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Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Bijapur (Vijayapura)

Although it's nearly at the midpoint between Mumbai and Chennai, Bijapur (renamed Vijayapura in 2014) stands off the main lines of travel in India. It has a quarter of a million people but feels less like a city than a gridlocked town. Part of the reason it feels crowded is that it has grown among the stones of a dead city. In the mid-19th Century, Bijapur was already called the "Palmyra of the Dekhan." Meadows Taylor, a British officer stationed nearby, described it as a "city of ruins, across miles of barren country." Yet the city was an ancient place, once ruled by the Chalukyans and much later by the Adil Shahi Dynasty, which was established in 1490 reputedly by a son of the Turkish Sultan. The city then flourished for two centuries until the Moghul Aurangzeb conquered it in 1686. Bijapur slipped gradually into near-oblivion.

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The Bagalkot Road (which continues past Bagalkot to Dharwar and Hubli) passes through the city's wall at the Mangoli Gate. That was the gate's original name, coming from the nearby town of Mangoli, but Aurangzeb reputedly entered the city here. Victors do have their privileges, and since his time the gate has been known as the Fateh or Victory Gate. It might equally well have been called the Gate of Defeat.

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Another view, with a bit of local color. Through traffic uses a bypass on the city's east side. Otherwise the bottleneck would be choking.

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The city wall, six miles in length, had an accompanying, 50-foot-wide moat. Squatters have taken up residence on the spot.

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Over the course of its two centuries, the Adil Shahi Dynasty had nine kings. Monumental architecture began with the fifth, Ali Adil Shah, who ruled from 1557 to 1580 and had the luxury of ruling over a secure state. It was his successor, Ibrahim who most likely built this structure, roughly in 1620. It's called the Mehtar Mahal or Prince's Palace, but it has nothing to do with a palace. Instead, it's the grand entrance to a modest mosque. The Adil Shahis, by the way, were not only Muslim but fervent in their hatred of the Hindu majority surrounding them.

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The best description of the gate is an old one from what is still the city's best guide, Bijapur, the Capital of the Adil Shahi Kings. A Guide to its Ruins, by Henry Cousens, published privately in 1905. Cousens, who was superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of Western India, wrote (p. 33): "The most ornate feature about the gate are these windows. They are bay or oriel windows, the projecting landing, or sill, being supported, beneath, by bracketing ornamented with rows of hanging buds or drops, the brackets, or consoles, being themselves connected into a whole by decorated transverse tie-pieces in ascending tiers. The balcony parapet, with its rosette panels and neat capping, is carried across the face of the building.... From this rise three lancet-shaped lights in the front, and one each in the ends; and, from the mullions between these, project a row of most richly wrought stone brackets supporting the deep overhanging cornice. They are exceedingly thin, long, rectangular, slabs, perforated and worked over with the most beautiful arabesque. They are such as one would expect to find in woodwork, and look far too delicate to be wrought in brittle stone; but they have lasted, without breaking, for nearly three hundred years, during the most part of which time the building has not been cared for.... Along the crest of the building, between the minarets, was a most beautifully perforated parapet, but this, too, had suffered very much. Its slabs were easily removed, and were probably carried off, in days gone by, when the relics of Bijapur were a prey to the occasional visitor, and a quarry to the local builders, whose very familiarity with these unused buildings blunted their respect for them, at a time when this old deserted city was lying almost in oblivion, uncared for and desolate. This parapet has lately been removed."

Since Cousens, it's been replaced, clumsily.

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The mosque behind the gate has always been small, but it has lately been greatly improved with corrugated sheetmetal, fluorescent tubes, electrical panels, and clocks.

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Farther into the city, the Jami Mosque was begun by Ali Adil Shah. It was never finished, though work continued until and even after the arrival of Aurangzeb.

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The prayer hall, shown in the last picture, opens onto this large courtyard.

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The courtyard was supposed to extend to a grand entrance, but it never happened, unless you count the gateway in the distance.

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The dome over the prayer hall has had many admirers. James Fergusson (II, 271) wrote of the architect: "If he had had the courage to pierce the niches at the base of his dome,and make them into windows, he would probably have had the credit of designing the most graceful building of its class in existence."

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The mihrab has an inscription reading, "This gilding and ornamental work was done by order of the Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah, A.H. 1045." That's 1636. Muhammad followed Ibrahim who followed Ali. The sequence is important because between them the trio built the city's grandest buildings.

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White light and cool(er) shadow.

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The floor of the prayer hall has 2250 prayer spaces. The floor was originally covered with velvet prayer carpets, or (musallahs). They were removed by Aurangzeb, who then ordered that the floor be painted to guide the congregation. He might as well have ordered patterned linoleum.

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The city's most spectacular work is perhaps the Ibrahim Rauza, the tomb of Ibrahim, who ruled between Ali and Muhammad. Aurangzeb made this place his camp quarters, and it was damaged by Bijapur guns vainly defending the city. The tombs were repaired by the English and the Raja of Satara. The Raja's preservationist credentials may be questioned, however, since he (or possibly a predecessor) stripped the Mehtar Mahal of its gilding.

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With customary verve, Fergusson writes (II, 272) that "it is one of the disadvantages of the Turanian system of each king building his own tomb, that if he dies early his work remains unfinished. This defect is more than compensated in practice by the fact that unless a man builds his own sepulchre, the chances are very much against anything worthy of admiration being dedicated to his memory by his surviving relatives."

Life's tough. In the case of this tomb, Fergusson continues, "Ibrahim II (1579-1626) had commenced his mausoleum on so small a plan--116 feet square--that, as he enjoyed a long and prosperous reign, it was only by ornament that he could render it worthy of himself, his favourite wife, and other members of his family." Ornament it he did. The apt comparison might be with the tombs at Golconda, near Hyderabad.

