated on Aibak’s columns in the mosque.)



The panels below it are equally interesting and highlight how the Hindu sculptors reverted back to their temple art practised over the ages to beautify the empty space around the line written in Kufi calligraphy. At the centre of the panel below the Arabic script, we see a fierce looking face. This is called a ‘Kirti Mukh’ and used in Hindu temples and even homes to ward off evil. In the panel below the Kirti Mukh, we see a row of flower garlands with temple bells hanging in between. Surprisingly, this Hindu motif must have looked adorable to the Turks, because this was one of the very few Hindu styles that was repeatedly used throughout later constructions, including the Qutb Minar and Alai Darwaza.



(Concentric circular stones, sometimes ring-segments, making up the interiors of these early domes.)

At the top of the doorway sits a curiously conical dome. From its inside, it can be seen as a series of concentric rings of progressively lesser diameter stacked on top of each other till the gap is closed. It is obvious that an attempt to build a dome was made without the skills to make a true arch or true dome that requires a keystone. There are several of these types of conical low domes created from temple spire design with corbelling architecture. ”The shallow corbelled domes (were) taken bodily from some wrecked Hindu shrine,” says J.A. Page in his ASI memoir in 1926. In fact, the absence of keystone in the pointed arches of the gigantic mihrab screens must have been the reason for their collapse, even if we discount man made destructions over nine hundred years.


                                                                 Arched Screens


The profusely decorated majestic screens that once stood as entrance to the prayer hall behind them shows a similar study of merging styles. Over the ages, Kufi script became more rounded and a new font called Nastaliq came into the picture, where taliq literally meant ‘falling’. The letters in this font look as if they are hanging or falling down. The Quranic verses on two sides of the screen panel are written in this font. The letters and sentences depicting Quranic verses to praise the God are superimposed on a bed of vines, lotus buds, and ten-petal blooming flowers. The naturalistic imagery of plants and flowers must have been chosen to invoke a sense of purity and devotion because sacred texts were historically associated with perfume, rose-water, saffron, and the likes.


(Calligraphy entwined with vines and creepers, from Aibak’s mihrab screen.)

Besides reproducing the beautiful calligraphy in Arabic, the sculptors were probably allowed to use their own creativity that was suitable for a religious structure. The panels in between the calligraphic bands represent a scroll-like pattern and is a common representation for Goddess Ganga. The wavelike pattern next to it similarly represent River Yamuna. Ganga and Yamuna are often depicted along with their mounts, or vahanas, in temples. The mount for Ganga is a hybrid animal called Makara with a body of a crocodile and the tail of a fish. The repeating serpentine pattern on the panel represents the tail of Makara. The waves on the next panel represent River Yamuna. Both Ganga and Yamuna are often depicted together at the left and right of temple doorways and are considered auspicious and good-luck charms. Together they define the boundary which the devotee must cross in order to enter the religious space. Both of the two rivers are considered very sacred and bathing in river Ganga is believed to wash away all the sins. So, in this medieval architecture, we see an attempt was being made to accommodate and merge different imagery for a syncretic idea of India.


(Goddess Ganga and Yamuna depicted on Aibak’s screens by scroll-like pattern of Ganga’s mount ‘makara’ on the left and wave-like pattern of Yamuna)

Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb could not have a better or more literal representation. As the word signifies, both rivers run parallel, maintaining their unique identities before merging together, and it is a synonym for secular co-existence and tolerance.

Continuing our study on the arched screens, they were expanded on either side by Aibak’s successor, Iltutmish. One of the features that was introduced for the first time in Indo-Saracenic architecture in the Iltutmish’s screens were the attached pillars on both sides of the arch. This decorative feature was then carried on through Iltutmish’s tomb, Alai Darwaza, and later throughout Pathan period and also into Mughal era architecture.


(Attached mutakha-columns at the recessed corners on both side of the arch is first introduced in India in Iltutmish’s screen extensions -1225 A.D.)

The curiously small s-shaped curves at the apex of the arches in Aibak’s screens are done away with in Iltutmish’s screens, but they re-appear in Iltutmish’s tomb. Constructional activities at the site came to a halt after the death of Iltutmish in 1236. Then, exactly sixty years later, from 1296 to 1315, Alauddin Khilji resumed construction for the last time at the complex with great frenzy.


