The Bahmani remains

Print edition : November 09, 2018

The Gulbarga fort and the Jama Masjid inside it.

The interiors of the Jama Masjid of Gulbarga.

A view of the Shah Bazaar mosque in Gulbarga, considered to be the original Jama Masjid of the area.

A Bahmani-era minaret outside the dargah of Sheikh Sirajuddin Junaydi in Gulbarga.

An unnamed tomb on the outskirts of Sagar in Yadgir district.

The tomb of Alauddin Bahman Shah in Gulbarga.

Ahmed Shah’s tomb at Ashtur.

The tombs at Ashtur.

An arched gateway in ruins in Ferozabad.

The Jama Masjid of Ferozabad.

An unnamed Bahmani-era tomb in Sagar village.

A view of the palace complex inside the fort of Bidar.

The entrance to the fort of Bidar.

Tile work at Rangin Mahal palace inside the fort of Bidar.

Woodwork at Rangin Mahal palace.

The madrasa of Mahmud Gawan in Bidar.

A view of Afzal Khan’s mosque in Afzalpur.

The Ibrahim Rauza complex in Bijapur.

The mihrab (prayer niche) at the Jama Masjid in Bijapur.

The Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur. It is the grandest historical edifice n Karnataka.

A short excursion through the towns of Bijapur, Gulbarga, Bidar and Yadgir in north-eastern Karnataka can turn into a marathon heritage walk with serendipitous sightings of monuments from the medieval era.

SARMAST is said to have been the first Sufi to have come to the Deccan. He settled down in what is now the outskirts of Sagar village in Yadgir district of Karnataka. His grave is now venerated as a dargah. Rocky hillocks with generous splashes of greenery run along the road leading to Sagar from Gulbarga, a distance of 90 kilometres, belying the strong notion that all of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region is dry and dusty.

Tajuddin Dervish, the keeper of the holy grave, sat outside the arched entrance smoking a beedi. As we entered the dargah, we struck up a conversation with him about Sarmast. He recalled the legend, which must have got corroded by retellings over generation. In this tale, the necromancer Karmatgaar, who was up to mischief all the time, flew across the skies and disturbed the Sufi’s meditation. Enraged, Sarmast flung him across the Deccan plateau. In this fantastic tale, the goddess Yellamma (who is worshipped in the northern parts of Karnataka) also makes an appearance; her role is one of heroism. A temple supposedly dating back to the time of the incident is dedicated to her at Sagar.

If we link these hagiographical stories to actual events as the historian Richard M. Eaton has done in Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India, it is certain that Sarmast was part of the raiding parties from the north sent by Alauddin Khalji (r. 1296-1316), who made forays into the Deccan and further south. The Deccan later became a part of the expanding Delhi Sultanate under the rule of the Tughlaqs. A bloody battle is supposed to have taken place at the site of Sarmast’s dargah, and many warriors were buried where they fell. The large circular area around the open grave of the saint is a medieval graveyard.

Unnamed tombs, locally called gumbads, in various states of decrepitude and portions of walls with vestiges of fine carvings lie scattered around the area. Tomb raiders, probably lured by stories of treasures, have broken the graves inside these sepulchres. In the town of Sagar, there is a single-arched gateway so broad that an elephant can pass through it. A magnificent and well-maintained tomb on an imposing platform lies on the path a little ahead, next to a baoli (stepwell). None of these historical structures come under the purview of national or State-level archaeological conservation authorities.

The Bahmani sultanate

A few decades after the rulers from the north made forays into the Deccan, another Sufi saint, Sheikh Sirajuddin Junaydi (d. 1380), gained prominence. He blessed Alauddin Bahman Shah (r. 1347-1358), who broke away from the Tughlaq empire to establish the first independent Bahmani Sultanate in 1347, thereby inaugurating the rule of Muslim kings in the Deccan. While Junaydi’s tomb, marked by two imposing minarets, has flourished and is venerated to this day in Gulbarga, the tomb of Alauddin Bahman Shah is empty and the small compound in which it is situated is surrounded by illegal constructions.

Basavanappa, employed by the State Archaeological Department, guards the four Bahmani-era monuments. He said: “This is the man whose descendants built so many grand monuments. Guarding these gives us our daily bread and I have the responsibility of safeguarding his tomb.”

