Today we think of the establishment of sultanates in India as a historical inevitability, but it was, in reality, a somewhat unlikely affair. The success of Indian sultanates lay in how successfully they translated between Turko-Persian and Indic worlds. Evidence of this can be seen in an unlikely place: the “conquest mosques” often built out of the ruins of temples.
In the last few columns of Thinking Medieval, we’ve explored in detail how Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent interacted at an increasing pace from the 10th century onwards. In the northwest of the subcontinent, as diverse kingdoms sought to defeat the other, we saw many strange innovations. Sultans decried and praised in Sanskrit; Lakshmi coins with sultans’ names; Kashmiri kings in Turkic robes. But by the late 12th century, a decisive shift took place, with the first Turk-ruled polities taking root in northwest India. Certainly, this was a violent and spectacular event, exemplified by a burst of new architecture — including the towering Qutb Minar and the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. These are frequently interpreted as symbols of the complete victory of a “foreign” religion against Hinduism.
If only history were that simple.
Accommodations the norm, not the exception
It’s worth reiterating, as several of our readers have (rather irately) pointed out, that these historical processes were by no means peaceful ones. But it is difficult to make the case that the violence of 12th century northwest India, particularly when directed by the Turks, was uniquely terrible. A large body of inscriptions reveals incessant warfare between local kingdoms such as those of the Chandellas, Chahamanas, Gahadavalas and Tomaras. The Sultanates of Ghazni and Ghor were similarly engaged in wars with their neighbours in Central Asia and Iran. When these two worlds interacted, both sides claimed over-the-top violence. But such claims are difficult to take at face value. Medieval constraints of technology, population and logistics simply could not have allowed the ridiculous claims that some have conjured of late, with death tolls higher than most 20th century wars. Historical texts claiming violence were always more interested in appeasing literate circles than in providing factual records.
A critical examination of these texts also reveals surprising patterns. The first is that the military ruling classes of the Turko-Persian and northwest Indic worlds had different cultures, but were also similar enough to “talk” to each other through an intelligent process of translation. Both were organised in clans led by military men. Both went to war frequently to capture wealth, cities, and women. Both could make spectacular architecture or wreak destruction at scale. Both used slavery in some form, either at an elite or subaltern level. Both distributed land to loyal chiefs.
Twelfth century Indian rulers often granted land to officers with the title of rauta, thakura, ranaka, or rajaputra (literally “king’s son”, the origin of the term “Rajput”). These officers had the right to land revenue, in return for providing the king with troops on demand. This was strikingly similar to the iqta system used by Turko-Persian rulers, especially Muhammad Ghori (r. 1173–1206). After Ghori’s victory over the powerful Chahamana king Prithiviraj III in 1192, large numbers of military slave-soldiers were settled in northwest India, and granted land in return for troops. These men, originally from Central Asia before being stripped of their identities, were essentially regarded as the sultan’s “sons” or clansmen, as pointed out by historian Sunil Kumar in The Establishment of the Delhi Sultanate.
Ghori, as noted in an earlier column, went out of his way to present himself as an Indian emperor, re-appointing the son of his defeated rival Prithiviraj as vassal king of Ajmer. The similarities of iqta and rauta systems allowed him to go further. Ghori’s general and eventual successor, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, had a large Indian contingent within his armies, led by “ranagans”, “rautagans” and “thakurans”—the same minor aristocrats who made up the armies of maharajas. Whether these men were compelled or convinced to work for the Sultan is moot; power works in complex and contextual ways, and the same question can be asked of their service to previous Indian kings as well. The important point here, as historian Finbarr Barry Flood notes in Objects of Translation, is that the Turks offered continuity to a wide swathe of India’s ruling classes.
Interpreting conquest mosques
All that said, there is one glaring way in which the Turks did not offer continuity. Temple desecration and destruction is attested both in texts and in architectural remains—particularly to mosques built from the ruins of temples. How well does this logic of translation apply to this phenomenon?
