30 October 2012

Iron Pillar, New Delhi

This post is part of series about Qutb Complex, Mehrauli. The integrated post about the complex and the monuments within can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex.


As a testimonial to the technological skills of ancient Indians and substantiating their artistic and scientific ambitions, the world-renowned Iron Pillar of Delhi’s Qutb complex has been standing erect for over 1500 years without displaying any major signs of corrosion. That the ancient blacksmiths were capable of conceiving and generating such pure forms of iron, hand-forge it to craft such large columns and shape it according to their whims speaks of their unparalleled dexterity with metalwork and metallurgical sciences.

Historians and researchers conclude that the 7.2 meter tall ancient pillar (of which 1.12 meters is underground) was in all probability integral to a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu (the Hindu God of life & nourishment), and was intended as a standard to support a figurine of Garuda (hawk-faced, winged deity said to be Vishnu’s carrier) which fitted in a deep socket embedded on top of the pillar. The pillar is pinned to the ground by means of lead and iron projections emerging from its buried portion. Another theory is that the pillar itself portrayed Lord Vishnu’s mace (“gada”) while an external appendage in the form of his serrated disc (“chakra”) surmounted it, thereby representing Vishnu’s chief weaponry. 

The curious case of Delhi's rust-less wonder (Photo courtesy - World-mysteries.com)

An eloquent six-line three-stanza Sanskrit inscription in Brahmi script inscribed on the pillar refers to its erection in a temple then known as Vishnupada (proved, by means of literary, archaeological, numismatics and geographic sources, to be the temple caves of modern-day Udaygiri, Madhya Pradesh) by a certain Emperor Chandra, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, as a standard (or banner, “Dhwaja Stambha”) for the Lord – it has been contended that the said position of the pillar in Udaygiri was guided by advanced astronomical studies and it was erected either as a sundial or as an astronomical instrument involved in indicating the summer solstice (June 21) since its shadow would fall at the base of a panel dedicated to Lord Vishnu only on this particular annual occurrence – the pillar thus also highlights fairly well-developed astronomical knowledge, besides metallurgical brilliance that existed during the period of its erection. The inscription goes on to valorize and praise the said Emperor Chandra –

“He, on whose arm fame was inscribed by the sword, when, in battle in the Vanga countries (Bengal), he kneaded (and turned) back with (his) breast the enemies who, uniting together, came against (him); He, by whom, having crossed in warfare the seven mouths of the (river) Sindhu, the Vahlikas were conquered; He, by the breezes of whose prowess the southern ocean is even still perfumed; 

He, the remnant of whose energy – a burning splendor which utterly destroyed his enemies – leaves not the earth even now, just like (the residual heat of) a burned-out conflagration in a great forest; He, as if wearied, has abandoned this world, and resorted in bodily form to the other world – a place won by the merit of his deeds; (but although) he has departed, he remains on earth through (the memory of his) fame; 

By the king, who attained sole sovereignty in the world, acquired by his very own arm and (possessed) for a long time; He who, having the name of Chandra, carried a beauty of countenance like the full moon, having in faith fixed his mind upon Vishnu, this lofty standard of the divine Vishnu was set up on the hill Vishnupada” 

The Gupta-Brahmi Sanskrit inscription, inscribed by the process of die-striking

Though the origins of the pillar remain an enigma, it has been proved beyond doubt that the mighty King Chandra mentioned in the inscription is the fourth century Emperor Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (reign AD 375-414), the foremost of rulers of the erstwhile Gupta Dynasty – thereby making this inscription one of the oldest in the subcontinent since the practice of marking structures through embossed/inscribed inscriptions originated during the reign of Chandragupta II’s father and predecessor Samudragupta and became a widely prevalent art form around the end of Chandragupta’s reign. Incidentally, Gupta Emperors styled themselves as “Parama Bhagwats”, or the foremost of Vishnu’s devotees, and Garuda figured in the regal insignia and several coins of the dynasty.

The argument about the pillar originally being erected away from Delhi and its transfer, much later, to its present location is further validated by the absence of relics from the same period around the Qutb complex. Several bard songs too speak of Anangpal, the Tomar Dynasty ruler who governed the territories presently falling under the states of Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan, as establishing his majestic citadel at Lalkot (“Red fortress”, surviving as vast ruins in the vicinity of Qutb complex) and transporting the coveted pillar to his capital “Dilli”. It is said that Emperor Anangpal, on the occasion of his grandson’s birthday consulted the great sage Vyasa about the propitious hour to establish his citadel; Vyasa advised him that if he did so immediately, the foundations of his dynasty would go deep enough to strike the head of the serpent Sheshnag (a mythical gigantic snake, according to Hindu mythology, that lives deep underground and supports the entire planet on its head) and be embedded perennially in the country. The unprepared and doubtful Emperor decided to delay and the sage, taking offence, took an iron spike and drove it so deep into the earth that when he pulled it out it was splurged deep crimson red with the serpent’s blood. Bardic tradition (most notably, Chand Bardai’s “Prithviraj Raso”) goes that the spike was the pillar itself and the enraged sage prophesied –

