The Golden Minaret of Firoz Shah Tughlaq

"By the grace of the Creator who sees and hears everything, we shall remove this lofty pillar and make a Minar (Minara-i zarin or golden minar) of it in the Jami Mosque of Firozabad where, God willing, it shall stand as long as the world endures".

(Firoz Shah Tughlaq)
The Golden Minaret of Firoz Shah was originally built by King Asoka of the Maurya dynasty.

"This pillar, high as the heaven, is made of a single block of stone and tapers upward, being broad at the base and narrow at the top. 

Seen from a hundred farsang (about four miles) it looks like a hillock of gold, as the Sun when it spreads its rays in the morning. 

No bird - neither eagle, nor crane - can fly as high as its top; and arrows, whether Khadang or Khatai, cannot reach to its middle. 

If thunder were to rage about the top of this pillar, no one could hear the sound owing to the great distance (between the top of the pillar and the ground). 

O God! how did they lift this heavy mountain (the pillar)?; and in what did they fix it (so firmly) that it does not move from its place! 

How did they carry it to the top of the building which almost touches the heavens and place it there (in its upright position)? 

How could they paint it all over with gold, (so beautifully) that it appears to the people like the golden morning! 

Is it the lote-tree (the tree that marks the end of the seventh heaven) of paradise which the angels may have planted in this world or is it the heavenly sidrah (a holy tree at the end of the seventh heaven), which the people imagine to be a mountain? 

Its foundations have been filled with iron and stone; and its trunk and branches (the shaft and capital) are made of gold and corals."

(Sirat-i-Firuz Shahi)

Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1351-1388) was a great lover of architecture. He laid out several cities; built new monuments; and also repaired many edifices constructed by former kings. He transported two Asoka pillars to Delhi, one from Topra (in Haryana), and the other from Meerut (in Uttar Pradesh). The Topra pillar was erected at Firozabad (now known as Firoz Shah Kotla), near the Jami Mosque; and the other one on the ridge near the Kushk-i-Shikar or Hunting Palace at Firozabad. (You can see the Topra pillar at Firoz Shah Kotla and the Meerut pillar near the Hindu Rao hospital at Delhi). The Sirat-i-Firuz Shahi gives a detailed account of the relocation of these pillars, with illustrations. Shams-i Siraj Afif says that these pillars had stood in those places (Topra and Meerut) from the days of the Pandavas, but had never attracted the attention of any of the former kings of Delhi, till Firoz Shah noticed them. Afif also mentions a legend about the pillars; that these pillars had been the walking sticks of Bhimasena, and used these two stone pillars as sticks to gather the cattle together.

The Asoka Pillar on top of a three-storey building
Watercolor drawing of the Asoka Pillar at Firoz Shah Kotla


Asoka Pillar at Firoz Shah Kotla

Firoz Shah noticed these pillars while he made an excursion in the neighbourhood of Delhi. He was greatly admired at the sight of the Topra pillar and decided to take it to Delhi; and to re-erect it in the Jami Mosque of Firozabad. Some learned Hindus told him that the pillar had grown out of the (bowels of the) earth and reached the heavens while others said that underneath the pillar was a magical talisman and that nobody could remove the pillar, and that it excavations were made around the base of the pillar, large vipers, snakes, scorpions and wasps would come out and bring the people to grief. But Firoz Shah was determined to remove the pillar. He summoned before him skilled engineers, architects and wise men of the kingdom and asked them to suggest various methods for accomplishing this task. But, they all said that the removal of the pillar was absolutely impossible. Thereupon the Sultan himself devised ingenious plans and methods of each operation connected with this achievement.

