05 May 2013

Kos Minar, Faridabad, Haryana

Ever conscious of ensuring the availability of public amenities in order to improve the living conditions of their subjects, the Mauryan rulers (ruled BC 322-185) often thought up of ingenious ideas to ensure the presence of several facilities & conditions for their well-being. The chief among these was the establishment of a major highway that connected the furthest frontiers of eastern India to Central Asia as far as Afghanistan & Iran via Delhi, Agra & Punjab. The highway curved & slithered its way through various megacities & small townships & helped maintain trade & diplomatic relationships with several nations including the far-flung Greek states. Dynasties of rulers came & went, first the Hindus lorded over the country, then came the Muslims, but the trade route maintained its status quo. In AD 1540, the Afghan Governor of Bengal, Sher Shah Suri overthrew the rule of Mughal emperor Humayun, became the Emperor of India & established the Sur Dynasty rule over the subcontinent. The five years that Sher Shah ruled over India were characterized by an overhaul of the administrative, financial, military, communication & postal system, as well as the provision & betterment of several civic facilities. Among one of the most popular & essential steps taken by Sher Shah was the construction of the Sher Shah Suri Marg aka the Grand Trunk (GT) Road which overlapped with the Mauryan trade route & connected Chittagong (in modern-day Bangladesh) to Kabul (in modern-day Afghanistan). Unlike the Mauryan road which was built simply by leveling mud, the GT Road was sturdy & usable in all weather conditions. Serais (inns) were built along the road for the convenience of the travelers, toll taxes were abolished & trees were planted on either side of the road to provide shade. Later in 1555 AD, when Humayun again gained control of India, he continued with Sher Shah’s policy of maintaining these arterial roads through state financing & protection. However it was Humayun’s son, Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605) who understood the advantages these roads conferred to an emperor & began taking an active interest in their upkeep & ensuring that they remained free of brigands & bandits. The road was levelled out, its cursive bends were removed & replaced by straight stretches, shade-giving & fruit-bearing trees were planted for the convenience of travelers & merchants.

Most importantly, Akbar (& later his successors Jahangir & Shahjahan) continued with Sher Shah’s system of marking distances with Kos Minars (mile markers) & ordered their construction in 1574 AD. Kos Minar were 30 feet tall conical towers (a few were cylindrical too), very thick at the base, & were constructed every 1 kos (approx. 3 kilometer  along the routes that connected Agra (then Mughal capital) to Ajmer (via Jaipur) in west, Lahore (via Delhi) in north, Mandu (via Shivpuri) in south. Later this network of minarets was extended as far as Peshawar in the west & Bengal in the east & connected the provinces of Burhanpur, Agra, Amritsar, Multan, Lahore, Delhi, Jodhpur & Chittor. Fortified caravnserais furnished with fresh water reservoirs were built at every eighth Kos Minar. Trade flourished because of the establishment of these highways & the mile markers, soon the country side prospered too. Akbar’s chronicler Abu Fazl writes about these minarets in his magnum “Akbarnama” & tells us that Akbar decreed the construction of many of these minarets & these were primarily meant for the convenience of travelers & merchants, & were to act as beacons to lost & fatigued travelers.

