A Reluctant Farewell
When I wanted to leave Bidar this afternoon, I had quite a difficult time doing so. It was as if Bidar was reluctant to let go of me. I had delayed my departure from Bidar this morning for the sole reason of making a visit to some of the Bidriware workshops along Siddiq Talim Road. Later I arrived at a circle at the end of this road where I was told buses to Gulbarga will make a stop. A private bus was ready to depart but I thought a government bus would be better. It was a long wait and when a bus arrived it did not stop at the circle. I decided to walk to the bus station and pick up a bus there. There were two buses bound for Gulbarga. I boarded the fast express bus.
Just before departure the driver was called into the control room. What followed was a long wait. When we finally left the station, I was told that the bus will pick up about 40 passengers from a Muslim neighbourhood. It would be a 10-minute stop. It turned out to be an epic stop. It took the families more than an hour to load all their luggage and board the bus. Relatives boarded the bus to bid farewell. It took them ages to get off. Firecrackers had to be burned with great funfare before we could leave. After every few paces the bus would stop. Apparently someone had forgotten something or someone had been left out. With many such hestitant starts and abrupt stops we left the narrow streets of this Muslim mohalla. It turned out that after two and a half hours I was still in Bidar at exactly the same circle where I had waited just before noon today.
This is what happens in India. A public bus with a set schedule is hijacked for a private purpose. Someone in the local police department had used his power to effect this. The bus did not stop en route to Gulbarga. Everyone who had waited for the bus along the way would have been frustrated. The families were on a tour to Ajmer. They would catch a train from Gulbarga and change at Ahmadnagar. The men wore colourful bands of cloth tied to their upper arms. Coins wrapped in cloth were tied too. They were garlanded and honoured at home before departure. No such treatment were accorded to the women. Arriving at Gulbarga, the bus took a detour to the dargah and then to the railway station instead of dropping me off at the bus station. My patience was tested alright.
Bidriware is a unique artform introduced by Persian craftsmen under the patronage of Bahmani sultans. It derived inspiration from Persian styles but defined itself in its own way in the workshops of Bidar. This artform of engraving and inlaying of arabesque design on metal surface has been passed on from generation to generation and continues to this day in Bidar.
I was quite early this morning at one of the bidriware workshops in town. Only one shop was open and the proprietor was the only one working in it. He informed that his workers will arrived at 10.30 am this morning and I promised to visit him again at that hour. M.A. Rauf employs about half a dozen craftsmen at his workshop. I asked him how long he has been in this trade. It was clearly not a question he had been often asked. He thought for a moment and replied that he has been doing this for over 40 years. “Khandani kam hai hamara,” he said meaning that this was a family business. His father had done this business, probably his grandfather and his great-grandfather. At the back of his workshop are awards and photographs including one with the former President Abdul Kalam.
When I returned later, the workshop was busy with four craftsmen. One was filing the rough edges of a silvery metal shaped like a bangle. Another held a little flat and bulging vase. On this black unpolished vase he was drawing circles with a compass. Another held a similar vase on which intricate floral designs had already been engraved with a free hand. He held a strip of silver foil and was inlaying bits of this foil into the engraved parts of the design. Each one worked at his own pace with intense concentration. I was invited to step into the workshop for a closer look. Another artist did not welcome this because I blocked the morning light entering through the doorway.
After some questioning I was explained the process. The metal is an alloy of copper and zinc, the latter used in a much higher proportion. This is nothing more than brass except that zinc is the dominant metal. What comes out of the mould is a white lustrous metal. This is filed to remove the rough edges. Next, it is dipped in copper sulphate to give a temporary black coating. This coating is useful to handwork the design against the black surface. Once the design is done, engraving starts. Engraving reveals the underlying colour which becomes useful for the inlaying process. Silver is used for inlay but other metals may be used. The work is then buffed to remove the black coating. This hides the design against the metal’s original colour. The last step is the most enigmatic. A mixture made from local soil available at Bidar fort is used to treat the work. This blackens the metal to a smooth matt finish but does not affect the silver inlay. The final product is a striking contrast of black polished metal with decorative and shining silver designs.
I was shown a palm-sized work of an elephant. It cost about Rs. 350 and a similar one in Bangalore may cost twice as much. The vase I mentioned earlier cost about Rs. 3500. In some designs, lines are engraved and inlaid. In others, solid shapes are engraved and inlaid. I would have never noticed this subtle difference had not one of the craftsmen pointed it out. People often give orders at this shop. Sometimes people come with their own designs which are then executed by these experienced craftsmen. It is a highly specialized and skilful job. More than that, it is an essential part of India’s cultural heritage.
Don’t waste your time in Bidar… because there is so much to see that you will not have enough time to take in everything!
By far, the most impressive of Bidar’s attractions is the fort. After many hours of walking at the fort I felt that I had only had an introduction. As I write these notes and after looking at some pictures on Flickr, I realize that there is much I have missed. Bidar is one of those far-flung destinations of North Karnataka that is often ignored and deserves a much better treatment.
