If, as General Cunningham assumes, the date of the pillar is 319 A.D, which corresponds to the downfall of the Buddhist Gupta dynasty, it may perhaps be reasonably surmised that the origin was really Buddhist, and in imitation of Asoka's Lats. The column probably occupied a central position in old Dilli, of which it is one of the solitary existing remains. There is a stone pillar on the South Colonnade, bearing the figure of Buddha the ascetic, or one of the Jain Hierarchs, and this may probably also belong to old Dilli. There are good grounds for supposing that Anangpal II. was the builder of one of the temples that was destroyed to make the great Mosque, as one of the pillars in the south-east corner has the date S. 1124 (A.D. 10117). which is a period included in Ajiangpal's reign.

The Masjid-i-Kutb-ul-Islam. View of the Iron Pillar from the west
The Masjid-i-Kutb-ul-Islam. View of the Iron Pillar from the west: Note.—The white dots on the lower portion of the Pillar indicate a scale of five feet.Close view of the Iron Pillar, with the colonnade of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque in the background. This is an excellent, clear view of the pillar, showing it before the masonry base was put in place after the excavations of 1871. Some of the inscriptions are also visible. © British Library/Charles Shepherd

THE most curious monument of old Delhi, as well as one of the most remarkable relics of ancient India, is the iron pillar in the centre of the Colonnade of the Masjid-i-Kutb-ul-Islam. It consists of a circular shaft of iron, of which a portion twenty-two feet in height, is visible above the ground; this terminates in a capital. Syud Ahmed's account runs as follows: "This obelisk of the Rajah Dhava alias Midhava is situated near the column called the Kutb-Minar—the Minaret of Kutb-ud-din. It is completely cast in iron and, at the time of its being cast, care was taken to introduce at the top of the monument a kind of ornamental inlaying and carving of patterns." [In this literal translation the Persian idiom is intended to express the idea that the capital was wrought into an ornamental shape.] The pillar is twenty-two feet six inches high from the ground, and at the thick end of the base measures five feet three inches in circumference. A celebrated tradition relates that at the period of the Rajah Pithora's reign the Pandits, or learned priests, placed this pillar on the head of the serpent rajah Basak, in order to provide, according to their faith, an efficient security for the maintenance of the Chohan dynasty.

Engraved on the obelisk are three verses of Sanscrit, written in a mixed character of Sanscrit and Nagri letters. The sense of them is as follows: The Governor of Sind had assembled an army in order to fight the Rajah Dhava. This Raja, after having fought, became victorious, and ordered the construction of the obelisk in memory of his victory (see page 43).1

M. De Tassy has supplemented his translation of Syud Ahmed's account with the following remarks:

"The Rajah Dhava here alluded to, died before the completion of the monument, and Mr. James Prinsep asserts that nothing is known of this king, unless he was one of the Hastingapura rajahs; he also adds that the form of the letters of the inscription were in use in the third or fourth century of the Christian era, which makes him believe that this pillar must have been set up from the fifth to the eighth century, A.D. However, I do not admit this supposition, for the reason that the chronicles of the rajahs of India are well established and known from 676, A.D., until the Muhammadan Government."

"In none of these records is any mention made of this king. Moreover, as there is no date engraved on the pillar, it is evidently before Vikramaditya, as, after this period, it was the invariable custom to inscribe the date of erection on all monuments. Finally, the Kingdom of Hastingapiira had quite disappeared at the supposed period. I believe therefore that this obelisk was erected by the Rajah Midhava, otherwise called the Rajah Dhava, who is the nineteenth descendant from Yudhistir. Up to the time that the kings of his dynasty came to inhabit Indrapat, their ancient capital had always been at Hastingapura, and they had been consequently called the kings of Hastingapur. The Rajah Dhava professed the religion of Vishnuism, as is recorded on the iron pillar. According to the best known historical works,2 it is certain that the Rajah Midhava reigned nine hundred and five years before Christ, and, according to the exact calculation of English writers (savants), the king Yudhistir ascended the throne in the year 1425 B.C. Therefore I believe that this monument must have been cast in the ninth century before Christ, but that it was not finished until a later period, when a king of unknown name caused the victory of the Rajah Dhava to be engraved on it, and had it erected on its present site." …

There is nothing improbable in the supposition that this second operation occurred in the third or fourth century of the Christian era.3