 (Qutbuddin Aibak’s giant mihrab screens built in 1197 A.D. Note the slight s-shaped ‘ogee’ counter curve at its apex, and absence of a keystone.)

Poet Amir Khusrau describes Alauddin’s ambitious work at the Qutb Complex in his Tarikh-I Alai as below. He planned to completely dwarf all his predecessors’ constructions by building something so gigantic in proportion that the Qutb Minar would have become a miniature version of his planned new tower.

The Sultan determined upon adding to and completing the Masjid-I Jami of Shamsu-d din. “and upon the surface of the stones he engraved verses of the Kuran in such a manner as could not be done even on wax; ascending so high that you would think the Kuran was going up to heaven, and again descending, in another line, so low that you would think it was coming down from heaven.

He then resolved to make a pair to the lofty minar of the Jami masjid, which minar was then the single (celebrated) one of the time, and to raise it so high that it could not be exceeded. He first directed that the area of the square before the masjid should be increased, that there might be ample room for the followers of Islam.

He ordered the circumference of the new minar to be made double that of the old one, and to make it higher in the same proportion, and directed that a new casing and cupola should be added to the old one.”



Despite such explicit intentions and planning, the new casing and the cupola was never added to the ‘old minar’. The gigantic ninefold arches that must have really looked as if going to heaven and coming down, are all gone, except the stumps of masonry identifying its foundations. His signature tower lies unfinished at its first floor, but looks ambitious enough in its design. The only remaining edifice of the great sultan is the exquisitely beautiful southern gateway called ‘Alai Darwaza’.

Calligraphy on the bands of Qutb Minar highlights yet another phase of architectural progression. Tower construction commenced with Aibak, “the Commander of the Army… of the Sultan Muizzu-d-din Muhammad Ghori,” and Aibak completed the first level of the tower. Iltutmish built an additional two stories and began a fourth, and the remainder of the fourth and fifth stories were built by Firozshah Tughluq, the prolific builder king.


The main features of Qutb Minar are the calligraphic bands encircling its plain, fluted exterior in naskh characters and the unique stalactite decoration under its balconies. The stalactite feature was introduced for the first time in India on the Qutb Minar, but its origins are largely unknown. Contemporary designs exist in Cairo, Algiers, and elsewhere, but the origin and development of this Saracenic architectural form seems to have been perfected elsewhere a few decades earlier because the mature “honeycomb” designs could not have appeared at different places at the same time. One wonders whether the design could be from the city of Ghazni, where the prototype of the Qutb Minar is believed to have been first erected, however, any such possible links is beyond proof, as the city was totally destroyed in 1155 AD.

The tower’s decoration is almost entirely Saracenic in theme except the rows of flower garlands and hanging temple bells. Also, a row of flowers, each encased in small discs has two levels of eight petals, as if suggesting spokes in the chakra or rotating wheels of time. The bands of the majestic tower have mostly Quranic inscriptions and a few historic references to the builders who commissioned the tower. Although many of these stones have been rearranged without consideration to the correct order, it is quite easy to find the word ‘Allah’ written in bold Arabic letters in a few places.




(‘Allah’ written on the calligraphic bands on Qutub Minar)

In pictorial calligraphy, there is no right or wrong interpretation. It is said that just as humans grow, calligraphic letters also evolve – they are like living entities. No two strokes of the same character by a calligrapher are the same in meaning. Grids are often created by repeating a single letter to make abstract patterns that appeal differently to observers. So, whatever is interpreted, depends on how that person views the pattern. In those times, it was very contemporary to incorporate abstract designs on monuments, whereas now they are considered more traditional.

For example, when we want to represent the term ‘bujurg’ or ‘old man’, there are different things we think of.. To some, an image of a pair of spectacles may come to mind, whereas to others it may be a walking stick or even a banyan tree, which symbolizes a wise and grounded person.


