Memos from Asia

The 5th-century Iron Pillar of Delhi – a Metallurgical Wonder of Ancient India

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A 5th-century iron pillar standing at the center of a mosque in India’s capital Delhi is both an architectural as well as metallurgical wonder.

What makes it a unique monument is its rust-resistant nature. Despite standing in the open for over 1,600 years, it still stands intact, surviving monsoons and winters all long these years.

The iron pillar is believed to have been built by a Hindu king, Chandragupta II (375-415 CE) of the Gupta dynasty, which ruled the northern part of ancient India.

The inscription on the pillar, which is in Brahmi script, says that it was erected by King Chandra as a symbol of battle victories and was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu.

close up of engraving on the iron pillar at qutub minar in delhi, india

The total height of the pillar is 23 feet 8 inches. Of the total length, 22 feet are above the ground while the remaining 1 foot 8 inch is below the ground. The pillar’s weight is more than six tons.

It is believed that the iron pillar was erected in Chandragiri near Vidisha in the present central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, about 750 km from Delhi.

Iron Pillar, New Delhi, India

However, historians differ on who had brought it to Delhi.

One version says that after conquering Vidisha, Muslim ruler Iltutmish (1211-1236 CE) of the Slave Dynasty brought this iron pillar to his capital Delhi as a trophy. It was installed at the Qutb complex in south Delhi.

Iron pillar in the courtyard of a monument, Qutub Minar, New Delhi, India

Another section says that the pillar was brought to Delhi by a Hindu King, Tomar Rajput king Anangapal, who founded Delhi in the 11th century.

However, it is still not clear how this heavy pillar was brought to Delhi at that time when no proper mode of transportation was available.

The unique composition of the metals used in its construction helped it remain corrosion resistant. The pillar is a demonstration of the high degree of accomplishment in the art of iron making by ancient ironsmiths of India.

Centuries later, a Muslim ruler, believed to be Nadir Shah, wanted to destroy the pillar in 1739 during his invasion of Delhi as he might have considered a Hindu temple monument as inappropriate within an Islamic mosque complex.

The efforts to destroy the pillar using cannon fire did not succeed and abandoned the effort after firing the first shot, which inflicted minor damage on it.

Raising victory symbols like pillar had existed in India even during the rule of Ashoka the Great (268 to 232 BCE) of the Mourya dynasty. Some rulers in the medieval period started building towers like the ones in Rajasthan’s Chittoor and Delhi’s Qutb Minar, which stands close to the iron pillar.

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