How an impregnable fort city was finally breached by treachery 

(Published in Conde Nast Traveller India, December 29 2022)

In 1603, Shah Abbas of Persia sent an embassy to India. It carried gifts and jewels, including a crown full of rubies, seeking to flatter a local ruler in the Deccan. The sultanates here had for long courted Persia, even accepting its overlordship. This was, of course, to achieve their own ends. The shah, after all, was a faraway figure, unlikely to directly assert authority. All the same, being under his nominal suzerainty provided the sultanates legal insurance from Mughal claims over their kingdoms. It was, in other words, a balancing act—keeping at bay the empire closer home by wooing a rival power from a safe distance. This less than sincere attitude might explain why, when that Persian embassy sought to cement the alliance through marriage, the Qutb Shah of Golconda demurred. The visiting diplomats stayed at his court for years but failed this part of their mission. Golconda would show respect to the Persian emperor, sending him ritual homage and sweet words. But it would not give him a royal daughter.  

The story of Golconda is the tale of two cities and multiple powers. The great fort—imposing even today—was originally built by the Kakatiya dynasty, before it passed through conquest to the Bahmanis. In the 1500s, the first of the Qutb Shahs—yet another governor who broke free of his bosses’ control—developed it further. The mud walls were replaced by forbidding rings of granite, with palaces and buildings steadily erected within. It is one of those fortresses that fits the term “impregnable”—when it fell in 1687 to the Mughals, it was through the treachery of someone within, not a breach in the walls. Even today, Golconda is not an easy proposition. Visiting it entails trekking up piles of rock, via steep passages, and one can almost picture those victorious Mughal troops panting and heaving as they marched up to the royal durbar. Here the last Qutb Shah sat in stoic dignity, dressed in all his regalia, aware he was now a prisoner. The halls where he held court today house colonies of bats and pigeon nests. Glory abandoned Golconda that day, and from a living, breathing site it became an artefact.

The legacy of the Qutb Shahs and their state, however, is more alive in a city not too far from the fort. Hyderabad—an unwalled satellite town—was established by Golconda’s sultans in the 1590s: a place some ecstatic chroniclers compared to paradise, when in fact it was designed to make room when the fort ran out of space. Its piece de resistance remains the Charminar, near which the Qutb Shahs laid out planned streets with bazaars, palaces, and other buildings. The royal abode in Hyderabad, no longer in existence, is said to have been seven or eight storeys high; one floor had pillars and a ceiling studded with gemstones, with even the nails hammered in made of gold. After the Mughal takeover, it is believed that the new regime demolished these marks of Qutb Shahi magnificence in order to stamp their own identity on the city. Equally likely, the buildings were torn apart during that final war. But Hyderabad was certainly a prize, a city in a league of its own. Or as an Englishman testified, it was “the best situated in India”, its courtly halls surpassing even the Mughals’ in grandeur. 

The Qutb Shahi dynasty was descended from a Turkoman warrior called Sultan-Quli, who had emigrated to the Deccan in the second half of the 1400s. A servant of the Bahmanis, over time he rose to become governor of that dying empire’s Telugu territories—the nucleus of what he would claim as his own state. When Sultan-Quli was ninety, an impatient son murdered him; the parricide did not live long, though, and was succeeded by Ibrahim, a brother, who ruled for decades. A patron of Telugu literature, and married to a Telugu bride, in his time the Qutb Shahs became one with the land and their people. Golconda’s chief port at Masulipatam pumped in wealth via exports of textiles, while its mines threw up diamonds that were the stuff of legend. The court made room for Persians, Southeast Asians, and Europeans, even as its government was manned by Hindus and Muslims both. Indeed, by the time Golconda fell to the Mughals, power was wielded by two Brahmin brothers, through whom the Qutb Shah had established a friendship even with the Maratha hero, Shivaji.

With its vast revenue, well-regarded monarchs, and proverbial wealth, it is not surprising that the Mughals coveted Golconda. This realm was also, of course, a gateway into the south where Aurangzeb would later stretch his imperial limits. In 1636 the state was reduced to vassal status; and from treating the Persian emperor as suzerains, the Qutb Shahs were compelled to transfer allegiance to the Peacock Throne. Twenty years later, under a young Aurangzeb, the Mughals were again at Golconda’s gates; it was the queen mother, Hayat Baksh Begum, who went out and settled a treaty, ceding territory as well as a princess. Incidentally, this begum was the very lady the Persian shah once courted; by choosing to stay back in the Deccan instead, she became one of the prime forces in Golconda’s politics. But her diplomacy only bought time, not peace. In time, Aurangzeb returned, and when his armies failed to break the fort, bribery helped—a mercenary opened the gates one night, letting the enemy in. Meanwhile Hyderabad was turned over to be plundered—even doors were taken off hinges—and the Qutb Shahs were swallowed by doom.

Gazing today from the heights of the fort, one will spot in the distance the tombs of these long-dead sultans. Restored beautifully by the Aga Khan Foundation, these are structures of elegance, even if they pale against the Adil Shahi monuments of the rival state of Bijapur. It has taken years to repair these buildings, which five years ago, lashed by rain and the cruel passage of time, looked depressing. Ironically, during that final Mughal siege, these tombs were used as a military camp by the invaders; atop some of them Aurangzeb placed guns aimed at Golconda, shooting, quite literally, at the Qutb Shah from the graves of his own forbears. Now, all this time later, walking through the complex, one can locate nearly every protagonist of that age. There is the tower-like tomb of the second Qutb Shah who murdered his father; Hayat Baksh Begum rests nearby in a splendid mausoleum, and there is a mosque too named after this remarkable queen. And if you know their story, and the tale of Golconda, it feels almost as if it was only yesterday that these men and women walked the earth; that barely a moment has passed since their age came to an end.