The dry and dusty far northern region of Karnataka is as distinct culturally as it is in terms of landscape. Predominantly Muslim, at least in the larger settlements, it boasts some wonderful Islamic architecture and shrines in the venerable city of Bijapur, bustling Gulbarga and flyblown Bidar.
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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.
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 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, or even Bidar. Unless you’re particularly interested in medieval Muslim architecture, few are worth breaking a journey to see.
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 you should expect little in the way of Western comforts, and lots 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.
The heart of Bidar is its medieval old town, encircled by crenellated ramparts and eight imposing gateways (darwazas). This predominantly Muslim quarter holds many Bahmani-era mosques, havelis and khanqahs – “monasteries” set up by the local rulers for Muslim cleric-mystics and their disciples.