Monday, August 4, 2008

Of Towers and Skulls

Sightseeing in Delhi and Agra can be a dizzying blur of domes, as you trudge past mosque after mosque, and tomb after elaborate tomb. If you find yourself longing for something different, maybe you should go see the Chor Minar in South Delhi.

It is a nondescript little tower, built in the 30-year reign of the Afghan Khilji dynasty at the end of the thirteenth century. It is in the middle of a quiet residential area in Hauz Khas. I went to Hauz Khas to meet a friend, and saw Chor Minar basking quietly in the morning sun.

So what's interesting about Chor Minar, you ask? See the little holes all over the top of the tower? The holes originally held human skulls! Whose skulls? Thieves, enemies, and anyone else the Sultan didn't fancy, I suppose. Macabre, but more interesting than a boring old tomb, I think.

Closer view of the holes. My friend told me parrots nest there now.

Skull towers are not new to Asia. When Timur sacked Delhi in 1398, he slaughtered a hundred thousand people, and built a tower with their skulls. Later Mongol kings in India (Mughal kings) built skull towers too. In 1556, the Mughal emperor Akbar defeated Hemu at Panipat, slaughtered his army, and built a victory tower with the heads. Here's a Mughal miniature from 1590, showing a tower being built during Akbar's reign.

I don't quite understand what's going on in this pic. They're breaking the wall? And using the bricks to build the tower? And there's a war going on behind the wall, where the tree shows a prosperous city. Maybe what they're trying to tell us is where the bricks and skulls for the tower came from - the bricks from the very walls of the city being invaded, and skulls from the people of that unfortunate city! Maybe even the labour came from the losers in battle - the faces of the people building the wall are similar to the faces on the dismembered heads. I'm not surprised that they glossed over all this gory stuff in Jodhaa Akbar!
In 1628, Peter Mundy, an English traveller and diarist, found skull towers still being built in India. He described the towers as being made of the heads of "rebbells and theeves, with heads mortered and plaistered in, leaveinge out nothing but their verie face". Here's Peter Mundy's drawing of the tower, illustrated in 1632.

I'm not sure when the practice ended, but I presume it was the decline of the Mughal empire after Aurangazeb's death in 1707 that put an end to the towers.

Next time you're in Delhi, go take a peep at Chor Minar in Hauz Khas. It is a beautiful green part of Delhi, and a pleasure to visit. Apart from seeing Chor Minar, you can spend some time at the Hauz Khaz village, shopping in the little upscale boutiques and art galleries, or just enjoying birdlife at the beautiful Hauz tank.


Anonymous said...

hi,periamma.Its RAMYA SATISH.
it was pretty informative telling us about those wierd skulls kept on that tower built in delhi by the khillgies.well it was also interesting when it came to the way they used to chop off the heads and do all those wierd things.It would be cool if we still did that ,i mean imagine seeing the heads being chopped off ,just like that!!!it would be awesome!!!


Quite a ghoulish tale! But explains/justifies the name of the tower.

BetweenLines said...

its strange that in Delhi, one lives amidst signs of history everywhere , but it takes a post like this to bring out the significance of ignored symbols of forgotten history.

Anonymous said...

I've studied these minars before. they were erected as trophy columns(the architecture's sultanate too), not for human skulls but for antlers or tusks. If you have a look at the holes, they're much too small to stick skulls inside. Trophies would explain why it's chor minar as they were stolen and proved to be prized possessions.


Deepa said...

How interesting. So you're saying Peter Mundy was a liar of the first order?

Anonymous said...

I hope I'm not being too much of a revisionist but I think Peter Mundy also got caught up with folklore.Not to say that there weren't skull towers before but they were probably installed near established qasbah's or villages, lal kot maybe.The walls of siri for example were supposed to have been made of the crushed skulls and bones of mongols who were slaughtered by Ala al Din Khalaji.The've not found evidence of this even though it was widely documented in the court chronicles.I think it's the regional nexus that we have to locate this in, the mongols needed to be deterred therefore the court spread rumors about the fact that they're going to be made into minced meat. Shikar ghar's were dotted around delhi and our hauz khas chor minar was probably linked to something like that.


Anonymous said...

For those in doubt here is some more

Anonymous said...

I dont disagree with Shiva on the presence of skull minars but Mughal historian Ebba Koch's research on it in Delhi does.There was a proliferation of what she calls Hiran Minars in Delhi before and during mughal rule. Antlers were affixed in the small niches and the minar served as a hunting trophy.

As Foucault says 'Truth' can be constructed.


Anonymous said...

i am the student of standard 7th ,, ur blog is too interesting .I am researching about mughal history and much of mamlook,ottomon,mangols.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous R said:
"...As Foucault says 'Truth' can be constructed."

exactly what he is trying here, a leftie deconstructing the truth.

Scull minarets can be found all over islamic reigns, see e.g. C'ele Kula,
north Tunesia, Spain, etc etc

Anonymous said...

Its Intersting to research on history

Antarin Chakrabarty said...

The fact remains that the holes in Chor Minar are way too small to hold heads in the manner shown in Bundy's sketch. It's obvious !

M K Nanda said...

Absolutely right. The skull tower at Panipat was ravaged in 1786. Another prominent skull tower is in Austria. The Muslims used to erect skull towers to instill fear in the minds of the infidels.