                                                              Alai Darwaza


Even the pierced stone screen at the entrance of Alai Darwaza can be perceived differently. These types of jaali works made with repeated geometric patterns are very common in monuments. While the endless repetition is said to represent the Infinite, without beginning or end, signifying the God,   there are other interpretations as well. Here, the pattern is based on a six-pointed star surrounded by six hexagons. However, if the observer focuses not on the empty spaces but on the latticed frame, each of these holes can be interpreted as dots implemented in various forms. The tiny dot has profound significance in Islamic philosophy; a dot represents the Unity of Knowledge in an infinitely compact state.  Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet said, “Knowledge is but a point. It is the ignorant who increased it. I am that point.”


(Jaali perforations can be viewed as repeated manifestation of the ‘dot’ in various designs. After all, ‘Knowledge is but a point. It is the ignorant who increased it. I am that point.’)

Interpretation of calligraphic patterns takes on a new dimension in the beautiful Alai Darwaza built by Ala-ud-din Khilji. The structure was built almost a hundred years after Aibak-era constructions and, therefore, exhibits a mature level of Indo-Saracenic confluence. Rounded lotus buds and sinuous tendrils co-exist with beautiful arabesque decorations. Considered as the most beautiful structure of Delhi, its entrance is fronted by columns of flowery motifs.


 ( ‘Alif’ written like ‘L’ while ‘Lam’ written like a reverse-L, or a hockey-stick seem to be beautifully integrated as these engraved marble flower petals.)


(Mere flower patterns? The central band can be viewed as a beautiful repetition of the Arabic letter ‘Lam’, while the right most panel has a plaited calligraphic design of ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’, the two constituent letters of ‘Allah’.)

While its left most columnar panel is a design of stacked kalash motifs, the middle and right panel are more interesting. The design on the central panel may look like petals; however, from a different angle or interpretation, the pattern seems to come from a beautiful repetition of the Arabic letter ‘Lam’. The letters ‘Lam’ (=L) and ‘Alif’ (=A) are the constituents of the word Allah and are often repeated throughout Islamic architecture with endless style variations to invoke God. ‘Alif’ is written like ‘L’ while ‘Lam’ is written like a reverse-L, or a hockey-stick. In a Kufi inscriptions, these two letters ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’ are designed to be tall and determine the width of the calligraphic band as a whole. Knots, plaits, flowers and plants have been innovatively used to extend the abstract design based on these two letters. So, on the rightmost panel, we can see a plaited calligraphic design of ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’. Here the actual letters are less important than the intricate geometric knot that weave them together.

It is said that the more obscure and incomprehensible the texts are, more devotional the calligraphy is. The text woven in complex mathematical patterns is considered amulets or magical lucky charms.


(A pattern of fishes, birds or circles of life. Notice how each unit is integrated to others by a knotted pattern.)

Another abstract pattern that is prominent on its eastern entrance is a beautiful art that can be interpreted in more than one way. While it may seem a never ending repetition of wheels of time rolling and moving for the eternity, others see the basic building block of the pattern as like four beautiful bird heads joined at the centre by their long beaks. It can also be interpreted as patterns of fishes – another metaphor for dynamics of life.

The texts on its southern entrance are inscribed with very sophisticated calligraphy. In calligraphy, it is said that every stroke of a character represents one lifetime. As the calligrapher dips his bamboo reed-pen in the ink and makes the lines and curves to create one single character, its width becomes more at the beginning when there is more ink and thinner as the ink reduces. It is akin to the statement “More ink – Less Clarity,” and “Less ink- More Clarity.” As one ages in life, his energies may come down, but maturity and understanding increase.


(A character depicted on stone with varying thickness as if written on a paper. Same is attempted with a reed pen on a paper. The style was chosen on stone as if to highlight ‘More ink – Less Clarity, and Less ink- More Clarity.’)

It is perhaps easier to understand this by copying a character on a piece of paper, but to represent the same on stone requires varying thickness at various points of a character. The same character could have been inscribed on stone with an equal width throughout, but the architects have chosen to represent a real-life scroll as if written by a reed-pen on paper or parchment.


                                                     Amalaka and Finial Motif


The arched doorways of the Alai Darwaza are fringed with lotus buds, but is not the only Khilji-era architectural innovation. Its red dome is another story in experimentation. The centre of the dome has a small gap which is covered by another dome – much smaller in size. This kind of a dome surmounting another dome has no parallel in Delhi at least.


