|Written By Louis Werner / Photographed By David H. Wells
HE CITY OF BIJAPUR LIES FAR OFF THE USUAL TOURIST ITINERARY IN SOUTH-CENTRAL INDIA—SO FAR, IN FACT, THAT IT WAS ONLY CONNECTED TO THE NATION’S STANDARD- GAUGE RAILROAD NETWORK IN THE LAST DECADE. THE SEAT OF THE ADIL SHAH DYNASTY, IT WAS CALLED VARIOUSLY THE “AGRA OF THE SOUTH” AND THE “PALMYRA OF THE DECCAN.”
The city’s greatest western admirer was Colonel Philip Meadows Taylor, an Englishman in the service of the ruler of nearby Hyderabad. His description of Bijapur, in the introduction to a photographic album published in 1866 by the forerunner of the Archaeological Survey of India, remains apt today: “Palaces, arches, tombs, cisterns, gateways, minarets, ... all carved from the rich basalt rock of the locality, garlanded by creepers, broken and disjointed by peepul trees, each in its turn is a gem of art and the whole a treasury.”
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Bijapur was one of the five sultanates of central India’s Deccan Plateau that emerged, beginning in the late 15th century, from the slow breakup of the 200-year-old Bahmani Sultanate, centered in Gulbarga and Bidar. But Bijapur, which prospered in the shadow of the Mughal Empire to the north, was arguably the greatest of the five in terms of its arts and architecture. Much of Bijapur’s success came because most of its shahs were long-lived, and two were related by marriage to influential Mughal emperors: Akbar the Great, who ruled from 1556 to 1605, and Aurangzeb (1659-1707).
Aurangzeb, however, was not satisfied to be a mere recipient of tribute; he put an end to Bijapur’s independence. That came after a year-and-a-half siege finally broke the city’s gates, ousting the last Adil Shah, 18-year-old Sikander. He died 14 years later, in 1700, still a prisoner.
Positioned between the Mughal Empire and the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire to the south, the Adil Shah rulers balanced their cultural orientation between the two, with a sprinkling of influence from the Ottoman Empire, from which they claimed a writ of sovereignty. This is reflected in the crescent finials—the signature design of Adil Shahs—on many of their tombs. Other cultural flavors are present, too: Persian and, more unusually, East African, here called habshi, or Abyssinian. Baobab trees more than 300 years old stand witness to this link: Native to the African savannah and grown from seeds carried in by immigrants, baobabs dot the surrounding Deccani landscape of granite boulder fields and high plateaus.
Bijapur’s home state of Karnataka marks the place where paddy-rice cultivation begins and wheat cultivation ends, a south-north divide mirrored, respectively, in the local staple meal of dosas and chapatis. It is also the divide between the northern Indo-Aryan language, Marathi, and the southern Dravidian language, Kannada. Here, the green building stone and decorative white marble of the north are found in mosques alongside the ubiquitous local black basalt.
Elements of an eclectic, all-embracing culture are visible elsewhere, too. One finds Hindu architectural elements on Muslim buildings. Stone-carved chain links hang from vestibule ceilings, invoking temple bell pulls; Hindu throne legs are inscribed in the bases of mosque columns; and square-stepped roof brackets with lotus-bud drops support the protruding eaves of Muslim tombs.
That cultural influence flowed both ways. The Vijayanagar capital of Hampi, 200 kilometers (160 mi) to the south, displays such Islamic architectural elements as the lobed arches in its famous Lotus Pavilion and the domes of its royal elephant stables, and features the same deep stucco reliefs of flowers and tendrils that are visible in Bijapuri mosques. Even today, the Bijapur district’s population is some 40 percent Muslim, compared with 13 percent nationwide, showing the strength and endurance of its Islamic legacy.
Indian art historians George Michell and the late Mark Zebrowski have called the Deccan “one of the country’s most mysterious and unknown regions.” Unlike what they call the “logic,” “dignity” and “sobriety” of Mughal art, they find that Deccani art “revels in dream and fantasy.” It’s no surprise that Meadows Taylor, a colonial administrator who was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite novelists, set his orientalist stories here, doing for Bijapur what Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra did for Granada in southern Spain.
