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Published on 10th December, 2002

The Minars and Minarettes of India

By Shahid Akhter Makhfi

The Taj Mahal. (file photo)



Humanity hasn’t plunged the depths so much as it has aspired to the heights. After all  heaven doesn’t reside below. Ambitious amirs and sultans throughout history looked up to create sky touching minarets that received the first and last rays of the sun. No matter what their intentions were – but benevolence and piety were frequently less important than glory and consolidation of power.

Minars, like the dome, is one of the most immediate and characteristic features of Islamic architecture. The Arabic term ‘manara’ literally means place where fire burns. In pre-Islamic Arab world manaras stood for an elevated place from where signals of fire or smoke were made. The fire nexus was soon extinguished to associate the manaras with signposts, boundary stones, watchtowers and lighthouses spread throughout North Africa and Central Asia.

The manara or the minar entered the Islamic architectural lexicon a few decades after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad ('s). During his lifetime, his Abyssinian slave Bilal used to climb the highest roof and broadcast the call to prayer. Precisely for this reason the orthodox communities in Islam detest the idea of minars being introduced to the mosques. The Prophet’s mosque at Madina had no such minar and moreover, it was looked down upon as ostentatious and unnecessary.  

After a certain height, the human voice becomes inaudible and therefore extremely tall minars for the mosques were unwelcome. Further it gave rise to invasion of privacy. The mu’adhdhin (who recites the prayer  call) could overlook people’s homes. Interesting injunctions were issued in Arab countries, viz except for the mu’adhdhin, no one else was allowed to ascend the minar and that too only during the prescribed prayer times; the mu’adhdhins were required to take an oath that they would refrain from peeping into neighbouring houses, at times mu’adhdhins were blind folded and better still blind men were most preferred for this job.

The Adhan


The Caliphs of Islam were too keen to incorporate the minar as it offered an ideal platform for reciting the adan (call to prayer). The minar further served as a clock tower, which announced the precise time while addressing the adan. During the month of fasting, Ramadan, a lantern attached to the top of the minar indicated the time for commencement and conclusion of day’s fast.

The First & Second Century


The first Islamic century witnessed the role of a minar as a bare essential, the second century introduced refinement and later its development was varied and influenced by local masonic traditions. The approach to the structural problem of erecting a minar dictated the design and dimensions. The clergy once suggested that minar should not occupy a space, which could otherwise be used for prayers.

This injunction compelled the minars to be erected on the walls of the entrance facade. Gradually, a variety of minars were invented circular, octagonal, hexagonal, faceted, spiral or tapering, single or paired. In fact, they displayed all possible shapes that tower can possibly assume. The scope of their utility also witnessed a reasonable expansion. Minars came to be associated with tombs, milestones (kos minars), hunting towers (shikargahs), punishment pillars (chor minar). etc.

Qutub Minar of India


Qutub Minar of IndiaThough the minar originated in the Arab world, the grandest of them all was however destined for India; the mighty Qutb Minar. It was begun in 1199 by Qutbuddin Aibek as a supporting minar to his equally grand Quwwat-ul Mosque. He erected the first three storeys that are heavily indented with different styles of fluting. The minar is 27 feet in diameter at the base which tapers to 9 feet at the summit. Qutbuddin’s successor, Iltutmish added the fourth storey. The 238 feet high minar was damaged by earthquakes a number of times. After one such disaster, Firoz Shah Tughlaq rebuilt the forth storey and further added a fifth stretch. The decoration of the minar consists of inscriptional bands on its body written in bold Tughra characters.

Inside the minar there is a spiral staircase of 379 steps leading to the top. Besides being the earliest minar, it proved to be the most successful and thereby triggering an explosion of minars that mushroomed throughout India.

Jami Masjid ( Arhai-din-kaJhopra) - Ajmer


A smaller version of the awe inspiring Qutub Minar can be seen (now in ruins) in the shape of fluted minars flanking the central arch of Jami Masjid (Arhai-din-ka Jhopra) at Ajmer. Erected around the same time as Qutub Minar, these minarets proved to be technically weak in absence of independent foundation and were therefore abandoned soon after.

Gateway Minars of Gujarat


Great Gateway of the Kaiserbagh in LucknowThe next few centuries witnessed the development of the gateway minars that found an ideal expression in Gujarat where it was firmly rooted in the ground with richly sculptured heavy buttresses form, which they emerged. Throughout Gujarat, we find the systematic use of minars and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, most of them (like the minars of Jami Masjid, Qutbuddin Shah’s Masjid, Malik Alam’s Masjid, Bibi Achut Kuki’s Masjid, Bibi ki Mashed, etc.) were damaged due to earthquakes or lightning. However, two of the most impressive minars can be seen welcoming visitors close to the railway station of Ahmedabad but there are no traces of the mosque to which they originally belonged. In Sayyid Uthman’s mosque at Ahmedabad we find the earliest example of minar being shifted from the central facade to the corners. These corner minars are tall (six storeys) and heavy for the open mosque. It can be contrasted with the slim pinnacle like minarets with delicate traceries and carvings in Rani Sipari’s mosque (Ahmedabad). The Junagarh mausoleum of Nawab Mahabat Khan’s mother includes a pair of beautiful minars with the spiral staircases entwining the minar from outside. The best of tall and sleek minars can be seen among the monuments of Champanir, like the Jami Masjid, Nagina Masjid, Shihr-ki-Masjid.etc.