Removal of the Minara-i zarin:

Directions were issued to the residents of Delhi to bring parcels of the cotton of the Sembal (silk cotton tree). Quantities of this silk cotton were placed round the column, and when the earth at its base was removed, it fell gently over on the bed prepared for it. The cotton was then removed by degrees, and after some days the pillar lay safe upon the ground. A large square stone was found as a base of the pillar, which also was taken out. The pillar was then encased from top to bottom in reeds and raw skins. A carriage, with forty-two wheels, was constructed, and ropes were attached to each wheel. Thousands of men hauled at every rope, and after great labour and difficulty the pillar was raised on to the carriage. A strong rope was fastened to each wheel, and 200 men pulled at each of these ropes. By the simultaneous exertions of so many thousand men the carriage was moved, and was brought to the banks of the river Yamuna. The column was very ingeniously transferred to a number of large boats, and was then conducted to Firozabad, where it was landed and conveyed into the Mosque. (Shams-i Siraj Afif)

In detail: A large mud platform (pasheb) was built at the site where the pillar had to be lowered. Six wooden piers were constructed, each equal in height to the pillar. Two of these piers were placed behind the pillar, and two each on the left and the right. The piers were strengthened with iron nails and wrapped with raw hides and ropes. Each pier was further strengthened by means of two very thick and slanting wooden planks on each of their three sides. These wooden piers were then joined to each other at two places, in the middle and top by means of two large wooden beams, in the middle and at the top. On each of the beams a wheel was fixed whereon the ropes could pass. Such wheels were placed at five places: two on either side of the pillar and one at the back. In order to hold and move these ropes, five pulleys were also set up. The ends of the ropes were tightly bound round the pillar so that its upper portion may be firmly held by them. Ropes were so arranged that, when the top of the pillar was lowered, it rested on them. Then that particular rope was slowly relaxed and untied; the pillar pulled towards the front and the ropes at the pulleys relaxed bit by bit and the operation repeated until the head of the pillar fully rested on the platform in the front. The pillar, before it is taken down, was covered all round with long reeds and wrapped with raw hides. Large quantities of paddy straw was placed over the platform so that the stone may not receive any injury. When the pillar rested on the platform, mud to the depth of about a yard was removed from under the pillar and at that time, the ropes at the back pulleys were slowly relaxed. This was repeated until the pillar lied prone on the ground.

A flat cart, equal in length of the pillar, was prepared with ten wheels. The pillar was lifted and correctly placed on the cart with help of ropes and pulleys. Ten large iron rings were attached to either side of the cart. At first the plan of the Sultan was this: Thick long ropes may then be tied to the rings at one end and to the necks of elephants at the other. Similarly three thick ropes may be tied to the front of the cart and passed on to the necks of bullocks; so that the cart may thus be dragged forward from three sides, by bullocks in front and by elephants on the right and left. But the elephants, could not move the cart; so the Sultan ordered the elephants to be removed and the pillar to be dragged by men. This was done. Great Khans and ordinary men all caught hold of the ropes to drag the cart forward. The cart now began to move. In this way the pillar was taken to the bank of the Yamuna where a large boat was ready. Using strong ropes and pulleys the pillar was transferred to the boat. On either side of the boat 10 strong wooden beams were tied, which helped in loading and floating the boat. All said, Bismillahi Majreha Wa Mursaha (in the name of God may the boat go and anchor), and the boatmen began to sail. The boat now reached the banks of Yamuna. The pillar was then off-loaded from the boat in the same way as it had been loaded on it. It was then placed back on the cart, and was taken to the Mosque of Firozabad.

Illustration from Sirat-i-Firuz Shahi
Figure 1: Removing wheels of the cart from one side and tying ropes and pulling up the pillar to place it in the boat
Figure 2: Arrival of boat with pillar at the bank of the Yamuna, tying ropes to the pillar to remove it from the boat and place it on the cart

Illustration from Sirat-i-Firuz Shahi
Figure 1: The pillar being carried on the cart towards the town of Firozabad
Figure 2: Arrival of the cart with pillar, in front of the mosque of Firozabad

Re-erection of the Minara-i zarin:

When the pillar was brought to the palace, a building was commenced for its reception, near the Jami Masjid. It was constructed of stone and lime, and consisted of several steps. When a step was finished the column was raised on to it, another step was then built and the pillar was again raised, and so on in succession until it reached the intended height. On arriving at this stage, ropes of great thickness and windlasses were placed on each of the six stages of the base. The ends of the ropes were fastened to the top of the pillar, and the other ends passed over the windlasses. The wheels were then turned, and the column was raised about half a gaz. Logs of wood and bags of cotton were then placed under it to prevent its sinking again. In this way, by degrees, and in the course of several days, the column was raised to the perpendicular. Large beams were then placed round it as shores, until quite a cage of scaffolding was formed. It was thus secured in an upright position. The square stone was again placed under the pillar. After it was raised, some ornamental friezes of black and white stone were placed round its two capitals, and over these there was raised a gilded copper cupola. (Shams-i Siraj Afif)

In detail: A three-storey platform (plinth) was raised in front of the Mosque for erecting the pillar. The arched chambers on each floor had stairs within. The pillar was raised with help of pulleys and ropes, two yards at a time, first at one end and then at the other. On 30th September, 1367, the pillar stood erect in the desired position over the platform. On the top of the pillar a capital was set up made of coloured stones and consisting of a pedestal, a myrobalan-shaped ornament, a globe and a crescent. At the top of the third storey, at the four corners, there were placed the figures of four lions. At the base of the pillar was laid the pavement of coloured stones like white marble, red stone and black stone. A corridor was also built between the mosque and the pillar.

'Every detail of the work, including the tying of ropes and construction of masonry piers; pulling the ropes in all directions and balancing the pillar with their help; the employment of elephants for dragging the (fallen) pillar, and following on their failure, the employment of longer ropes with 20,000 men and their success in carrying the pillar to the banks of the Yamuna; then arranging well-balanced boats for the pillar, loading the pillar on the boats and floating the same; its journey to Firozabad; the making of all the arrangements over again for removing the pillar and carrying it in front of the Jami Mosque, there constructing a building, raising and placing the pillar thereon with the help of pulleys etc., and re-erecting the pillar according to the laws of wisdom - all this was done exactly in the same way as was ordered by the Sultan', says the anonymous author of Sirat.

Firoz Shah invited many Brahmans and Hindu devotees and tried to decipher the inscription on the pillar, but they could not read it (as the characters being in Brahmi). Afif says, "Some, however, interpreted the writing to signify that no one would ever succeed in removing the pillar from the spot on which it originally stood, until a king should be born, by name Firoz Shah". According to the author of Sirat, some learned men were able to decipher a Nagari inscription on the pillar, composed in 1164. On the pillar is an inscription, the characters of which are unintelligible to the men of this period; but the historians have a tradition to the effect that four thousand odd years have passed since this pillar and a temple were erected at Topra. Another inscription is only 249 years old, which mentions that Visaladeva Chauhan, the Rai of Sambhal, found this pillar in its present position (ie, Topra). The author informs us that once Tarmashirin, son of Duwa Khan, the Mongol, attempted to split the pillar by burning a huge fire around its base, but the pillar did not crack.

The golden minaret is a single shaft of pale pinkish sandstone of 42 feet 7 inches in length. Its golden cupola is now lost. According to Afif, the Meerut pillar was somewhat smaller than the Minara-i zarin. That also was removed by Firoz Shah with similar skill and labour. But this pillar was destroyed in a gunpowder explosion during the reign of the Mughal emperor Farrukh Siyar. Broken pieces of the pillar were transported to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta in 1866, but were brought back and restored in its original place in 1887, where it still stands today.

Ashoka Pillar on the ridge near the Hindu Rao hospital at Delhi

Image credit:

Sirat-i-Firuz Shahi, Asiatic Researches, British Library & Wikipedia


Tarikh-i Firoz Shahi of Shams-i Siraj Afif
Sirat-i-Firuz Shahi of an anonymous writer
A Memoir on Kotla Firoz Shah, Delhi. Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India, no. 52 By Page J. A.