Alauddin Bahman Shah’s rule was brief. The moving of the capital from Daulatabad to Gulbarga, after severing links with the Delhi Sultanate, marked his reign. He also set up a dynasty that lasted two centuries (between 1347 and 1527) which, along with its legatee kingdoms, matched the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughals in the splendour of their courts. At the centre of Gulbarga is the fort from where the Bahmanis ruled their vast empire which at its peak extended from Gujarat to Goa, all the way across modern-day Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. While the Bahmanis constantly went to war with the Vijayanagara Empire, they also had deep cultural encounters with their neighbours.

The Bahmani kings ruled over a multi-ethnic and linguistically diverse empire whose citizens included indigenous residents, who spoke Marathi, Kannada and Telugu and other local languages, and migrants from north India. There was a regular stream of immigrants coming from Iran and Turkey to the royal cities via the sea route. African slaves, who rose up in the ranks, also played important roles in the matters of the Bahmani court.

The Bahmani Empire shifted its capital to Bidar in the 15th century, but an implosion was imminent because of differences between its ruling nobles. The waning empire gave birth to five independent sultanates that shone brilliantly in their maverick existences. They subsumed their differences and combined forces to defeat the Vijayanagara king at the Battle of Talikota (1565), but the sultanates were annexed by the Mughal Empire during the reign of Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), whose campaigns in the Deccan were to keep him occupied for half of his regnal period.

The Bahmani Sultanate and its splinter kingdoms have had a long impact on the culture and society of the Deccan. Magnificent architectural specimens of their reign can be seen in the entire region. Tombs, mosques, idgahs (prayer grounds), palaces and forts stud the entire area. These structures have a distinct style, which the architectural historian Helen Philon calls a “unique Deccan architectural vocabulary” in her book Gulbarga, Bidar, Bijapur. She says that this style is augmented by “building forms and decorative motifs introduced from Arabia and Persia, as well as from Turkey and Central Asia”.

A short excursion through Bijapur, Gulbarga and Bidar can turn into a heritage walk, marked by serendipitous sightings of monuments. While some of these edifices, such as the Gol Gumbaz, are fairly well known, there are others such as the royal necropolis of Ferozabad, around 30 kilometres from Gulbarga, which are known only to heritage enthusiasts.

One the most significant public works of the Bahmani kings was the karez system, in which water was supplied through tunnels from stepwells and other underground sources. Such tunnels supplied water to civilian settlements and the garrison inside the Bidar fort. The karez system is now being revived by Team Yuva, a Bidar-based non-governmental organisation led by Vinay Malge.

The Muslim kings also gave importance to landscape gardening and decorations. Local material such as basalt, granite and laterite have been used for buildings; lush gardens dominate the landscape around larger monuments. Vestiges of decorative motifs, murals and tile work can be seen in the monuments in Bidar.

A grand Jama Masjid is at the centre of the Gulbarga fort. It is a simple but imposing structure made even more stately because of the vacant space around it. There is a watchtower inside the fort on which a 29-foot cannon, said to be the longest in the world, is mounted.

Visitors are told that the Jama Masjid was the original congregational mosque of the Bahmani capital; actually, a large rectangular mosque in the crowded Shah Bazaar area of the city was the original Jama Masjid of Gulbarga. Prayers are held every Friday at this mosque, which is now known as the Shah Bazaar mosque. Visitors are allowed to go to the terrace, which is crowned with cupolas. This architectural style of domes on the terrace, mirroring the arches on the ceiling, can be found in prominent mosques from this era in the Deccan. Another historical site in Gulbarga that is worth seeing is the funerary complex, called the Haft Gumbad, of the Bahmani kings. Five rulers of the Bahmani dynasty until Feroz Shah Bahmani (r. 1397-1422) are buried at this site. The tombs, constructed over a period of a few decades, help one see the evolution of the architectural style. The early tombs have slightly sloping walls and are less distinguished, while the later tombs such as that of Feroz Shah, are larger, have a cleaner finish and are embellished with fine carvings.

Feroz Shah’s tomb reflects the king’s aesthetic sense as he was said to be a man of refined taste, was interested in local culture, and was also a polyglot who married the daughter of a Vijayanagara king. He built the city of Ferozabad. If one is visiting Ferozabad for the first time, one will get the feeling of discovering new things. The necropolis, which was inhabited briefly, can now be accessed only after passing through a village off the main road. The main entrance, which is through an arched gateway, is visible, although blocked. One must enter through an agricultural field. Ferozabad reveals itself little by little. It is a complete city with a fort, a palace, a mosque and royal residences, all of which are in ruins now. The apathy towards the upkeep of the architectural splendour of the region is evident from the poor maintenance of Ferozabad. Stone walls that formed part of the ramparts of the fort stand precariously on the ground. A tur dal field is being ploughed inside the premises of what was once the main mosque. The Bhima river glints some distance away. The city was abandoned towards the end of the 15th century after a deluge caused by the overflowing Bhima.