“Hundreds of tales of wild romance and reality, which linger amidst the royal precincts, will, if the visitor chose to listen, be told to him by descendants of those who took part in them, with as fond and vivid a remembrance as the Moorish legends of the Alhambra are told there,” he wrote in the 1866 photo album.
ijapur’s greatest shah, Ibrahim ii, reigned from 1580 until his death in 1627. One of his daughters married Akbar’s son Daniyal, cementing a strong link, and Ibrahim patronized Deccani artists as did no other ruler, building on a cultural flowering already under way. In 1565, Ibrahim’s predecessor, Ali i, had triumphed over the Vijayanagar Empire at the Battle of Talikota. As a result, Hindu artists flooded into Bijapur and, in the following years, the city became as much of a cultural melting pot as Akbar’s Agra.
In no field was this more true than in music. Ibrahim himself wrote a 59-song cycle in Deccani Urdu, set to Hindu musical modes, known as the Kitab-e Nauras (Book of Nauras). Nauras, meaning “nine essences” or “nine sentiments” (literally, “nine juices”), was Ibrahim’s watchword: Each essence held a state of being. One of the songs calls on the Hindu goddess of music and art: “O mother Saraswati, it is through your blessings on Ibrahim that the melodies and songs in my nauras will be cherished and go on enlightening wise musicians.”
Art historian Deborah Hutton, author of Art of the Court of Bijapur, has analyzed portraits of Ibrahim ii painted from the 1590’s until shortly before his death, some by the Mughal court’s noted Persian painter Farrukh Beg, that are now dispersed from St. Petersburg to Prague, London, Bikaner and Tehran. They show Ibrahim from youth to old age, many times wearing the dried rudraksha-berry necklace of a Hindu sage and his signature conical turban. We see in them the growth of both beard and girth, but, as Hutton notes, all the portraits are poetical rather than historical in essence. None shows him in battle or holding a royal audience at a specific time or place.
Ibrahim built Bijapur’s greatest monument, the Ibrahim Rauza, a complex consisting of a tomb, mosque, water tank and raised plinth. Although constructed years before the Taj Mahal, it has been called the Deccan’s Taj, perhaps because Ibrahim intended the tomb for his wife, Taj Sultana, just as Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Unlike the Taj Mahal, with its clean lines and restrained silhouette, the Ibrahim Rauza is a riot of bulbous finials; clusters of false minarets, or minars; multiesplanaded true minarets; and intricate roof brackets covered with a calligraphic decoration of Qur’anic verse, Persian poetry and pious injunctions.
Modern Bijapur is lucky to have a Rotary Club dedicated to preserving its cultural heritage. Its most active member is Ameen Hullur, a tireless interior designer who took it upon himself to recreate the stucco work on the ceiling of the Chota Asar mosque, which the architectural historian Henry Cousens, a Scotsman, described as “remarkable for the abundance of rich ornament.” Much of the decoration had fallen when the restoration project began a few years ago, but using the drawings and photographs of the designs in Bijapur and Its Architectural Remains, a book written by Cousens in 1916, Hullur impeccably replaced it.
Hullur’s family hails from a caste of royal minters for the Adil Shahs, who made the dynasty’s most famous gold coin, the hun-i nauras, for Ibrahim ii. “The cultural harmony that prevailed under [the Adil Shahs] ... should be cherished today as a symbol of togetherness,” he says. After retiring from the military, Hullur’s grandfather became the first English-language guide to the city’s monuments.
ullur lives just across the road from Bijapur’s most imposing site, the Gol Gombad, the tomb of Ibrahim ii’s son Muhammad (ruled 1627-1656); the diameter of its dome rivals that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Cousens noted its virility, compared with the feminine qualities of the Ibrahim Rauza.
Everything here is oversized, even the ear-splitting volume of its so-called “whispering gallery” under the dome, demonstrated whenever schoolchildren arrive. Its expansive lawns, however, allow families a place for more quiet reflection on its greatness, as is the case for approaching visitors, who can see the tomb for the first time from 10 kilometers (6 mi) away.
Both the Ibrahim Rauza and the Gol Gombaz lie outside the city’s inner double walls, which remind the visitor that not all was peaceful in Adil Shahi times. Meadows Taylor’s novels, based largely on the Naurasnameh, the chronicle of Ibrahim ii’s court by Persian historian Muhammad Qasim Firishta, reinforce this view. Firishta recounts the unsettled times of the boy shah’s regency, overseen by his aunt Chand Bibi, telling of myriad deceits and betrayals, of daring escapes over the walls with unfurled turbans and cumberbunds used as ropes, of blinding the eyes of enemies and firing their severed heads as cannonballs.
