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Golconda, Abdullah Qutb Shah's Tomb, 17th c

Architecture of the Deccan Sultanates

One of the earliest Islamic monuments in the Deccan is an audience hall in the Kakatiya fort of Warangal that has been recently identified as a Tughlak structure built during the 14th century occupation of that site. But this is a rare example of a building in the north Indian Islamic style. In general, Islamic buildings of the Deccan were relatively unaffected by either indigenous Hindu architecture or by contemporary Islamic architecture of north India. Instead, the many independent dynasties that ruled this region from the 14th century looked for both political legitimacy and cultural inspiration to the west, particularly the influential Iranian courts.

In the early 14th century, Muhammad bin Tughlak's, military governor Zafar Khan rebelled against him. The resulting dynasty, known as the Bahmanids, ruled from Gulbarga and later from Bidar. Among the earliest productions of the Bahmanis was the Jami Masjid at Gulbarga (mid 14th century), with its extraordinary cloisters consisting of wide arches on low piers. A series of tombs built in two separate complexes were built as mausolea of the early Bahmani rulers. They are all in the austere Tughlak style with sloping walls and flattened domes, but the effect is distinctly less austere in the magnificent double tomb of Firoz Shah Bahmani whose walls are divided into tiers of arched niches some of which have windows with elaborate jali decoration.

In the late 14th century, the Bahmanis moved their capital to Bidar, the site of a strategic fort at the end of a steep escarpment. In addition to strengthening the fort by building moats and massive gateways, the Bahmanis also several palaces and mosques within the citadel of which the Solah Khamba mosque and the Rangin Mahal are best preserved. In the city itself, an immense madrasa was built in a distinctly Persian style by Mahmud Gawan, the powerful Iran-born prime-minister of the Bahmanis. On the outskirts of the city the Bahmanis built their necropolis, a remarkable series of 12 tombs, the most elaborate of which is that of Ala-ud-Din Ahmad Bahmani (died 1457), which has extremely fine decorations in coloured tile. After the fall of the Bahmanids, their viziers the Baridis continued to rule in the city of Bidar, and built their own tomb complex at a separate location.

Bidar, Mahmud Gawan's Madrasa, 14th c

In the late 15th century, the provinces of the Bahmani dynasty broke off into separate states, each with a vibrant and distinct culture flourishing mainly from the early-16th to the mid-17th centuries. The art, poetry, and music of these splinter Deccani courts continued to be influenced by Persia. Many of the rulers were of Persian descent or of the Shia faith and thus felt stronger ties to the west than to the Sunni rulers in northern India. The courts, namely Bijapur, Golconda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar, and Berar, developed unique techniques of casting metal, carving stone, and painting. Each capital city was embellished with citadels and tombs in a distinctive style of architecture as well.

Bijapur was ruled by the Adil Shahis from late 15th to the late 17th centuries. Ibrahim Adil Shah II, a poet, calligrapher, and musician himself, was the dynasty's greatest patron of the arts. He attracted artisans, writers, and thinkers from all over the Islamic world to his court, and during his reign the city became the most important centre of painting in the Deccan. Ibrahim contribution to architecture was equally impressive. His mausoleum, known as the Ibrahim Rauza, is one of the most beautiful tomb complexes in the Deccan. Both painting and architecture continued to flourish under Ibrahim's successor Muhammad cAdil Shah, but this ruler's greatest commission was his tomb, the Gol Gumbad, which while aesthetically less pleasing than Ibrahim Rauza, was an impressive engineering feat as it has a massive dome which, at the time of its construction, was the largest space covered by a single dome.

Bijapur, Gol Gumbaz, 16th c

The Qutb Shahis of Golconda had very close ties to the Safavids of Iran, who exported many artists to this court. Persian influence is distinct in miniature painting from this kingdom. The patronage of artists became notable in the court of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, a contemporary of Ibrahim Adil Shah and, like him, a poet, statesman, and important patron of the arts. The Qutb Shahis were great patrons of architecture also, and embellished Golconda, Hyderabad, and other cities in their domain with forts, tombs, and mosques in a style that was distinctly theirs. The best examples of this style are in the citadel at Golconda, and in the nearby funerary complex that houses tombs of all rulers of this dynasty from the simple structures of the early rulers to the sprawling pyramidal tombs built in the later years. In the late 16th century Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah shifted the capital from Golconda to Hyderabad, a newly constructed city whose main crossroad he adorned with an ornamental gateway the Charminar.

The Nizam Shahis ruled independently in Ahmadnagar from the late 15th century to the mid-17th. They too produced distinct styles of art and architecture. Their buildings concentrated on carved decoration as exemplified in the Damri mosque at Ahmadnagar and in the tomb of Malik Ambar at Khuldabad. The best examples of miniature painting from this reign are in an illustrated history, the Tarif-i Husain Shahi, celebrating the king who led the victory over Vijayanagara.

The 17th century Deccan saw increasing Mughal military presence and increased influence of the imperial Mughal aesthetic on the painting and architecture of Islamic Deccan. In miniature painting this translated to an interest in accurate portraiture, hieratic court scenes, and restrained colours. The Mughals conquered the last of the Deccani sultanates in the late 17th century but were only able to control the area until the mid-18th century, when the Asaf Jahis asserted their independence. They continued to rule in the former Qutb Shahi capital of Hyderabad, and their art and architecture continued to be decidedly Persianate.

Bangalore, 2006

Photos and Text © Amit Guha