The Kos Minar at Badarpur

The minarets must have been a magnificent sight for the weary travelers who would have been equally amazed by the minaret’s size & the Mughal’s & strength & reach. It was along the Kos Minars that military check posts & communication outposts were established, thereby boosting the efficiency of communications & surveillance. The outposts were meant to counter the threats of rebels, bandits & renegade generals & nobles. Official message-carriers & horses were kept stationed at Kos Minars. The rider carried an urgent message from one minar to another traversing several kos this way & finally breaking off his journey at one of the minarets where he either stopped to have rest & refreshments at the nearby serai, or passed on the message to another courier stationed at the Kos Minar who then carried it forward. The emperor as well as his generals changed horses at Kos Minars when travelling far & wide – a man sitting on top of the minaret spotted the incoming party even when it was still far away & had the horsekeepers prepare the horses for the exchange. Huge distances could be covered in short periods of time – it is said that the system was so efficient & extensive that once, to the surprise of his enemies, Akbar covered the distance between Gujarat & Delhi on horseback in 11 days & defeated his half brother Mirza Hakim & several other relatives who were plotting against him. In 1607, Akbar’s son & successor, Jahangir (ruled AD 1605-27) ordered the Zamindars of the area covered by the Agra-Lahore route to plant shade-giving trees such as mulberry at regular intervals. In 1619, he ordered Baqir Khan, the Faujdar of Multan, to establish Kos Minars in his city. Jahangir also had wells dug up every 3 kos distance on the highways & bridges constructed across rivers. Aurangzeb’s rule (AD 1658-1707) saw the number of serais to increase manifolds & there was one serai situate alongside every fifth minaret. The serais however were not always maintained by the emperor, but were often patronized by the royal family, powerful nobility, philanthropic individuals & wealthy merchants.

At the height of the Mughal empire, the highways spanned almost 3000-kilometers in total & boasted of hundreds of Kos Minars, however very few of these survive now - about 49 in Haryana, 10 in Punjab, 5 in Uttar Pradesh & only 2-3 in Delhi, a few have also been maintained beyond the border in Pakistan. Most of the minarets were lost over time to natural forces, disrepair, encroachments, wanton destruction & industrial & public space requirements. Many have been broken down & refurbished to act as godowns or shops. All the minarets broadly follow the same design – built of bricks & stones & plastered over with lime, they generally stood on a masonry base. For half of their height they were tapering octagonal in design, above that they were tapering conic topped by a hemispherical knob-like formation. The whole network of minarets was an impressive initiative, but individually the minarets were bare structures, possessing none or very little ornamentation or inscriptions along their circumference – red bands & mouldings with geometrical patterns demarcated the octagonal base from the conic portion, a similar pattern existed just below the top knob. They were meant to serve practical purpose & were certainly not the architectural beauty or visual delights that the other Mughal structures exemplified. The Kos Minar at Badarpur is no exception. Located on one of the road dividers close to the Badarpur Bus Stand, the minaret can be best understood by the following lines by from the poem “Ozymandias” composed by the English poet P.B. Shelley

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Dwarfed & obsolete..

The 30-feet tall minaret dates back to Jahangir’s time & is now no more than 4 feet in height as a result of the repeated layering of the road around it. The minaret is one of the very few survivors of its species, & to ensure that it is not vandalized an iron-grille enclosure has been constructed around it. Gensets buzz nearby, the serais & the outposts that must have once existed close by have disappeared, there place has been taken up by a metro station, an auto stand & rows of shops. Buses, cars, trucks & lorries now ply instead of horses, camels & elephants on the road next to the minaret. A metro line & a flyover stretch across on either side of the minaret, marking perhaps the point where its vertical reach once extended to. More importantly, the people who pass the Kos Minar everyday do not seem to even give it a second thought, most of them are unaware of its purpose & cannot even begin to imagine that there were once hundreds more of its kind. The Government or the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) never executed a formal study of the Kos Minar’s locations, function or history, so I do not know their exact number (the British administration of pre-independence India did declare the Kos Minar as protected monuments in 1918 & carried out some restoration work, but it was soon abandoned after independence & the minarets left to fend for themselves. The British also actively repaired & maintained the GT Road). Even it is not clear how many of these minarets survive now & where. The minarets that were supposed to be repaired were given such a makeover that their historical character was lost to the layers of paint & plaster. This lackadaisical attitude of the authorities & the obscurity to which these minarets have been relegated becomes even more pronounced when one notes that with the exception of a few places, most of India & Pakistan’s major highways essentially run along the road that the Mauryas built & the Surs & the Mughals maintained. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

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