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The Tale of the Iron Pillar

Qutub-Minar-columnsThe Qutub complex in Mehrauli is a melange of archeological dilapidation. Sunburnt minarets of Kufic calligraphy tower next to embellished Jain cloistered columns. The tallest of these turrets soars above arched gateways, brick hallways, and rubble masonry. Strolling from one empty decay to the next I marvel at how empires come and go, their marks forever mysterious to future generations. Once, this area was filled with Hindu and Jain worshipers who weaved their way into mandaps built by merchant princes to offer libations to their deity. When the Ghurids overtook this part of India, the temples gave way to a different wave of worshippers who stepped reverently into mosques and saints’ tombs. Yet, like their predecessors, these subsided as well.

“Dynasties vanished, powerful rajas and sultans died leaving only scraps of names and wind-eaten standards.”

The throngs, however, continue to swell and ebb through the deserted edifices as they have always done. Among these ruins another pillar of lesser stature endures, one that has withstood the ravages of both humans and time. The “Iron Pillar of Delhi” was a fourth century flagstaff dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Forge welded by ancient metallurgical techniques, the standard has retained its pure iron core by adapting its outer skin to the elements. It is a testament to the power of versatility.

Qutub-Minar-pillarsThe chemical composition and origin of this Vishnu column continues to fascinate scientists as it shows inconsequential evidence of corrosion. Over centuries, the pillar has gone through a process of passivation where material strengthens and becomes less affected by its environment, preserving the original appearance. The high phosphorus content of the unreduced iron acts as a catalyst, forming a coating around initial rusting and altering the polarization of the slag and iron-oxide mixture. As I squint against the sun hiding behind the Delhi post, I consider how travel has compelled me to adapt to my surroundings, slowly growing a hardened shell to withstand stumbles, disappointments, and travails. I have ascertained how to pick myself up, how to make detours, how to do without, and I thought I had acquired some mastery over these skills. Traveling through northern India, however, negates all my previous lessons, imposing a straitjacket of adaptability on me.

“This land shuffles my convictions and jettisons my beliefs, like so much flotsam, onto the roadside.”

Concepts of time, beliefs about free will, and prejudices about how to behave in society have all been wrung and thrashed out of my system, until I am unsure of everything…. I am filled only with questions. Perhaps the not-knowing is more me than all the ideas I thought I understood before.

Qutub-Minar-detailI have come to see that adaptability is not a giving up of my true self, not the bending of a reed too weak to withstand change, but the forming and shaping of my real identity. I see myself learning to adapt the way a child becomes an accomplished dancer: the work of years of preparation and incessant training on how to move and bend with air while remaining in form.

“My adaptability is a reshaping of cloth, until by cutting and sewing, I arrive at the garment hidden in the fabric.”

In contrast, the dilapidation at Qutub is a reminder of my constant need to assimilate the multifarious and the ultimate fate of such endeavors. Like the sultans before me, and the empires before them, I cannot resist overhauling new ideas to fit them into my perception of the world. I have scrubbed away differences, trying to find common ground in this landscape, tidying and labeling disparities as good or bad, useful or refuse, rather than accepting their inherent dissimilarity. Qutub’s Hindu column integrates the very moisture which slowly eats away at its metallic nature and reforms it into armor against the burning sun and eroding rain. It is forever altering, adjusting, recasting itself. This is the secret to its survival next to grander static brick and stone monuments which are crumbling. Henry Miller once said that, “All is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” I have seen this to be true, and now I begin to comprehend that this change shouldn’t be for its own sake, but for the purpose of becoming stronger. Vishnu’s standard absorbs its changing chemistry without losing its essence, thereby stabilizing itself, an iron ouroboros.

Qutub-Minar-ruinsDespite my travels, I have narrowed my field of vision and restricted the scope of my interests. India has shaken me out of this routine and rhythm into the beginning of a reawakening, but now it is up to me to continue that renewal. Perhaps the talented metallurgists who forged the Iron Pillar understood the need for each of us to continually adapt; after all they built a standard to their deity Vishnu, Preserver of the World, who transcends time, space, and matter, whose presence is manifested in all things.

“Change in the world is inevitable, but changing myself is a punishing task, one I avoid more often than I would like to admit.”

If I am to escape from this corporeal prison and fashion an indomitable spirit within then I must continually change my point of view. I must constantly refine my ideas with the experiences I have and reshape my inner self to circumstance. Only in being flexible to innovation, to hardship, and to my limitations can I remain standing, an insubstantial yet determined force.Qutub-Minar-silhouette


In the 12th century, Qutbuddin Aibak developed the town of Mehrauli as part of the Delhi Sultanate. He and his successors built mosques, dargahs, and minars out of pre-existing temples, creating an ingenious architectural style. The mingling of arch construction with Hindu motifs is beautifully preserved at The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque which features ancient Hindu pillars carved with sumptuous tasseled ropes and bells.

Snack Corner – a few questions to share with your chai and chaat, if you are in the mood:

Were there times you wished for more flexibility in yourself or your circumstances? What was a strongly held belief which you had to reconsider? Do you know of another scientific “oddity” like the Iron Pillar?

26 replies »

  1. Thanks a tonne for sharing one of the great treasures of my nation. Delhi has been ruled by many dynasties, and willing or not, each one did manage to leave a trace. its subtle, but definitely present for the one’s who really look for it. Bravo!

  2. I enjoy your posts about these (seemingly) Atlas Obscura-type sites. The whole place seems like a giant case study of the column. Hat’s off for learning about the chemical composition of that Vishnu column! That’s some really deep, curious travel.

    • Thank you. Since we are frequently poring over the curious cache over at Atlas Obscura, that is quite a compliment! Whether it’s a popular destination or not, everywhere we go we are always looking for the hidden things that reveal more about who we are and what we are all about.

  3. Another exquisite post full of the treasures of history and philosophy. It’s easy to lose oneself in your writing–and oftentimes I find myself pausing to thoughtfully fall down some rabbit hole simply because of a well-turned phrase or striking thought you’ve encouraged.
    I have always thought the most important skills I could help my children acquire were those of adaptability. It will serve them well regardless of the place they live or the work they embrace. I think you’ve only strengthened that belief and further explained its importance and value.

    • Adaptability is a hard skill to master, but like patience and discernment, one I am continually forced to use in my travels and in life. How wonderful that it is something you are encouraging your children to embrace! There are days when I wish these abilities were magically gifted to me, but then I would not appreciate them as much. 🙂 Have a beautiful rest of the week!

  4. The 2 recent articles on india are so amazing, very informative, the photos all stunning. One wishes to jump on an airplane to see the places up close & personal.

  5. Great post, photos and introduction to this Iron Pillar ~ also, I was captured by your writing and thoughts. As we age, we go from the mind of child where everything is great and adventurous and change is simply a part of every day, every hour. And then we age, begin to turn into brittle minds and lose a sense of life because of this. Love the line “adaptability is not a giving up of my true self, not the bending of a reed too weak to withstand change, but the forming and shaping of my real identity.” Amen to that thought. Cheers to a great week!

    • Thank you, thank you. I find that keeping the mind young takes as much daily effort as keeping the body healthy. Congratulations to you on having your “Ghosts of Tai O” Freshly Pressed!

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