Shifting the capital to Bidar

A strange aspect of Feroz Shah’s tomb is that it has twin domes and separate chambers although only one of these was used for burial with the other lying vacant. Local legend has it that the second chamber was the designated burial space of Feroz Shah’s brother, Ahmed Shah (r. 1422-1436), who was not buried there. During the reign of Ahmed Shah, in 1432, the Bahmani capital shifted to Bidar, and Khwaja Hazrat Bandenawaz (d. 1422), the most well-known Sufi of the Deccan, is supposed to have been one of the causes for this. The Bahmani kings had close ties with Sufi saints, and Ahmed Shah continued the tradition but he was also considered a saint; the only king to be treated as such by his followers. His tomb in the funerary complex of Ashtur, just outside Bidar, is venerated by Muslims, who consider him to be a wali (friend of God), as well as by Hindus, who consider him to be an avatar of Allama Prabhu, a Vachana poet who lived before Basava. Ahmed Shah’s tomb has well-preserved murals and verses from the Quran. The resident caretaker at the tomb used a mirror to ingeniously cast splotches of reflected sunlight on the interior of the dome, which gave us an idea of the bright hues that are still intact.

The funerary complex of Ashtur is far more majestic than the Haft Gumbad. The tombs are bigger and more imposing and the well-maintained lawns add to the beauty of the location. Since the tombs must have been built at different times over a period spanning a century, each tomb has a different architectural style. One tomb that stands out is that of Humayun Shah (r. 1458-61). Lightning has damaged its dome, leaving only a portion of it intact. Visitors are told an apocryphal story of divine justice. Humayun Shah was such a cruel ruler that the word zaalim (tyrant) was affixed to his name. When this tyrant died, God in his infinite wisdom struck his tomb so that he would be exposed to sun and rain for eternity. As the influence of the dynasty waned and independent sultanates began to emerge, the tombs of its rulers also lost their magnificence. The tombs of the last two rulers remain poor cousins of the larger tombs at Ashtur, both in size and form.

From Ashtur, one can see the ramparts of the fort of Bidar, along the short drive to Bidar. This grand Bahmani era fort is surrounded by three moats and impressive bastions. The monuments of Bidar are in much better shape than those in Gulbarga. In the precincts of the fort, which has a massive gateway, are palaces and a mosque, an austere building with 16 arches crowned with a dome. Pathways run through gardens in the royal enclosure. Some of the best examples of exquisite woodwork (a hallmark of Hindu architecture) and mother-of-pearl inlays can be seen in Rangin Mahal, the palace inside the fort. Mahmud Gawan, a powerful prime minister in the Bahmani court, built a madrasa (theological school) bearing his name in 1472. The madrasa is located some distance away from the fort. There are remnants of turquoise tile work of Central Asian design on the tall minaret.

Adil Shahi dynasty

As the Bahmani Sultanate began to fall, it split into separate sultanates, the strongest of which was the Adil Shahi dynasty of Bijapur under Yusuf Adil Khan (r. 1490-1510).

“The period between accessions of Sultan Ali I (1558) to the death of Sultan Muhammad (1656) can be called the Golden Age of the Adil Shahis, as the kingdom flourished in all walks of life,” writes Abdul Gani Imaratwale, a historian based in Bijapur, in his book Studies in Medieval Bijapur. This is reflected by the grandeur of the monuments during this period.

Mohammed Adil Shah’s tomb, the Gol Gumbaz, is often featured on tourism brochures of the Karnataka Tourism Department. It would not be wrong to say that it is the grandest edifice in the modern State of Karnataka. The Gol Gumbaz is visible from many places in Bijapur and is overwhelming at close quarters because of its sheer size. Inside the large tomb, the cenotaph of Mohammed Adil Shah and his close family members can be seen, but these are replicas, with the original graves lying in an underground crypt. At the four corners of the room, steep and winding stairs that test the climber’s stamina lead up to the gallery. The vastness of this free-standing dome accentuates the acoustics within it. Schoolchildren can be seen clapping and yelling to hear the echo. Each burst of sound echoes several times making it difficult to stay there long enough to appreciate the engineering marvel.

