Remains of a grand dream


Remains of a grand dream

Sheer symmetry : Arches and arcades at the Jami Masjid. Photo by Meera Iyer

Gulbarga is another one of those places in Karnataka that has much to boast about but which, inexplicably, remains relatively unknown. The town is home to a spectacular medieval fort, an immense mosque and an unusual set of tombs. And interestingly, each has unique features that are seen nowhere else in India.

Gulbarga’s history is closely tied to the fortunes of the Bahmani dynasty. Just ten years after Muhammad bin Tughluq made his famously disastrous move from Delhi to Daulatabad and back, a group of officials in his Deccan provinces broke away and established a new, independent state. And so, in 1347, was born the Bahmani empire, with its first capital at Gulbarga.

As my friend and I clattered through this town in a beat-up taxi, we asked our driver, a Patel, about getting to the fort. “Why do you want to go there?” he asked, perplexed by our interest in a “dirty old ruin that has nothing in it.”

A fort in ruins

Sadly,  Patel was right, for the fort is indeed ruined in places. But the dark stone walls looming over us still had an impressive air of impregnability. Originally built by the Kakatiya kings of Warangal, the fort was rebuilt by Alauddin Bahmani when he established the new empire. Almost everything inside the fort is also in ruins save for a few buildings. One such is the Bala Hissar, a grim, formidable structure with six circular towers and walls rising to a height of 19m.

The rectangular building has no windows, and at first glance, seemed to have no way in either. The entrance is actually tucked away high up on the northern wall, approached by a very long flight of stone steps.

The interiors are also said to be elevated well above ground level. On the roof are three large gun platforms, each 10m in diameter, with 2m thick recoil walls. One platform still has a 25-foot cannon, one of 26 guns that dot the fort’s towers.

India’s only donjon

Scholars refer to such a heavily defended, inner stronghold as a donjon or a keep: a self-sufficient structure that defenders could retreat to as a last resort during a battle. Gulbarga’s Bala Hissar is India’s only known donjon.

The donjon is perhaps a reflection of the Bahmani dynasty’s incessant conflicts. Born of conflict, the dynasty endured constant intrigues, bitter internecine rivalries and battles with neighbouring kingdoms, including the powerful Vijayanagar empire.
Yet, it was also a period when trade as well as culture, literature and spirituality all flowered.

The kingdom attracted people from around the world, especially central Asia and Iran. They came in their hundreds to pursue the Great Bahmani Dream, so to speak. One example of the contributions of these settlers is another of Gulbarga’s unique monuments, just opposite the Bala Hissar – the Jami Masjid, also known as the Great Mosque. According to an inscription, it was built in 1367 by a certain Rafi who hailed from Qazvin in Iran. It is the only mosque in India that is completely covered and has no courtyard.

The Jami Masjid is also one of India’s larger mosques, able to accommodate an astonishing 5000 worshippers. The northern, southern and eastern sides of the mosque are all open arcades. Along the western wall is the mihrab, which has a large dome over it. But in the building’s centre, where one would expect a courtyard for the faithful to assemble in, the Jami Masjid instead has still more arcades and domes. In fact, the mosque has a total of 250 arches supported on 140 pillars.

I visited the mosque in the late afternoon, when the angled sunlight flowing in through the open arcades bathed the interiors in a gentle, warm glow.
The muted sounds of two children playing outside the mosque accentuated the silence within.
Arches stretched out in front of me in every direction, each providing a fascinating interplay of light and shadow. Despite its massive proportions, the Jami Masjid was dignity and quiet elegance personified. The Jami Masjid’s covered courtyard plan was never repeated by the Bahmanis nor by any other rulers in India.

Tombs that speak of a rich past

East of Gulbarga fort is one of the funerary complexes of the Bahmani kings, the Haft Gumbad, also known as Sath Gumbaz and Haft Gumbaz, meaning Seven Domes.
The tombs here chronicle the beginnings of the Bahmani architectural style. Take the oldest tomb here, that of Mujahid Shah, the third Bahmani sultan. It is a squat-looking square structure, with sloping walls topped with battlements like in a fort.

Devoid of any decorative elements, it has the typical Spartan look and feel of a Tughluq tomb. But then comes a style not seen anywhere else in the country. Mujahid’s successor, Dawud Shah, lies buried in a double tomb: two very similar, domed structures sit on a single basement, creating, in effect a double tomb.

The last tomb in the complex is that of the eighth sultan, Taj-ud-din Firoz, who died in 1422. Firoz also lies in a double-domed tomb. But in contrast to the plain and severe older tombs, Firoz’s tomb is richly decorated. Both the interior and exterior are full of decorative elements, some of them clearly a mix of local Hindu elements with Islamic elements.

The tomb has an upper tier of arched windows, each decorated with differently-patterned jalis. A second tier of arches decorates the lower half of the tomb’s walls, some of them with doors leading into the tomb. Many are topped with eaves held up with brackets resembling those found in temples.

Many features in Firoz’s tomb became typical of the Bahmani style of architecture. But Gulbarga’s double-tomb concept is not seen anywhere else in India.

In memory of a Sufi saint

Our last stop was to the dargah of the revered Sufi saint, Khwaja Bande Nawaz Gesudiraz, who came here in 1401 and died in 1422. Like Firoz’s tomb, the saint’s mausoleum is also a lofty building with two tiers of arches that make it seem like a two-storeyed building.

Several other tombs are found in the vast complex, which attracts visitors from all over India. It was close to 8pm when we visited, almost closing time, and still people from all walks of life streamed in ceaselessly. Yet, the atmosphere was one of absolute serenity. Some women lit incense sticks, others lit lamps. Some men murmured prayers, others bowed their heads silently. It was impossible not to feel moved by the faith and piety of all those around me.

Last week, Gulbarga celebrated the 606th Urs-e-Shareef of this messenger of universal brotherhood.

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