Picture: Amit Guha (http://www.kaladarshana.com/sites/bidar)
Bidar, in the extreme north of Karnataka, is wedged between Medak district of Andhra Pradesh to the east and Osmanabad and Sholapur districts of Maharashtra in the west. It is both the name of the town and the district. Contrary to common public perception, Bidar's climate, perched as it is on a high plateau, is pleasant year around although some of the neighbouring districts do push mercury substantially, in summer.
My travel companion, Vijayendra1, is an old Bidar hand having lived in the town and having traveled extensively around the district in the early 1990s when he and a companion ran libraries of various kinds in that area. He is also very well read in Hindi, of the standard variety, as well as its language variants besides being possessed of a very interesting perspective on Indian culture, from a subaltern point of view.
Nanak, Bidar and the Sikhs
The Gurudwara Nanak Jhira Saheb is located at a short distance off one edge of the plateau on which Bidar is located, and there are sweeping views of the plains as you descend down the road to the present Gurudwara. Guru Nanak, on one of his famous travels preaching harmony, good-will and social reform (Udasiyan), visited Bidar and struck water at the spot of the present Gurudwara, it is said. An alternate version has it that he visited a Sufi saint who lived with his family and followers there - amidst a source of fresh, sweet water - and that is where the Gurudwara eventually came to be. Whatever the origin, the presence of this important Sikh shrine and the sizable Sikh presence is one of the many layers of Bidar that we encounter. The Sikh connection to Bidar was further crystallized when Guru Gobind Singh established the khalsa in 1699 in Anandpur, Punjab. One of the famous panj-pyaras (beloved five) who responded to his original call for a corps and later came to be known as Sahib Singh, was a barber and the son of Gurunarayana and Ankamma from Bidar.
The Old Fortified Town
The area around the Bidar bus stand and the newer extension of Naubad are non-descript in their modernity and have the look of any contemporary Karnataka town. Two storey concrete complexes of shops and businesses of every kind on either side of a wide, divided main road. There are darshinis and cheap eateries, hardware and machinery shops, cloth shops, internet centres - the usual mix. Towards the eastern end of the main road and turning northwards you enter the gates of the fortified old town. Despite its run-down nature, or perhaps because of it, there is something quite magical about what happens as you wander deeper into the old town. There are the usual crowded streets with shops, shoulder to shoulder, selling everything imaginable and plenty of chai stops (where enticing biscuits beckon from glass bottles). Some of the structures are clearly ancient, with brick and mortar walls dating back several hundred years. The residences are in dusty alleyways on either side of the main roads, with goats perched statuesquely on raised verandahs staring unmovingly at nothing in particular. Wedged in between the houses and shops are several dargahs, in ancient buildings, bearing interesting wood work (most of it falling apart) on the facades, windows and doorways, illuminated and enhanced by the evening light of the vast plateau.
Mahmud Gawan of Gilan, the Fort itself and the Bahamanis
Along the street that runs towards the fort you are suddenly awe-struck by an immense and extraordinarily beautiful structure virtually sliced through the middle (by lightning several hundred years ago, we are to understand, and further destroyed in a gun-powder explosion) revealing a rare and breathtaking architectural cross-section. One towering minar stands almost entirely intact with its base of vast, soaring, arched portals accompanied by a domed, multi-storeyed central complex. The northern part of the structure is a mosque today and high up in the arches you can see brilliantly coloured glazed tile work, still intact in patches, on the facade. This is the madrasa of Mahmud Gawan. Mahmud Gawan (Khwaja Muhammad Gilani) established this centre of learning in 1472 during the time of Muhammad Bahamani the third. It has to be one of the most extraordinary examples of Indo-Muslim architecture anywhere in the country. Mahmud Gawan was a Persian scholar and lover of learning who rose to be Prime Minister in the time of Humayun Shah and Muhammad Bahamani the third. His madrasa was a highly acclaimed college and seminary, providing instruction and study opportunities in theology, mathematics, philosophy and language and possessed a fine library of several thousand volumes and is believed to have attracted visiting scholars and students from all across Asia.
