The Iron Pillar at Mehrauli

Fronting the maqsura (screen) of the Qubbatul Islam Mosque and located within the courtyard is an iron pillar. What was this Iron Pillar, where was it originally and what its inscriptions read, I give below. As for its re-use, and why was it resorted to, please read Finbarr B Flood, “Pillars, Palimpsests & Princely Practices: Translating the Past in Sultanate Delhi”, RES: Anthropology & Arsthetics, no 43, 2003, pp. 95-116

The Iron pillar carries a number of inscriptions and graffiti of different dates which have not been studied systematically despite the pillar’s prominent location and easy access. The oldest inscription on the pillar is in Sanskrit, written in Gupta-period Brahmi script. This states that the pillar was erected as a standard in honour of Viṣṇu. It also praises the valor and qualities of a king referred to simply as Candra, now generally identified with the Gupta King Candragupta II. Some authors attempted to identify Candra with Chandragupta Maurya and yet others have claimed the pillar dates as early as 912 BCE. These views are no longer accepted.

The dating of the inscription is supported by the nature of the script and the Sanskrit poetics, both of which reflect the conventions of Gupta times. Thanks to the tablets installed on the building in 1903 by Pandit Banke Rai, the reading provided by him enjoys wide currency. His interpretation has, however, been overtaken by more recent scholarship. The 1903 tablets read as follows:

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;-

(Line 3.)-He, the remnant of the great zeal of whose energy, which utterly destroyed (his) enemies, like (the remnant of the great glowing heat) of a burned-out fire in a great forest, even now leaves not the earth; though he, the king, as if wearied, has quit this earth, and has gone to the other world, moving in (bodily) from to the land (of paradise) won by (the merit of his) actions, (but) remaining on (this) earth by (the memory of his) fame;-

(L. 5.)-By him, the king,-who attained sole supreme sovereignty in the world, acquired by his own arm and (enjoyed) for a very long time; (and) who, having the name of Chandra, carried a beauty of countenance like (the beauty of) the full-moon,-having in faith fixed his mind upon (the god) Vishnu, this lofty standard of the divine Vishnu was set up on the hill (called) Vishnupada.

The inscription has been revisited by Michael Willis in his book Archaeology of Hindu Ritual, his special concern being the nature of the king’s spiritual identity after death. His reading and translation is as follows:

[khi]nnasyeva visṛjya gāṃ narapater ggām āśritasyetarāṃ mūrtyā karrmajitāvaniṃ gatavataḥ kīrtyā sthitasya kṣitau

śāntasyeva mahāvane hutabhujo yasya pratāpo mahān nādyāpy utsṛjati praṇāśitaripor yyatnasya śeṣaḥ kṣitim

The residue of the king’s effort – a burning splendour 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 actual form to the other world – a place won by the merit of his deeds – (and although) he has departed, he remains on earth through (the memory of his) fame (kīrti).

He concludes: “Candragupta may have passed away but the legacy of his achievement is so great that he seems to remain on earth by virtue of his fame. Emphasis is placed on Candragupta’s conquest of enemies and the merit of his deeds, ideas which are also found in coin legends: kṣitim avajitya sucaritair divaṃ jayati vikramādityaḥ, i.e. ‘Having conquered the earth with good conduct, Vikramāditya conquered heaven’. The king’s conquest of heaven combined with the description of him resorting to the other world in bodily form (gām āśritasyetarāṃ mūrtyā), confirms our understanding of the worthy dead as autonomous theomorphic entities.”

One of the later inscriptions dates to A.D. 1052 mentions Tomara king Anangpal II.

Alexander Cunningham (1862–63) read the inscription as follows:

Samvat Dihali / Dhilli / Killi 1109 Ang Pāl bahi

[Samvat 1109 [1052 AD], Ang [Anang] Pāl peopled Dhilli

Based on this reading, Cunningham theorized that Anangpal had moved the pillar to its current location while establishing the city of Delhi. However, his reading has been contested by the later scholars. B R Mani (1997) who contrarily read it as follows:

Samvat Kinllī 1109 Angapala bādi

[Anangpal tightened the nail [iron pillar] in Samvat 1109]

The term Dhillika, interestingly, first appears in the Bijhli rock inscription found in district Udaipur, Rajasthan which was issued by the Chahamana (Chauhan) ruler Someshwar in VS 1226 / 1169-70 while describing the city now known as Delhi.(Epigraphica Indica, XXVI, 1941-42, no. 9, pp. 84-112).

Some scholars, without any substantial basis, have suggested that the iron pillar was installed in its current location by Vigraha Rāja, the ruling Tomar king.

While the pillar was certainly used as a trophy in the building the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque and the Qutb complex, its original location, whether on the site itself or from elsewhere, has frequented discussion. A summary of views on this subject and related matters was collected in volume edited by M. C. Joshi and published in 1989. More recently, opinions have been summarised again by Upinder Singh in her book Delhi: Ancient History.

R. Balasubramaniam explored the metallurgy of the pillar and the iconography based on analysis of archer-type Gupta gold coins. In his view, the pillar, with a wheel or discus at the top, was originally located at the Udayagiri caves, situated near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. This conclusion was partly based on the fact that the inscription mentions Viṣṇupadagiri (meaning “hill with footprint of Viṣṇu”). This conclusion was endorsed and elaborated by Michael Willis in his Archaeology of Hindu Ritual, published in 2009. The key point in favour of placing the iron pillar at Udayagiri is that this site was closely associated with Chandragupta and the worship of Viṣṇu in the Gupta period. In addition, there are well-established traditions of mining and working iron in central India, documented particularly by the iron pillar at Dhar and local place names like Lohapura and Lohangī Pīr. The king of Delhi, Iltutmish, is known to have attacked and sacked Vidisha in the thirteenth century and this would have given him an opportunity to remove the pillar as a trophy to Delhi, just as the Tughluq rulers brought Asokan pillars to Delhi in the 1300s.

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A history buff interested to unravel the past as it was!

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