UNLAYERING THE QILA-E-KUHNA – A PHOTO ESSAY

  1. Introduction
  2. Entrances
  3. The Mihrabs
    1. The Central Mihrab
    2. The Second Mihrab (on the left of the central mihrab)
    1. The Fourth Mihrab (on the right of the central mihrab)
    1. The First Mihrab (on extreme left)
    1. The Fifth Mihrab (on extreme right)
  4. Conclusion

1.0   Introduction

The name Purana Qila refers to an ancient fort that locals in Indrapat village believed to be associated with the Mahabharata. Even the swelled-up ground of the place gives credence to the popular belief that an ancient city lay buried under it. To the critical mind, just across the Sher Mandal in the same complex lies the excavation site for Painted Grey Wares, giving one possible linkage to the fabled city of Indraprastha. Humayun repaired this old fort in 940 A.H. and called it Din Panah, a city named as the one dedicated to being the asylum of wise and intelligent people.  The common belief is that it was Humayun who built the walls, bastions, ramparts and the gates, while Sher Shah built the structures inside and inhabited the palace, calling it Sher-garh. His son, Salim Shah, further repaired or rebuilt its walls.

Abas Khan, author of Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi, writes that Sher Shah “built a Jama Masjid of stone, in the ornamenting of which much gold, lapis lazuli, and other precious articles were expended.” However, the monument has no historical inscriptions pertaining to a single emperor who commissioned it. While it could have been started by Sher Shah Suri, it was surely improved upon by later emperors. While the basic layout of a five-bay mosque template originated during the Lodis, the inlaid pietra dura motifs were innovations from Humayun’s time while the dazzling geometric patterns that we find here later became widespread in Akbar’s reign. This beautiful monument has no proper historical name and is simply called Sher Shah’s Mosque or the Qila-e-Kuhna (The Mosque at the Old Fort).

Tremlett is quoted by Carr Stephen as, “Nothing but a painting can do full justice to a result in which colour and workmanship alike contribute to the charm which the spectator cannot but feel.” Beglar writes, “The profusion of mouldings in the masjid inside and out, and the number of angles into which its flat walls are broken up give a variety of light and shade that is extremely pleasing, and the harmony of colour, obtained on the outside by the use of polished stone of the various colours noticed, and inside near the apses by colour, is unrivalled.” Henry Sharp calls it, “a high water-mark in the art of the period”. Sharp says the style of that period was an inevitable counter-reaction to the “deterrent puritanism” of Tughluq architecture, which in the first place was a reaction to “the unconventionally splendid efforts of the early conquerors with their utilisation of Hindu materials and craftsmanship.” Percival Spears says, “Its salient features are its excellent proportions, the harmonious blending of colours with the white stone, red sandstone and black and white marble, and the happy combination of Muslim and Hindu architectural detail; the Muslim pointed with the Hindu transom arch, the Hindu bell and bracket work with the Muslim dome and ornamentation, the Hindu lotus with the Arabic script. Delhi has few finer treasures than the best example of this style.”

The turrets at the back have two levels of semi-octagonal balconies with elaborately carved stone beams. The winding staircases inside these minarets, now closed to access, would take the visitor to the roof. On the roof there are traces of two missing domes, writes Carr Stephen. Only the central dome has escaped the ravages of time, with a Hindu temple-motif lotus-cresting pinnacle and surrounded with ornamental minarets.  On the back of the mosque wall, there are three square balconies with traces of enamelling on their domes.

The inscriptions of the monument are entirely with embossed Naskh letters, except at two places where Tughra and Kufic have been used. This mixed lettering is indeed a rare thing. Kufic had lost its popularity after the Slave Dynasty, and is rarely used. For example, Kufic letterings can only be found in the tombs of Altamsh and of Sultan Garhi, the Qutb Mosque, the Muhammadiwali Masjid, the tomb of Imam Zamin, Nili Masjid, and here at the Sher Shah’s Qila-e-Kuhna Mosque, compared to more than 850 Naksh inscriptions on Delhi’s various monuments. In fact, Naskh contributes almost all inscriptions on Delhi’s monuments, while merely a handful are other types of lettering . The most recent Nastaliq, which became popular only after Humayun ascended to the throne, can only be found at the Red Fort at the Diwan-e-Khas and the Musamman Burj, apart from two or three other Mughal monuments like the Chote Bateshawalla Mahal & Gumbad, Chausanth Khamba and Mandiwali Masjid. Therefore Qila-e-Kuhna is unique in the sense that two lines of inscription here are in Kufic and Tughra apart from Naksh.

After a recent revisit of the Old Fort with Ramit Mitra and Riya Sarkar of Delhi By Foot, I endeavoured to unravel its features. It is an attempt to co-relate available texts with close inspection, for which I relied on the 1930 ASI Memoir by Maulvi Muhammad Ashraf Husain, A Record of All Quranic and Non-Historical Epigraphs on the Protected Monuments in the Delhi Province.

