Before I got diverted by Christmas and New Year (not to mention the exhibition about the Mughals), I’d begun a series of articles on my website, introducing some of Delhi’s lesser-known historical monuments—especially monuments (unlike mosques or tombs) that are secular in nature.
With the festivities out of the way, and more than a week of the New Year already gone by, it’s time to get back to that series.
This time, we’ll be looking at a somewhat unusual structure, since it’s not exactly practical (like Satpula or Rajon ki Baoli) or meant for pleasure (like Shalimar Bagh or Kushak Mahal). It is definitely secular, but while not a defensive structure (like the forts and city walls dotted around Delhi), it does have something to do with a display of power.
Meet the Chor Minar—literally, the ‘Thieves’ Tower’.
This odd, stumpy-looking tower stands hidden away in Hauz Khas Enclave, very close to the Metro station. It’s made of what is known as ‘rubble masonry’: large, irregular-shaped chunks of stone held together by thick mortar.
(An aside: the mortar used in most medieval buildings in Delhi was an organic mortar which, besides common building material like stone or brick dust and lime, also contained ingredients such as cow dung, fenugreek, lentils, yoghurt, and the pulp of the wood-apple or bael. Organic mortar has the advantage of letting moisture ‘flow’ through the building, which prevents dampness from settling in, especially in places of high rainfall, such as Delhi during the monsoon).
The Chor Minar rests atop a square platform, with shallow arched cells on all sides. The tower, like the platform and the cells, is very plain and unadorned. It, however, does have one important visual element that makes it rather distinctive: the upper half of the tower is pockmarked with 225 regularly-spaced holes. These, legend has it, were meant to display the heads of criminals (which is why the tower is so named): the heads of beheaded criminals would be impaled on spears stuck into the holes, to act as a deterrent to others.
While there is little or no proof that this was the actual function of the Chor Minar, it may well be likely, since the period when this structure was built—in the very early 14th century, during the reign of Alauddin Khalji—was a turbulent time for Delhi. Around 1303, Delhi was repeatedly attacked by Mongol invaders, and Alauddin Khalji, while he was able to repulse the Mongols, had to work hard to ensure the safety of his subjects.
Alauddin, therefore, built a fortified city from which to rule. It was known as Siri, and little remains of it today except part of the walls (known as Siri Fort). And there remains, too, a legend that in the foundations of these walls were buried the heads of thousands of Mongol captives.
Whether or not that is true is open to conjecture, but it does suggest a bloody era, where something like a ‘chor minar’ could well be a possibility.