“Killi to dhilli bhai, Tomar bhaya mat hin” 
(“The pillar has become lose, and thus the Tomar shall lose his realm”) 

Accordingly, the dynasty came to an end and Anangpal’s grandson (daughter’s child) Prithviraj Chauhan inherited the reign from him and sometime later lost it to Muhammad Muizuddin bin Sam “Ghori” whose Muslim armies ravaged the land in AD 1192. The legends do not speak of who refitted the pillar back in the ground; but interestingly one theory regarding the origins of Delhi’s name states it as having been derived from “Dilli” which has roots in the couplet’s “Dhilli” (loose) – thus interconnecting both the ancient pillar and the older still city. Several leading archaeologists, however, are of the opinion that the pillar was brought to Delhi as a trophy by the Slave dynasty Emperor Shamshuddin Iltutmish (ruled AD 1211-36) following his conquest of Deccan (AD 1234).

The Iron Pillar and the screens of Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque on an Indian stamp (1987) (Photo courtesy - Stampsbook.org)

Archaeologically, the inverted bell-like appendage surmounting the tapering cylindrical pillar is a feature of the artistically glorious Gupta period temple architecture – thus it can be conclusively proved that the pillar was originally part of a Vishnu temple built by Chandragupta II and was shifted to the Vishnu temple that Anangpal built at the site where the Qutb mosque exists today – later when Qutbuddin Aibak commissioned the magnificent Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque that was to be built from the remains of Hindu and Jain temples destroyed on his command, the pillar was allowed to remain at its position even though the temple around it was demolished.

Chemical analysis of the pillar undertaken by Sir Robert Hadfield (1912) yields its composition to be 99.72 % iron with Carbon, Silicon, Phosphorus and other metals making up the rest. Such high purity and almost nil rusting (the little rusting that does occur is in the portion underground) is a testimony to the metallurgical prowess of those who built it. It has also been confirmed that the temperature required to construct such pillars cannot be achieved by coal combustion and consequently the ancient Indian smiths had developed very complicated methods of raising temperature and metal forging. Modern day metallurgists and scientists are often confounded by the pillar’s properties and are at a loss to explain why the pillar doesn’t rust despite being exposed to the natural forces for more than a millennia and have proposed numerous theories to the effect – the claims cite causes that are often absurdly fantastical, one such being rust prevention as a result of the (holy) pillar being regularly anointed with clarified butter (“ghee”); perhaps inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s wildly imaginative science-fiction novels, several naive believers also claim that the pillar was carved out of a large meteoroid that made impact somewhere in Central India – others go a step further and claim that aliens themselves embedded it in Mehrauli’s landscape! It has been proved that the high phosphor content of the pillar leads to formation of an extremely thin iron oxyhydroxide layer along the surface interface that offers resistance against corrosion – the portion in contact with the atmosphere rapidly develops into a passive iron hydrogen phosphate hydrate layer only a fraction of a millimeter thick that protects the underlying metal from rust. The primary reason for the pillar’s corrosion resistance has been explained by a combination of several factors – extremely high degrees of purity besides a high proportion of phosphorus and negligible amount of sulphur and manganese, the dry, less humid climate of Delhi and less exposure to industrial pollution as a result of the isolated setting of Mehrauli, the mass metal effect where an enormous bulk of metal absorbs surrounding heat and releases it slowly when the temperature drops (at night) thereby ensuring dryness and relatively less dew formation. Referring to the pillar as completely corrosion-free would be wrong since it derives its overall resistance from the passive oxide layer which is essentially rust – but compared to ordinary metal that would begin crumbling following corrosion, the pillar has been intact in existence for over sixteen centuries!

The inverted bell atop the pillar - A large figurine of either the deity Garuda or the discus ("chakra") of Lord Vishnu used to be embedded atop it; four smaller animal figurines would be embedded on each side along each side of the cuboid on the top.

Structural analysis of the pillar reveals that it wasn’t cast but fabricated in a daunting process of forging and hammer-welding lumps of hot pasty iron, each weighing 20-30 kgs, in a step-by-step process. The surface of the pillar retains some of the hammer marks.

The Archaeological Survey (ASI) was forced to encircle the pillar with a fence in order to protect it from visitors intent on touching it with respect to the belief that states that an individual’s wishes will be fulfilled if s/he could embrace the pillar with their arms around their back – thus unintentionally damaging it as a result of sweat’s corrosive action. Who could have guessed that despite all the technological skill and scientific rationale that went into its construction, the pillar would become a subject of absurd superstition millennia after its conception!

Another view of the inverted bell with an intricately chiseled stone arch in the background (Photo courtesy - World-mysteries.com)

Location: Qutb Complex (Coordinates: 28°31'28.9"N 77°11'05.8"E)
Open: Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Saket and Qutb Minar stations are both equidistant.
How to reach: Taxis, buses and autos can be availed from different parts of the city. The complex is quite a walk from the metro stations and one should avail bus/auto services from there on.
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 10; Foreigners: Rs 250
Photography charges: Nil
Video charges: Rs 25
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Facilities available: Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links -

1 comment:

  1. It is a matter of great pride that Indians thousands of years ago were producing such metals & columns that still confound modern scientists!!