The Mehrauli Mystery

The Mehrauli Iron Pillar

We all might be well aware of the Mehrauli Iron Pillar at Delhi. Known for its anti-rust surface, the 23’8’’ pillar has been of equal importance to students and researchers of both Arts and Science. The Gupta pillar is currently located in the courtyard of Jami Masjid at the Qutb complex. The pillar is tapering towards the top with a diameter of 16 inches at the bottom and 12 inches at the top. Also, it is surmounted by an inverted lotus of 3’6’’ that was crowned by an emblem. The main inscription of the pillar is beautifully engraved in six lines in Bhrami script. James Princep identified the King who commissioned it to be Dhava whereas Cunningham claimed it to be Bhava. However, further studies refute both the claims and suggest that it was commissioned by king Chandra, possibly Chandragupta Vikramaditya or Chandragupta II.

The book III of Prithviraj Raso, the biography of Prithviraj Chauhan written by his court poet Chand Bardai narrated the episode of killi-dhilli-katha. In line with the same, Anangpala Tomara ordered to dig out the pillar which was thought to be a long nail pierced on the Serpent king Vasuki. When it was dug out, blood flew from the ground and the terrified king ordered to replace the same but it couldn’t be nailed firmly. When restored, only nineteen finger’s length of the pillar went into the ground, leaving it wobbly and unstable. It was prophesied that the Kingdom will be annexed by the Chauhans followed by the Turks after nineteen generations. It also suggests that Delhi got its name owing to that ‘loose’ pillar. 

The pillar seems to be formidably crafted prima facie. However, if one fixes her gaze upon the top of the pillar or if she sees the top-view of the pillar, it can be identified that there is a hollow- suggesting that something that crowned the surmounting inverted lotus was carved out or was destroyed over time. This article attempts to recreate the original structure that might’ve been crowning the pillar. 

The hollow portion at the top of the Mehrauli pillar
The hollow

To recreate the original structure of the pillar, one may lend significant attention to the content of the six-line inscription exaltingly crafted on its surface by Chandragupta II.

The six-line Gupta inscription found on the surface of the Mehrauli pillar

The translation of the inscription is as follows:

(Verse 1) 
On whose arm fame was inscribed by the sword, when in battle in the Vanga country, he repulsed with his breast the enemies who, joining together, had advanced against him; by whom, crossing the seven Mouths of the Sindhu, the Vahlikas were conquered in the battle; by the breeze of whose valour the Southern Ocean is still perfumed…

(Verse 2)
 He, the lord of men, whose body, as though weary, has departed from this earth to another world (heaven) won by his deeds, but who remains on this earth in his fame; whose great glory, the result of his destruction of his enemies, do not leave this earth like the heat (from the smouldering embers) of a now quiet fire in a great forest…

(Verse 3) 
By that King, who acquired supreme sovereignty on earth for a very long time by his own prowess (and) who, having the name Chandra and beauty of countenance resembling the full-moon, having fixed his mind with devotion on Vishnu, this lofty standard of lord Vishnu was set up on the Vishnupada hill…

One may kindly note the phrases in bold letters. These are to be used as pivotal clues in determining the structure that crowned this ‘lofty standard of Lord Vishnu’. 

The Gupta Inscription on the Iron Pillar

One may note the name of King Chandra mentioned in the inscription. This indicates that the pillar or the ‘lofty standard of Lord Vishnu’ was erected by him. However, the second stanza is melancholic as it hints that the King has expired and thus, it’s possible that the inscription initially had the first stanza when the pillar was erected and the next two were added by his successor, Kumaragupta. The third Stanza further suggests that the pillar was erected as a standard in front of a Vishnu temple and on comparing with similar standards erected in other Vishnu temples, it’s concluded that the column was crowned by a Vaishnava emblem. 

Now, on close analysis of various coins issued by Chandragupta II, the Garuda type coin cannot be ignored. Being a hardcore devotee of Lord Vishnu and as most of the Vaishnava temples of the present-day has the structure of Garuda, the mythical eagle or the avowed vehicle of Lord Vishnu crowing the flag-staff guarding the temple, it is possible that the structure of the Garuda might’ve crowned the column.

Garuda coin of Chandragupta II
The possible reconstruction of the Mehrauli pillar with bird-like Garuda structure

However, there can be two versions of this Garuda structure. The first one can be the eagle-like or bird-like Garuda as depicted in the Garuda-type coins issued by Chandragupta II and the second being an anthropomorphic Garuda as installed in Eran, an ancient city in present-day Madhya Pradesh. 

(a)- The possible reconstruction of Mehrauli pillar with the anthropomorphic Garuda found in Eran. (d)- Eran Garuda stambha

However, one may refute this statement by suggesting that there exists no evidence of broken claws or feet of either bird-like Garuda or Anthropomorphic Garuda is not present at the top of the pillar. This invites the possibility of some other structure crowning the Mehrauli pillar.