It has the unusual feature of a Hindu temple-inspired jharokha (cantilevered enclosed opening) on the qibla wall, which is normally closed by design. Surely, this was a time of architectural experimentations: marble inlay, coloured tiled work, temple-inspired Hindu motifs, kalash and cypress-bodied pillars, mixed stone including buff and red sandstone along with granite and marble, and geometric patterns all find a place in this unique edifice.

The mosque has a unique design of having functional turrets attached to its rear. The design elements are heavily influenced by temple motifs.

(Interior of the prayer hall)

2.0 Entrances

There are five arched entrances to the five-bay prayer hall from the customary east with the central arch fronting the domed bay. The two on extreme ends are primarily of buff sandstone; the second and the fourth are adorned mostly with red sandstone. In the central archway, there is a dramatic throw of stars in a scattering of geometric patterns, with a canvas of marble and granite used profusely along with red sandstone.  A life-like garland of hanging lotus buds lines the red sandstone arches. Slender cypress-bodied pillars spring up from kalash motifs on the second and the fourth entrances. The entire length of crenellations (kanguras) are decorated with calligraphy disks written with the word ‘Allah’.

The central entrance as well as the both of those flanking it on either side are decorated with Quranic verses along their rectangular borders.

(Above are the merged close-ups of the calligraphy on the second, third and fourth entrances.  The second entrance is decorated with Chapter 67 (The Kingdom), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-20; the central one with Chapter 48 (The Victory), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-14; while the third entrance is calligraphed with Chapter 73 (The Wrapped Up), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-20.)

(Central Arched Entrance)


On the arched red sandstone recess, one can find circular medallions inscribed with the First Muslim Creed and two smaller disks carrying the word ‘Allah’ on spandrels, as in below image.

(Second or the left of the central Entrance)

(Fourth or the Right of the Central Entrance)

3.0 THE MIHRABS

There are five mihrabs on the wall. The first (on the left most to the south) is similar to the one on the extreme right to the north. The second and the fourth are similarly similar. Below are a series of images of them, starting from the left to the right. The first and the last are smaller in height and their arches are of red sandstone. Marble rectangular borders are decorated with Quranic verses in all five of the mihrabs.

(Merged Image: Mihrabs from Left/South to Right/North)

The inscriptions on the first mihrab’s rectangular border is Chapter 59 (The Banishment), Sec. 3, Verses 21-4. The second mihrab’s border is decorated with Chapter 71 (Noah), Sec. 1, Verses 1-20. The third or the central mihrab is with Chapter 36 (Yasin), Sec. 1, verses 1-12. The fourth is with Chapter 62 (The Congregation), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-9. The fifth or the one on the extreme right is written from Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec.1, verses 1-6.

(Arches of the five Mihrabs from left to right)

Next inside the rectangular borders are the decorative arches: marble in the centre three and red sandstone on the extreme sides. Although the first and fifth are similar, the second and the fourth have major differences as far as symmetry is concerned. There is no hanging garland of lotus buds in the second as there is with the fourth, while there are no inscriptions on the marble arch on the fourth with respect to the second. The inside of the second arch is also not painted in stripes as was done on the fourth.

The arch of the first mihrab is inscribed with Chapter 105 (The Elephant), Verses 1-5; the arch of the second one with Chapter 18 (The Cave), Sec. 12, verses 107-10; the arch of the central one is with Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec. 40, Verse 284; the one on the fourth mihrab is uninscribed, and the last one on the right is with Chapter 107 (The Alms), Verses 1-7.

(Marble plates of the five mihrabs, from L to R)

The marble plates of the five mihrabs are bordered on three sides with a rectangular band of Quranic texts in calligraphy. On the top there is a rectangular box, below which is a line of calligraphy. Below that is another recessed rectangle, shown separately below, decorated with two disks flanking a decorative arch.

(Inner recesses of the five mihrabs, from L to R)

The rectangular border of the first mihrab is inscribed with Chapter 109 (The Unbelievers), Verses 1-6; the next one on the second mihrab with Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec. 34, verses 255 – “The Throne Verse”; the one on the central mihrab is written with Chapter 1 (The Opening), Verses 1-7; that of the fourth mihrab is with Chapter 113 (The Dawn), verses 1-5 & Chapter 114 (The Men), Verses 1-6; the last one on the right is with Chapter 3 (The Family of Amran), Sec.3, Verses 25-6.

The Throne Verse needs to be commented on in a bit more detail. This verse is the most widely-used verse in Delhi’s monuments and appears in at least thirty-five places.

The Throne Verse is as below:

Above the two circular disks on the marble plate of the mihrab, there are two lines of inscription: the top one inside a box and the second one below it. On the first mihrab, the boxed one reads, “There is no God but Allah, Abraham is the Friend of Allah”, while the second one is the First Muslim Creed.

The second and the fourth mihrabs have interesting features at this place. The boxed calligraphy consists of three sub-sections, containing inscriptions of Naksh, Tughra and Kufic characters, while the line below is a Persian couplet.