General Cunningham has given an elaborate and learned account of this pillar, in his report for 1862-63 of the Archaeological Survey of India.4 He thus describes the Delhi pillar: "A solid shaft of mixed metal, upwards of sixteen inches in diameter, and fifty feet in length. It is true there are many flaws in parts, which show that the casting is imperfect, but when we consider the extreme difficulty of manufacturing a pillar of such vast dimensions, our wonder will not be diminished by knowing that the casting of the bar is defective." On the occasion of my visit to the Kutb vicinity, I procured a piece of the iron pillar from the rough portion of the base, by removing it with a hammer and cold chisel. Holding an opinion that the metal was nothing else than pure iron, I was naturally as anxious as others interested in this question to test the accuracy of the opinion; accordingly I brought home the sample for analysis.

I am greatly indebted to Dr. Percy for the information he kindly afforded by an analysis of the specimen. After a careful examination he pronounced it to be of soft wrought iron. He was enabled to draw a portion of it under a hammer into a slender nail. He also stated that he considered the evidence as to the mode of manufacture of the column was conclusive, and that the process is not so difficult as might be supposed, even for Hindu workers in iron, 800 B.C. In his book on Iron and Steel, an account is given of iron—smelting in India. He writes :— "In ancient times iron was always extracted from its ores in the state of malleable iron, and to this day the same method is practised by the natives of India, Borneo, and Africa. * * *

"The primitive method of extracting good malleable iron directly from the ore. requires a degree of skill very far inferior to that which is implied in the manufacture of bronze. The production of this alloy involves a knowledge of copper-smelting, of tin-smelting and of the art of moulding and casting. From metallurgical considerations, therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that the so-called Age of Iron would have preceded the Age of Bronze. Archaeologists, however, seem generally to have arrived at an opposite conclusion, mainly from the fact that, while ancient objects of iron are exceedingly rare, ancient objects of bronze are abundant. But it should be remembered that iron is very rapidly corroded by oxidation, even in dry climates, whereas bronze is very slowly acted upon, even in moist climates. Hence, if objects of iron were ever so numerous in ancient times, it is certain that only few could have been long preserved, as the conditions necessary to protect the metal from oxidation must have been quite exceptional."

The dryness of the air at Delhi is the principal circumstance, probably, to which is due the preservation of the iron pillar. During the hot season rain falls rarely, and during the rains which last for some three months after June, the temperature is high, and the heat readily disperses the moisture which may be generated upon the column, on account of the good conductive quality of the iron. During the cold season the air is. for the most part, very dry, and an occasional shower of rain soon evaporates.

A circumstance which may appear to many of minor importance, from which I am inclined to believe that the iron derives a species of artificial protection, is that native visitors have a habit of embracing the pillar with their naked arms, and of climbing up to the top. If man or woman can make their hands meet round the column with hands placed close to it, they are considered to have indisputably established their legitimate birth. As natives of both sexes continually cover the whole of their bodies with oil, as a protection against the power of the sun's rays, it somewhat oddly occurs that the rusted surface is kept in a state of polish in a manner which, in its results, is similar to the protective measures taken in the present day in dealing with the polished surface of steel guns. Sir Joseph AVhitworth frequently rusts the surface of his guns, and polishes with oil. in order to prevent the spread of oxidation. The colour of the rusted surface of the column has an appearance like bronze, to which fact is probably due the general local belief that the metal is of a mixed composition and not of pure iron.

In spite of its plain character, this column attracts by far the greatest number of the native visitors to the ruins. During the progress of my work, which proceeded close to it, I frequently noticed large parties of native visitors come and go, having given their undivided attention to the iron pillar and to nothing else, in spite of the beauty and attractiveness of the surrounding buildings. The tradition about this pillar having rested on the head of the snake god is still a local belief and is the reason of its popularity.

General Cunningham thinks that the pillar is probably not less than sixty feet in length, he says : "The total height of the pillar above ground is twenty-two feet, but the smooth shaft is only fifteen feet, the capital being three and a half feet, and the rough part of the shaft being also three and a half feet. But its depth underground is considerably greater than its height above ground, as a recent excavation was carried down to twenty-six feet without reaching the foundation on which the pillar rests. The whole of the iron pillar is therefore upwards of forty-eight feet, and how much more is not known."