This penchant for blood can be seen today in the 50,000-kilogram (55-ton), 4.3-meter-long (14') cannon called the Malik-e Maidan, or “King of the Battlefield,” which sits atop one of the city’s outer-wall bastions. Depicted on its muzzle is a lion clenching an elephant in its teeth. Cast in Ahmadnagar and hauled 240 kilometers (150 mi) to Bijapur by 400 bullocks and 10 elephants, its blast was so loud that cannoneers had to jump into a nearby pool of water after lighting the fuse to protect their ears.
Henry Cousens, recognizing that periods of creative peace usually follow strife, perhaps summed up Bijapur’s qualities best when he wrote that despite “incessant wars without its walls and constant factional brawls within ... [when] the very air reeked with blood ... there were intervals of comparative calm, when time was found for the erection of those grand piles of architectural splendour to the memory and glory of its kings and nobles.”
Thus was the city orientalized by Meadows Taylor in his novel
A Noble Queen. In a scene describing a royal audience at the citadel’s Gargan Mahal, or “Sky Palace,” he wrote: “It was a sight at once gorgeous and impressive in itself; the costumes and banners of the ranks of infantry, interspersed with cavalry Deccanis, Arabs, Persians, Oozbeks, Circassians, Tatars of many tribes, Georgians, Turks, and many other foreigners, with a strong division of beydurs [local soldiers] who were by no means the least conspicuous or remarkable of the motley assemblage.”
Abdul Gani Imaratwale, a history professor at Bijapur’s Anjuman College, has little time for such exotica, yet he recognizes that it is what keeps his city on the tourist map at all. Of the sometimes bitter rivalries among the densely intermarried Deccani sultanates, he says, with ironic understatement, “Feeble were their affinities of religion, race and culture.” Still, he is loudly appreciative of Ibrahim ii’s artistic achievements.
If, to coin another comparative epithet, Bijapur was the Florence of the Deccan, then the Mihtar-i Mahal, a mosque gatehouse, is surely the equivalent of Florence’s Baptistry. Just as the Baptistry doors are the city’s masterwork of bronze sculpture, so this 2.25-square-meter (24 sq ft) entryway, surmounted by slender, 20-meter (66') bulb-topped minarets, contains Bijapur’s most beautiful stone carvings. Its roof struts, brackets, parapets, windows, balconies and eaves are incised with lions mounted on elephants, with flowers, geese and parrots, and some of it is carved to look like timberwork. Imaratwale points to the Mihtar-i Mahal as the epitome of his city: extreme elegance in the service even of a relatively unimportant structure.
He is proudest when leading a tour of Ibrahim’s nine-gated pleasure capital called Nauraspur, three kilometers (1.8 mi) west of the city walls, which was abandoned after a particularly brutal sacking just 25 years after its founding in 1599. Here, he again invokes Ibrahim’s essential word, nauras, in its philosophical and artistic meanings. The two-story Sagneet Mahal, a darbar, or hall, designed for musical presentations, is at the center of Nauraspur, which even in ruins is as imposing—and inspiring—as a great Roman theater.
s the shah wrote in his song cycle, “O Ibrahim, the world only seeks knowledge. Serve with steadfast heart and meditate upon the power of words.” In tribute to his beloved pearl-inlaid sitar, he sang, “Day and night I bring to mind the sweet notes of Moti Khan [“sir pearl”], as if my ear is a balance in which I am weighing sugar.”
And, in a heartrending farewell to his favorite elephant, Ibrahim continued the verse, “having been separated from Atash Khan [“sir fire”], I am feeling the anguish of burning fire.... The painter has left his painting, the bard his praising. Ibrahim, having seen all, is in a state of perplexity in their midst.” As chance would have it, portraits of Ibrahim riding Atash Khan and playing Moti Khan have come down to us.
In a flutter of metaphors, the Persian poet Muhammad Zuhur ibn Zuhuri, Ibrahim’s contemporary, wrote of him, “He has commanded to pick away the stones of infelicitous words from the path of discourse, and has forbidden the use of those on which the foot of understanding may stumble.” In a verse that captures both the moment of Ibrahim’s rule and the city that he largely built, Zuhur added: “If they made the elixir of mirth and pleasure, they would make it from the holy dust of Bijapur.”
Yet the words inscribed in a fine calligraphic hand in teak, stucco and stone on the exterior of the tomb Ibrahim shares with his wife are perhaps his greatest written legacy, though they are not by him. Some of them come from Sura 3, Verse 67, of the Qur’an and speak of the prophet Abraham, the shah’s namesake “...who turned away from all that is false, having surrendered himself unto God, and he was not of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside Him.”
