We all visit Qutub Minar, how many of us know about Ala’i Darwaza?

Alai Darwaza and Qutub Minar at the Qutb Complex in Delhi. A UNESCO world heritage site in India

Delhi’s Qutb Minar is one of the most celebrated monuments in India. Not without reasons. Built in 1192, by Muhammad Ghuri’s viceroy Qutb-ud-din Aibak to celebrate Ghuri’s victory over Prithviraj Chauhan, this 239 Ft tower symbolically marks the beginning of Islamic rule in India. But how many of us really remember the name Ala’i Darwaza?

Ask this question, most Indians would give you a blank stare. Yet, if true historical significance is to be judged, it ought to have been the other way round, particularly because this monument stands within a few hundred feet of Qutb Minar. Ala’I Darwaza, was built by Alauddin Khilji, arguably the most powerful king of the Delhi Sultanate period, which steadied the foundation of the Islamic rule in this subcontinent, exactly 113 years after the symbolic victory tower.

Scientific Proof of Islamic Architecture

This humble gate, which leads to the Quvvat-ul-Islam Mosque in the Qutb Complex, is, however, not known for any symbolic representation, but it actually marks a revolution that changed the essence of grand architecture in India for good. It is, according to the Archeological Survey of India, “the first building employing Islamic principles of construction and ornamentation.” And these ‘Islamic principles of construction’ include, in architectural parlance, the ‘true arch’ and the ‘true dome’, a radical improvement over the ‘corbelled arch style’, which was prevalent in India before the introduction of ‘Islamic architecture’.

Noting the pioneering contribution of Russian author Nikolai Gogol to the form of story-telling, through his masterpiece titled The Overcoat, one of the later-day Russian authors humorously said, “We all come out of Gogol’s Overcoat!” Indeed, it would not be amiss to say, the stunning monuments, built across India over the next four centuries, from the Adina Mosque (1374) in Pandua, West Bengal, the Teen Darwaza (1415) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the Golconda Fort (1600s) in Hyderabad, Telengana, to the Taj Mahal (1648) in Agra, have all come out of the humble Ala’i Darwaza! Thus, this gateway marks the beginning of architectural marvels, which we proudly showcase to the world to this day, including several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, built as a result of Islamic architectural science’s coming to India.

Deviation in Construction

Arches and domes were rare, but not unknown to Indian architects, prior to the coming of the Muslim designers. In pre-Islamic days Indian masons used a method known as the ‘corbelled arch style’ to build arches over which domes could be erected. But these were flimsy and often very short lived. Ala’i Darwaza’s architects for the first time introduced the ‘true arch style’, which enabled building of huge domes. It’s a long and complicated subject.

In very simple words, while in the former the masons offset courses of brick or stone, one over the other, at the springline — that is the line from where the arch begins to curve — in the walls so that the bricks or stones project towards the archway’s centre from each supporting side, until the courses meet at the apex of the archway. In the latter, architects used a method of arranging small pieces in a curve in order to create an architectural situation in which each part pushes the other to hold together. With this architecture in India took a quantum leap forward.

Unfortunately, while the political fall out of the Islamic rule in India is so widely discussed, there is little public discourse about the scientific revolutions that Islam brought to India. Ala’i Darwaza stands as a steady but sad testimony to this monumental public amnesia.

 

(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)