In another life Bijapur could have been one of the great tourist cities of India. There’s a truly world-class sight, a wonderful collection of vast and crumbling ruins, picturesque mosques and temples, more than their fair share of tombs and the remannts of city walls and canals.
The Gol Gumbaz is the key sight. Visible for miles as you approach the city, it’s the vast 1659 mausoleum of the Sultan of Bijapur; a pumped-up version of the Islamic tombs that we’ve been seeing since Hyderabad. The guidebooks get very excited when they claim it is the 2nd largest dome in the world. (Wikipedia suggests that it may be true; it’s slightly smaller than the Duomo in Florence, still the largest brick and mortar dome in the world.)
Contemporary with the Taj Mahal it impresses by size rather than elegance. No slim minurets here, the towers are like pagodas. And no marble; grey basalt and white stucco. But the interior takes your breath away; a vast empty space soaring to the dome and a line of simple tombs on a raised plinth.
Visiting on Sunday afternoon wasn’t the best idea. The gardens were packed with picnicking visitors and the guards in the museum were under pressure, blowing whistles at the slightest infringement of the generous list of museum rules. The Gol Gumbaz was the world’s noisest tomb as packs of school kids testing the spectacular acoustics of the whispering gallery on the interior of the dome. And we could barely walk a couple of yards without been inviting to be in someone’s photos.
The other great tomb in Bijapur is the earlier Ibrahim Rauza. This is said to have inspired much of the architecture of the Taj Mahal, especially the minerets. Two buildings on a plinth that conceals a labyrinth of arched corridors; the tombs and a prayer hall, both covered in geometric and calligraphic carvings, perforated screens and faded paintings. The tomb consists of a line of minimalist polished dark basalt structures.
We visited some smaller tomb complexes – the saints still being prayed to – and a memorial tank. There was also the Barakaman, a third massive mausoleum that was never complete but might have exceeded the Gol Gumbaz. A high platform and a series of huge arches is all that is left. Construction stopped after the sultan was murdered by his father.
The centre of Bijapur contains the remains of the palaces and administrative buildings. It’s made up of some ruins carefully tidied by the Archaelogical Survey of India and set in flower gardens, other ruins still in use as local government offices, mosques or the Gymkana Club, some perilous ruins on the cusp of collapse and other medieval buildings occupied as housing. It’s an odd mixture of the picturesque, the squalid, the mysterious and the over-curated. My favourite was the Mecca Masjid; no signposts, took some looking for. Behind some plain high walls was an old mosque. The guardian let us in, chillis were drying in the courtyard where her young daughters played. The walls suggest that it was a women’s mosque.
Other sights included the large 16th century Jama Masjid (Friday mosque) with its elaborate painted mikrab. High up on a defensive tower is a bronze cannon, the Malik-i-Maidan. The mouth is shaped into an open lion’s head; its jaws crushing an elephant to death. (Wikipedia lists this as the 3rd largest cannon in the world.) It played its part in the siege of Bijapur by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.