This is a polarising issue. Marxist historians see Turk conquests as some sort of “victory” for urban proletariats, which makes little sense. Hindu nationalists decry it as a civilisational crusade tipping into genocide, which is completely dismissed by the evidence. As Sunil Kumar has argued, the construction of “conquest mosques” was certainly an attempt to declare the arrival of a new kind of political system — even if it was one that was willing to make accommodations.
The best way of understanding this phenomenon is by looking at pre-conquest mosques. (Muslims have lived in India for centuries before the arrival of the Turks). In Objects of Translation, Flood notes that examples of these, especially in Bhadreshwar in Gujarat, were made completely from freshly-carved stone with minimal decoration, in keeping with Islamic injunctions against icons. However, post-conquest mosques, built from reused stone, do have icons: carefully selected, curated and arranged.
The Ghaznavids and Ghorids were not the medieval equivalents of ISIS fundamentalists, as we might like to believe. Archaeological excavations of their palaces in Afghanistan reveal a fascination with floral and faunal motifs, and even human figures are frequently represented outside of mosques. And from the very outset, sultans were well-aware of the beauty of temples: in 1018, after sacking Mathura, Mahmud of Ghazni is recorded as saying, in his Fathnama: “Should anyone wish to build the equivalent of these edifices, he would be unable to, even if he spent a hundred million dirhams over the course of a hundred years, employing master workmen and craftsmen of magical skill”. He destroyed the temple of course, but had already begun importing custom-made Indian wooden beams to Ghazni before that.
The Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in Delhi—which, incidentally, was known as the Masjid-i-Jami (Friday Mosque) before 1847—preserves these aesthetic appreciations, as well as the religio-political fact of destruction and reconstruction. An inscription at its entrance declares that it was made from the remains of 27 temples, a fact that is evident in its pillars. However, the pillars retain many of their original motifs, especially kirtimukhas (“glorious faces” similar to lions); makaras (mythical aquatic animals); elephants; and vegetal motifs. Human figures have been defaced, but not excised. It is certainly possible to interpret this as a perversion of their “true” purpose, but, as Flood points out, this is only true if we assume that an object can only ever have one meaning. In reality, objects are constantly given new life by their circulation and reinterpretation. This is an interesting perspective from which to consider architectural reuse. Indeed, a great example of this can be found in the mosque’s courtyard: an ancient pillar of iron, brought to the region by a Tomara king after one of his raiding expeditions. Just as the Tomaras had given the pillar a new meaning by bringing it to their city, the Turks gave Tomara pillars new meaning as they incorporated them into the Qutb mosque.
In the northwest of the mosque is a royal chamber for prayer, entered through a temple doorway that was incorporated in its entirety. And at the mosque’s western end is a screen consisting of towering pointed arches, decorated with bands of scrollwork and Indian vegetal motifs. Attached to it is a prayer hall with reused columns profusely carved with bells and auspicious overflowing pots. This recalls the design of a temple’s garbhagriha, suggesting that the mosque’s architect understood Indian concepts of sacred space very well, and was integrating them into the design.
What we are seeing in the Qutb mosque is something very new. It is not, as some claim, a monument to iconoclasm built by barbarians. It is something altogether more intelligent and compelling: not just a “translation” between modes of power, like earlier Turk-Rajput interactions, but something truly transcultural. It is a building commissioned by educated military men far from their homeland, coming to terms with becoming rulers not in Afghanistan but in India. As a single enormous historical object, it is certainly a break with the past, but to paraphrase French architectural historian Francoise Choay (via Finbarr Flood): it simultaneously assumes and transcends the “original” meaning of its components by interpreting them in a new way. In a very meaningful way, we could argue, it is the first and greatest mosque of India’s Delhiite Muslims, and it would not be the last.
Far from the interpretations of the modern political spectrum, this lonely and half-collapsed monument stands in the Delhi winter, a thousand years and many worlds away from the brilliant, violent world in which it was born.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.
This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)