Further on, you emerge from the streets of the town, at the base of the vast, and impressive, triple-moated Bidar fort. This is where the Bahamanis and later the Barid Shahi's, lived and conducted their affairs, political and military. It is said that the fortification of the larger town was taken up after the completion of the fort, and was completed only during the period of the Barid Shahis. Nevertheless, the fort itself undoubtedly housed a sizable population of those privileged with proximity to power. There is a small archaeological museum on the premises and several of the structures are accessible if an ASI caretaker feels motivated enough to produce keys and to take one around. The best preserved of the structures is the Solahkhamba mosque with its arrayed pillars of mammoth girth and the enclave of buildings that it sits within. Built in 1424, this enclave is now being restored into some kind of an ASI-envisioned version of the original.
Structures and historic detail aside, the fort is best taken in by leisurely wandering around its ramparts - on the edge of the plateau - and absorbing breathtaking views of the plains far below. There are very few visitors, and a whole day is well spent wandering around the expanse scrambling up the remains of numerous structures, looking at markers, examining dilapidated canons and such other fort-like residue. Equally engaging perhaps, and as is almost customary in such locations country-wide, is encountering the more lateral among Bidar's current residents - either lying on the grass lost in reverie, intensely engaged in a game of cards, romancing, or merely fast asleep. Only ubiquitous mobile phones disturb the timeless tranquility with their harsh and synthetic calls to attention.
About 4 kilometres east of the fortified town and down a steep road leading off the plateau to the plains below, is Ashtur. A clutch of about a dozen tombs of the Bahamani Pashas stand amidst great quietude. One of these, the mazhar of the severe and much feared Humayun Shah Bahamani, stands cleaved like the madrasa of Mohamad Gawan, by lightening. There is a story around this, of course, and how the tyrannical and philandering pasha was served divine retribution even in death. Nearby, and past the last tomb back up the road to Bidar, is the Chaukhandi of Hazrat Khalil-Ullah. It is impressive partially because it is built on a high platform and because of its interesting nested geometry . I hear a somewhat different, although more colourful and animated, version of what this structure is, from an enthusiastic and energetic caretaker employed by the ASI. He tells me this is the mazhar of Syed Kirmani Baba, a mystic and saint from Persia. So powerful remains his influence even today - that only the pure of heart and mind can access the mazhar to make their offerings and to pray in peace. The tomb of Ahmad Shah Bahamani, who moved the Bahamani centre of power from Gulbarga to Bidar, because of its better natural fortification and milder climate, is one of the larger structures here. In a great example of extant syncretic tradition, this mausoleum hosts an annual urus, also observed as the Allama Prabhu jatre. Annual proceedings are inaugurated by a veerashaiva Jangama who walks the distance from Madiyal in Gulbarga in the robes of a dervesh, and the event is held on a day in accordance with the Hindu calendar.
Basavakalyan and the Veerashaivas
Not far from Bidar, the area around Basavakalyan (80 kilometres to the south west) reverberated in the 12th century to the revolutionary ideas of the Veerashaivas. The incomparable poet-philosopher Basavanna, born in Bagewadi (now, Basavana Bagewadi) in neighbouring Bijapur district, lived, practiced, composed his famous vachanas and generated a vast following, here. So did Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi & the other sharanas, who formed the core of this radical, reformist social and philosophical movement. Today's Basavakalyan seems to have fallen in line - and is full of modern concrete structures that are rapidly being built to house colleges, offices and various other establishments. There are remnants, however, of the various mathas and old residential quarters of the Veerashaivas, in and around Basavakalyan. There is the settlement of Madivala Machaiah (the dhobi, turned sharana), the settlement (gaddige) of Allama Prabhu, the cave where Akka Nagamma (Basaveshwara's sister) lived and meditated, and the Mahamane (residence) of Basavanna himself. The famous Anubhava Mantapa, where the epic philosophical debate (many believe one of two or three of the greatest expositions of Indian philosophy, in history) between Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi is believed to have occurred, stands only in a recent faux reproduction, unfortunately. The original is believed to have stood close to the current temple of Basavanna in the heart of the old town. It is possible with only a little effort to imagine and reconstruct, in the mind, what this fecund community might have been like in its hey, as you walk between these quiet sites on the outskirts of Basavakalyan (then known as Kalyan). Eventually, the power centre (of the Kalachuri ruler, Bijjala, whom Basavanna, for a period of time, served) reacted with great violence and claimed the lives and freedoms of many of the sharanas, setting in motion tumultuous events that lasted twenty years, and resulting in a virtual razing of all the original structures of note. Basavanna himself, moved to Kudala Sangama, where he died. Clearly, however, the universalist ideas, poetry and energy of this remarkable period of enlightened pursuit have survived to see a different age.
