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How many Qutb Minars is this?

The tallest pre-modern structure in India is Qutb Minar, a 238-ft (72 m) tower in southern Delhi. Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, the first sultan of Delhi, started building the tower in 1199. Several succeeding generations of rulers added to and modified the tower; it only reached its full height after Qutb-ud-Din’s death. Even the British tried to add their own cupola on the apex of the tower, but it did not match the aesthetic of the rest of the tower, so it came down in 1848. The British cupola now sits by itself on the landscaped lawns of the Qutb Minar complex. Qutb Minar and the surrounding area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Publications about Indian construction projects in the early-independence period often compared the new projects with pre-modern Indian monuments; Qutb Minar was a particularly popular item of comparison. Towers or tower-like structures invited comparisons most readily. The ventilation stack of Tarapur Atomic Power Station, India’s first nuclear powerplant, was 366 feet (112 meters) tall—much taller than the Qutb Minar,” as several publications noted.1 Qutb Minar was also used as a standard measuring stick for height for any structure. According to an article in Assam Information, “the height between the bottom of foundation and the top of the piers” of the Saraighat Bridge, the first permanent crossing of the Brahmaputra River, “it almost as much as the height of the Qutb Minar.”2 The winner in any early-independence period height competition was Bhakra Dam. Indian Recorder and Digest stated that the height of the dam, “which is the highest structure in Asia, is about three times that of the Qutab Minar.”3

This rhetoric established continuity with the pre-colonial past, but also attempted to transcend it. The colonial period had been a difficult time for India’s educated elites. Although they believed in their own country’s historic greatness, they also absorbed the western critiques of India as backward, underdeveloped, and imprisoned by tradition.4 Building dams, bridges, and nuclear powerplants was a way to recreate India’s past greatness, which had been lost during centuries of colonial domination. The new India’s greatness, though, would not be based on Indian tradition, but on western ideas and technology. The structures of independent India were bigger, and by implication better, than anything the Sultans of Delhi or the Mughals had been able to make. In the sources that I have read, nobody seemed to care that a concrete ventilation stack was not aesthetically comparable to an intricately-wrought red sandstone and white marble tower.

  1. “Tarapur: Gateway to the Nuclear Age,” Economic Studies 10 (1968), 421. []
  2. “Saraighat Bridge: A Boon to Assam,” Assam Information, November 1963, 20. []
  3. “Dedication of Bhakra Dam,” Indian Recorder and Digest, November 1963, 6. []
  4. Ashis Nandy explained the internalization of western ideas by Indian elites in a lecture I attended in Delhi on June 11, 2012. []

An Ode to Concrete

“This is Bombay, my friend, Bombay. Here the buildings are made of cement, and people’s hearts are made of stone.”

-The Beggar, Shree 420 (1955)

David Edgerton explains in his book The Shock of the Old that concrete, asbestos-cement, and corrugated metal are examples of creole technologies—technologies that originated in one place but took on new uses and meanings elsewhere. These materials in their modern forms were western inventions, but they have been particularly significant in the development of the poor world.1

It would be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to imagine modern India without concrete. The material can be produced cheaply and worked easily by either labor-intensive or capital-intensive methods. As such, it is the foundation—both literally as well as metaphorically—for much of India’s infrastructure.

The following gallery illustrates the complex and varied uses of concrete in contemporary India.

  1. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42-3. []

Reconstructing (and deconstructing) the temple

While studying up on the Knights Templar for a recent class presentation, I came across a book called The Jerusalem Temple, by Simon Goldhill.1 This interesting little book (small format, less than 200 pages) tracks the idea of the Temple from it construction through its destruction and continued reimagining by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. The book explains how the idea of the Temple has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the ages by people of different faiths.

Some background is in order here. The term “Jerusalem temple” refers to three different buildings that were constructed atop a hill known as Mount Zion. The first temple was built around 1000 BC by Solomon, the third king of Israel. The Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in 587 BC, when they carried the Jews off into their first exile. Following the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire by the Persians in 539 BC, some Jews returned to Jerusalem and built a lower-budget second temple. This rebuilt temple stood until 19 BC, when Herod the Great replaced it with a much larger and more opulent structure. In addition to an enlarged central sanctuary, Herod’s building project involved the expansion of a natural hill into a massive elevated platform, the Temple Mount.

The sanctuary of Herod’s Temple did not even last a century; the Roman army destroyed it during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. The Temple Mount survived, in part. Later it served as the foundation for two Islamic structures, both built in the seventh century: the Dome of the Rock, in the center of the Mount, and al-Aqsa Mosque, on its southern edge. These two structures continue to stand on the Temple Mount to this day.

A particularly interesting part of Goldhill’s book is his discussion of reconstructions of the Temple. For reasons ranging from fervent piety to detached scholarly interest, countless individuals over the ages have attempted to reconstruct Solomon’s or Herod’s Temples. (Although it stood longer than any of the other temples, the lower-budget second temple has not captured the imagination of reconstructors in the same way as its predecessor and successor have.) Reconstructions made by Christians in the Middle Ages showed temples built in Gothic style. During the Renaissance, reconstructed Temples looked like Italian palaces. Although literary descriptions of the temples describe them as rectangular buildings, some artists used the round shape of the extant Dome of the Rock to represent the Temple. It was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that reconstructors started to pay attention to archeological evidence in the interest of making their reconstructions more authentic.

Goldhill’s descriptions of reconstructions interested me, in part, because I am one of the countless people throughout the ages who has attempted to reconstruct the Jerusalem Temple. In 2003, when I was in high school, I set to work reconstructing both Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples. My model of Solomon’s Temple was a simple affair of polystyrene foam based on the descriptions in I Kings. By contrast, my model of Herod’s Temple was much more ambitious. I drew up the plans for it based on the description found in Flavius Josephus’s The Jewish War (only one of several sources I could have used). Over the next four years, off and on, I worked on my model, until I finally finished it in 2007.

My model of Herod’s Temple, built in 1/250 scale.

My model of Herod’s Temple, built in 1/250 scale.

I also made a few different digital models of Herod’s Temple. One of them included the entire Temple Mount, placed on the terrain of Google Earth:

One of my digital Herod’s Temples, placed in Google Earth. The view is from the southeast.

One of my digital Herod’s Temples, placed in Google Earth. The view is from the southeast.

Reading Goldhill’s book has made me want to make another reconstruction of Herod’s Temple, based on literary sources besides Josephus, as well as all of the latest archeological scholarship. I probably won’t be able to do that when I’m still in grad school, though.

Goldhill argues that all reconstructions belong to their times, and they tell us as much about the time they belong to as they do of the period they attempt to represent. This is obvious in the case of the medieval and Renaissance reconstructions that used the currently fashionable architectural styles to represent buildings that were supposed to have been built thousands of years ago. But it is also the case with the more recent reconstructions—including my own. They tell us that they belong to a time that values rational analysis and trusts the work of scholars such as archeologists. They also tell us that interest in the Jerusalem temples still has not faded, more than 1900 years after the last one was destroyed.

  1. Simon Goldhill, The Temple of Jerusalem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). []

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