India's forgotten metropolis: ruins that are worth a detour

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Every time I get off the rickety state transport carriage at the bus stand in Bidar, Karnataka, I am reminded that this must be one of India's best-kept travel secrets.

Here to research the next edition of Lonely Planet’s India guidebook, I soon find myself weaving through a maze of noisy, bustling lanes to reach the fringes of town, where a constellation of grand ruins stands in muted silence, fighting a losing battle against modernity and collective memory.

Few, after all, know about these historical gems dotting the farthest extents of the Deccan Plateau.

Bahamani Tombs in Ashtur. Image by Anirban Mahapatra

Splendid in decay, the architectural relics of Bidar date back to the 15th century, when this tiny settlement in northeast Karnataka first gained prominence as the capital of the mighty Bahamani empire. Chosen as the seat of power in 1428, Bidar soon grew in stature to become a veritable nerve centre, holding sway over much of south India.

Eventually, after playing capital to the Barid Shahi dynasty (successors to the Bahamanis), Bidar was annexed by the Bijapur sultanate in 1619. And redundancy set in once it was palmed off to the Mughals in 1686. Declining rapidly, Bidar was soon reduced to the ignominy of a district outpost, which it remains today.

Nonetheless, the enthralling legacy of this forgotten metropolis continues to enchant those who stray off the beaten track to revel in its peeling glory. Walk out north, and you’ll find yourself dwarfed by the formidable red-rock ramparts of the Bidar Fort, the largest battlement in south India.

Inside Bidar Fort. Image by Anirban Mahapatra

A short distance away stands the vestiges of the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, decked in fragmented Persian tiles, which was built in 1472 as a centre for advanced learning and blown to bits by a gunpowder explosion in the late 17th century.

Mahmud Gawan Madrasa. Image by Anirban Mahapatra

Amble down to Ashtur, where the gigantic domed sepulchres of the Bahamani sultans stand guard over the desolate laterite landscape. And spend a quiet moment at the mausoleum of Syed Kirmani Baba, who came calling on the Bahamani kings from Iran and never returned. A sublimely beautiful monument, it’s regularly prayed in by women in hijab, who sombrely murmur pleas among rows of medieval graves lining the polygonal courtyard. Sit in, and be forever under its spell.

Mausoleum of Syed Kirmani Baba. Image by Anirban Mahapatra

Four visits in as many years, and I still haven’t managed to snap out of it.

Originally published Oct 2010. Images updated Nov 2012.