The historic Bidar in the federal state of Karnataka in India now finds itself on the world map of heritage tourism as it figures in the 2014 World Monuments Watch list released by the World Monuments Fund (WMF), a New York-based NGO working for the protection of monuments. I was in Bidar last year especially to feel what a premier madrasa (religious seminary) would look like in the yore. It was in a Muslim country that the world’s first university was established in 859 in Fez, Morocco.
Madrasa Mahmud Gawan in Bidar, a university of repute in the 15th Century, still reverberates with sounds of teaching and reminds us that learning is at the core of the Islamic tradition. I could not hold my breath when my journalist friend Ramjan Dargah and I stood in awe in front of a massive structure, still intact with substantial damages. “This is Madrasa Mahmud Gawan,” my journalist friend proudly told me. Anyone who visits this site will seemingly get bowled over by the sheer magnitude and grace of this once great abode of learning.”
Dargah shared with me that this madrasa or college was built by Khwaja Mohammad Gilani, fondly called Khwaja Mahmud Gawan, a merchant who arrived from Persia in Bidar when it was ruled by the Bahmani kings in 1453. The splendid university, built in 1472, bears unmistakable testimony to the scholarly genius of Mahmud Gawan, who first came to Delhi as a trader from Gilan in Iran and moved to Bidar in 1453.
Khwaja Mahmud Gawan was well-versed in Islamic theology, Persian language and mathematics and was a poet and a prose writer of repute. Later, he became a minister in the court of Muhammad Shah-III (1463-1482). A storehouse of wisdom, Mahmud enjoyed the trust and confidence of rulers, locals as well as that of foreign kingdoms, who had great respect for Mahmud.
The three-story splendid edifice spans a large rectangular courtyard leading to halls and rooms on its sides. The entrance is on the eastern side flanked at the corners by four-story height minarets while from the middle of the other sides jut out semi-octagonal minarets crowned by slender bulbous domes. The entire campus gives the grand impression which Islamic architecture awakes in many minds. Intelligent planning and construction have gone into building the madrasa. Sheets of lead were interposed between the masonry courses making it damp-proof. The surface treatment is composed of color produced by glazed tiles of different hues. Traces of exquisite colorful tiles are still visible on the walls of the building. The floral decor, arabesque design and decorative inscriptions with arches dominating everywhere make it a fine specimen of Islamic architecture. This was all possible because Mahmud Gawan was familiar with renowned colleges at Samarkhand and Khorasan. The building contains lecture halls, a laboratory, a mosque, students’ hostel, dining room, quarters for teaching faculty and a library stacked with 3000 manuscripts, which scholars from outside used to visit for references. This religious seminary which also taught science and maths was run by a carefully chosen faculty which comprised Islamic scholars, scientists, philosophers and Arabic experts. It is recorded that free boarding, lodging and education to over 500 students from the world over was provided at any given time.
It fell into bad days after Gawan died. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb who took over Bidar in the late 17th Century, used the building for storing material. It is recorded in history that the structure suffered significant damage following a lightning in 1696 AD. Notwithstanding the damages, a major portion still remains intact and is no less impressive.
There is public demand that this renowned seat of learning in the Muslim world be preserved for posterity as currently it is in a neglected state.
Besides this madrasa, Bidar is blessed with graceful forts reminiscent of the 15th-Century Bahmani empire and other interesting monuments and sights. The Bidar fort enclosing the royal complex, and protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), comprises a number of palaces, several armories, living quarters, a jail, a mosque, numerous wells and other sundry buildings. You can enter the fort through the Gumbad Darwaza, from where you can see the city’s fabled and unique triple moat, hewn out of solid rock. Then there is Rangin Mahal (colored palace), a complex housing the Lal Bagh, the Solah Khamb mosque built by Qubli Sultan in 1423 and the erstwhile hamam (baths), parts of which, now house a small museum run by the ASI. The mosque, built in 1424, predates the fort and is Bidar’s oldest Islamic building and is known because of the 16 pillars of the mosque. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is believed to have offered prayers here soon after the conquest of Bidar to proclaim Mughal rule over the area.
Rangin Mahal was constructed by Ali Barid (1542-1580) and is known for its exquisite wood carvings, beautiful glazed tile mosaics and mother-of-pearl decorations, the designs inspired by Persian architecture.
Bidar fort’s famed cannons dating back to the mid and late 1500s, still sit atop towers around the perimeter of the fort.
Also recommended is a visit to Liaqat Ali Khan’s house with its fascinating collection of miniature copies of the Holy Qur’an, old coins, ancient notices, old journals, vintage stamps and other nick-nacks.
When you are in this historical city, never leave without buying some exquisite pieces of bidriware, crafts with silver inlay works.
Bidri craftsmen churn out beautiful black objects with contrasting silver inlay work. Each object is handmade with great amount of patience, skill and precision and includes even insignificant pieces, from cuff links and kurta buttons to intricate boxes, flower vases, huqqas (hubble-bubble), fruit bowls and cigarette boxes. There is a definite Arabic influence on the designs and patterns.
Though Bidar is adorned with a plethora of monuments and sights, they have remained unknown to the outside world. Now that Bidar has arrived on the world map of heritage tourism, the state government has initiated efforts to take up promotional activities on a large scale.
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