Qutb Minar, Delhi

The Mark of Empires in Delhi

Delhi is a city like no other. The capital of India had seen more warlords, conquerors, and emperors than most cities in the world. Each ruler constructed a new capital on, or near, the ruins of his predecessor, leaving today Delhi a mega city that is dotted with ancient monuments, gardens, and forts.

Delhi’s story is one of glory undermined by rivalries and foreign interference. Throughout its history, the city was destroyed and rebuilt several times, as invaders who successfully reached the Indian Subcontinent would plunder the “gateway” first. Those who stayed would be fascinated by Delhi’s strategic location. They made it their capital and reshaped the city in their own way.

The final result is a metropolis that is associated with at least seven historical cities. Their ruins stand in mute testimony to the splendor of various rulers, from Hindu kings, Muslim sultans, and Mughal emperors, to the British crown. Ironically, these constant shifts in power led to the merging of different cultures and traditions in Delhi, creating a new cultural identity for its citizens.


1. Delhi Sultanate

The earliest record of Delhi is at the beginning of the Tomara dynasty in the 8th century. It was succeeded by the Chauhans who captured the city in the 10th century. From 1206, the reign of Delhi changed from Hindu kings to Muslim sultans, starting with the Mamluk dynasty (of Afghanistan). It is the first among five unrelated dynasties that dominated a large path of South Asia for nearly three centuries. They are given the name Delhi Sultanate.

During this period, Delhi grew into a center of Islamic culture and architecture, reflected through a series of forts, tombs, and townships. Most prominent is the UNESCO-inscribed Qutb Minar built by the first Delhi Sultan, Qutb-ud-din Aibak. After the attack of Timur in 1398 and the crushing defeat against Babur in 1526, the Delhi Sultanate ended, giving way to a new empire – the Mughal.

1.1 Qutb Minar

Reaching a dizzy height of 72.5 meters, Qutb Minar is an ancient minaret and a victory column located at the city’s southern fringe. The first Sultan of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, reportedly erected this tower in 1199 to proclaim his triumph over the vanquished Hindu rulers and to signify the rise of Islam in India. It was projected to have five distinct stories, complete with ornated balconies, but the sultan could only see the first stage before his sudden demise in a polo game. His successor, Iltutmish, finished the job by 1220.

The red sandstone structure features alternating angular and rounded flutings. It is adorned with intricately carved bands bearing verses from the holy Quran. In the 14th century, Qutb Minar was struck by lightning twice, resulting in the top floors being repaired with marble. An Indo-Islamic cupola was also added at the time, but it collapsed due to a severe earthquake in 1803. The British attempted to replace the cupola with a new design, but it turned out to be a fiasco and was later removed.

1.2 Qutb Complex

Surrounding Qutb Minar is an ensemble of funerary structures built by subsequent rulers, notably the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque (or Qutb Mosque), the tomb of Iltutmish, and the magnificent arches of Alai Darwaza. All are profusely carved with inscriptions, and geometrical and arabesque patterns that are associated with Islamic art.

Curiously, elements with sacred Hindu or Jain motifs are also incorporated into these buildings, such as the cloister pillars of the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque. It is said that the sultan recuperated these ornated columns from some twenty demolished Brahman temples and transferred them here. In other cases, Jain artisans cleverly engraved their iconography, without letting their Muslim masters realize it.

A fine example of early Indo-Islamic design.

Standing in the mosque’s courtyard is a mysterious iron pillar sporting an Indian aesthetic. No one truly knows why it’s there and since when. The only thing we know is that the pillar hasn’t rusted or damaged after all these years due to a unique iron-making technique. These monuments, together with Qutb Minar, form an outstanding collection of early Indo–Islamic architecture.

Tomb of Iltutmish
Arches of Alai Darwaza
Qutb Mosque incorporates Hindu and Jain elements
Pillars with Jain motifs

2. Mughal Empire

Following the demise of the Delhi Sultanate, Babur, the erstwhile ruler of Fergana, founded the Mughal dynasty in 1526. It was not long before a vast empire sprawled outwards, stretching from Gujarat to the Bay of Bengal, and from Lahore to central India. Yet the early Mughal rulers favored Agra and Fatehpur Sikri as their capital. Delhi only became the permanent royal seat under the reign of the fifth emperor Shah Jahan. This period is considered the golden age of the Mughal Empire, with cities brimming with merchants, architects, artisans, and poets. New ideas, tastes, and styles are brought with them, resulting in exquisite artworks and spectacular monuments.

After the death of the sixth emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal empire declined drastically. A series of revolts led to territorial losses to the Hindu Marathas, the Sikhs, and many governors of former Mughal provinces. The invasion of Persian emperor Nader Shah in the mid-18th century further shattered the once powerful state. By 1760, the Mughal Empire was formally dissolved by the British Raj, marking the onset of foreign domination in India.

