As you approach Mehrauli village in South Delhi, Qutab Minar begins to pop up in your windscreen from about a kilometer. But soon it falls to the foliage, hoardings and other sundry structures. From the newly constructed Metro line, which runs higher up but farther away, the Minar looks a constant sandstone spike sticking out of a dull green carpet of tree tops. For a closer view of the Minar, you have no option but to actually park, buy a ticket and walk to the Queen. That’s when you see the beauty, richness and intricacy of the craftsmanship of this World Heritage Site. At the base and all along the height until ‘cap falls off’.
But my slides, I dare say, show you the Qutab Minar that you miss out even after a full visit. For here you have the luxury of a sustained unhurried look, at the Minar as well as the surrounding ruins that stand or lie scattered at varying stages of decay and plunder. To have you see and be wonder-struck about the geometric and the calligraphic opulence of the place is my main purpose. Qutab-ud-din Aibak is after all who ‘produced’ Qutab Minar but there were architects, designers, chisellers and plain laborers who actually dreamt and realized this victory tower. Who were these talented individuals? What was their equipment? How did they get the symmetries so perfect? We are after all talking about a period 8 centuries back! Leonardo da Vinci came 3 centuries after Qutab Minar. Galileo 4.
The eminent cinematographer and my good friend Sanjay Agarwal accompanied my wife and me for this visit in September 2008 and can be seen in a couple of slides.
During my growing years, Qutab Minar was way outside Delhi. You had to ‘travel’ to it and ‘discover’ it looking tall and high each time afresh. I don’t think we had buildings more than 4 or 5 floors in Delhi in those days. Bombay had them slightly higher (the famous ‘necklace’ along the Marine Drive) at 6 or 7 floors. Films would boast about these in terms of the wonder they drew from the newly arrived hero from the countryside. But Qutab beat them all. In fact the story ran—pure gossip I realized decades later—that there had originally been two more storeys on Qutab Minar, which fell off in a lightening strike or an earthquake. In the knowing manner of schoolboys we claimed that the red light on top was a warning for the airline pilots to steer away!
The entire place then was looked after by a single watchman who shacked right there under one of the arches along with his family. Him and a number of blue enameled sign plates of Archeological Survey of India represented the government administration. Besides maintaining the place, the watchman would open and lock up the base door entry into the Minar at notified timings. Today it’s difficult to believe that until about early 80s, Qutab Minar was freely accessible for climbers. In the 60s my father often brought us two brothers quite early in the morning so that we could do our climb and be back before the sun was high. By the time two more of my siblings came, the family had moved on to more mundane priorities and I don’t remember all six of us ever at the Minar together. Counting steps and taking pauses at each of the four balconies, my father, Davinder and I would reach the top huffing and puffing and stand there soaking the view and catching breath. To the official count of 379 steps, our figures would always vary, sometimes even by a hundred! Arguments would continue even as we spotted landmarks and people on the ground. But pretty soon there would be nothing more to do. The place was already cramped with us three and by the time more climbers reached, we would be preparing, with a heavy heart, to return.
From today’s standards of public safety, the climb inside was exceedingly dangerous. It took me a number of visits to notice that my father always took care to be the last as the three of us started and the first while returning. This was to break our fall in case of a mishap. To begin with, the spiral staircase got narrower as you went higher; then there was the stone of the steps that had turned shining and slippery from centuries of climbing. A metal railing did run all the way along the wall but there was nothing to grip on the main spine. Entry being unregulated, every time climbers and descenders crossed, or much more dangerous, boisterous youngsters ran in either direction to overtake, it was only your collective instinct for self-preservation that averted a tragedy. Even the balconies where you paused were more decorative than functional. You can walk around them but only with your breath securely held.
My worst fear—of a dramatic ‘free’ fall along the twisted staircase, gathering victims on the way and ending up into a pile of bodies at the base—came to pass decades later in a tragic variation. A number of school children, availing of free Friday entry, were inside the Minar when power failed and mischief mongers raised an alarm of the tower falling. The resulting stampede killed in 50s. That’s when the entry was closed.
Today, the only way to bypass the ban and be inside the Qutab Minar—just to see what the spiral staircase is like—is by seeing Dev Anand and Nutan sing a song in it for their 1963 film Tere Ghar Ke Saamne. For a Bollywood film, the representation is surprisingly authentic in all kinds of details. To me, for this once, that would include even singing! I too would sing if allowed inside! Just once, for old times’ sake!