(Amalaka-Finial motifs on top of Alai Darwaza built in 1310 AD) and Imam Zamin’s tomb built in 1539 AD. The finial on Alai Darwaza no longer exists.)

Once we step outside, we can see the top of the dome surmounted by a typical amalaka and the now-missing finial. This flat-disk motif in the shape of a cogged ring stone is known as an ‘amalaka’ after the ‘amla’ fruit (emblic myrobalan) or ‘Indian gooseberry’. The amla-fruit is considered sacred to all the three Gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. As per Skanda-purana, it is the first tree that grew in the universe. As per the text, Brahma resides at the bottom of the amla-tree, Vishnu at the middle, and Shiva at its top. It is also believed to be derived from the word ‘amla’ which means stainless or without impurity, thereby giving its synonym of ‘pure-stone’ or ‘Amala-Shila’. It is commonly used in Hindu temple shikhars such as Orissan temples and Khajuraho group of temples.

It is believed that the capping design of amalaka has two major interpretations. Since ancient texts relate temple parts with parts of the human body, the amalaka at the top is likened to the head. It is also believed to signify the passage from the material world and entrance into the world of Ether or Space. The compressed disk like stone design is also interpreted as the ‘amrita-kalasha’ or the vase containing the elixir of life. Above the amalaka, stands the finial or ‘stupika,’ containing a round body akin to a kalasha or pot. The kalasha here is interpreted as the Sun and the temple is the ‘the Mountain, where the Sun rests at midday.’ The same motif was not only used in the Alai Darwaza built in 1310, but also in the neighbouring tomb of Imam Zamin that was built during Humayun’s reign in 1539.


(The ‘bell’-capital along with amalaka-elements at the top of the Iron Pillar from 4th century A.D.)

In order to understand the finial on a dome, we must reflect upon the domes built from different eras – starting from the Slave dynasty up to the Mughals. Khlji architecture is showcased in the dome of Alai Darwaza commissioned by Alauddin Khilji, followed by the tomb of Ghiasuddin Tughluq from the Tughluq period, then by the Lodi tombs, and finally by the domes built by Mughals, such as the tomb of Imam Zamin. Throughout this 300 years, the Indian mason has been restless in perfecting the dome and has been experimenting on decorating the finial on all sorts of things. It is therefore the most appropriate situation to find the two tombs at the two ends of the historical spectrum, standing adjacent to each other- Alai Darwaza built in 1310 A.D. and the tomb of Imam Zamin built in 1539 A.D. After all these years of experimentation with the domes, the masons seem to have decided to borrow the kalash motif from the temple shikars as the final design element in the dome finial, which is seen in the Imam Zamin’s tomb.




On its western entrance, the pair of Kalash in typical dual tone colours of white and red signifies yet another accommodation of a Hindu motif. While few of the pillars in Aibak’s mosque had the ‘Purna-Kalash’ in entirety – the pillars being sourced from ransacked temples as building raw materials – its adoption in Alai Darwaza, which was built almost a hundred years later, is yet another example of how elements of Indo-Saracenic architecture were being experimented with an open mind. The pot decorated with overflowing leaves and even a coconut on top is called a ‘purna-Kalash’ and is a holy talisman symbolising prosperity that is still used in Hindu homes during ‘grih-pravesh’ (house warming), child naming, or daily worship. It is kept at the entrance as a sign of welcome.


(Purna-kalash motifs in Alai Darwaza.)

The ‘kalasha’ or the pot, also called ‘purna-kalasha,’ ‘purna-kumbha,’ ‘purna-ghata,’ or ‘mangala-ghata,’ is a Vedic symbol from the Rigveda, where it is described as the ‘overflowing full vase.’ It is believed to contain the ‘amrit’ or the elixir of life and is decorated with a coconut placed on its top with 5, 7, or 11 mango leaves hanging out of it, but touching the water inside. The ‘kalasha’ or the pot symbolises the womb that nurtures life, the mango leaves symbolise Kamadeva – the god of Love, the coconut denotes money and prosperity, while the water in the pot symbolises Nature’s life-giving ability. Another interpretation of the motif is that it denotes the five elements of nature: its base represent the Earth, its expanded centre denotes Water, its narrow neck is the Fire, and its opening at the top is the Air, while the coconut and the mango leave-decoration represents Ether.


