Bidar, a land of medieval memories

Bidar is the destination you didn’t know you needed to visit.

The imposing gateway of Bidar Fort

Entering the medieval town of Bidar, I was transported into another realm where I experienced timelessness. I wandered at leisure in this town admiring its innumerable forts, palaces, Sufi shrines, Bahmani-era mosques, havelis and monasteries. Encircled by imposing gateways and intricate battlements, Bidar served for centuries as the capital of two of the most renowned dynasties in South India, first the Bahmanis, and subsequently, the Barid Shahis.

From a bygone era

A rugged 15th-century fort surrounded by a triple-moated wall hewn out of red rock, with intricate battlements and an imposing gateway in the centre of the town is the highlight of the old walled town. Presiding lazily on a promontory, it is surrounded by a series of encompassing defensive walls with strategically placed bastions carrying vast cannons and towers, commanding a perfect view. A winding road led me to the fairy-tale entrance through three gigantic fortified gateways.

The first prominent building which grabbed my attention inside was Rangeen Mahal. Built by Mahmud Shah, the charming complex comprises cisterns, tanks and underground rooms to beat the heat. The interiors comprise some of the finest surviving Islamic art in the Deccan with superb wood carving above the door arches and Persian-style mother-of-pearl inlay on polished black granite surfaces. I visited the nearby ASI Museum (the erstwhile royal bath), which houses an interesting collection of artefacts from the Sultanate period, including Hindu temple sculptures, weapons, coins, pottery, huge fort locks, and even Stone Age artefacts.

Chaukhandi of Hazrat Khalil Ullah
Chaukhandi of Hazrat Khalil Ullah

Across the museum is Solah Khamb Mosque, the oldest Muslim monument in Bidar and one of the largest in the Deccan. Its most striking feature is the intricate pierced-stone calligraphy around its central dome and the covered courtyard for prayers. It is so called because of the 16 pillars at the centre of its prayer hall.  From here, I ambled through the crumbling ruins of the former royal enclosure — a sprawling complex of half-collapsed palaces, royal baths, kitchens, zenanas (women’s quarters), pleasure pavilions and assembly halls.

History at every corner

My next stop was the impressive ruins of Mahmud Gawan Madrasa. Its single minaret towers high above the city centre. Built by Khwaja Mahmud Gawan, the distinctively Persian-style building once housed a huge library well-stocked with scholarly manuscripts, which were damaged after being struck by lightning in 1695. Several of its walls and domes were blown away in a fire accident when it was used as cavalry barracks during Aurangzeb’s time. Currently, the sprawling three-storeyed structure houses a mosque. The elegantly arched facade of the one remaining minaret has retained large patches of the vibrant Persian glazed tilework which includes swirls of floral patterns and bold Koranic calligraphy.

Just a hop away from the Madrasa is Choubara, a fortified watchtower at the intersection of the principal streets running through Bidar. It’s a circular watchtower with a mounted clock at the crossroads used to keep vigil on enemies and happenings in the city, and orders were issued from this tower. South of this is Jami Masjid which bears the Barid Shahi’s typical chain-and-pendant motif.

The next halt in my heritage sojourn was the eight, huge domed tombs of the Bahmani Sultans and their families, in Ashtur, 2 km east of Bidar. The graves are still regularly draped with fresh satin and flowers, and are arranged in a long line along the edge of the road. The exteriors embellished with stone carvings and superbly coloured tile decoration depict strong Persian influence, while the interiors flaunt coloured paintings with gilding on the ceiling. The shrine is a massive structure with a bulbous, onion-shaped dome, and a little mosque attached to it.

After a quick detour, I reached Chaukhandi of Hazrat Khalil Ullah, an octagonal-shaped mausoleum atop a low hillock between Ashtur and Bidar built by Allaudin Shah for his chief spiritual adviser. One can see inside the saint’s tomb and other graves, covered with green satin weighed down with stones and flowers. 

Bidriware
Bidriware

Another fascinating testimony to Bidar’s long tradition of the harmonious intermingling of various cultural and religious traditions are Gurudwara Nanak Jhira Sahib and Narasimha Jhira. They are unique as they are built around jhiras (springs of water). Legend has it that in 1512, Guru Nanak halted at the place where the gurudwara is located today. When the local villagers complained about the severe drought, the compassionate Guru is said to have moved a stone from a hillock with his wooden sandal after which an unrestricted supply of water gushed out. The water is believed to possess certain medicinal properties. At Narasimha Jhira with its underground cave temple, I had to wade through chest-deep water in a tunnel braving the stench and smell of bats to have a darshan of Lord Narasimha.

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