The Mughals


Gujarat, Khandesh, Rajputana, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda developed their own minars with slight variations. Finally the Mughals picked up the thread and developed the corner turrets. Their lofty minars can be seen attached to Delhi’s Jami Masjid, Agra’s Taj Mahal, tomb of Itamuddaulah to name a few.

Close to the Qutb Minar lies Alai Minar which stands as a mute witness to the whims and fancies of the Delhi sultans. One such sultan was Alauddin Khilji in 1311 who wanted to excel and exceed the height of the mighty Qutb. He had planned a minar that would dwarf the Qutb Minar by half. 

Unfortunately, the sultan died leaving his work unfinished and what we see is just the skeletal remains of what could otherwise have been most remarkable structure in the world.

Some of the most interesting and unusual minars are to be seen on the eastern frontier of medieval India. A late thirteenth century minar at Chota Pandua in Bengal is a curious five storeyed minar that soars to 125 feet and tapers gradually from bottom to top like the Chaubara of Bidar. The minar presents an uneven outline of the structure constructed of five successive tiers, each smaller in diameter than the one below. The diameter at the base measures 60 feet which diminishes to 15 feet at the top. The minar, entered through a basalt (post and lintel) doorway, is believed to be a part of the mosque built by Shah Sufi Sultan.

Firoz Minar at Gaur


Firoz Minar at Gaur (West Bengal) is another eastern jewel created in bricks that climb to a height of 84 feet through a spiral staircase. Standing on a twelve sided plinth (now covered with earth), the first three polygonal storeys of the minar share the uniform diameter of 20 feet while the top two storeys are circular and diminishing in diameter. Unfortunately, the crowning cupola surmounting the sixth storey no longer exists. Corresponding to the entrance doorway, a similar opening is pierced on each storey. The minar is named after its builder Saifuddin Firoz (1487-90) the Abyssinian slave who set an unfortunate precedent that he who kills a king’s murderer acquired the right to the throne. Firoz Minar, also referred to as Chirag Minar, served as lamppost like the Mughal tower, Ubb Diwal in Rajasthan.

Another interesting minar in West Bengal is the Neem Serai that closely resembles the Hiran Minar at Fatehpur Sikri. Both the minars are studded with elephant tusk like projection giving rise to various stories. Neem Serai Minar, situated on a hill overlooking the two rivers (Kalindri and Mahananda) suggests that it served as a watch tower. The spikes may have been used to display the rebel heads. The sixteenth century minar gradually narrows as it reaches the top (now broken). Hiran Minar is believed to be Akbar’s hunting tower (shikargah). Another tradition considers it to be the precise spot where the favourite elephant of the emperor lies buried. It was a fashion in medieval days to create a tower for just anything. Jehangir is believed to have erected a tower over the remains of his favourite antelope. At Bir, one encounters a minar that is believed to have been ordered by the Tughlaq emperor to mark the site where he buried his extracted tooth.

Chand Minar at Daultbad


Chand Minar at Daultabad is another 100 feet high motivation that appears Turkish and can be seen from miles around. The 15th century circular minar is attached to a small mosque at the foot of the fortress and is divided into four storeys by wide balconies on brackets. A spiral staircase inside the tower leads to the top, which is capped by a dome. Ek Minara at Raichur closely resembles the Chand Minar except for the height, which is 65 feet and is divided into two storeys by projecting galleries.

The Mughals were more interested in corner towers and smaller turrets rather than risking with shaky minarets atop the facade. The 130 feet minars at the corners of Jami Masjid in Delhi are one of the most illustrative Mughal minars. The builders of the Taj Mahal borrowed the idea of ‘minars in mausoleums’ from Salim Shah’s (1545) incomplete tomb at Sasaram where the minars are seen for the first time in a funerary monument. Since then most of the tombs were fashioned with minars and some notable developments can be seen among the tombs of Itamud Daulah, Akbar and the famous Taj Mahal. The minars in Bibi Ka Maqbara (1678) at Aurangabad closely rival those of the Taj and are one of the last notable architectural creations by the Mughals.

The Char Minar


The Char Minar (1593) is one of the earliest surviving monuments of the Qutab Shahis of Golconda, which served as a model for their subsequent architectural development. The 186 feet high Char Minar is decagonal in plan and is divided into four sections by arched lanterns profusely ornamented with mouldings.

Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur


Gol Gumbaz (1656) in Bijapur is another example of minars being attached on all four sides. The seven storeyed octagonal minars are pierced in each of their faces with pointed arches placed in rectangular panels and crowned by a bulbous dome with sculptured lotus petals at the base.

One of the most impressive minars in South India can be seen in Masjid-i-Ala built by Tipu Sultan at Seringapatnam in 1786. These two unusual minars in an otherwise simple mosque are octagonal and separated by a galleried balcony and crowned by a masonry dome. The entire minar is broken up by a series of holes with a few arched openings.

Indian roads and highways were once dotted with Kos Minars that guided the travellers and most of the European travelogues mention these secular towers that varied in height between 11 and 50 feet. Some Europeans like Peter Mundy (1621-32) and William Finch (1608-11) describe the numerous skull towers that they encountered during their sojourn in India. One such tower, popularly called Chor Minar, dating back to the thirteenth century, can be seen in Delhi.


Author: Shahid A. Makhfi 
Photographer: Unknown
Chief Editor: Hj Nurzaynab El-Fatah
Production: Hj S. Abidin
Published Date: 10th December, 2002
Modification Date: January 11th, 2009/14th Muharram, 1430

Publication ID: 02minarsIndia. The Minars and Minarettes of India
Copyright: © Victory News Magazine, 2009


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