The Mysterious Iron Pillar of Dhar

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    The Iron Pillar of Delhi is a metallurgical wonder and a historical marvel situated in the Qutb Minar complex in Mehrauli, 28 km from the city of Delhi. But did you know that this famous pillar has an equally fascinating, even if a far less glamorous, cousin in the town of Dhar in Madhya Pradesh? The Iron Pillar of Dhar, originally almost twice as tall as its counterpart in Delhi, is preserved in the compound of the Lat Masjid (‘lat’ means ‘pillar’).

    The Dhar pillar is in three pieces, placed horizontally on a platform in the mosque compound. When standing vertically, the pillar would have soared 43 feet, 4 inches high. It would have tapered from top to bottom, changing shape at different points. While the bottom fragment has a square cross-section, the middle fragment has square and octagonal cross-sections, and the top fragment has an octagonal cross-section with a small circular portion at the top. It is believed that this circular part was the base of a fourth, missing piece, which was probably a trishul (trident) or a garuda (a mythical bird) that crowned the pillar. Today the 3 existing fragments of the pillar are approximately 24, 11 and 7 ft in length respectively.

    It doesn’t seem like much today but the Iron Pillar of Dhar must have been an arresting sight in medieval times. Adding to its aura is its fascinating tale and an air of mystery that has left vital portions of its story unanswered.

    Dhar is a small town near Indore in Madhya Pradesh and was the capital of the Malwa region, which comprised what is west-central Madhya Pradesh and south-eastern Rajasthan today. The city is believed to have been founded by Raja Bhoja, the most prominent ruler of the Paramara Dynasty who lorded over the Malwa region in the first half of the 11th century CE.

    Dhar later fell to the Delhi Sultans, starting with Alaudin Khilji, around 1300 CE. In 1390 CE, Dilawar Khan was appointed Governor of Dhar during the last years of the Tuglaq dynasty but with the decline of the Delhi Sultanate, he declared himself independent and founded the Malwa Sultanate in 1401 CE. Dilawar Khan was succeeded by his son, Hoshang Shah (r. 1405- 1435), who shifted the capital of the Malwa Sultanate from Dhar to Mandu. But Dhar remained strategically important and was visited by Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) himself during his campaigns.

    Very little is known about the Iron Pillar of Dhar, including who built it. The pillar has no inscription or other markings to suggest its purpose or who its donor was. According to local lore, it was a victory pillar erected to commemorate a conquest by Raja Bhoja (r. 1010-55 CE). Vincent Smith, an Irish Indologist and art historian of the late 19th and early 20th century, disagrees. He believes the pillar dates to the Gupta period (mid-3rd to 6th CE), like the Iron Pillar of Delhi.

    On the other hand, Henry Cousens, an archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India in the early 20th century and who studied the pillar in 1902-03, says the pillar was erected in 1210 CE by Paramara ruler Raja Arjunavarma Deva (r. 1210-18), with the molten implements of war left by his enemies during his attack on Gujarat. Even as experts differ on who built it, no one really knows where the pillar originally stood.

    Although in three pieces today, most scholars believe the Iron Pillar of Dhar initially broke into two, during attacks by the Islamic Sultanates of the north. The smaller of the two pieces around 7 ft in length was erected in front of Dilawar Khan’s mosque in Mandu, just like the Iron Pillar of Delhi stands in the courtyard of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in the Qutb Complex in Delhi. The longer piece stayed where it was and ended up in front of the Lat Masjid built by Dilawar Khan in Dhar, when it allegedly replaced a temple at the site.

    The Dhar segment of the pillar broke for the second time in 1531 CE, when Bahadur Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate decided to carry it with him to Gujarat after defeating Mahmud Shah II, the last ruler of the Malwa Sultanate, and capturing the fort of Mandu. Bahadur Shah had intended to take the pillar back with him to Gujarat but it broke while it was being uprooted. So he abandoned his plan.

    Later, in his autobiography, Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27 CE) says he had ordered that the larger pillar be taken to Agra, to be erected in his father Emperor Akbar's tomb complex, as a lamppost. However, this too never happened.

    Stand next to the pillar, even in its present state, and you are struck by how sturdy it was. Its surface is uneven as it has been marked by people who have visited it over the centuries. Although there are no inscriptions that shed light on the pillar’s donor or purpose, Cousens mentions a number of letters and names in Devanagari on it. He believes they must have been made by visitors to the town. A large number of these belong to individuals from the goldsmith class, with names like ‘Soni’ and ‘Sonar’. Given the height and direction of the inscriptions, Cousens believes they were made before the pillar fell for the first time.

    In 1598 CE, Emperor Akbar himself left an inscription on the pillar. He was camped in Dhar while directing his Deccan campaign, and left an inscription on the pillar, in which he records his presence in Dhar for 7 days. The position of the inscription suggests that the pillar was no longer upright at this time.

    Cousens also notes that the pillar has small, irregular holes at intervals on all sides. These holes range from 1.75 inches to 3 inches in depth, and 1.25 inches in diameter, and Cousens feels they may have been created by welders to help them manipulate and manoeuvre it.

    Astonishingly, the Iron Pillar of Dhar, just like the one in Delhi, is rust-resistant, which means the craftsmen had used advanced metallurgical techniques. Dr R. Balasubramaniam, Professor of Metallurgy Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur who studied the composition of the pillar in great detail in 2002, believes it was made by ‘forge welding’, a technique in which pieces of metal are joined by heating them to very high temperatures and hammering them together. If this was indeed true, the Iron Pillar of Dhar would have been the largest ancient forge-welded pillar in the world.

    He also states that the Pillar shows superior resistance to corrosion due to its chemical composition.

    While the largest piece stayed in the premises of the Lat Masjid the two smaller pieces were kept in different places over the centuries. The second largest piece was in the Ananda High School in Dhar when Cousens visited the town in 1902 and moved to the Lat Masjid between the 1920s and 1940s. The third piece was in Mandu and was shifted back to Dhar in the second half of the 19th century. In Dhar it moved from the Dhar Maharajas’ Guest House to the Lal Bagh gardens to the Ananda Public School before being finally placed in the Lat Masjid by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

    Thus the three fragments of the iron pillar were in different places for centuries before the ASI brought the third piece to the mosque complex in 1980, and then placed all three of them alongside each other, as they are today. Before the ASI reunited all three fragments and repositioned them, the longest piece had been resting diagonally against the Lat Masjid and was being used as a slide by local children. Dr Balasubramaniam notes that the surface of the pillar at the top is rather polished because of this.

    Lack of records or any other kind of evidence leaves us with precious little information about this marvellous monument, which deserves much more attention than it gets from the public and even from scientists and archaeometallurgists. In the words of historian Vincent Smith, “While we marvel at the skill shown by the ancient artificers in forging a great mass of the Delhi pillar, we must give a still greater measure of admiration to the forgotten craftsmen who dealt so successfully in producing the still more ponderous iron mass of the Dhar pillar monument with its total length of 42 feet.’’

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