( ‘Puna-kalash’ with mango-leaves sticking out and embossed with ‘Alif’ patterns in Iltutmish’s Northern screen extensions.)

The Kalash has been a part of our architecture since ancient times. The earthenware is used to store seeds for the next harvest and hence is a symbol of continuity. It is used to store water, the essence of life. Hence it is used in fertility rituals and in weddings even today. Kalash is considered a pious symbol, a representation of purity in India; so, local masons studded the new structures with kalash motifs, a symbol they venerated.

Ashes of the dead are also kept in a kalash. Over the time, it therefore came to represent the continuity of life and death. So when mausoleums were first built, the Kalash motif was used in the buildings for its supposedly connection with the ‘hereafter’.




The last symbol in the same building is worth deeper observation. The tops of the square building’s three horse-shoe shaped arched doorways are decorated with six-pointed stars on either side. While the origin of the six-pointed star remains unknown, it has multiple meanings in almost all religions, signifying that the symbol is beyond any particular religion and contains a message that is universal in meaning.

Its first representation in a monument is found in a 3rd to4th century synagogue in northern Israel. The symbol is profusely used in later-day Mughal monuments as well like Purana Qila and Humayun’s tomb. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, the Freemasons, as well as followers of occultism all use this ancient symbol. In Hindu Yantra, it is known as the ‘satkona Yantra’ and represents ‘Shiv’ and ‘Shakti’. Shiv is represented as the upward pointing triangle “Λ” meaning ‘Purusha’ or the Supreme Being, while Shakti is denoted by ‘V’ meaning ‘Prakriti’ or mother-nature, or Yoni-Yantra. The superimposition of two symbols denotes the Cosmic Creation.


(Double Hexagram patterns on both sides of three horse-shoe arched doorways in Alai Darwaza.)

The symbol is also said to represent the combination of basic elements: the upward triangle denotes Fire whereas the downward pointing triangle symbolises its elemental opposite, the Water. Air is also denoted by an upward triangle, but with the horizontal line through its centre, like the letter ‘A.’ Its opposite element Earth is a downward pointing triangle but with the horizontal line at its centre. The combination of Air and Earth again gives rise to a six-pointed star. When all four elements are simultaneously represented, it makes a double hexagram. The two triangles of the hexagram are also contained in the ‘damru’ or the drum in the hand of Lord Shiva, signifying the eternal cycle of creation and destruction. If we allow a smoothening of its edges, we can see the ‘infinity’ symbol consisting of the two triangles.

The same symbol is also known as the Star of David in Judaism, and depicted on the Israeli flag. The symbol is also used in Islam as Najmat Dawud (Star of David) or Khatem Sulayman (Seal of Solomon), which has the same roots as Christianity and Judaism. Even the modern Indian sage Sri Aurobindo uses the symbol as the union of the Man and God: the upward pointing triangle denoting the seeker calling out to the Divine and the downward triangle symbolising the descent of the Divine in response to the caller.


(Notice a hexagram on Aibak’s giant screen along with other complex decorations.)

David in Christianity is the same person as Dawud in Islam, as are Abraham and Ibrahim, Jesus and Isa, and Joseph and Yusuf. Mary came from a place called Nazareth near Jerusalem where Jesus was born. When the story of David spread to Arabia, the symbol was adapted in Islam while referring to the divine beginning. So, with the spread of Islam, the Star of David was further carried eastwards as the ‘Najmat Dawud’ to Arabia, followed by to Central Asia and then further to India. The common beginning of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is further exemplified by the letters INRI inscribed on the crucifix. It is the initials of the Latin title, ‘Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm’, where the word ‘Jesus’ is written as ‘Iesvs’ by replacing ‘J’ with ‘I’ and ‘U’ by ‘V,’ bringing a close resemblance between ‘Jesus’ and ‘Isa’. The title means “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of Jews.” So, on a Christian Cross, we see Islamic references of ‘Isa’ while referring him as the Jewish King. This means Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have the same root and beginning, and therefore the Star of David is not exclusively a Jewish symbol, which is wrongly believed.


