An Islamic Revelation, Bijapur

Dec 18, 2008

I arrived at Bijapur yesterday after what was an extremely slow and long bus journey from Hospet. I regretted having not started the day earlier. Although Bijapur is connected to Hospet by National Highway 13, we must remember that this is India. Bullock carts use the same highways. Villagers sometimes drive their livestock on these highways. Lorries overloaded beyond their specifications move at snail’s pace. Bus drivers take risks all the time trying to overtake.

So when I reached Bijapur, checked into the hotel and found a suitably clean place for a late lunch at 2.30 pm, I was having a bad headache. Despite this, I was sufficiently motivated to visit Gol Gumbaz. Then, I walked to the Jamia Masjid and then Mehtar Mahal.

This morning I visited the other important historical sites of the city. I had previously thought of spending two nights here but modern Bijapur did not appeal to me. The city is congested and filthy. It is sort of an overgrown village with open drains, garbage heaps, pigs and piglets foraging in the dirt by the dozens. You only have to take a walk along Jamia Masjid Road to experience this. People have an incomplete sense of cleanliness. They sweep the houses and courtyards clean but dump the rubbish in the streets. Pigs live like the very epitome of all that is unclean. You are forced to exclaim, “How can people live like this?”

Upon reflection, you will find this hard to explain. There is lot of land just around Bijapur. Why then should the city be congested? It is a small city and at best a large town. Why then should it be so filthy and devoid of proper sanitation and sewerage? The problem is just as it is in many Indian cities. It is simply poor urban planning and the general apathy towards everything public. Private concerns dominate the lives of Indians, politicians in particular.

Well, this isn’t actually the revelation of Bijapur. Despite all of this, Bijapur’s attraction comes from history through its Islamic architecture. In all my travels in Asia and Europe, I have never once visited a mosque or an Islamic building of much importance. It is only in Bijapur that I have discovered the true beauty of Islamic art and architecture. After Hoysala and Vijayanagar temple architecture, this came in complete contrast. Its beauty stood without compare.

In Halebid, a tourist is bound to notice beheaded sculptures of men and animals. Much of the decorative motifs are left untouched. It is only because it is not in Islamic philosophy to place images of men and animals on par with God. God, or Allah, is clearly without form and has no representation in any mosque. Allah is not represented in any likeness of human form or figure. Most of what we see in Islamic art are holy words from the Quran interwoven with motifs inspired by nature. Line and curve are the simplest of design elements. These are celebrated with great energy and mastery in Islamic calligraphy and stylized motifs.

These are exactly what I saw at the Ibrahim Rauza, a mosque and tomb at the western end of the city. Its clean arches, elegant towers, repetitive turrets and giant dome first impress, then inspire close study. The morning light slanting at an angle enhanced the effects of light, shade and shadow. The doors and windows are carved with fine details. They use a skilful mix of stone, wood and iron. Nothing distracts the eye. Everything fits within a grand design that’s harmonious in its almost monotone. I wish I had with me my Canon EOS 100 loaded with an Ilford XP2 black and white roll of film.

The details of Ibrahim Rauza kept me occupied for nearly an hour. Some doorways contain complex mazes in which every path can be visited without lifting the finger. Stone tracery above the windows are vivid with calligraphy and decorative motifs. Design is ingenious and so too is the carving in stone. Then there are those stone chains hanging from the eaves of the mosque, one link carved out from another and joined forever. Then there are green parrots, which are as common as crows in Bangalore, perched vertically against the walls, or on towers, or in niches, not just at Ibrahim Rauza but at many monuments across Bijapur.

Now Gol Gumbaz itself deserves a mention for the size of its dome alone. The Whispering Gallery could have as well been a myth. The noisy crowds do not seem to understand the difference between a whisper and a shout. Under an echoing noise, I left the monument without discovering its wonderful acoustics. It is interesting that you can appreciate the Gol Gumbaz at different levels as you climb up and down the towers. Sometimes you admire the dome in its circle of lotus motifs, sometimes the opposite tower in its octogonal design, sometimes the little turrets and the eaves beneath, sometimes the elaborate designs on the walls and sometimes the three arches that define the facade of the Gol Gumbaz. On the inside, intersecting arches create spandrels shaped as the raised hood of a cobra.

I got a better sense of the Gol Gumbaz this morning when I was on top of the Upari Burj which gives an excellent view of the entire city. While the Jamia Masjid in the far distance, the Jod Gumbaz and Ibrahim Rauza in the near distance stand tall with their domes, the Gol Gumbaz punctures the city skyline like no other monument. In the bright morning backlight, the monument is seen in a grey shade in the form of a silent beast crouching on its corner towers and watchful of the city waking up to the morning mist. This unforgettable view is what showed me the beauty of the Gol Gumbaz more than the close study of its architecture last evening.

Despite what guidebooks may say, Bijapur can be walked in a day. The key monuments can be covered in a long walk if you are a good walker. This is the best way to see the wretched living conditions of Bijapur’s residents and their seemingly oblivious attitude to their environment. It is also the best way to see the architectural heritage of the city which is still full of beauty; but to see this beauty you have to pretend that today’s wretchedness does not exist.

getting-there Getting There
I reached Bijapur from Hospet by bus. The journey took 5.5 hours.
hotel Accommodation
I stayed last night at Meghraj Lodge, located close to the Gol Gumbaz and within my budget. It was Rs. 200 per night, very basic and not all that clean.
food Food
It was difficult to find a good place to eat. Nothing seemed hygenic enough for my taste. The only suitable place was Madhuvan International with the South Indian thali costing Rs. 35.


  • karthik says:

    Very Descriptive!! Some pictures to go with the story would have been ideal!!

  • Very informative. And yes, Pics would have added to the story.

  • Ram says:

    Your well written account of visit to Bijapur reminded me of the strong historical background of Bijapur – The Adil Shah Dynasty, Chand Bibi, etc. I believe that the Dargah of Hazrat Murtuza Quadri, the famous sufi saint is also located at Bijapur.

    Well done Arvind.

    Look forward to your next post.

  • nandanjha says:

    Very elaborate and full of detail.

    I am just back from Khajuraho and on the way we stopped at Gwalior to take a quick look at ‘Man Mandir Palace’. There is a small museum and we could see lot of sculptor work which had been found at ‘Morena’ and while discussing we were wondering that where did all this shilp-kala has gone after 1100 AD and probably the answer lies in the fact that during Mughal period it was difficult (or not possible) to actually make this kind of stuff since idol worship is not there in Islam.

    Great story Arvind. I would join others in asking for pics :)

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    A soulful description.

    Even without pictures you have thrown a detailed imagery of the place. Very well described.

  • very informative indeed, but a few pics of bijapur would have been great. any how great reading.

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