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Delhi's 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 reality.

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 Mosque.

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 peculiar problem.

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 crowd-puller."

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.



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