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.