(“Allah” written in kangura-decorations on the wall around Imam Zamin’s tomb.)

The symbol’s antiquity really dates back beyond religions, from history to the folds of pre-history. In the ancient Egyptian pantheon of Gods, the triangle pointing down is considered as Goddess Nut, or the Goddess of the Sky, while the upward triangle -like a pyramid shape- symbolises her husband Geb -the God of the Earth. This is the first symbol of divine marriage and the Goddess is the cosmic creator.  The same symbol is also found in ancient native Indians of Mexico. Therefore the symbol is totally unrelated to religion, and it is only recently that religious interpretations have begun to be offered.

What is then its universal message? An equilateral triangle is the most stable of forms, as all its angles are equidistant from each other with no force between its components. It is the geometric representation of the ‘Triple Three or 333’ – the Trinity of God, as it embodies the three elements as ‘Creator,’ the ‘Creation,’ and the ‘realisation that both are one and the same.’ The hexagram is like a simultaneous representation of a centrifugal and centripetal force: both require each other. Like yin and yang, the two triangles represent the duality of nature: the complementary forces of the Law of Spirit, or Life, and the Law of Matter, or Resistance.

The Law of Spirit is selflessness while the Law of Matter is inward-looking. In the whole cosmic creation, only the human being is able to consciously balance the two Laws: the human body is matter while the consciousness is Spirit. Like the two overlapping triangles supremely in balance, the human being is the bridge between the two worlds. The two are complementary. Without the resistance of matter, the spirit cannot manifest itself. Without the body of the man, life cannot exist. Without the gravitational resistance of the earth, nothing can stand firm on it and the inert matter becomes a living body only when the Divine Spirit clothes itself in it.


The hexagram is the symbol of supreme unity of matter and spirit within ourselves. For example, we can take a blank sheet of paper and use it to represent “nothing.” When we draw a shape with a coloured paintbrush, the shape is something that has manifested out of the “nothingness” of the pure plain paper and we can say that the shape was always there inside the paper, only invisible to us. Only the true unison or balance of our consciousness with its counterpart of matter within our-self represents the fulfilment of attaining God, because we are just the manifestations of God & the Supreme Energy lives within each of us.

Before ending, let us revisit the concept of the point or ‘dot.’ In order for the dimensionless spirit to manifest itself in the universe, it needs a point of departure. A point is dimensionless and has not yet departed from the ‘nothingness,’ but is required for the manifestation of life.




In those early days of architectural experimentation, building motifs were never considered either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Islamic’ in character; they simply were art forms and that is why we find such a composite design evolving with time. Designs were finalised from the practicality and aesthetic points of view, rather than religious undertones. A roof covering a tomb was simply a roof, whether it was constructed with trabeate, squinched dome, true dome, horseshoe arches or Roman arch – they all were experimented till a mature and stable design materialised. From that perspective, isn’t the term ‘Hindu-Islamic architecture’ a misnomer?



The tomb evolved out of the arch, which was first built in Rome, much before the birth of Christianity. The biggest dome today stands at the St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The arch and dome design were borrowed from the Romans by Islamic architects. The European domes are known neither as Christian architecture nor Islamic. Architecture has no religious colour attached to it. Therefore, calling these architectures as Islamic is a wrong representation. For example, there is nothing called as Christian architecture, although there are all sorts of different styles that existed – Renaissance, Gothic, Greek, Roman, French, etc. .


A dome is built upon a square roof, which is preferred in low rainfall areas. A slanting roof is preferred in heavy rain or snow fall areas. If the domes are considered Islamic in theme, all the mosques throughout the world would have been designed alike. But, it is not so. Mosques in Indonesia, Malaysia and even in Kashmir were built without domes – the so-called Islamic architectural symbol.

Similarly, the architecture styles prevalent in temples belong to different eras, and should be termed as Indian architecture, and not Hindu style of architecture. The use of common motifs, in both temples and mosques – be it the amalaka finial, purna kalash or the overflowing pot, the flowing scroll like Ganga-Yamuna patterns, the ferocious looking ‘Kirti Mukh’, flower garlands, hanging bells, or the lotus buds and vines – throw open a vivid insight into the minds of those builders and designers. Experimenting by hits and trial, – mixing and matching myriad design features from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds -, they were successful in bringing forth a composite cultural form – a beautiful manifestation of ‘Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb’.



