The Bidar fort, situated in present day Karnataka, is a sombre and imposing structure. The origin of this massive fort has unfortunately been lost to history. However, it is largely agreed that it was perhaps built soon after the establishment of the Bahamanid dynasty of peninsular India. Zafar Khan, a General under the Sultanate in Delhi, successfully revolted against Muhamad-bin-Tughlaq and shifted his capital from Gulbarga to Bidar in the early 15th century. Thereafter, he called himself Ala-ud-din Hasan Bahaman Shah, established an independent ‘Bahamanid’ dynasty, and built this hill top fort. The Bahamani Sultanate, as it came to be called, was the first Indo-Islamic Persianate kingdom in the Deccan. Its unique contribution to architecture can also be seen in the Gulbarga fort, the Jama Masjid in Gulbarga and the Madrasa in Bidar, apart from the Bidar fort. Karnataka is currently seeking the status of World Heritage Sites for some of these monuments including the Bidar Fort, from UNESCO.
Afanasy Nikitin, the famous foreign traveler of Russian origin, is known to have visited the Bahamanid kingdom in the 15th century. Several modern-day historians utilize his well-known account- The Journey beyond Three Seas, for a study of the period. Another source for this period and the region, is the work by Firishta (also spelt Ferishta in Urdu). He was of Persian origin and worked as the court historian for the Deccan Sultanate in the 16th century.
The Bidar fort stands on the north-eastern edge of the Deccan plateau and is primarily built of red laterite stone. This stone is said to have been sourced from around the fort itself. A unique triple channeled moat was dug around the south and west sides of the fort and the unearthed stone was used in the construction of the fort. The steep cliffs in the northern and eastern side provided natural protection for the fort. These moats encircled the outer walls of the fort and provided the fort with a formidable line of defense.
Seven big arching gateways were built for access into the fort. These were called the Mandu Darwaza, the Kalmadgi Darwaza, the Delhi Darwaza, the Kalyani Darwaza, the Carnatic Darwaza etc. depending on the direction which they faced. Apart from these gates, there was no access point into the fort. Gunpowder technology had not reached the Deccan states by the 14-15th centuries. The architects made use of stone and mortar to construct the fort’s walls.
The fort is famous for the 37 bastions which were built along the wall in an octagonal shape. These were armed with cannons constructed out of welded metal and put together with the help of metal hoops. The Munda Burj or the Munda bastion was the most strategically placed and hence, it also hosted the heaviest guns to guard against enemies.
Once past the outer fortifications and the triple moat, the inside of the fort had beautiful mahals and masjids (palaces and mosques). Ahmed Shah’s rule also saw the addition of madrasas and gardens. The Rangin Mahal uses several colored tiles and has intricate decorations which earned it its name, literally meaning “colorful palace”. This was built by Mahmud Shah in 1487 C.E specially for the queen. Its entrance showcases intricate Mother of Pearl inlay on jet black basalt stone. The two-storied palace also has elaborately carved wooden pillars and ceilings with inlay work as well. A special cooling mechanism was set in place here. The Mahal was strewn with water channels and fountains with a cistern in the center. Additionally, the rooms were made underground to prevent the hot sun from heating up the palace.
The Gagan Mahal was built in the 14-15th century CE and has been called the “combination of strength and beauty”. This palace had two courts. The outer one was for the male staff including the guards of the palace and the inner court was used by the ladies of the palace. The Sultan used the main building which was built just south of the inner court. Several rooms were built along these courts and they had arched entrances. Set with stucco and colored tiles, they formed yet another feature of the Persianate form of architecture. The Barid Shahi rulers who followed the Bahamanid dynasty made significant changes to this structure’s first floor. The ground floor is said to have remained in its original state.
The “throne room” or the Takht Mahal, the Jami Masjid or the "Great Mosque" and the Sola Khamba Masjid that is the "Sixteen-Pillar" mosque, are some other notable structures of this fort complex. The Sola Khamba Masjid is one of India’s largest mosques and Bidar’s oldest Islamic buildings. It was built in 1432 and restored by Aurangzeb in 1656 A.D. It is considered to be a good example of the Deccan style of architecture which had synthesised indigenous and Persianate styles. It is constructed in the middle of a garden, has a massive prayer hall and is topped by a huge dome. A unique water system was utilised to cool the mosque and to provide water for ablution, drinking etc. Water was collected on the roof in a reservoir and then bought to the ground floor cisterns.
However, a unique contribution of the Persianate Bahamani rulers was the historic water supply system called the karez or the qanat system. This ancient system was originally developed in Iran and involves a gently sloping underground channel connected to the water well to bring water up to the surface for irrigation, drinking, washing and other purposes. The underground network of canals was connected by vertical shafts to the surface and tapped into the groundwater resources. This system helped provide water in the region which otherwise remained dry due to the rocky terrain. Seventeen of the karez vertical shafts are still visible in Bidar today.
This fort had more than thirty monuments inside its premises which showcased the new pioneering architectural styles in the Deccan. Interestingly, there was also a Turkish bath built in the fort which was called the hammam. This has now been converted into a museum. As done in most palaces and forts, this massive construction also had a Diwan-i-Am and a Diwan-i-Khass built. The public hall of audiences or the Diwan-i-Am had high walls and was built near the central mosque. It was also known as the Jali Mahal due to the intricate trellis work it demonstrated.
It was in the middle of the 17th century that the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb captured Bidar and absorbed it in the Mughal Empire. He made additions to the fort as well. In 1724, Bidar fell to the Asaf Jahi rulers and the fort was commanded by Salabath Jung till 1726 A.D. In the middle of the 20th century, Hyderabad state was partitioned and Bidar fort became a part of Mysore, the newly formed state now called Karnataka.