If Gulmarg is a popular hill station in the hills of the north, there is a similar sounding Gulbarga town in the plains down south in Karnataka that is gaining a comparable reputation as a tourist destination. In the recent past, Gulbarga has had the status of a poor district in one of the most arid zones of our country but in the near future it will necessarily figure on the regular tourist map as a greenfield airport is taking shape there to lure more visitors.
In ancient times, Gulbarga was a bountiful land with a flourishing population and reminders are evident all over the tiny town, with numerous ruins, fallen fortifications, tombs and domes. In the Persian language ‘Gul’ means flower and ‘burg’ means leaf, thus proving Gulbarga was once a land of lavish living. Driving into the town from Hyderabad, we reached our hotel located close to the enormous Gulbarga fort and gazed at the nearly 700-year-old fortress which remained standing forlorn for many decades. But it is all set to regain its lost glory as the Archaeological departments of both the central and state governments are working for its renovation and restoration. Accompanying me during the journey was a co-traveller, a busy banker from Hyderabad, who instilled fresh interest for travel in me.
It was a great chance to see Deccani Muslim architecture at its best and Deccani Urdu culture at work, specially as there are few tourists. Sprawling over an area of 75 acres, the elliptical fortification has 15 tall watch towers with 26 massive metallic cannon guns strategically mounted on battlements. We managed to see only three of the majestic cannons located atop the enormous four-storied rock-solid structure called ‘Ranamandal’ in middle of the fort as climbing up and down the massive flight of steps was a daunting task. A deep 40-feet moat around the three kilometre circumference separates the double fortified boundary wall of the fort which was once filled with water and teeming with man-eating crocodiles to keep enemies at bay.
Gulbarga fort was just round the corner, so we were symbolically walking down the lanes of history to explore the city replete with tombs and domes. The story of Gulbarga goes back to the 14th Century when Bahamani Sultans were the first Muslim rulers to dominate the Deccan, although it was earlier under the rule of Hindu Kings from nearby Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. The Bahamanis decked up this arid place with plush palaces, imposing battlements and stately structures, with the aid of a few perennial lakes and two small rivers flowing with fresh water. Today Gulbarga is left with the ruins of its old citadels, mosques, crumbling stables for elephants and horses, dilapidated mausoleums, large courtyards and ancient temples for us to admire.
The compact Jama Masjid inside the fort wall is a unique mosque with a huge dome and smaller domes as embellishments in the Indo-Islamic architectural style. It was built in 1,367 with attractive arched doorways and can accommodate about 5,000 worshipers. It has no courtyard but is adorned with 250 arches and 70 small and large domes sitting on the alluring curvatures. The serenity and solitude when we visited at the break of dawn was overpowering, with the slanting sun illuminating the seductive profile. In the morning we started the search for more monuments at Gulbarga, with our first stop at a quaint complex having seven royal tombs popularly known as Haft Gumbaz. It is interesting to wander in the spacious interiors with latticed windows, cusped arches and ornamental remnants. The interiors of seven tombs were conspicuously cool while it was scorching outside and these seven mausoleums were encompassed in a singular arena as they belonged to prominent monarchs.
Our next stop was Khwaja Bande Nawaz Dargah, the tomb of the Sufi Syed Mohammed Gesu Daraz, standing in a large complex comprising of many lesser tombs and minor mosques. The interiors are richly decorated with frescos on glazed tiles with blue green geometric designs, free flowing tendrils and flowers portraying the influence of Indo-Islamic art. The mirror work set inside the dome of this dargah makes it a spiritual tour de force of the Islamic world and is surely a delight for the eyes.
Regrettably, women are not allowed inside the shrine where this exquisite mirror work is inlaid. They can only have a glimpse through a small window from the outer wall. Hundreds of devotees, both Muslims and Hindus, pay homage to the Sufi saint on the occasion of the annual Urs. After a random view of the many small tombs and domes within the complex we ventured to the wish-fulfilling chamber where we dropped few coins, hoping for lady luck to smile on us. Later, we ventured 22 kms south of Gulbarga in search of the lost ruins of Firozabad, a city founded by Firoz Shah Bahamani. On reaching a tiny hamlet we took the trail that runs along the village fields next to the fort. Huge arches, crumbling palaces, once stately and strong but now in a dilapidated condition, were the only remains of Firozabad. We climbed over the dainty unused steps and walked the alleyway atop one such fortress to enjoy the olive-green crops in rustic surroundings.
These dreamlike ruins, overgrown with weeds and reeds, urgently need restoration and conservation to preserve our vast heritage. Closer to the town, located on a lonely hillock is the massive 15th century Chor Gumbaz, the largest in town, having a huge hemispherical dome with decorative smaller domes on all four corners. Watching the sunset with its slanting rays spread over this tomb was a sheer delight and a suitable ending to the three days spent in Gulbarga. On the way back to our hotel we passed by Aiwan-e-Shahi, the rest house of the Nizam built in two shades of stone. Also we espied a large lake next to the 19th Century Basaveshwara temple undergoing repair work.
However, the latest attraction is 7 km from Gulbarga town, located in a 700-acre perfectly maintained Buddhist temple built a couple of years ago, called Buddha Vihar. As we roamed inside and outside the peaceful precincts we seemed to be cleansing our souls with the serenity and sanctity of the place. But cameras and cellphones are not allowed, so that the internal and external harmony is maintained. The road trip back to Hyderabad by car was a comfortable journey of 220 kms and the connecting road from Bangalore and Bombay is equally remarkable. Gulbarga has its own railhead and many trains crisscross from north to south and east to west. Accommodation in Gulbarga is not luxurious but the hotels available are good for a comfortable stay. The Lingayat cuisine (try the toor dal) is unique and delicious as are the malpuas stuffed with khoya.