Tuesday, February 19, 2013


A window in the tomb of Mahmud Shah Bahmani, in the necropolis of the Bahmani sultans. This is in the village of Ashtur, a few kilometers outside of Bidar.

For a city that is largely unknown to tourists, at least of the foreign backpacking variety, Bidar has an embarrassment of fantastic things to see. From the early 15th century, until the early 16th, under the name Muhammadabad, the city was the capitol of the Bahmani Sultanate, the first Islamic rulers of southern India, who's sway extended over much of the Deccan.The Bahmanis, who were Shiites originally from present day Iran, built a number of truly magnificent monuments in the city, including Bidar's massive fort, and the huge necropolis in Ashtur. After the fall of the Bahmanis, the city was ruled by the Barid Shahi kings of the Bidar Sultanate, who produced a number of smaller, though certainly still beautiful, tombs.

I rode into Bidar at about 10 P.M, having traveled from Hyderabad. I wound up spending only one full day there, though I was on my feet virtually the whole day exploring the place. The entire time, I didn't see another foreign tourist, and very few domestic ones. The town seemed very friendly, at least judging from from my brief stay there.

The most famous thing to see in Bidar is the huge, formidable-looking fort, the largest in South India. Established by the Hindu predecessors of the Bahmanids, in it's current form it dates back to the early 15th century. For much of the 15th century, into the 16th, it was the capitol of the most powerful rulers in the South. 

Immediately after waking up, intent on beating the mid-day heat (which in Karanataka in October is as hot as the East Coast of the U.S. at its hottest), I had a breakfast of biscuits and bananas,  and then wandered out of my hotel and got an auto-rickshaw straight to the fort. When I got there, the place was just opening up.

The second gate of Bidar Fort, the Sherza Darwaza, as seen through the first. Notice the two lions just above the arch. In Shi Islam, lions are said to symbolize Ali. The word "Sher" means lion (and I think any big cat, but don't quote me!). Bidar fort has three moats and three walls. The motorbike does not date from the 14th century. The fort is still an active place. It has a couple of villages in it, and roads from the city of Bidar cross through it...you'll be walking along near some crumbling, ancient ruin, and suddenly find yourself stepping out of the way of a speedy rickshaw driver.

The inner moat of Bidar Fort, leading to the third gate, the simple yet elegant Gumbad Darwaza. The architecture of Bidar fort is based largely on Persian models, as the Bahmanis were themselves originally from that neck of the woods, though they were Tajiks and not Persians proper. Note the Auto-rickshaw and bicycle.

Gumbad Darwaza and dog. Gumbad Darwaza translates into "domed gate."  

Another view on the Gumbad Darwaza.

Bastions of Bidar Fort. The fort, along with much of Bidar itself,  is situated on a plateau which overlooks  a wide swath of the Karnataka countryside. 

Spikes on the door of the Gumbad Darwaza. I wonder how they got bent like that. It's probably an exceedingly gruesome story...I'm sure Bidar Fort has seen more than its fair share of those.

Picturesque decay in one of the far corners of the fort. Inside the fort, a few of the structures have been fairly heavily restored, mostly in the area around the two main palaces, and the walls and gates were so solidly built to begin with that they don't appear to have aged all that much. But strewn throughout the less visited areas of the fort are numerous, crumbling,old structures, which in a hundred years or so might very well be ground down into dust.

Bidar Fort dogs asleep near an arch.

Looking across the gardens in the core of the fort towards the ruinous Gagan  Mahal. At this point, I had wandered in the fort for some time, but when I came here, I found that practically all the major buildings were closed. As it turned out, I had to go into the fort's museum and track down the guy with the keys. However, what's usually considered the fort's main attraction, the Rangeen Mahal (which I think translates to "Colorful Palace")  was off limits as they were doing restoration work. Still, I got to tour a good portion of the place. My guide from the museum didn't know much English, and his Hindi had a pretty heavy southern accent, but we got along pretty well, and he wasn't at all pushy about his tip.

Inside the Sola Khamba Masjid, or sixteen pillared Mosque. Dating from the 15th century, it's an example of an Indian monument that has gone through a bunch of restoration in just the last few years. The whole interior of the mosque has been coated in white cement, meaning that very little of the actual building material is in evidence. The effect here, in this lighting scheme, works quite well, but frequently the Archaeological Survey of India's ideas on how to go about restoring these sights just comes off as haphazard and sloppy: Though completely smearing an old building in concrete might keep it standing longer, it detracts heavily from its aesthetic appeal. 

My guide's silhouette in an unrestored room underneath the Gagan Mahal. 

The prayer room in the Gagan Mahal, facing Mecca, where the Bahmani Sultans would pray five times daily.  The niche below the window is where they would place their Koran.

Rows of niches, just next to the prayer room. From what I could understand from my guide, I think he said that the niches were used for holding religious texts, however, I'm not totally sure that I understood him correctly. But it's a bunch of nice niches no matter what...