The words in Naksh are “Praise be to Allah”, the one in Kufic is The First Muslim Creed (“There is no God but Allah, Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”), and the Tughra characters read “Kingdom is for Allah.”

The Persian Couplet on the second mihrab is:

“O God, show mercy since we are polluted; with the blood of heart our liver is washed. Make manifest guidance properly for in our own work we have little wisdom.”

In the case of the fourth mihrab, the couplet is:

“So long as this world is populated, may this place be populated, may the people of the world in it be happy and cheerful.”

(The Second Mihrab’s multi-character calligraphy, followed by a couplet in Persian)

(The fourth mihrab has a line of inscription in Naksh, Tughra and Kufic characters; while a Persian couplet is below the box)

3.1 THE CENTRAL MIHRAB

(The Central Mihrab, whose outer rectangular arch contains the calligraphic inscriptions of Chapter 36 – Yasin, Sec. 1, verses 1-12)

(Marble Arch of the Central Mihrab, inscribed with Chapter 2 -The Cow, Sec. 40, Verse 284)

(The pillars are adorned with octagonal bosses of calligraphic disks containing the words “Allah is enough for me.”)

(The recessed mihrab is flanked by decorated walls on its left and right, on which appear calligraphic representations of “Allah is enough for me” and “Praise be to Allah”.)

(Marble Plate of the Central Mihrab)

(On top of the two disks on the central mihrab is the line of the First Muslim Creed)

3.2   THE SECOND MIHRAB

(The Second Mihrab; its outer rectangular arch is inscribed with Chapter 71 -Noah, Sec. 1, Verses 1-20)

In the second mihrab, there is an inscription on the arch lining the lotus bud garland, and another one on the semi-circular concave arrangement. The marble arch has the verses from Chapter 18 (The Cave), while the semi-circular arch has a portion of verses from Chapter 9 (The Immunity).

(Further below are another pair of arches with a semi-circular band of inscriptions. They have Chapter 3 (The Family of Amran), Sec. 2, verses 17-8 and Chapter 6 (The Cattle), Sec. 1, verses 1-2.)

(The marble plate of the mihrab is lined with the Throne Verse along its rectangular border. The Throne Verse, or Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec. 34, verses 255, is the most widely-used verse in monuments.

The inner rectangle is bordered with Chapter 112 (The Unity), verses 1-4.

(Octagonal Disks containing calligraphic inscriptions)

3.3 THE FOURTH MIHRAB

The fourth mihrab: its rectangular border has inscriptions of Chapter 62 (The Congregation), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-9.

The inner marble plate’s border has inscriptions from Chapter 113 (The Dawn), verses 1-5 and Chapter 114 (The Men), Verses 1-6.

The inner rectangle on the plate in inscribed with Chapter 112 (The Unity), Verses 1-4 on the left, top, and right sides. The line on top of the arch and the two disks of flowers is The First Muslim Creed. The line at the bottom, below the disk containing the word ‘Allah’, reads “The King, the Holy”.

3.4 The FIRST MIHRAB

The First Mihrab’s marble outer border is from Chapter 59 (The Banishment), Sec. 3, Verses 21-4.

The red sandstone arch is inscribed with Chapter 105 (The Elephant), Verses 1-5.

The marble plate has the border inscribed with Chapter 109 (The Unbelievers), Verses 1-6. The rectangular box has the words, “There is no God but Allah, Abraham is the Friend of Allah” and the line below is the First Muslim Creed.

3.5 THE FIFTH MIHRAB

The marble inscriptions round the outer rectangular border are from Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec.1, verses 1-6.

The red sandstone arch is from Chapter 107 (The Alms), Verses 1-7.

The marble plate’s border is inscribed with Chapter 3 (The Family of Amran), Sec. 3, Verses 25-6.

The arch has a portion of Verse 21 from Chapter 12 (Joseph), Sec. 3. The verse portion is as below:

4. Conclusion

It is indeed an interesting study to inspect and interpret inscriptions on monuments. The last study, which I have referred to here, was done in 1930 and almost ninety years have passed since then. Moreover, with advancement in photography a detailed audit needs to be taken up. Inscriptions on non-linear surfaces such as on domes and pillars (Ashokan Pillar at Firoze Shah Kotla) may pose some problem in photographing letter by letter so as to present them along with their English transliterations but can still be done. The inscription categories can be either Quranic, non-Quranic religious, historical or literary like Persian couplets. The study will surely give us many unexpected and unexplored insights into the religious and non-religious spaces in different eras. ~

8 thoughts on “UNLAYERING THE QILA-E-KUHNA – A PHOTO ESSAY

  1. That’s how we see incredible India in words. The handpicked words brought back the ancient India to life. I can smell history and the archeological mind behind this ravishing innovation has lot more in hold for us. Ardently waiting for more insights on such eminent topics of India.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s