(Un-deciphered details from lintels at the Northern gate interior and at south-west corner behind the mihrab-screens.)

Another viewpoint is that the early invaders came from areas around Afghanistan that was culturally identified with Gandhara not many centuries ago. So, were their architectural styles influenced by Buddhist iconographies such as lotus motifs, finial and amalaka designs, and motifs which we attribute as purely Indian styles? Profusely used lotus flowers  as well as finial shapes can also be seen in Buddhist motifs such as those used in holy caskets to keep the remains of Buddhist teachers, such as hair and teeth. Hence, in the establishment of Muslim rule in Delhi, were the Turks negotiating and adapting only with Hindu architectural styles or were they experimenting  novel contemporary designs by mixing diverse variations that existed those days – be it of Indian, Persian, or Buddhist origins? These are questions which we perhaps will never be sure of.




                                          Sidenote#1: Qutb’s master-builders


Whereas Muhammad Ghori took the daring gamble to rule India with an alien power, it was his trusted general Qutb-ud-din Aibak who can be considered the real founder of the Delhi Sultanate. Some say his name ‘Aibak’ meant ‘moon-face,’ although as per Siraj, he was certainly not a handsome man. Aibak could also mean he had an ‘aib’ in one of his hands and, therefore, he was referred to as ‘Aibak’ or ‘the six-fingered.’ He was bought by Ghori in a slave market in Ghazni.  With the fall of the Rajput kingdom in 1192, a new class of elite Turks started ruling over the Hindu and Jain population. As if to signal the change, the new rulers embarked immediately on erecting a grand mosque and a victory tower in Delhi, their chosen seat of power.


(Entrance doorway of the Qutub Minar with inscriptions saying, ‘He who builds a mosque for God, God will build for him a similar house in paradise.’)

Coming in quick succession as India’s second Turk ruler, it was not unexpected of Iltutmish to complete and expand the grand monumental project which was started by his predecessor. Iltutmish was another slave known for his beauty and intelligence who was rejected by Muhammad Ghori in the slave market of Ghazni, due to the high asking price. Instead, he was purchased by Aibak in Delhi for one lakh chital coins. The construction of Qutb Minar was started by Aibak who could not complete it beyond its first level, whereas it was Iltutmish who finished the structure. Historians are still divided in their views about whether Qutb Minar was named after its builder Qutubuddin Aibak, or if it was named after the great contemporary Sufi master Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. Or if it was so named as to indicate the ‘axis’ or ‘qutb’ around which the new kingdom or religion was supposed to hinge around.

After the death of Iltutmish in 1236, there was a sudden lull of architectural activities in Delhi. His successor was his eldest son, Rukn ud-din Firuz, who was quickly dethroned and succeeded by Raziya Sultan, India’s first woman ruler and daughter of Iltutmish. “She rode on horseback as men ride, armed with a bow and quiver, and surrounded by courtiers and she did not veil her face,” writes Ibn Battuta. However, her reign was only three years and six days. Her successor was Iltutmish’s third son, Muiz-ud-din Bahram, whose two year term ended with his murder. The powerful group of nobles then placed Iltutmish’s grandson. Ala ud-din Masud, in charge until he was bound and thrown into the prison by those very nobles, who then placed Iltutmish’s youngest son Nasir-ud-din Mahmud on the throne. It was a period of rapid political flux, in which Delhi was ruled by as many as five descendants of Iltutmish – one daughter, three sons, and one grandson. All except Mahmud – the last one in the series, seventeen years of age and spending much of his time in copying the Quran and delegating the entire administration to another slave Balban – were murdered and thrown out by the powerful group of nobles, collectively called as ‘The Forty’.


(Calligraphic bands on Qutub Minar are bordered by eight-petalled flowers encased in circles and bands of temple bells hanging along with flower garlands.)

