In this city, an empty tomb still waits for its general to return

(Published in Conde Nast Traveller India, December 27 2022)

In 1659, the court of the Adil Shah of Bijapur—one of the successor states of the old Bahmani sultanate of the Deccan—faced a problem. Towards the northwest of the capital, a son of one of the Adil Shah’s nobles had sparked a rebellion. This young man, Shivaji by name, had taken over fortresses, ejected the court’s vassals and warlords, and was fast becoming a force. In response, then, the Adil Shahi government ordered one of its most feared generals to go out and “deal” with the issue. Afzal Khan marched off, accompanied by several leading courtiers, including prominent Marathas. The rest of the story is well known. Shivaji persuaded Khan to meet him one on one, and there, as the latter gripped the future Maratha king in a treacherous embrace, the young protagonist disembowelled him. The Adil Shahi titan collapsed to the ground. Later, his head is said to have been carried to the fort of Pratapgad in today’s Satara district of Maharashtra where it was subsequently buried. There was no going home for the dreaded Bijapur warrior. Meanwhile, the Adil Shahs lost face, and Shivaji soared in reputation. 

In Bijapur today—centuries after the events of the 1650s—Afzal Khan’s “tomb” still stands, as if waiting for its intended occupant to return. In the fashion of the time, Khan had, even as he lived, commissioned its construction to his exact requirements and design. The tale goes that the dome was not yet complete when he left for his fateful encounter with Shivaji; that he had a premonition that he would not see Bijapur again. And since his remains didn’t return to the capital, the structure stands orphaned. There is a mosque attached to the building, which lends a certain meaning. But it also tells a different story: of the end of one chapter in the Deccan’s history, and the opening of a new one. Things went downhill for the Adil Shahs after Afzal Khan’s bloody end. And even as Shivaji established his new kingdom, wresting men and territory from Bijapur’s control, the Mughals added their own pressures. By the mid-1680s the Adil Shahi dynasty would come to an end. And as happened to the Ahmednagar sultans a few decades before, the last king of Bijapur would also die an exile. 

Unlike the crumbling material reminders of the Nizam Shahs of Ahmednagar, the legacy of the Adil Shahs of Bijapur is still capable of inspiring awe and wonder. The Bara Kaman—“twelve arches”—for example, is an incomplete mausoleum, and yet in its scale and the sheer ambition, it cannot fail to impress. It is the resting place of Ali Adil Shah II, a younger contemporary of Shivaji, and a sultan said to have been illegitimate—this taint also making him politically weak. The more majestic (and substantially more complete) Gol Gumbaz is where his father rests: the body of Muhammad Adil Shah, who died in 1656, lies under one of the greatest domes in the world. In a testament to royal egos and the intra-dynastic competition to shine, it is said that Muhammad’s keenness for a tomb so grand as the Gol Gumbaz was to surpass his father’s mausoleum in turn. This is the Ibrahim Rauza—where Ibrahim Adil Shah II lies—another of Bijapur’s extraordinary monuments. In a sense, visitors to this town are spoilt for choice, for every historical building seems to outdo the next, much like each sultan sought to surpass his predecessor.

For all this, the beginnings of the Adil Shahi dynasty were more humble. The house was descended from a man called Yusuf, who served the Bahmani sultanate in its final phase. An adventurer from Persia, in later times his heirs would give Yusuf a more glamorous origin story—he was, they claimed, the son of an Ottoman emperor, and had fled to India as a victim of court intrigues. Either way, coming to the Deccan, Yusuf married a local Hindu rajah’s daughter and founded his own line of power in the early 1500s. His Adil Shahi successors often switched between Shia Islam and the Sunni tradition, with corresponding shifts in policy and politics; one branch even converted to Catholicism in Goa after dynastic ups and downs. And if some sultans, like Yusuf’s son, were consciously Persianised, others—such the man buried in the Ibrahim Rauza—were wedded to local culture. Like its court, Bijapur’s architectural gems reflect this plurality: there is Hindu influence borrowed from Karnataka’s temples, and there are Islamicate patterns. The “melting pot” is a cliché, but if anyone could claim to have presided over one, it is the Adil Shahs.

Bijapur is a small place now with magnificent edifices. Once upon a time, it was the jewel of the Deccan; its Jami Masjid is among the greatest mosques in the south. Its court, under Ibrahim Adil Shah II—the most phenomenal of Bijapur’s sultans, who reigned from 1580 until 1627—attracted a variety of people, including European artists and traders. One merchant recorded arriving in Bijapur to find the Adil Shah in the middle of a cultural soiree, surrounded by hundreds of women playing musical instruments. Ibrahim is, in fact, comparable to Emperor Akbar in his breadth of intellect. He engaged with Shaivites as he did with Sufis; a devout Sunni, he also styled himself “son” of Saraswati and Ganapati. He wrote an Urdu treatise, the Kitaab-i-Nauras, and was more comfortable in Marathi than in courtly Persian. He also constructed a sister town, Nauraspur, not far from Bijapur’s centre. And through all this, he stayed a shrewd politician: he courted the Mughals and gave Akbar’s son a daughter in marriage, but also backed rebels in Ahmednagar who resisted Akbar’s armies. One of the most compelling, charismatic leaders of the Deccan, Bijapur reached its zenith in Ibrahim’s day.

But after every ascent, there is its corollary—or in the case of dynasties, decline. In 1636, Ibrahim’s son and heir—Muhammad—signed a peace accord with the Mughals, crippling his autonomy. The Adil Shahs failed to unite with the other Deccan sultanates to resist the northern invasion; and so, one after the other, they were consumed by Emperors Jahangir, Shahjahan, and finally, Aurangzeb. While Ibrahim had been open to plural identities and ideas, under his immediate successor, bigotry reared its head at court, and Hindu elements, closely woven into the state’s fabric, found those threads fraying. Great monuments continued to be built, but they could not conceal a simple fact—the Adil Shahi sultanate was in a slow decline. All along, territory was lost to the Mughals in the north, even as expensive wars drained the treasury from the south. In the 1670s, a new sultan came to the throne, a child called Sikander. And in seeking to control him, factions at court began to plot against one another. Once again, as repeatedly happened in the region, internal dissent broke the state. And by the time the boy king matured, it was too late.

Bijapur suffered. After the Mughal takeover in 1686, its population was decimated by the plague. Where it had once been a royal capital—the centre of the Adil Shahi universe—now Bijapur became a mere outpost of a ravenous empire based far in the north. Through the next century, even as it sank into obscurity, the city was plundered by the Marathas and other powers hostile to the Mughals. And in 1808, when a British traveller visited, he likened the place to a desert. For miles around, despite great buildings—evidence of all that this city had been—“the only living creatures were some pretty parroquets, a partridge, a hare, and a herd of deer.” Things have improved since then, of course, and Bijapur is no longer desolate. Today, tourists enter its walled monuments, transported as if by magic into a faraway past. It is clear to all who visit that once upon a time great monarchs trod these grounds. Then things changed, and the “City of Victory”was diminished. But through all this, in its vast halls and echoing corridors, there linger memories of better days—of glory and greatness, and of times so good they likely tempted fate.