Kos minars: Pillars of the past

P Krishna Gopinath | Updated on June 12, 2020

A tall story: The kos minar at Delhi’s Purana Qila is in a better shape than the many others that have been vandalised or destroyed completely   -  VV KRISHNAN

Sher Shah Suri’s kos minars, a common sight on roads and highways in North India, were markers of both distance and good administration

* Kos minars were Sher Shah Suri’s way of measuring distance and guiding travellers

* They are mostly in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan — by the roadside, by rail tracks, in paddy fields and in towns and villages

* 110 of these towers are under ASI protection

The Rabi wheat has been harvested and Karnal’s farms are bathed in golden finery in the morning light. National Highway 1 — cutting through this Haryana town — is one of the busiest roads, but is largely flanked by fields bursting with yellow sunflowers or lush green potato crops.

NH1 is a part of the old Grand Trunk road that linked Lahore in present-day Pakistan to Kolkata and, beyond, to Chittagong in Bangladesh. Attari became the last western point in India after the Partition. The alignment of the modern highway is at many places different from the Sadak-e-Azam or ‘great road’, the precursor of GT Road built by Sher Shah Suri (who ruled from 1538-45) and then later by the British.

The highway is marked by different kinds of road signs — the large blue ones hanging from high posts, as well as the old white milestones. What go unnoticed are the kos minars, Sher Shah Suri’s way of measuring distance and guiding travellers.

In the medieval period, the unit of measurement for distance was kos, a word derived from the Persian kuroh or the Sanskrit krosa. And minar, of course, is a pillar. Though kos has since been replaced by mile and kilometre, older villagers in the north still refer to distances in kos (1 kos is roughly 3.23km).

There is something eye-catching about these kos minars, even though they are not always elegant structures. In fact, the pillars made of bricks and lime mortar are usually stout and plain-looking. With a large girth at the base, the tower tapers at the top, some 30 feet above the ground. The octagonal base is usually about a third of the height of the minar. The idea was to ensure they were visible from a distance in the open countryside. At night, lit torches were fixed to the pillars to mark the route.

The one in Karnal, bang in the middle of NH1, is purely utilitarian. Since it is a protected monument, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has built an enclosure around it. Further down, near Panipat, there is yet another kos minar, also on the national highway. Over the centuries, these pillars have largely been vandalised and destroyed.

A minar that stands out is by the ramparts of the Old Fort in Delhi, inside the sprawling zoo complex. Better protected, it has a glorious background of laburnum trees that bear golden yellow blossoms in the summer months. The old Grand Trunk road was laid close to the banks of the Yamuna, as were the Red Fort and the more ancient Old Fort, or Purana Qila.

In Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s old capital, stands an ostentatious minar. Known as the Hiran Minar, this tall and impressive structure has two platforms — a large square one and a compact octagonal one from which the tower rises.

The minar in Delhi’s Haus Khaz Enclave, known as Chor Minar, is rather distinctive, too. It is slightly away from the highway but on a trade route where a caravanserai was once located. The base of the Khilji-era minar has an arched entrance and recesses, apart from a spiral staircase. The entrance, however, has now been bricked up. It is a ruined, rubble masonry structure, but still beautifully compact.

Not to be missed are the holes on the pillar from which once hung the speared heads of thieves who targeted travellers. That is how it got its name — Chor Minar or pillar of thieves. No doubt, the law-and-order situation in Delhi was enviable those days.

Sher Shah Suri’s passion was shared by Mughal rulers such as Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan. Mughal chroniclers recorded that there were about 600 such minars in the subcontinent, along the main roads. The ASI has since notified for protection 110 of these towers. They are mostly in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan — by the roadside, by rail tracks, in paddy fields and in towns and villages.

The structures were of three kinds. The Karnal minar and other such towers were bare structures for mere route identification. The towers in the second category were architecturally more pleasing to the eye and had some limited facilities for the weary traveller such as provisions for drinking water and shade.

The third category was more elaborate. These pillars were constructed in some style, had serais or rest houses, baolis or wells, a post office, a thana or police post, and even an Idgah for prayers. The elaborate minar at Fatehpur Sikri and Chor Minar belong to this type.

For day-to-day administration, too, a kos minar was important. At each kos was stationed a horse, along with a rider and a drummer. Messages and messengers went back and forth. It was an effective communication network, holding the empire together.

Urban expansion has caused irrevocable damage to kos minars. They belong to a forgotten aspect of medieval architecture that is linked to highway networks as markers of distance and direction. Their very plain architecture is largely unattractive. But still they are a part of our heritage. The ASI is now making serious efforts to prevent further damage to them. Though blackened by time, the kos minar still stands as a pillar of certitude.

P Krishna Gopinath is a Delhi-based writer.

Published on June 12, 2020

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