The third stanza also suggests that the pillar was erected on Vishnupadagiri or the Vishnupada Hill. One may note that there’s no such hill in Delhi that suggests that the pillar is not in-situ. Similar to the Delhi-Topra and Delhi-Meerut pillar, it might’ve also been relocated, mostly by Anangpala Tomara. However, most historians identify the so-called Vishnupada hill with present-day Udayagiri, another ancient site in Madhya Pradesh. 

While large-scale excavations were conducted at Udayagiri in 1914, several structures representing a disk similar to the Sudarshana-chakra, the divine discus of Lord Vishnu were found. 

(a), (b)- The broken fragments of chakra-like structure unearthed from Udayagiri

Firstly, broken structures with part of the circular disk in one and a lotus in another were unearthed. On comparing it with other similar chakras unearthed and on close analysis, it was found that the chakra carried either twenty-seven or twenty-eight smaller disks that decorated the larger chakra.

Reconstruction of Udayagiri Nakshatra Chakra with both twenty-seven and twenty-eight small disks

Secondly, a magnificent structure of Lord Vishnu to the left of the entrance of the Udayagiri’s cave number six was found and he was holding a chakra in his left arm which was resting on a box-like pedestal similar to the pedestal atop the Mehrauli pillar.

(a)- The structure of Lord Vishnu to the left of the entrance of the Udayagiri’s cave number six
(b)- the box-like pedestal similar to that of Mehrauli pillar
The Box-like pedestal on the Mehrauli pillar

Another structure, resembling the lion capital was found during the excavation and it was supposed to have held a similar chakra on the top.

The Udayagiri lion capital

This hilltop capital at Udayagiri is further reconstructed with The lion capital placed over an abacus with the nakshatra-chakra (The chakra possessing twenty-seven/ twenty-eight smaller disks similar to the twenty-seven or twenty-eight nakshatras or birth stars) crowning the lion capital.

The possible reconstruction of Udayagiri hilltop capital

Similar reconstruction can be attempted for the Mehrauli pillar. 

Possible reconstruction of the Mehrauli pillar with the Nakshatra Chakra

However, the presence of a similarly reconstructed chakra alignment of Udayagiri hill capital may not be plausible to reconstruct the Mehrauli structure. For that, one may again analyze the Gupta coins of Chandragupta II. One of the coins, namely, the Chakravikrama type is worth considering. The coin depicts king Chandragupta Vikramaditya (Chandragupta II) standing to the right of a Chakrapurusha (possessor of Chakra), mostly Lord Vishnu. The coin depicts the Chakrapurusha conferring three chakras or three disks to the Gupta king himself.

The Chakravikrama type coin
The Chakravikrama type coin

Albeit being an attempt to relate himself with the divine in the quest for greater legitimacy for his rule, the same coin may be used to establish the relation with Chandragupta Vikramaditya and the chakra. The inscription suggesting him to be a devotee of Lord Vishnu also validates this argument. If so, one may reconstruct the Mehrauli iron pillar with the nakshatra-chakra found in Udayagiri

In toto, the Mehrauli iron pillar with an enigmatic hollow at the top has been a mystery yet unsolved. While some argue the presence of a Garuda, others suggest the presence of Nakshatrachakra or Sudarshana chakra. The arguments of the latter on the absence of claws or feet of the Garuda invalidates the arguments of the former prima facie, however, it can be claimed that the Garuda rested on yet another abacus and breaking away of that abacus that carried the claws or feet of the Garuda left the existing pillar without the same. Also, whether the pillar is in-situ or ex-situ is hotly debated along with the location of Vishnupadagiri. Hence, it’s difficult to reconstruct the original structure that crowned the Mehrauli pillar backed by foolproof pieces of evidence and historical and technological explanations. Nonetheless, the Garuda and the Nakshatra Chakra remains to be contested structures that might’ve crowned the pillar that makes the mystery of Mehrauli remain a mystery. 


  • Upinder Shingh. (2006). Ancient Delhi, Delhi: Oxford University Press
  • R Balasubramanyam, Meera I Dass and Ellen M Raven, ‘The Original Image Atop the Delhi Iron Pillar’, Indian Journal of History of Science, 39.2 (2004) pp. 177-203
  • J N Agarwal, ‘Some Observations on the Mehrauli Iron Pillar’, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 51, No. 1/4 (1970), pp. 189-191 (3 pages); Published By Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute

Image credits

  • R Balasubramanyam, Meera I Dass and Ellen M Raven, ‘The Original Image Atop the Delhi Iron Pillar’, Indian Journal of History of Science, 39.2 (2004) pp. 177-203
  • The Archaeological Survey of India
  • Kern Institute Leiden and G Foekema
  • Google Images