(Published in Conde Nast Traveller India, December 23 2022)
Somewhere in the opening years of the 1420s, a prince of the Bahmani sultanate found himself cornered. Ahmad Shah was brother to the reigning sultan, Firuz, who in the twilight of his rule had begun to suspect his sibling of overambition. The sultan hoped for his son to succeed him; but many at court advocated for Ahmad. Annoyed at this turn of events, Firuz attempted to seize and blind the latter. The scheme flopped, so the sultan sent an army after the would-be heir to end this once and for all. It looked like Ahmad was finished. Except that he wasn’t. For all he lacked in numbers, the man made up with brains. At the rear of his modest cavalry unit, Ahmad planted row after row of bullocks, with soldiers perched on their backs. Suddenly, from a distance his army looked greater than it really was. The bovine ruse worked: Firuz’s troops panicked, and Ahmad carried the day. Soon after, it was Firuz’s son who was blinded, and rumour has it that the sultan himself was murdered. In 1422, Ahmad Shah formally proclaimed himself king of the Bahmanis. And where his brother ruled the Deccan from Gulbarga and Firuzabad, the new sultan transported himself to fresh ground, close to the scene of his victory: the city of Bidar.
Located at the north-eastern edge of present-day Karnataka, Bidar is now a small town, with a few lakh residents. But its sturdy old fort, built by Ahmad, is a reminder of its days as one of late-medieval India’s great urban highlights. The sultan’s choice of place was not because Bidar offered better climate, as is sometimes said; on the contrary, it held strategic incentives for the multilingual, multicultural sultanate. A quick look at the map shows Bidar at a crossroads between Marathi-speaking territories in the west, Kannada lands in the south, and eastward Telugu country where the Bahmanis were expanding. The sultanate—stretching from the Arabian Sea, across the upper half of the peninsula, to the Bay of Bengal—could not have a finer capital. And, of course, Ahmad did his best to make his seat worthy of royalty. Its buildings competed in grandeur with those in Persia, with great arches and immense height. The audience hall, with gleaming, patterned tiles, housed the Bahmanis’ Turquoise Throne, a fabled object in its own right. Human resources too were nourished: Ahmad brought in famed poets and architects, scholars and Sufi saints, to Bidar. Some years later the Russian traveller Afanasy Nikitin would justifiably describe the place as the “chief town” of Hindustan.
It is said that Ahmad also came to Bidar to escape Gulbarga (in today’s north Karnataka) and its bloody history. His forbears who ruled there had seen regicide, assassinations, and the worst of political intrigue: all natural characteristics for any empire. With Bidar, the sultan sought a break from this murderous past, finding a less blood-soaked spot to cement Bahmani prestige and authority anew. Since this place had been linked to the Kakatiyas and other Hindu dynasties before, it had a distinct legitimacy. Whether the plan worked is debatable, though. On the face of it and as Nikitin described it, Bidar with its “wonderful” palace, and “carved and gilded” halls was a royal city par excellence. And yet, its people were evidently “wicked”, its women “harlots”, and in general, the place was full of “cheats”. Such acerbic commentary from Nikitin may have stemmed from certain unfortunate experiences he had dealing with locals, but either way, the Bahmanis also did not find peace in Bidar. Instead, the empire crumbled under their feet, largely due to sociocultural triggers. Even before Ahmad Shah, the sultans had grown besotted with Persianate culture, something visible in Bidar’s architectural signature. Persians were imported en masse to the Deccan vexing native factions. As Nikitin observed, foreigners “rule[d] the country”—and the locals resented the intrusion.
Ahmad died in 1436, very much a respected sultan. But his heirs in Bidar witnessed an erosion of power, even as they tried to balance the scales between the multiethnic camps at court. In the 1470s a minister—Mahmud Gawan—tried to reverse their decline. A talented litterateur, merchant, minister, and strategist, his chief contribution to Bidar’s landscape is the magnificent madrasa, impressive even in its present state of ruin. But he simply made too many enemies, and in 1481, fell victim to a deadly plot. From here on, the sultanate went into terminal decline. One formidable general would set himself up in Ahmadnagar as an independent power. In the years that followed, governors in Telugu and Kannada territories also seceded. Bidar itself would fall into the control of a Georgian slave-turned-courtier, Qasim Barid; his family worked the sultans like puppets and seduced royal begums. The last of the Bahmanis, Kaleemullah Shah, fled Bidar—his own capital—in 1528, dying a king without a kingdom. Depressed, his son and heir boarded a ship and sailed into oblivion. The line of the old sultans had come to an end.
The Bahmanis have, however, left us a legacy to behold. With its 37 bastions and seven gates, Bidar sparks awe in its visitors today as it did then. Its famous fourteen-foot-long gun, dating back to the late 16th century, and long since gone quiet, was witness to the advent of gunpowder and new technologies of war. The Zanani Masjid is simple in design but is striking with its over 300-foot frontage and sixteen pillars; built in the 1420s, its plainness also indicates its age. With the fall of the Bahmanis, Qasim Barid’s part-Georgian, part-Maratha family made an attempt to claim Bidar: the Rangeen Mahal, for example, with its mother of pearl inlay work, carved columns, and turquoise-blue tiles, is their contribution. But as if marking the shift in power from a legitimate house to usurpers, these later buildings are modest. Barid’s heirs styled themselves sultans from 1542 but just over 70 years later were extinguished by a rival sultanate. And in a few decades, Bidar again changed hands, when Aurangzeb, the future Mughal emperor, took the region. His governors introduced their own innovations, such as the Chandni Chabutra—“platform for moonlit nights”—from where they gazed down at the plains and up towards the skies. Standing at this spot, Bidar resembles a link between the heavens and the world of men. And it seems a palimpsest, with each master adding elements to that which existed before.
But as the city became a proverbial shuttlecock between different powers, it was also reduced in stature. Without an autonomous royal court, its economy and relevance broke down by the end of the 17th century. Like the last of the ill-fated Bahmanis—who in their final years were reduced to stripping their throne of gems to sell for money—Bidar became a fading relic. In 1696, the great madrasa built by Mahmud Gawan was struck by lightning, as if the gods too had sentenced the Bahmanis’ erstwhile home to decline. Yet, for the 21st-century tourist, Bidar’s silent walls have many stories to tell. When one passes through the great gates of the fort, a citadel that once saw Ahmad Shah ride in triumph after many a battle and withstood many a siege; as one walks in Ashtur, around the stoic tombs of assorted sultans, one is reminded that there is more to the city than its forlorn loneliness. But most of all, there is a feeling of irony. Today, we find cattle grazing on the grounds of Ahmad Shah’s beloved capital, not far from the spot where he won that decisive battle with the bullocks. Bidar represented something magnificent in its heyday; but in the great march of history, it is also a lesson in impermanence, and of the ravages time visits upon all that is and was glorious.