ancient iron pillar faces a modern predicament
Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi
White patches have begun appearing on the ancient iron
pillar in New Delhi which for over 1,600 years has been regarded as a
metallurgical wonder by defying rust and the vagaries of nature.
It stands proud and defiant, an exotic relic of an
extravagant past. The iron pillar, located at
the centre of the Quwwatul Mosque in the historic Mehrauli area, continues to
confound tourists, puzzled at how such a piece of ancient craftsmanship has
stayed rust-free. It is said to have been built during the golden Gupta dynasty.
The pillar stands next to the world-famous Qutb Minar.
According to A K Khanna, assistant superintendent
engineer of the Archeological Survey of India, leading metallurgists from all
over the world have paid glowing tributes to the skills of the ancient Hindu
craftsmen who had apparently mastered the science of metals.
Khanna revealed how, baffled
by the pillar's capacity to "stave of rust," noted British
archeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham sent a sample from it for chemical
analysis and it turned out that it was made of pure -- 99.9 per cent --
malleable iron. "But nobody, till today, has been able to establish how the
science of metallurgy had reached such heights in the reign of King Chandra II
Vikramaditya of the Gupta dynasty," he said.
Historians also appear foxed about the specific date of
the pillar's origin. An inscription on the pillar in the Pali script mentions it
as Vishnudhwaj (symbol of the Hindu god Vishnu) on the top of the mound known as
Vishnupad (Vishnu's feet).
British historian Vincent A Smith in 1897 studied this
inscription but was amazed at another inscription lower down. While the
inscription at the top of the pillar indicates it was King Chandra's monument of
victory, another further down mentions King Anang Pal II of the Chauhan dynasty
who ruled in northern India during the late eleventh century.
This has predictably led to some confusion. A lot of
myths have also surrounded the pillar. Dr Munish Chandra, former additional
director-general of ASI and noted scholar, has sought to sift legend from
In the previous centuries many devout Hindus came to
believe that the mighty Bheem (the mythological strongman of the Mahabharata)
lifted the pillar with his right hand and impaled it in the ground. "This
grew into a legend and the reverential Hindu masses readily lapped it up,"
Dr Chandra contended.
The pillar is a solid shaft of iron, 23 feet 8 inches
in length. Its diameter varies from 12.5 inches at the top to 16.4 inches on the
ground. Asked to elaborate on his research, Dr
Chandra emphasised that the pillar was surrounded by an image of Lord Vishnu,
which was probably removed by the Muslim invaders. This
explains why the Muslim rulers let it remain at the centre of the Quwwatul
It was subsequently discovered that the pillar was not
cast but painstakingly constructed by a welding process.
British historian Percival Spear, through his
researches, was able to determine that there was a statue attached to the pillar
but he failed to identify it.
Even after the passage of 15 centuries, the iron pillar
remains as much an enigma as it was after King Chandra's reign. However, the
widespread Hindu belief that it was impaled there by Bheem has resulted in a
As each day hundreds of curious Indian tourists try to
encircle the pillar with their hands (according to Hindu legend, to do so will
bring good luck), white patches have begun appearing on the lower portion. An
alarmed Khanna cautioned, "Man has destroyed many historical monuments. We
must take care not to damage this iron pillar which is a universal
One does not know whether Khanna's cry for preservation
will go in vain or better sense will prevail. Be that as it may, King Chandra's
pillar continues to be a source of edification and mystery: a true tribute to
India's powerful heritage.