Ammunition storehouses. Not to be artsy fartsy, but the picture simply looked much better in black and white than it did in color. This is in, as far as I can tell, a rarely visited corner of the fort, however these buildings are among the better preserved non-restored structures. While I was here, a goat-herder was grazing his goats among the ruins. I hadn't realized it at the time, but he's in this picture. From the right, he's on top of the rounded structure five arches over. I went over and talked to him briefly, and he seemed to have absolutely no idea what to make of me.

Looking out through a hole where the side of one of the ammunition store-rooms collapsed.

Huge cannon. On one of the fort's bastions, overlooking a wide swath of Karnataka countryside. The picture gives you a good idea of why the fort was situated where it was. I would estimate that the muzzle of the cannon was somewhere in the vicinity of 350mm in diameter  In case you're wondering, it was me who lifted up those giant metal rings. I would be interested to see how a weapon like this would have been mounted. There were also goats wandering around here, and I considered trying to take one and place it in the muzzel, just to give a sense of scale, but I ultimately decided against it.

Arabic inscription at the front of the cannon. I assume it reads "Shoot this way." .....Actually, given that the word "Allah," appears a number of times, I'm assuming it's a verse from the Koran.

These are two light cannons that happened to be in front of a Shiva temple that was in the middle of a tiny village within the fort walls. There seem to be cannons lying out all over the place in Bidar Fort.

Hindu Temple column. This was an odd bit of business. In a small chamber, in a far flung corner of the fort, Hindu temple columns were being used as load bearing members. Given that no hindu temples still exist within the fort from the Bahmanid period, this probably means that the temple column pictured above is a remnant of the earlier, Hindu incarnation of the fort. Of course, one need look no further than the Mosque at Mehrauli in Delhi to see that Moslem conquerors would frequently recycle Hindu building materials to incorporate into their own architectural projects. However, in Bidar fort the only place where I saw evidence of that was in this one chamber.

Secret passage. In Bidar Fort, besides the seven main gateways, there are three "secret" entrance-ways,  of which this seems to be one. The fort is surrounded by three walls, and this canyon like ditch leads you down to a small arch, just big enough for one person to pass through, under the innermost wall. From there, a narrow, overgrown path takes you to a small barbican in the middle wall. On this side of the fort, the walls are much closer together than in the front, and there is only one moat, which is in front of the outer wall. You exit the barbican, and then the path winds along between the middle and outermost wall. After a while, you come to a place where the outer wall has largely crumbled, and it's easy to get from there to the dried moat that now surrounds much of the fort.  These days, the only people who use the secret passageway seem to be shepherds. 

Black and white view of a forlorn and forgotten section of the fort walls. 

More abandoned looking walls, as viewed from the old dried up moat. 

After that, I made my way out of the fort, and headed across Bidar. By this point, it was nearing midday, and it was getting rather too warm to be out in. I made it as far as Bidar's second most famous landmark, the Khwaja Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, and then wound up spending most of the heat of the day in its shadow, overlooking a field full of goats and graves and providing entertainment for the local children.  

The Khwaja Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, with a little bit of its original tile work still clinging to it. Mahmud Gawan was a Persian scholar/general/prime-minister in the Bahmani court, and the madrasa, like Bidar fort, is heavily influenced by Persian Architecture. It was evidently once the most impressive building in Bidar, though it has since become much dilapidated  It was damaged by lightening, and when Aurangzeb took over the area in the 17th century, his forces used the college as a cavalry barracks. One of the chambers was converted into a powder magazine, which exploded, taking down much of the madrasa with it. From what I know of the man, being a staunch Sunni, Aurangzeb treated Shiites as roughly as he did Hindus. Still, the ruins of the madrasa remain an impressive site. They now house a small mosque. 

A tower on the side of the madrasa, with goats to the right. It was in this tower's shadow that I rested for about an hour and a half.

An adorable kid. I couldn't resist. Actually, if I had a better camera, I would be posting many more adorable kid pics. But this one turned out unusually well.

After resting up, I walked out, beyond the outskirts of Bidar, to a small village with the very Persian sounding name of Ashtur. Outside of the village is the Bahmani necropolis.

Ashtur is maybe two miles beyond the ancient,  crumbling, outer walls of Bidar, which are themselves maybe a mile from the madrasa. It said in all three of my guidebooks that it was too far to walk, but it wasn't really. Once you get outside of the city, the countryside consists of very pleasant rolling grassland, which slopes down gradually from the plateau that Bidar Fort is situated on. It's oddly reminiscent of certain parts of southern California.

The tomb of Syed Kirmani Baba, a Sufi saint of Persian origin who was favored by the Bahmani court during its heyday. Architecturally fairly unusual, I remember looking out from the fort walls over the rolling countryside and seeing this structure waaaaay out in the distance. I had no idea what it was until I was practically right down on top of it.

