Strategically placed on the trifocal point of Kannadigas, Telugus and Marathas – the Islamic citadel of Bidar hosts stunning Persian architecture resplendent with religious symbolism
While tourists throng to the Mughal citadel of Fatehpur Sikri, other enchanting Islamic citadels with majestic monuments like Champaner in Gujarat or Bidar and Gulbarga in Karnataka remain less visited. Having heard much about the architecture of Bidar, we decided to make a visit to this citadel tucked away in the northeast corner of Karnataka when travelling between Hyderabad and Pune.
After a three hour drive from Hyderabad, we came to Bidar which sits on a hilltop. The citadel presents a spectacle of magnificent fortifications, palaces, domes, minarets and towers that reminded me of the Arabian Nights stories. The capital of the Brahmani Sultans from 1424 and later a Mughal citadel, Bidar is rapidly urbanising – it is a major centre for the pharmaceuticals industry and abounds in colleges for engineering, veterinary sciences, medicine and para-medical studies; yet the abundance of stone monuments like the fort, mosques, mausoleums and minarets reminded me of the Arabian Nights stories.
As we entered Bidar, we saw Khalil Allah Chaukundi, a beautiful octagonal shaped four-sided mausoleum of a Sufi saint from Persia who was the spiritual advisor of Allauddin Shah, with stonework and calligraphy above its door. From here, we continued to the impressive Madrassa of Mahmud Gawan, with its minaret soaring high above the cityscape. Mahmud Gawan, a scholar from Persia, was the Wazir of the Brahmani kingdom and commanded almost as much power as the ruler, Muhammed 3 (1463-82). This masterpiece of Central Asian style architecture has four arched portals (called iwans) leading to a courtyard with a backdrop of domes and the facade with tile mosaics and calligraphy, flanked by minarets. This was once a theological college, known for its library, and the classrooms reflect the cultural importance that Bidar once commanded. Some distance from here we saw the Takthi-i-Kirmani, a 15th-century gateway with arabesque designs, and numerous other Islamic monuments.
The Bidar Fort, at the end of the street running north from the Madrassa, was built by the Brahmanis in the 15th-century – an older Chalukya Fort is said to have stood here. The citadel was planned with the royal enclave of palaces and mosques and the residential areas to the south. We were told that the fort is pentagonal in shape. We entered through a series of arched gateways with domes and tile work which led into the former royal enclave. We first saw the exquisite 16th-century Rangin Mahal, which contains some of the finest Islamic art in South India. The arches are crowned by superb woodcarving. The hall has ornate brackets and columns, and to the rear is a chamber with attractive tile mosaics and intricate inlaid mother-of-pearl decorations. From here, we walked to the 14th-century Solah Khambha Mosque which has circular columns, the walled gardens called Lal Bagh, the ruins of the audience hall and the Takht Mahal. The watchman showed us royal baths, called Hammam, which now house a small museum. From the fort, a road leads north to the 15th century tombs of the Brahmani rulers. The Tomb of Ahmed Shah has splendid murals. The tombs are crowned by high and large domes and some of the walls bear traces of inlaid tile decorations in intricate patterns.
Bidar is well-known for Bidriware, a metal craft inspired by the Persian art of inlaying gold or silver on steel or copper. This craft was patronised by the Brahmani rulers at Bidar. The process of Bidriware involves melting the alloy, casting the product, engraving the design and inlaying the design pattern with sheet metal or wire, and oxidising the surface to bring out the design on the articles. I bought a box with Persian motifs from the artisans.
From the Islamic heart of Bidar, we moved downhill towards Guru Nanak Jhira Sahib, which was like a Sikh quarter – we saw Punjabi Sikh nameplates on houses and restaurants serving Punjabi vegetarian food. Guru Nanak came to Bidar to meet Sufi saints. When approached by his followers with their concerns about the salinity of water in the walled town, the Guru is said to have touched the ground with his wooden sandal, after which clean sweet drinking water started gushing out. According to another story, he shifted a stone and removed some rubble from the place with his wooden sandal. To everyone's utter surprise, a spring of cool and fresh water emerged that continues to flow to this day. As jhira means stream, the site is called Nanak Jhira. It is revered by Sikhs as a sign of how the heavens answered Guru Nana's wish to bring water in the arid Deccan town of Bidar. An elegant Gurdwara at Bidar has a water pond for visitors to wash their feet before entering the Darbar Sahib, Diwan Hall, the Guru Granth Sahib Sukhaasan and Langar Hall where free meals are served. This is among the holiest Sikh shrines.
After lunch, we drove out of Bidar towards Solapur where we had planned to break the journey before proceeding to Pune. In the grasslands of the Deccan, we saw a herd of blackbuck, the handsome Indian antelope.
GETTING THERE: Bidar is about 145 km from Hyderabad Airport. The town also has a railway station. Bidar is easily accessible from the highway connecting Hyderabad with Pune. For those interested in wildlife, there are excellent opportunities to view antelope and grassland birds between Solapur and Bidar when travelling on this highway.
WHEN TO VISIT: Bidar is most pleasant in winter between November and February.
One of the major celebrations in Bidar is Guru Nanak Jayanti in November when the Nanak Jhira Gurdwara is festooned with lights, flags and decorations.
WHERE TO STAY: An exciting place to stay is Blackbuck Resort near Vilaspur lake, about 18 km from Bidar.