2.1 Humayun’s Tomb

One of the best-preserved Mughal monuments in Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb reflects the innovation in India’s architecture and garden design. It was the first garden-tomb on the entire subcontinent, with a scale grander than any predecessor in the Islamic world. This is also the first time a char-bagh – a garden layout inspired by the descriptions of paradise in the Holy Quran – was integrated into a mausoleum.

The monument was completed in 1572, under the patronage of Empress Bega Begum, to honor her husband Humayun, the second emperor of the Mughal empire. It was built of stones clad in red sandstone, with white and black inlaid marble borders. A magnificent double dome of white marble is placed atop the central chamber where the emperor was laid to rest. Aside from the main tomb, there are approximately 150 graves located within this compound, including that of the empress.

Innovation in India’s architecture and garden design.

The last refuge of Humayun stands in Delhi not only as a masterpiece of Timurid design, constructed by architects trained in Herat and Bukhara but also as a testimony of Indian craftsmanship. For example, the octagonal floor plans, the chattris (domed pavilions) flanking the central dome, and the glazed ceramic roof tiles were all derived from tombs built during the Delhi Sultanate. This kind of amalgamation later became the characteristic of many Mughal imperial projects, with the zenith being the epic Taj Mahal.

Humayun’s Tomb
The garden surrounding Humayun’s Tomb
The central chamber of Humayun’s Tomb

3. British Empire

Though Delhi had been brought under British rule since the early 19th century, it only became the national capital in 1911. At that time, Calcutta had turned into a hotbed for anti-colonial movements, and the British government felt that it would be logistically easier to administer India from Delhi. Henceforth, a new city was created in the 1920s, with Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker as chief architects. They laid out a cityscape with leafy avenues, neoclassical fountains, and garden-ringed bungalows. But Lutyen’s Delhi only served the British Empire for several years.

After a long struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, India gained independence on 15 August 1947. The British were ousted, leaving behind a series of architectures that fuses traditional Indian and Mughal elements with European ones. The central piece is, however, a Champs Élysées-like boulevard called Rajpath. It connects the stately Rashtrapati Bhawan with the iconic memorial arch of India Gate. The path is currently undergoing renovation, with huge lawns, canals, and rows of trees added on both sides. After climbing the hill, Rajpath is flanked by the Secretariat Building which houses various ministries, including the office of the Prime Minister.

Rajpath – the central piece of Lutyen’s Delhi
Road to Rashtrapati Bhawan
Secretariat Building designed by Sir Herbert Baker
The Indian Gate – an icon of Delhi


10 thoughts on “The Mark of Empires in Delhi”

  1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Your photos from the Indian capital are brilliant! Which month did you go? I noticed if you go in the ‘wrong’ time, all you’ll get is a city blanketed in thick smoke. With so much history, I think I can easily spend a week in Delhi!

    1. Definitely! I had three days there but could only see the main sights. All the attractions/parks are larger than I expected.

      I was there two weeks ago 🙂 Just the end of monsoon season, but before Diwali. The temperature is about 30 degree but it was less humid than in SEA.

  2. Rama Arya – Mumbai, India – I travel for the love of travelling. I blog for the love of blogging. About Me: ramaarya.com My Personal [Travel and Art] Blog: ramaarya.blog My Work: thecommunique.co.in My Communication Blog: ramaarya.tumblr.com
    Rama Arya says:

    I am so glad you got beautiful blue skies! Right now the city is covered in post-Diwali smog. 🙁 Am happy you got to explore Delhi. Where else did you visit whilst in India?

    1. I completed the Golden Triangle, plus Ranthambore (for the tigers) and Gwalior (for the fort). Your blog helps me a lot when planning. Thank you, Rama! 🙂

      Most of the time the weather was good. Some afternoon downpours contributed to the clear sky. I only encountered fog/smog in Agra. The Taj still looks magnificent though.

  3. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, Egypt, Japan, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We travelled full-time for nearly six years, and then re-established a home in Vancouver. We now travel 2-3 months per year. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, photography, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    Fascinating Len. I spent time in Delhi a few years back and went to India Gate, and to Humayun’s Tomb, so I’m glad to find out a little more about them. Humayun’s Tomb is quite magnificent. As are your photos.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Alison 🙂 The tomb is indeed amazing. Perfect symmetry (even my camera confirmed that) and the garden is gorgeous. But to my surprise, most people didn’t go there. They only walked on the main path to the tomb and left. Good for me, but it’s such a pity 🙂

  4. I. J. Khanewala – Nowhere-in-particular – I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.
    I. J. Khanewala says:

    Beautiful photos.

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