Lost in the far northeast of Karnataka, BIDAR, 284km northeast of Bijapur, is nowadays a provincial backwater, better known for its fighter-pilot training base than the gently decaying monuments nearby. Yet the town, half of whose 140,000 population is still Muslim, has a gritty charm, with narrow red-dirt streets ending at arched gates and open vistas across the plains. Littered with tile-fronted tombs, rambling fortifications and old mosques, it merits a visit if you’re travelling between Hyderabad (150km east) and Bijapur, although expect little in the way of Western comforts, and a higher level of curious approaches from locals.
In 1424, following the break-up of the Bahmani dynasty into five rival factions, Ahmad Shah I shifted his court from Gulbarga to a less constricted site at Bidar. Revamping the town with a new fort, splendid palaces, mosques and ornamental gardens, the Bahmanis ruled from here until 1487, when the Barid Shahis took control. They were succeeded by the Adil Shahis from Bijapur, and later the Mughals under Aurangzeb, who annexed the region in 1656, before the Nizam of Hyderabad acquired the territory in the early eighteenth century.
Bidar is renowned as the home of a unique damascene metalwork technique known as bidri, developed by the Persian silversmiths who came to the area with the Bahmani court in the fifteenth century. These highly skilled artisans engraved and inlaid their traditional Iranian designs onto a metal alloy composed of lead, copper, zinc and tin, which they blackened and polished. The resulting effect – swirling silver floral motifs framed by geometric patterns and set against black backgrounds – has since become the hallmark of Muslim metalwork in India.
Bidri objets d’art are displayed in museums and galleries all over the country. But if you want to see pukka bidri-wallahs at work, take a walk down Bidar’s Siddiq Talim Road, which cuts across the south side of the old town, where skull-capped artisans tap and burnish vases, goblets, plates, spice boxes, betel-nut tins and ornamental hookah pipes, as well as less traditional objects – coasters, ashtrays and bangles – that crop up (at vastly inflated prices) in silver emporiums as far away as Delhi and Kolkata.