The Ibrahim Rauza complex consisting of the tomb of Ibrahim II and a mosque is a delicately built structure and looks as if it has been laid out in front of visitors as they approach it from the garden. Bijapur has many other gems, such as the main congregational mosque, the Jama Masjid, which is an incomplete structure but is remarkable for its large and decorated mihrab (the prayer niche). The largest cannon in the world, the Malik-e-Maidan (lord of the field), which was truly a weapon of mass destruction in the medieval age, can also be found in Bijapur. A palace associated with the early Adil Shahis, the Chini Mahal, is now converted into a government office, and the throne room is now the treasury officer’s cabin.

The towns situated near Bijapur also have historical monuments. There is a 17th century mosque in Afzalpur built by Afzal Khan, a general who was killed by Chhatrapati Shivaji. This smart structure, ignored by archaeological authorities, is being maintained through the personal initiative of Maqsood Afzal, a descendant of the general.

This overview hardly does justice to the extensive architectural heritage in this part of Karnataka. These spectacular monuments do not figure in the itinerary of most tourists.

A wonderful monument like Ibrahim Rauza has only around 500 visitors in a day. In fact, some of the conservation authorities are not even aware of the necropolis of Ferozabad or the Afzal Khan mosque. Infrastructure essential for the growth of tourism is poor in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region. Information on the architectural sites in the region is limited. Efforts to get this heritage corridor recognised as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site have failed. Ayazuddin Patel, a Lalit Kala Akademi awardee based in Gulbarga, who has photographed the architecture of the region, laments: “We have been completely ignored and forgotten.” The Hyderabad-Karnataka region has been ignored by successive governments since Independence.

The Bahmani kingdom has receded into history although its rulers governed the Deccan for several centuries. This is partly due to the peripheral status of the Deccan and southern India in history writing in India. The long reign of the Bahmani Sultanate and its descendant sultanates has left behind another kind of legacy: a syncretic culture that is visible in harmonious communal relations, the participation of all communities at the shrines of various Sufi saints, and even during events that mark Muharram. The lingua franca of the region, Dakhni Urdu, is also a legacy of the Bahmanis. Many of these medieval rulers openly embraced non-Muslim practices and patronised local cultures, but a communal reading of history pits these kingdoms against the “Hindu” empire of Vijayanagara in a biased understanding of history.

Historians have often disproved this and have stressed aspects of mutual interpenetration and a fusion of cultures and practices (most recently in Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 by Richard M. Eaton and Phillip B. Wagoner), but the religious reading of history continues in popular discourse. In February, a small attempt was made to celebrate the legacy of this regional history, with the district administration of Gulbarga deciding to hold a Bahmani and Rashtrakuta Utsav simultaneously. (The Rashtrakuta dynasty ruled this region between the eighth and 10th centuries.)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instantly opposed this, with its Member of Parliament from Karnataka, Shobha Karandlaje, even tweeting: “Who is Bahamani Sulthans? Who killed lakhs of hindus, who burnt thousands of villages, who raped hindu women, who destroyed temples.... now congress celebrating thier festival... more dangerous” (sic). Considering that this was just a few months before elections to the Karnataka Assembly were to take place, the ruling Congress government quietly withdrew permission for the event. Needless to say, the inaugural edition of the Rashtrakuta Utsav was held in all its splendour. The BJP’s move of selectively opposing events on communal lines is part of its agenda. The partisan reading of history, where the history of Muslim rulers is ignored, will affect inter-religious relations.

Surreal experience

While Sarmast was the first Sufi of the Deccan, Bandenawaz, who was not averse to taking part occasionally in courtly intrigues, was the most well known. At his 15th century tomb in Gulbarga, the interiors of which have been garishly redecorated without any consideration to its architectural significance, Hindus and Muslims arrive in droves and bow in reverence before his grave.

Behind the tomb are a number of unmarked graves. A supplicant, his eyes closed, was ardently praying, with his head bent towards the direction of Bandenawaz’s tomb. Some things must not have changed at this place since the death of Bandenawaz in 1422. Walking through these lands where Sufis lived and kings ruled, where the detritus of empty tombs and unknown crypts can be found all over, one finds myth and fable combining with fact to create a surreal experience.

(In 2014, the names of Gulbarga and Bijapur were officially changed to Kalaburagi and Vijayapura respectively by the government of Karnataka. Yadgir, which was part of Gulbarga district, attained separate district status in 2009.)

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