Boasting some of the Deccan’s finest Muslim monuments, BIJAPUR is often billed as “The Agra of the South”. The comparison is partly justified: for more than three hundred years, this was the capital of a succession of powerful rulers, whose domed mausoleums, mosques, colossal civic buildings and fortifications recall a lost golden age of unrivalled prosperity and artistic refinement. Yet there the similarities between the two cities end. A provincial market town of just 210,000 inhabitants, modern Bijapur is a world away from the urban frenzy of Agra. With the exception of the mighty Golgumbaz, which attracts busloads of day-trippers, its historic sites see only a slow trickle of tourists, while the ramshackle town centre is surprisingly laidback, dotted with peaceful green spaces and colonnaded mosque courtyards. In the first week of February the town hosts an annual music festival which attracts several renowned musicians from both the Carnatic (south Indian) and the Hindustani (north Indian) classical music traditions.
Unlike most medieval Muslim strongholds, Bijapur lacked natural rock defences and had to be strengthened by the Adil Shahis with huge fortified walls. Extending some 10km around the town, these ramparts, studded with cannon emplacements (burjes) and watchtowers, are breached in five points by darwazas, or strong gateways, and several smaller postern gates (didis). In the middle of the town, a further hoop of crenellated battlements encircled Bijapur’s citadel, site of the sultans’ apartments and durbar hall, of which only fragments remain. The Adil Shahis’ tombs are scattered around the outskirts, while most of the important mosques lie southeast of the citadel.
Bijapur began life in the tenth century as Vijayapura, the Chalukyas’ “City of Victory”. Taken by the Vijayanagars, it passed into Muslim hands for the first time in the thirteenth century with the arrival of the sultans of Delhi. The Bahmanis administered the area for a time, but it was only after the local rulers, the Adil Shahis, won independence from Bidar by expelling the Bahmani garrison and declaring this their capital that Bijapur’s rise to prominence began.
Burying their differences for a brief period in the late sixteenth century, the five Muslim dynasties that issued from the breakdown of Bahmani rule – based at Golconda, Ahmednagar, Bidar and Gulbarga – formed a military alliance to defeat the Vijayanagars. The spoils of this campaign, which saw the total destruction of Vijayanagar (Hampi), funded a two-hundred-year building boom in Bijapur during which the city’s most impressive monuments were built. However, old enmities between rival Muslim sultanates on the Deccan soon resurfaced, and the Adil Shahis’ royal coffers were gradually squandered on fruitless and protracted wars. By the time the British arrived on the scene in the eighteenth century, the Adil Shahis were a spent force, locked into a decline from which they and their capital never recovered.Read More
GULBARGA, 165km northeast of Bijapur, was the founding capital of the Bahmani dynasty and the region’s principal city before the court moved to Bidar in 1424. Later captured by the Adil Shahis and Mughals, it has remained a staunchly Muslim town, and bulbous onion domes and mosque minarets still soar prominently above its ramshackle concrete-box skyline. The town is also famous as the birthplace of the chishti, or saint, Hazrat Bandah Nawaz Gesu Daraz (1320–1422), whose tomb, situated next to one of India’s foremost Islamic theological colleges, is a major shrine.
In spite of Gulbarga’s religious and historical significance, its monuments pale in comparison with those at Bijapur, and even Bidar. Unless you’re particularly interested in medieval Muslim architecture, few are worth breaking a journey to see. The one exception is the tomb complex on the northeast edge of town, known as the Dargah. Approached via a broad bazaar, this marble-lined enclosure centres on the tomb of Hazrat Gesu Daraz, affectionately known to his devotees as Bandah Nawaz, or “the long-haired one who brings comfort to others”. The saint was spiritual mentor to the Bahmani rulers, and it was they who erected his beautiful double-storeyed mausoleum, now visited by hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims each year. Women are not allowed inside, and men must wear long trousers. The same applies to the neighbouring tomb, whose interior has retained its exquisite Persian paintings. The Dargah’s other important building, open to both sexes, is the madrasa, founded by Bandah Nawaz and enlarged during the two centuries after his death.
After mingling with the crowds at the Dargah, escape across town to Gulbarga’s deserted fort. Encircled by sixteen-metre-thick crenellated walls, fifteen watchtowers and an evil-smelling stagnant moat, the great citadel now lies in ruins behind the town’s large artificial lake. Its only surviving building is the beautiful fourteenth-century Jama Masjid. Thought to have been modelled by a Moorish architect on the great Spanish mosque of Cordoba, it is unique in India for having an entirely domed prayer hall.
The vast Golgumbaz mausoleum, Bijapur’s most famous building, soars above the town’s east walls, visible for miles in every direction. Built towards the end of the Adil Shahis’ reign, the building is a fitting monument to a dynasty on its last legs – pompous, decadent and ill-proportioned, but conceived on an irresistibly awesome scale.
The cubic tomb, enclosing a 170-square-metre hall, is crowned with a single hemispherical dome, the largest in the world after St Peter’s in Rome (which is only 5m wider). Spiral staircases wind up the four seven-storey octagonal towers that buttress the building to the famous Whispering Gallery, a 3m-wide passage encircling the interior base of the dome from where, looking carefully down, you can get a real feel of the sheer size of the building. Arrive here just after opening time to avoid the bus tours and experiment with the extraordinary acoustics. The view from the mausoleum’s ramparts, which overlook the town and its monuments to the dark-soiled Deccan countryside beyond, is superb.
Set on a plinth in the centre of the hall below are the gravestones of the ruler who built the Golgumbaz, Mohammed Adil Shah, along with those of his wife, daughter, grandson and favourite courtesan, Rambha. At one corner of the grounds stands the simple gleaming white shrine to a Sufi saint of the Adil Shahi period, Hashim Pir which, around February, attracts qawwals (singers of devotional qawwali music) to the annual urs, which lasts for three days.