The Bahmani dynasty ruled for about 200 years and gave rise to 5 fairly prominent dynasties in South India. The origins of the Bahmanis and its founder Ala-ud-Din Bahman Shah are murky. Stories vary from him being just an ordinary man to a slave of a Brahmin and even belonging to the lineage of a Persian king of lore.
The Bahmanis were contemporaries of the Tughlaqs, looking after their principalities in the Deccan. Eventually, they revolted and became Sultans ruling from Gulbarga (present-day Kalaburgi) in the southern state of Karnataka. They subsequently moved to Bidar; once again, historians do not agree on one reason for this move (it could have been the weather, abundant water sources, or strategic location). They strengthened the existing fort in Bidar and were constantly battling the Vijayanagar, Berars, Malwas and other equally powerful and ambitious dynasties of the region.
While today Bidar is a dusty, rustic town with an airbase and not much in terms of accommodation for a traveller, it was a cosmopolitan city in its heydays.
Once it lost its importance, it lay in shambles until, in the early 1900s, the Nizam of Hyderabad contributed and encouraged the restoration of monuments in Bidar and subsequent work was taken up by the Archaeological Society of India as recent as the early 2000’s.
The necropolis of the Bahamani kings is located in the small village of Ashtur, 6 km east of Bidar. The graves of the kings, starting with the 9th King Ahmad Shah Al-Wali, who moved his capital from Gulbarga to Bidar, are lined up in a row; their wives and daughters are entombed in smaller edifices facing the kings’ row.
The drive from the Bidar town centre to Ashtur is quick and pleasant and passes along stretches of green vegetation. Just before you get there, you will see a majestic monument standing atop a slightly elevated land on the left. It is the Chaukhandi, wherein lies the tomb of Hazrath Kahlil Ullah, a revered preacher. When you focus back on the road again, a series of domes appear in your line of sight, and you know that you have arrived.
The grandest of all mausoleums in this compound is that of Ahmad Shah Al-Wali Bahamani. (His wife lies almost in line with the kings, but a little away and at a lower level). Ahmad Shah Al-Wali Bahamani ruled for 13 years. He was a great administrator with a strong military. His son Allauddin built him a lofty dome over his grave. He was tolerant towards the Lingayats, who to this day believe Ahmad Shah Al-Wali Bahamani to be a saint (wali), their Allama Prabhu.
Every year, during Urs (death anniversary), the religious leader of the Lingayats walks the nearly 200 km distance from Gulbarga (Kalaburgi) to Ashtur and, together with the tomb’s caretaker, offers prayers and pooja and drapes a new chador over the grave that he brings with him.
The inside walls of the tomb have blackened and conceal the art that covers the entire mausoleum. It is soot, said the caretaker, a young, friendly chap who added that he volunteers at this necropolis and considers it his service. One portion of the wall has been cleaned up and reveals motifs and designs in gold, red, black and Persian calligraphy of verses from the Quran and teachings of Nimat Ullah, a saint that Ahmad Shah Al Wali followed. The caretaker told me there was a diamond at the dome’s crown (It is actually a crystal, not a diamond), hidden under all the soot.
Ahmad Shah Al-Wali Bahamani’s son Allauddin like his father was a good king, but his interests were more artsy. He built gardens and palaces. He was not so much into conquests. He was buried next to his father. His son Humayun built the dome of his mausoleum.
The grave whose dome has fallen off belongs to Allauddin’s son Humayun. Humayun ruled only for three years and died at the young age of 21. He was considered a ruthless king. In his short time on the throne, he had to thwart the rebels in his own court. The dome fell due to lightning. Ask anyone on-site, and they will tell you it is a consequence of God’s wrath towards a brutal king.
Strangely, it looks good the way it is – allowing us a profile view of the vast structure.
Humayun’s son Nizam Shah was only eight years old when he became king. A council was appointed to run the affairs of the state on his behalf. Khwaja Mohammed Gawan was one of the officers in charge. He worked with Nizam Shah’s grandfather and left behind a gorgeous Madarasa in Bidar. Young Nizam Shah died just like that when preparations were afoot for his wedding. His tomb was never built entirely and stands that way even today.
Muhammed Shah III (Nizam Shah’s brother) was nine years old when he ascended the throne. The same council that ran the affairs for his brother looked after the kingdom. Khan Jahan Turk, one of two councils, assigned Mohammed Gawan as an administrator of frontiers, and he became de facto ruler. Due to the intrigues of the court, Muhammed Shah III ordered the killing of Mohammed Gawan and regretted it till he died.
Mohammed Shah III’s son Mohammed Shah became king. Mohammed Shah ruled for about 36 years and probably built his mausoleum himself.
Four more kings followed. (Ahamd Shah II, Allauddin Shah III, Wali Ullah, Kaleem Ullah). However, they were all powerless puppets of the Baridis who were making inroads towards the throne to become Sultans some day soon. The two small tombs belong to the last scions of the Bahamani royalty, Wali Ullah and Kaleem Ullah. They look like guard houses in comparison with the other tombs here.
I visited on a Monday, and on this day a priest comes and offers a small pooja on the threshold of all the graves. You can see flowers, vermillion (kumkum), turmeric, camphor and sugar (and ants attracted by the sugar!). I met the priest who was lounging under a mango tree with his chirpy 8-year old grandson. He told me his family had offered the pooja over several generations, just like the generational Urs rituals.
Except for the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Al-Wali Bahamani, all the tombs are locked and can be admired only from the outside. The domes, arches, tiles, and artwork are all magnificent. Dare I say this is one of the finest groups of tombs in South India, comparable with some of the grand architecture of the Delhi Sultanate. Do plan a trip to Bidar and be awed by what you see.
My only exposure to the Bahmani is a passing reference to them in a textbook. Recently someone told me that the only way to be remembered in history is to leave a big statue or a tomb. Eventually they will forget what you did but at least they will know you were there. This feels true for the Bahmanis. Another place to visit on an ever growing bucket list.
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True that! Gulbarga (Kalaburgi) also has some monuments from their time but I haven’t been there. The monuments at Bidar surprised me and impressed me. Wish I had visited earlier. The ASI has done a good job of restoration, but we have miles to go. I now have a soft spot in my heart for Bijapur/Bidar.The monuments are not well known but are special and unique.