The 'Fabric' of Bidar, the Nirguni tradition and Dakhni1
These are the three 'threads' of Bidar that we have encountered so far - the thread of the veerashaivas, the thread of the sufi mystics and that of Guru Nanak. Each of these threads poses a counterpoint to the orthodox mainstream and each can be placed in the larger 'nirguni' tradition of India. The nirgunis are the travelling mystics, saints, and reformers who have spanned India's history and geography since at least the 10th century, preaching inclusiveness, brotherhood and the unity and formlessness of Truth. The tradition would include in its fold such roving revolutionaries as Kabir, Gorakhnath, Namdev, Jananeswar, Eknath and in an extended interpretation could well include the Sufis, the Veerashaivas, Guru Nanak and others. The nirgunis are the counterpoint to the 'saguni' traditions of India which suggest form and propagate doctrine, and that have formed the mainstream of orthodox, organized religion and practice. As we walk around Bidar, Vijayendra remarks that one does not 'feel' the presence of mainstream Hinduism in the area. This certainly seems to be the case. While there are innumerable temples and shrines dotting the landscape and the plains, they are small, non-imposing and merge and complement the landscape beautifully. Their bright, white, layered shikaras - seem not to be designed to inspire awe, but are human in scale and construction, yet very serene.
In a published paper, Vijeyendra has suggested that the nirguni tradition lived and traveled in the vernacular rather than in the formal languages of learning. Since the tradition spans the entire land mass of India, there must have historically been a common language of dialogue that it helped evolve and that helped it spread. This language, that evolved and spread through a vast swathe of the country from Punjab to the southern reaches of the Deccan, exchanging vocabulary with each local language it encountered, and even exchanging with the dravidian languages, it is suggested, is Dakhni - an ingenious, organic, common tongue, that simplified the grammar as it traveled and even today swaps vocabulary with the languages it co-exists among. The 'hindi' of Mumbai (and the film industry) and Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka is Dakhni. Dakhni has also engaged with Tamil and Malayalam in various parts of the south and it may be argued that Punjabi (the language of Nanak), is also related to Dakhni. Not surprisingly, it is also the language that set deep roots in Bidar and continues to be the most widely used common tongue in the district, effortlessly bridging speakers of Kannada, Marathi and Telugu with no distinction of creed or religion. Many experts believe that Dakhni is the true pre-cursor of both modern Urdu and formal Hindi.
As we change buses at Humnabad, on a bench across from us in the crowded bus-stand, sits an elderly, itinerant sadhu, in saffron, string instrument in hand. He gently plucks at the instrument and is immersed in blissful song. Next to him, turned his way and in deep attention, providing acknowledgement and encouragement, sits a sufi fakir in his green turban, dhoti-kurta, and flowing beard. Two threads of Bidar intertwine before our eyes, in gentle harmony.
1. The ideas around Dakhni, its connection to the Nirguniya-Sufi-folk traditions and its role as pre-cursor to modern Hindi and Urdu are T. Vijayendra's. His paper entitled: "DAKHNI: The language in which the composite culture of India was born" was published in 2006 and is the source of the ideas mentioned in these notes . T. Vijayendra is based in Hyderabad, and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
My Bidar experience was conditioned and enhanced by conversations that Vijayendra and I had before and during the visit we made in July 2007. I also owe it to him that the trip itself materialized, despite it hovering in my mind as a desirable destination for several years.