The Mason’s Hand: Iconoclasm & the Spolia at the Qutb complex

March 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

Deface_5bw Deface_4bw

Owen and I had a wonderful morning with Barry Flood (IFA) & Sunil Kumar (DU)—two of the foremost experts on the Qutb. Kavita Singh (JNU) came along on the tour and had some very insightful comments and questions. It was an amazing day, I learned so much about the whole complex. One of the things that makes the Qutb so special is that it is truly an architecture of conquest—constructed out of the ruins of at least 27 Hindu and Jain temples. Some descriptions claim that there were some columns that were actually ‘placed’ in-situ… though I doubt that that is actually the case. The galleries surrounding the main courtyard (what was the original mosque) is supported by frankenstein columns composed out of parts of Hindu spolia—capitals and bases and shafts are placed in random order… though there was was always a capital on top and a base at the bottom. I can’t even begin to imagine what the masons had to do to make sure each of the columns were all the exact same height.

Anyway, one of the fascinating things that Barry pointed out yesterday morning was some evidence of the mason’s  hand—found not in the elaborate and remarkably uniform vegetal and calligraphic carvings of the new masonry on the impressive sandstone screen on the West side of the complex (West is the direction of prayer in India, which lies East of Mecca). This evidence lay not in acts of creation, but in acts of destruction. Above are two photos of two defaced pairs of caryatids. The defacement of the caryatids on the spolia were each destroyed in different ways. Some faces were either violently chipped off as in the capital above, or carefully chiseled off as in the capital below. That is to say… there was some directive to destroy evidence of the anthropomorphic, there however weren’t directions on how to do it. This is very different from the ‘directions’ given to the masons who attempted to erase evidence of their hands in order to create the astonishingly beautiful unity of the sandstone ashlar (rubble fill) mihrab and the screens that make up the Western wall. Barry and most other experts on the subject assume that many if not most of the masons  that built this screen covered in ‘Islamic’ motifs were Hindu, and thus unable to read the calligraphy they were carving into the stones . This decorative unity was achieved, no doubt by some sort of mathematical process of scaling up . Thus, the Hindu carvers didn’t need to understand what they were carving. This is, by the way still a contested point, as it is possible that Qutbu-d-Din Aibak imported masons along with him when he came charging in from Ghazni. Anyway the whole complex, but particularly that space contains this incredible dialog between the pullulating variety of the galleries of spolia on the North, East and South sides of the mosque and the organic and geometric patterns carved into the screen on the West.

Interestingly enough, Barry’s inquisitive eyes helped me to see new things as well. Behind the Western screen there is another gallery, which might be a part of a temple that existed on the site. Here there were some of the more carefully defaced caryatids, next to some clearly newer capitals, that take on a sort of form that looks not unlike an abstracted version of the defaced capital. I snapped a photo of this below, though it’s difficult to see because of the water damage on the defaced caryatid.




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