Kos Minars: A traveller’s guide to ancient India

The legacy of the distance markers on the GT road

Art & Heritage


January 11, 2017

/ By / New Delhi

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A remnant of history, a milestone and a communication aid, the ancient Kos Minars are an example of utility architecture in India. Of what is left from an age that has gone by, Kos Minars continue to stand at the junctures they were once placed at, but are now dilapidated, dusty and forlorn.

They have lost their structural significance to the tall towers that stand next to them, their utility to the technicalities of modern times and their fineness to age. They stand as tall as earlier but are ignored by an average passer. Now dilapidated, these pillars called Kos Minars or distance markers are remnants of the Mughal Empire and an example of utility architecture in ancient India.

Built along the Grand Trunk (GT) road, these Minars or pillars were built 3 km apart of each other on the stretch from Agra to Ambala. ‘Minar’ is the Persian word for pillar and a ‘Kos’ is an ancient Indian unit of distance which roughly equals either 1 km or 3 km and hence, the name. These Kos Minars were built for the use of travellers and merchants who would often traverse this road that continues to be a busy route to this day.

Indian history has various structures that cater solely to travellers. Caravan sarais or inns for travellers, Baolis or stepwells where travellers could rest and Kos minars as navigation tools, were all utility inventions of ancient India.

Kos Minars became an institution during the rule of the Mughals and also served as a communication tool. These Minars were also equipped with horses and riders who would ensure fast delivery of shahi daak or royal post. A message that would start from one corner of the GT road would reach the other end in days when manual rides like these were the only mode of transportation.

Thoughtfully structured, the Minars dotted about 3,000 km of Mughal highways accounting for nearly 1,000 Kos Minars. Sadly, only a handful of them survive now.

The Indian capital, New Delhi still retains three of these ancient distance markers which are protected by the state department of archaeology. In fact, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had declared them of national importance under the Ancient Monuments Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1969.

Many more of these solid round pillars which did not get lost or damaged with the course of time, continue to stand in Haryana and Punjab. According to an ASI report, there are 49 Kos Minars in Haryana and five in Punjab’s Ludhiana city.

Ten-metre tall, the Kos Minars have intricate designs and verses from the holy Quran inscribed on them and stand on masonry platforms at various stops on the present day GT road, emanating history and seeking more care and empathy.

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