Inside the tomb, looking at Kirmani Baba's grave, which is still prayed at. In the section of my Lonely Planet describing this site, there is a lengthy passage where it talks about the women in hijab murmuring inaudible prayers and lending the place a most mystic and otherworldly air. During my visit, the only woman in hijab who was there seemed to be having an argument over her cell phone, which created a rather different effect.

From the tomb of Syed Kirmani Baba, the road out from Bidar leads to the tombs of the Bahmani sultans.  

The Bahmani tombs in the distance, as seen from Kirmani Baba's mausoleum, in the midst of attractive Karnataka countryside. 

In among the tombs of Ashtur. These days, the grounds around the tombs serve primarily as a great big cricket field for the local kids. 

The paintings on the interior of the tomb of Ahmad I, who relocated the Bahmani capitol to Bidar from Gulbarga. This tomb was the high point of my time in Bidar. The whole interior of the mausoleum is painted with golden calligraphy and arabesque designs. When you walk in, it's cool and dark, but as your eyes slowly adjust, they begin to make out amazing patterns all over the walls and on the inside of the dome. As time passes, the interior of the tomb only gets more beautiful. In order to get into the tomb, I had to ask the care taker. He was the one shining a mirror to make that patch of light you can see in the middle of this photo. Obviously, this picture gives little more than a blurry impression of what the amazing interior of the tomb is like, but I thought I might as well post it. Given that there is very little light in the tomb, and that I couldn't really take a proper exposure without a tripod, this is about the best that I could do.  

This is a close up on the center of the painting on the middle of the underside of the dome. Here you can (relatively) clearly see the golden Arabic calligraphy.

The tomb of Aluddin Ahmad II, the immediate successor of Ahmad  I, with a little bit of the tile work that once adorned the tomb still in evidence, and two little kids positioned perfectly to lend a sense of scale.

The ruined tomb of Humayun the Cruel, which ranks as one of the very weirdest things I have ever seen. Looking at it from a distance, from as far away as Bidar fort, my mind simply couldn't process what I was seeing, and even close up, looking at the tomb makes you feel like something is going very wrong with your brain. This Humayun's tomb is not to be confused with the Moghul Humayun's Tomb in Delhi...that Humayun just doesn't have that bad a rap.

Another, dead-on view of the ruined tomb. Humayun the Cruel ruled the Bahmani Sultanate for only a short time in the 1450's-60s. His reign was characterized by cruelty and insurrection. He lasted only five years. It seems fitting, then, that his tomb would be so ruined and evil looking. I'm not sure if this is true, but a man from Bidar who I met later, during my time in Badami, claimed that the mausoleum collapsed because it was stuck by lightening, which the man suggested was God showing his displeasure at Humayun's unlovable behavior. I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

An elegant illustration of the decline of Bahmani fortunes. The great big tomb is that of Shamsuddin Muhammad, under whom the Bahmani Sultinate reached its greatest extent in the late 15th century, stretching deep into the south and as far east as the Bay of Bengal. His successor,  however, allowed the Sultanate to decay rapidly, and by the 1520s the kingdom had been split into five, and the Bahmanids themselves were no longer in charge even in Bidar. The two small, unimpressive, and rather sad structures were cheap, undomed tombs constructed by the latter Bahmanids to stand next to their illustrious forebearers. The men buried in them were short lived puppet kings under the control of the early Barid Shahi rulers.

After this, I walked down the road towards Bidar for about a mile, looking for a rickshaw and not finding one for a while. I did eventually, and I had intended on heading back to my hotel room after what I thought had been quite a successful day. However, riding back, I noticed, just behind the bus stop, even more tombs. I was rather puzzled at first: the Lonely Planet hadn't mentioned them (and isn't everything in the Lonely Planet?). 

As it turned out, these were the tombs of the Barid Shahi Sultans, who took over the control of Bidar from the Bahmanis and were in control until being knocked over themselves by the rival Bijaipur Sultinate in the early 17th century.

The tomb of Ali Barid Shah, the longest reigning and most successful of the Barid Shahi Sultans. The small graves that you can see on the platform are those of the women of Ali Barid Shah's harem. His tomb is smaller, and perhaps less awe inspiring than those of the Bahmanis, but it is certainly exceedingly elegant, and definitely deserving of inclusion in the Lonely Planet (perhaps it's in the newer edition).  

Closer on the grave of Ali Barid Shah himself (the black one). 

The tomb of Kasim Barid, the founder of the Barid Shahi dynasty, just about at sundown.

So, that's all for Bidar, a fascinating town that deserves to be better known.  After spending around 12 hours straight on my feet, I went and had dinner at the strange, slightly shady hotel restaurant across the street, and then went to bed. By 10 A.M. the next day, I was on my way to Bijapur.

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