This was not the time when a new monument or architectural enhancement of the existing Qutb complex could have been carried out. But then, Balban’s rule of forty years – twenty years as sultan’s regent and twenty more as the sultan himself – was also strangely void of any of his fingerprints on architectural space. Balban, a slave purchased in Delhi by 1233, was of “short stature and mean in appearance” as characterized by Ibn Battuta, quickly rose in the echelons of power. He stabilised the Sultanate rule until 1287, when he died of shock of losing his son to the Mongols. Eighty year old Balban’s shock was perhaps more for losing an able successor to his throne, for which he has been grooming his elder son and “loved him more than his own life,” says Barani. He could see that the administration that he had firmed up during the last forty years carefully and dedicatedly going soon to the dogs. He was not wrong. Another period of intense chaos – interesting only in history books perhaps – saw two of Balban’s descendants, a grandson and even a three year old infant great-grandson sultan propped up to the throne but were quickly tossed out till Delhi had altogether an entire new regime. It was beginning of Khilji empire, established by Jalal ud-din Khilji in 1290.


Six years later, in 1296, Delhi’s architectural space became livid once again with yet another megalomaniac sultan: Ala-ud-din Khalji. The Qutb Complex, untouched since 1236 when Iltutmish died, had a new patron after sixty years. It was also the last of constructional activities at Qutb complex, 1296 to 1315 to be precise, because new capital cities were then established by subsequent sultans, starting with Alauddin’s Siri.

An illiterate, but ambitious man, Alauddin was soon drunk on his military successes. He dreamt of a grand scheme to establish a new religion altogether and to conquer the world like a second Alexander. “Bad-tempered, obstinate, hard-hearted… he had no consideration for religion…” as Barani  describes of one of the most unusual and successful sultans of India. He did not visit any Friday mosque and all that mattered to him was the administration and military expeditions. These qualities may be considered as virtues today, but in those days, chroniclers and political commentators like Barani did not find them impressive. It is still a bit strange that he took upon the reconstruction of Delhi’s grand mosque at Qutb complex, expanding it and commissioning a new tower designed to be of double the height of the existing Qutb Minar. His megalomaniac mind could not have thought of a better way to imprint his name on the cityscape.


(Alai Darwaza, built by Alauddin Khilji in 1310: Note the mutakha-columns set in the recessed angles of the pier-jambs on both side of arched windows.)



Sincere thanks to calligrapher Qamar Dagar, walk leader of Times Passion Trails’ ‘Calligraphy Trail and Workshop’ for her artistic interpretations; to Sohail Hashmi, for sharing his immensely interesting insights into common symbolisms from different cultures and religions; and to historian Dr Swapna Liddle, walk-leader of INTACH’s ‘Symbols and Motifs of Qutb’ for bringing out the commonalities with temple motifs in the monument complex.


Further Readings


* A Brief Introduction to The Arabic Alphabet, by John F. Healey, and G. Rex Smith, 2009, London

* Initiation, by Elisabeth Haich, 2000, Santa Fe

* An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi

* The Muktesvara Temple in Bhubaneswar, by Walter Smith, 1994, Delhi

* The Hindu Temple, Vol II, by Stella Kramrisch, 1946, Calcutta

* God’s Hexagram, by Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, 3 July 2014, https://vikramjits.wordpress.com/tag/star-of-david/

* Styles of Calligraphy, by Annemarie Schimmel, 14 October 2011, Islamic Arts & Architecture:   http://islamic-arts.org/2011/styles-of-calligraphy/

* The Age of Wrath: A History of Delhi Sultanate, by Abraham Eraly, 2014, Gurgaon

13 thoughts on “Whispering Stones of Qutb Complex: Forgotten Calligraphy and Hidden Symbols

  1. Amazing write up sir..Congratulations for yet another achievement in the world of us readers. Keep sharing with us your experiences and researches that keep us alive.
    This writeup brings afore the stories hidden beneath the attractive walls and calligraphy of the buildings that I always wonder about .Thanks a tonne for sharing this and unfolding a whole new world of art to us. Smriti

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a scholarly, in-depth researched and excellent written article on calligraphy in Qutab Complex, New Delhi.


  3. Surely a whiff of fresh air….. sick of the craps wriiten in these days by psuedo historian with a canon camera. Kudos to you for such a deep insight, researching out and collating it so well. Please keep on writing more. Thanks.Altamash Mohammad

    Liked by 1 person

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