Major contributors to the building of this fort, as most of Bidar monuments, come from two dynasties – the Bahmani Sultanate and Barid Shahi Dynasty. The fort is not as sparse as Gulbarga’s fort. Steep fort walls complete with crenellation, parapets and corbels remain. The wall is often punctuated with bastions. There is more than one moat that surround the fort walls. The reason is that natural rock formations have been hewn in such a way that they form a natural fortification. Today local herdsmen graze their goats in the moats which is overgrown with vegetation.
The fort has many entrance gates. You can enter the palace complex via the Gumbad Darwaza which is approached from the Sharaza Darwaza across and over the triple moat. The views from these entrances are architecturally stunning. In a single spanning view, the majesticity of Bidar’s fort can be appreciated – wide and tall arches at the entrance, a neat snaking approach intimidated by the surrounding ramparts, an elegant entrance dome, the solid stand of defensive walls and ramparts, the assemblage of buildings secure and safe within these walls.
Once within the palace complex, lots of ruins can be seen spread over a vast area. The area is circumscribed by fort ramparts which are visible clearly from anywhere within this open area. A modern manicured garden, a museum, ruins of palaces, a mosque, assembly halls, underground passages or halls are only some of the ruins inside. Among these, the Rangeen Mahal has some wonderful details – tilework, woodwork with Hindu inspirations, stucco work on walls, mother-of-pearl inlays, carved pillars and arches. There is quite a lot of maintenance and restoration that’s underway. We can only hope that sensibilities are exercised and the fort will continue to look and feel a historic ruin rather than a restored modern tourist attraction.
Initially it is a little confusing when you enter the palace complex. Only later you realize that the fort ramparts extend a long way to protect the city to the south. This part of town is interesting and unlike the open landscape of the palace complex it is closely built up. With narrow lanes, it has an historic feel of its own. Walks can talk you in and out of the fort walls. They help you see how people live. The population is largely Muslim. There are some interesting buildings within:
- Madrasa of Mahmud Gawan – remains of old tilework and minaret
- Chand Shah Kaman – a gateway with decorative corbels and arches in between
- Masjid-e-sofiya-kunj-e-nashen – with designs similar to Chand Shah Kaman
- Chowbara – today a clock tower where four roads meet
There are tombs all across the city such as the ones at Barid Shahi Park. Then there is the Guru Nanak Jheera, the largest Sikh temple in the state and a place of pilgrimage. It was lovely to visit this temple early this morning. With handkerchief covering my head, I sat in the prayer hall for many minutes listening to live devotional songs. I learnt much of the history of Sikhism. I am impressed by the travels of Guru Nanak in spreading the message of Sikhism.
But as always the focus at Bidar is on Islamic architecture. There is more of it some kilometers away from town at a place named Ashtur. Here there are many tombs of the Bahmani kings and their wives. This complex is somewhat similar to the Haft Gumbaz at Gulbarga. When I visited it yesterday, it was a busy place. Prayers were offered at many tombs. Here I observed rituals that are not unlike in Hinduism. Not just flowers but fruits, rice and other items were offered. Coconuts were broken. Oil lamps burnt in the open. This is the influence of one religion over another.
The mausoleums at Ashtur are what I call a perfection in ruins. Each building is in a different state of ruin. Some walls are plain. Some walls are decorated with arches, stuccoed entrances and latticed windows. In decorated exteriors, tilework remains in only a handful of places as glimpses of a once beautiful facade. Some domes are missing. In other cases, parts of the dome stand as open cross sections for an architectural study. By a narrow flight of stone steps I could climb to the top of a ruined mausoleum for a high viewpoint of the entire complex busy with devotees and visitors.
The Chaukhandi is a wonderful two tiered octogonal tomb of saint Hazrat Khalil Ullah. It is situated on a hill and beckons the visitor from the other tombs of Ashtur. Arches decorate the facade on both tiers. On the inside, the ambience is even better. Afternoon sun glances through the arches and shines on green cloths that cover the tombs. The cloistered space created by the exterior wall and the inner partitions is perfect for reflection.
From Ashtur, there is a wonderful walk to the Chaukhandi and to the farther hills. The walk then took me all the way to Bidar. The city stood on a wide raised plateau. On a day that was crisp and clear, the fort ramparts were visible from the hills near Ashtur. With each step towards Bidar’s fort, I felt history waiting to unveil its secrets not just within the fort but all around Bidar.
I reached Bidar by bus from Gulbarga. The journey took about 2.5 hours. Along the way, I stopped at Humnabad to visit the Veerabhadreshwar Temple. I returned to Bangalore by train from Gulbarga.
Right opposite the bus station is one of the better looking buildings of Bidar, Hotel Mayura. Comfortable, clean and reasonably priced. I think I paid Rs.300 for the room.
I had lunch yesterday at the ASI canteen. The meal was good and clean. Service was good too.
I recommend the hill and farm walk from Ashtur to Bidar. A couple of hours is more than enough for this. An easy walk that anyone can attempt.