Intermingled with Qur’anic and poetic verses are praise invocations for Ibrahim’s spouse. They include: “Taj Sultana commissioned this tomb such that Paradise is wonderstruck at its beauties,” “Dignified like Zubeida [wife of Harun al-Rashid] and exalted like Bilqis [Queen of Sheba], she decorated the throne and crown of modesty,” and “Heaven stood astounded at the height of its structure, and said, perhaps another sky has heaved its head from the earth.”
The man credited with supervising the construction of the Ibrahim Rauza was the Habshi eunuch Malik Sandal, whose own simple tomb, located next to a lady’s tomb—possibly that of his mother or wife—lies in a courtyard inside the city walls. The nearby prayer hall could not be more different from the 15-bay mosque standing next to his master’s mausoleum, nor from the 36-bay Jami Masjid, or Friday mosque, one of the Deccan’s largest, built by Ali Adil Shah i 60 years earlier. Its richly gilded mihrab, or prayer niche, with trompe l’oeil paintings of books and vases, dates from some years later.
An interesting pair of tombs, the Jod Gombad, or Twin Sisters, tells the story of the Adil Shah dynasty’s downfall at Aurangzeb’s hands. One belongs to Khawas Muhammad Khan, the general of the penultimate shah, Ali ii, and the other to
his spiritual advisor, Abdul Razzaq Qadiri. Khawas Khan had gained the respect of Aurangzeb, who was then a prince charged with conquering the Deccan, when in 1657 he allowed the Mughal to escape with his life from the battlefield.
This act of mercy was considered treachery by Ali ii, who had his general put to death. When Aurangzeb ascended the Mughal throne a year later and demanded harsh tributes from Bijapur prior to launching an outright conquest, he ordered that the payments first be used to construct a fitting tomb for the man who had saved his life.
Aurangzeb’s other gift to the city that he conquered was an urban map, now in the Gol Gombaz museum, with highly rendered color drawings of its three walls, many gates and elevations of the main landmark buildings. Aurangzeb had always wanted to seize Bijapur; now he could hold it in his hand as a scroll.
Fifteen kilometers (9.3 mi) east of Bijapur at Kummatgi, a rural resort beside a large lake, stands a set of five two-story octagonal water pavilions (now in various states of repair) where the Adil Shahs took their leisure, enjoying mist showers from pressurized overhead tanks. The main pavilion’s rest house still stands, decorated with now badly faded paintings of polo players and hunters, as well as gentlemen in European dress—perhaps ambassadors and traders from nearby Goa, which by 1510 had fallen from Adil Shahi control to the Portuguese—and which point to European and even New World cultural influence in Bijapur.
We know from letters in the Dutch East India Company archive that a painter named Cornelius Claeszoon Heda was working for Ibrahim ii at Nauraspur between 1608 and 1617. Perhaps he or his Deccani students were responsible for these paintings and others like them in the Asar Mahal, a building later turned into a reliquary for hairs of the Prophet Muhammad’s beard. And we know from a Mughal ambassador to Bijapur that the Portuguese introduced American tobacco there, a few years before it arrived in Agra.
One can imagine the shahs using the water pavilions as a getaway from the daily grind of ruling. But Bijapur would never have been far from their minds, and they may have liked to hear their court poets reciting verses in honor of their city. Those may have resembled the multi-couplet ghazal titled “Shehr-e Bijapur” (“City of Bijapur”) that the modern-day poet Iqbal Asif, a retired schoolteacher, recited one recent evening at an intimate mushaira, or poets’ gathering, in a private home:
There are many good cities in the world,
But you cannot find in any other the domes of Bijapur,
Talking to the sky.
From fortified wall to fortified wall,
Three times one inside the next,
It is a city of shimmering light.
Yes, Bijapur received injuries at the hands of time,
Yet despite all, it is a city of the highest courage.
For why should not Asif love its relics,
This city of his ancestors’ desire?
At the poem’s end, the symbolic candle that flickered before the seat of the reciting poet was blown out. Yes, Bijapur’s glories have been injured by the passage of time. But its townsmen, like Iqbal Asif, Ameen Hullur and Abdul Gani Imaratwale, will never stop loving its relics of “highest courage,” buildings that still stand proudly after so many years.
Louis Werner ([email protected]) is a writer who lives in New York and leads tour groups to Middle Eastern destinations.
David H. Wells (www.davidhwells.com) is a freelance
documentary photographer affiliated with Aurora Photos. He specializes in intercultural communications and the use of light and shadow in visual narrative. A frequent teacher of photography workshops, he publishes the photography forum The Wells Point at www.thewellspoint.com.