Bidar fort stands the test of time

Heritage

Bidar fort stands the test of time


In the early 15th century, a young prince ascended the throne of a century-old dynasty in the Deccan. Possibly prompted by the intrigues of a treacherous clutch of royals and commoners in his existing capital, the scion immediately began hunting for a suitable place in which he could set up a new capital city. And so, it was in the 1420s, when Ahmad Shah Wali Bahmani shifted the capital of the Bahmani empire from Gulbarga to Bidar.

First impression

Driving down from Gulbarga to Bidar one early Sunday morning, it was easy to see why Ahmad Shah Wali chose Bidar. Quite apart from geopolitical reasons such as its central location in the Deccan and the Bahmani kingdom, Bidar was picturesquely perched on a plateau, surrounded by gently undulating green hills that stretch towards the horizon. Additionally, it was abundantly blessed with springs and a pleasant climate.

Bidar already had a fort dating possibly from Kakatiya times. But Ahmed Shah rebuilt it when he moved his capital here and had both the city and citadel fortified. Itinerant Persian historian Ferishta, writing in the 1500s, says that the building and rebuilding of the fort took the better part of three years.

The first thing that strikes you about Bidar fort today is its solidity. In some places, the walls are about 15 mts thick! This should come as no surprise since the Deccan sultanates including Bidar were often locked in interminable wars and raids with neighbours, which explains the need for strong defences.

Parts of the already strongly defended fort were further strengthened in the 16th and 17th centuries, to defend against the greater use of gunpowder and artillery. In fact, Bidar fort is considered one of the strongest in Karnataka, and is known for its formidable defensive works. The fort enclosing the royal complex today, protected by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) is a vast, irregularly shaped circle with a plethora of palaces, some armouries, living quarters, a jail, a mosque, numerous wells and other sundry buildings.

The entrance is through the Gumbad Darwaza, from where you can see Bidar’s fabled and unique triple moat, hewn out of solid rock. The yawning gap seemed sufficient to keep anyone out, but the fort’s builders apparently thought otherwise for low battlemented walls line one side of the moat, providing cover for soldiers firing on anyone trying to cross the moat.

Persian inspiration

The Gumbad Darwaza recalls the architecture of Delhi’s Tughluqs and yet is subtly different in the shape and dimensions of its arches, revealing a strong Persian inspiration. This mirrors the history of the Bahmani kingdom, which rose by defying the authority of the Tughluqs and perhaps as a consequence, developed strong religious and cultural ties with erstwhile Persia. Indeed, the Persian influence is strongly evident in all structures in the fort.

The Gumbad Darwaza’s massive, majestic and somewhat brooding appearance leaves you wondering what other formidable structures lie waiting to be revealed. So it comes as quite a surprise that immediately after the stolid entrance is the delicately beautiful Rangin Mahal palace, built by Ali Barid Shah in the 1500s. One of the most elegantly decorated courtly structures to survive from that period, its entire walls were once covered with colourful tile work, again recalling the strong Persian influence in Bidar history.

Only remnants, still stunning, now adorn some of the doorways. But Rangin Mahal’s  piece de resistance is the decorative work you can still see on the doorway of an inner room — an intricate, strikingly luxuriant mother-of-pearl inlay of sinuous creepers and curving calligraphy, its soft luminescence set off by its matrix of polished basalt. It is enough to take your breath away.

Further beyond Rangin Mahal, is the complex containing the Lal bagh, the Solah Khamb mosque and the erstwhile hamam, parts of which, now house a small museum run by the ASI. The mosque, built in 1424, predates the fort and is Bidar’s oldest Islamic building. From a distance, it is a fairly impressive sight, with its gigantic central dome rising above a long length of arches.

Close up, it has a rather austere appearance, although the windows piercing the dome, the railing ringing it and the Persian-style parapet of geometric designs running along the roof mitigate this effect somewhat. The roof of the capacious mosque has domes projecting out from the building below, looking like a quirky sea of coconut shells. In the old days, the roof had a reservoir to supply water for worshippers at the mosque.

Adjacent to the mosque are more palaces that merit a visit, if only for their combination of ruins and vegetation that gives them an irresistibly wild and romantic aspect. But, the highlight of the trip was the Hazar Kothri, a warren of subterranean rooms and passages below the Gagan Mahal. Stepping into this underground maze with Nasir, our guide, I was instantly transported to a world right out of Famous Five books – here were castles and secret passages like Blyton had imagined, but far more thrilling and real!

The pitch-dark labyrinth abounds with steps, passages, false doorways and wrong turns, some of which lead intruders to a certain death, opening as they do directly into a well. So be sure you proceed only with a guide, torches and plenty of caution.

Herculean force

No visit to Bidar fort would be complete without a peek at its famed cannons. Manufactured in the mid and late 1500s, they still sit atop towers around the perimeter of the fort. However, how effective these huge cannons were in battle is a moot point. Italian traveller Pietro della Valle pronounced similar cannons in nearby Bijapur ‘useless’, serving only for ‘vain and pomp’.

But Persian chroniclers do record their use in battles. Some, like the aptly named Large Gun, are massive specimens 3.5 to 8.8 m long, using shots weighing between 50 and 130 kg! All these details are beautifully engraved onto the guns themselves, looking more like decorative calligraphy than mundane, practical information. Who says functionality, even on cannons, needn’t be aesthetic?

Several other buildings dot the fort. Among them, the once stately Diwan-i-Am that housed the famous turquoise throne of the Bahmanis: little remains, with just a few walls and pillar bases left to view. The Takht Mahal (Throne Palace) built by Ahmad Shah, is another good place for imaginary time travel. Despite its bombed out appearance, a few details survive, like the cisterns, arches, decorative pillars and  fine Persian-inspired tile work. This included floral patterns and calligraphy, all in bright blues, greens and yellows.

Art historian and architect George Michell writes that tile work in Bidar is often better executed and more aesthetically pleasing than the Iranian work it was modelled after. Perhaps this is what inspired the verse inscribed on this building: ‘How wonderful is this strongly-built palace, compared with the excessive loftiness of which the sky is but as a step at its threshold.’ 

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