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Traces of gilt and azure lasted a long while on the inner walls; presumably the pillars are the work of restorers on a budget.

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The entire Qur'an was said to be inscribed on these walls in gilt on an azure background. Comparing this tomb with that of Ibrahim's father, Cousens writes (p. 21) that "with its lavish abundance of decoration, gilded and gorgeously coloured, its slender and graceful minarets, its exquisite proportions, and its surrounds of lovely gardens, it [this tomb] made his father's simple tomb sink into insignificance and become a hovel beside it." Cousens points to an inscription that dates the building to 1626 and reads: "This building, which makes the heart glad, is the memorial of Taj Sultana." If so, the building was originally intended to be the tomb of Ibrahim's wife. (Henry Cousens, Architectural Antiquities of Western India, p. 77.)

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Inside are the tombs of Ibrahim and his family.

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Critics marvel at the plain ceiling. How are the stone plates supported, they ask. Their answer is the marvelous local mortar, so strong that it can support its own weight, as well as that of the slabs it binds. The same slabs form the floor of an upper room, reached through a concealed staircase now screened off.

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A mosque (and empty pool) is just to the east of the tombs.

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Where Ibrahim went for a jewelbox, his successor Muhammad Adil Shah, who ruled from 1626 to 1627, went for bulk, a huge hemispherical dome atop a cube. The result was the Gol Gumbaz, or "round dome", a mausoleum that until the modern era was the largest building in the Deccan. The hemispherical dome is 124 feet in diameter, bigger than St. Paul's (108 feet) and not far short of St. Peters (139 feet). Cousens contrasts it with the Ibrahim Raza this way (p. 21): "In this last work [the Ibrahim Raza] the architects and builders had done their very best; they could do no more in that line. The only thing left to him {Muhammad], then, was to substitute quantity for quality."

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The tomb stands behind the Nakkar Khana or Music Gallery, which was supposed to get minars that were never supplied. By 1905 the British had converted this building to a museum. Tacky? Not as tacky as their using the adjoining mosque as a guesthouse. Say what you will about Lord Curzon--and many have said much--but he put a stop to that.

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The facade of the Gol Gumboz is varied by using gray basalt within the great arches. The girls at the lower left hint at the size of this beast.

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The dome of the Gol Gomboz has excited the interest of architectural historians for a long time. Here's Fergusson (II, 274): "On the platform of these pendentives at a height of 109 feet, 6 inches, the dome is erected, 124 feet 5 in. in diameter, thus leaving a gallery more than 12 feet wide all round the interior. Internally, the dome is 178 ft. above the floor, and externally 198 ft. from the outside platform, its thickness at the springing is about 10 ft. and at the crown is 9 ft..... If the whole edifice thus balanced has any tendency to move, it is to fall inwards, which from its circular form is impossible...."

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He continues: "At the height of 57 feet above the floor-line the hall begins to contract, by a series of pendentives as ingenious as they are beautiful, to a circular opening 97 feet in diameter." The dome covers about 18,000 square feet.

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It's dark inside, although the light outside is so intense that darkness may be a blessing. Cousens is grudging. He writes (p. 18), "The domes of Bijapur are, as a rule, lost, internally, in their own gloom; they have seldom any clerestory lights, and, where they do exist, as in the mosque at the Ibrahim Rauza, they are too low."

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These are cenotaphs; the real tombs are on the floor below. Muhammad lies on the east with his youngest wife and son and, on the west, a favorite dancing girl, a daughter, and his eldest wife.

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Another angle.

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Stairs wind up in the towers.

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The view across to the next corner.

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Entrance to the central dome.

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A gallery circles the dome and attracts visitors drawn mostly by its acoustic properties. A century ago, Cousins wrote (p. 25-6), "The footfall of a single person is enough to awaken the echoes of the tread of a regiment.... Loud laughter is answered by a score of fiends." Get a few kids up here, and the place rocks.

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View from the gallery down to the tomb's entrance.

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View across to the Jami Masjid, half a mile away.

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The city once had a citadel with its own wall. Here, a fragment of that wall protects the Ark Qila. (The phrase is perhaps a corruption of Ark Allah, "the Castle of Allah.") Meadows Taylor, who was here in the mid-19th century, wrote (quoted in Cousens, p. 5) that "the interior of the citadel is almost indescribable, being nearly covered with masses of enormous ruins, now almost shapeless, interspersed with buildings still perfect. All those which had vaulted roofs are sound, but all in which wood existed are roofless and irreparably ruined." The most noticeable change since Meadows was here 150 years ago is the addition of motorized traffic.

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The Audience Hall called the Gagan Mahal or Heavenly Palace was completed in 1561. Fergusson (II, 277) criticizes the central arch, 60 feet wide, as "too like an engineering work to be satisfactory." In the architect's defense, it might be said that only with such a broad arch could people in the hall get an unobstructed view of the space before them, which was used for various military displays. Cousens adds a bit more atmosphere with his remark (p. 61) that "it is said, that, in this hall, Aurangzib received the submission from the king Sikandar and his nobles on the fall of Bijapur."

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Another view.

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Still another, with a separate entrance on the left.

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Many of Bijapur's old buildings were converted by the British to other uses. The same old gateway shown in the previous picture was converted, as this picture shows, to a church.

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View from the other side.

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The Sat Manzili or Seven Storied Palace. Five floors survive, reputedly part of a palace built by 1583 by Ibrahim. Perhaps it was a lookout or a spot to catch some breeze.

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An unidentified relic. (Could it be the Chini Mahal, once used for government offices?)

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Time marches on.

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