Mr. James Prinsep referred the date of the inscription to the third or fourth century after Christ, and General Cunningham gives the date 319 A.D., as being approximately correct for the Rajah Dhava, as he may have assisted in the downfall of the Balabhi or Gupta dynasty. Mr. Prinsep writes :— "The language is Sanskrit; the character is of that form of Nagdri which I have assigned to the third or fourth century after Christ, the curves of the letters being merely squared off, perhaps on account of their having been punched upon the surface of the iron shaft with a short 'cheni' of steel. * * *

"The purport of this record is just what we might have calculated to find, but by no means what was formerly anticipated, or what will satisfy the curiosity so long directed to this unusual and curious remnant of antiquity. It merely tells us that a prince, whom nobody ever heard of before, of the name of Dhava erected it in commemoration of his victorious prowess. He was of the Vishnava faith, and he occupied the throne he had acquired (at Hastinapura ?) for many years; but he seems to have died before the monument was completed. As there is no mention of royal ancestry, we may conclude that he was an usurper. * * *"5

The following is a literal translation of the inscription by Mr. James Prinsep :—

" 1. By him who learning the warlike preparations and entrenchments of his enemies with then good soldiers and allies, a monument of fame, engraved by his sword on their limbs, who, as master of the seven advantages, crossing over (the Indus?) so subdued the Vahlikas6 of Sindhu, that even at this day his disciplined force and defences on the south (of the river) are sacredly respected by them.

" 2. Who as a lion seizes one animal on quitting hold of another, secured possession of the next world when he abandoned this,—whose personal existence still remains on the earth through the fame of his deeds. The might of whose arm—even though now at rest —and some portion, too, of the energy of him who was the destroyer of his foes—still cleave to the earth.

" 3. By him who obtained with his own arm an undivided sovereignty on the earth for a long— period, who (united in himself the qualities of) the sun and moon, who had beauty of countenance like the full moon:—by this same Rajah Dhava, having bowed his head to the feet of Vishnu, and fixed his mind on him,—was this very lofty arm of the adored Vishnu (the pillar) caused to be erected."

According to local tradition Anangpal I. in A.D. 1051 erected the pillar when he rebuilt Dilli. A Nagari inscription on it says that "in 1109 Samvat (A.D. 1052), Anangpal peopled Dilli." One of the local Fables is that the Rajah Pithora had the column dug up, although advised to refrain from doing so by the Hindu priests, and that, through this act he lost his kingdom to the Muhammadans,—but General Cunningham states that it was Anangpal who rooted up the column. A learned Brahmin assured the king that as its foot had been so deeply driven into the earth, it rested on the head of Vasaki, the king of the serpents who supports the earth, and that as long as it stood, the dominion of his family would last. Anangpal in removing it found the end clotted with the blood of the serpent king. He, regretting his want of belief in the words of the Brahmin, had it replaced, but failed to fix it firmly in the ground. Thus it remained loose (Hindustani, "dhila") in the ground, and the name of the city became "Dhili."

The rough part of the pillar at the lower end rather favours the idea that it had been taken up, and not sunk so deep the second time, as the smooth shaft was probably the only portion intended to be visible above the ground. When the Muhammadan conqueror took possession of Delhi, he was told that the Hindu rule would last as long as the pillar remained standing, and the mark of a cannon ball is pointed out by the guides as having been caused in the endeavour of Kutb-ud-din to batter it down. The dent is visible in the photograph on the left side of the shaft, about thirteen feet from the ground.

The Capital resembles those of some of Asoka's edict pillars, and it is probable that, like them, it originally had a figure on the summit. When the scaffolding of bamboos was erected around it to enable the native moulders to make a plaster facsimile,7 I carefully examined the top of the capital and found that a slot still existed, which very probably held the figure in its place.

  • 1. Asfir-us-sunadid.
  • 2. Bhagarat Purana, Khalasat uttawarikh, the Rajawali, and the Silsilat-ul-mulkh.
  • 3. M. Garcin de Tassy, "Les Monuments d'Arehitecture de Delhi. Journal Asiatique, July, 1860."
  • 4. J. A. S. B. 1864, p. 34.
  • 5. Extract from Prinsep's Indian Antiquities, by Thomas, vol. i. p. 319.
  • 6. The Bahlikas, or people of Balkh.
  • 7. To be seen in the Kensington Museum.