The Gulbarga fort, situated in the north-eastern part of Karnataka, forms a gateway into the political and cultural history of the region. The fort complex proudly boasts of- the longest cannon in the world, and a mosque that closely resembles the famous Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain. Although much of the fort is in ruins today, the remaining structures are solemn and impressive, and remind us of a past filled with internecine wars and conflicts in the Deccan.
The foundations of this fort are known to have been laid down by Raja Gulchand of the Kakatiyas of Warangal in the 12th century CE. It was further developed by subsequent rulers in the following years. By the 14th century CE, the region of Gulbarga came under the control of the Delhi Sultanate. In the middle of the 14th century CE, one of the officials of Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, Zafar Khan, revolted against his authority and founded the Bahmani dynasty, thereby establishing an independent state. He called himself Sultan Alauddin Bahman Shah (r.1347-1358) and chose Gulbarga as his capital. Following this, the older fort was improved and strengthened as the headquarters of the Bahmani kingdom.
The Gulbarga fort is a well-planned structure and the buildings and layout of the fort give us an insight into the evolution of Indo-Persian architecture in South India. The fort covers an area of around 0.5 acres with a circumference measuring 3 km. The fort is protected on the outside, by a wide moat endowed with several drawbridges. Beyond this, one encounters walls with double fortifications- the inner wall higher than the outer. The structure also has about 15 towers and semi-circular turrets mounted with 26 guns.
The fort complex consists of several large buildings and courtyards. Alauddin Bahman Shah notably added the Bala Hissar or the main citadel in the centre of the fort. It is a formidable structure with walls as high as 19m and six circular towers. The Bala Hissar was built as a donjon (the inner stronghold of a fort)- a space where the defending army could retreat to, as a last resort against invading forces. It is claimed that the Bala Hissar of the Gulbarga Fort is the only known donjon in India. Alauddin Bahman Shah also built the Jama Masjid within the fort. An inscription records that the masjid was completed in 1367 CE. This mosque was designed by an Iranian architect called Rafi and its plan resembles the plan of the Great Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain. One of the unique features of this mosque is that the central area, which is usually an open courtyard, is covered with several small domes. The majority of the outer walls are not solid but are made up of open arcades. Most importantly, the main sanctuary is separately crowned with a high dome and there are no minarets within the mosque complex. It is held that this covered courtyard plan is not encountered in any other mosque built by the Bahmanids in India.
The most exciting exhibit, however, is perhaps the panch dhatu (alloy of five metals) cannon, called the Bada Gazi toph which is claimed to be the longest in the world. It was installed here by the Bahmanid rulers in the 14th century CE. This cannon measures 29 feet in length with a circumference of 7.6 feet and a diameter of 2 feet. The barrel is 7 inches thick. This enormous piece of medieval weaponry weighs between 70-75 tonnes. It is notably about 6 feet larger than the Jagadamba Bhavani Toph (located at the Koulas Fort) in Telangana, and several feet longer than the famous Tsar cannon in Russia.
The city of Gulbarga is also a revered destination for the followers and disciples of the famous Sufi saint Mohammad Gesu Daraz, popularly known as Khwaja Bande Nawaz. In the wake of Timur’s invasion of Delhi, Gesu Daraz left Delhi in 1398 CE and arrived in Gulbarga in 1413 CE. He passed away in 1422 CE, at the age of 101, and his tomb was constructed here in the same year. This Dargah is often considered to be a part of the sprawling and elliptical fort complex of Gulbarga. Like the other structures of the complex, the tomb of Gesu Daraz is also a harmonious amalgamation of Persian and Indic styles of architecture. The annual urs (death anniversary) celebration here draws thousands of devotees, irrespective of faith and religion, and spreads the message of unity and harmony.
The Bahmani Sultan Shihab al-Din Aḥmad I (r. 1422–36 CE), shifted his capital from Gulbarga to Bidar, as the latter was surrounded by more fertile ground and was more centrally located (for the growing empire). The Bahmani dynasty ruled the region till the early 16th century CE after which it broke into five distinct independent states- Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda. The region of Gulbarga came partly under Bijapur and partly under Bidar. In the latter half of the 16th century CE, Sultana Chand Bibi, the regent of the Bijapur Sultanate, added other important structures to the Gulbarga fort such as Khandar Khan’s Mosque and Hirapur Mosque. In the 17th century CE, the Deccan Sultanates fell to the Mughal empire. Aurangzeb captured Gulbarga and constructed a college, a mosque and a sarai close to the Dargah.
Aurangzeb left the region in command of his governors but as the Mughal Empire started to decline in the 18th century, the provincial governors broke away. Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah I governed the region in the early part of the 18th century, and as the Mughal empire weakened, became an independent ruler for all practical purposes (although he never formally cut his ties with Delhi). Consequently, the state of Hyderabad was born. In the second half of the 18th century, when the East India Company gained power in the Deccan, the Nizams of Hyderabad accepted its suzerainty. After Independence, the state of Hyderabad was annexed into the Indian union in 1948. Today, the iconic Gulbarga fort features in the list of protected monuments by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The Gulbarga fort and the structures within it are truly awe-inspiring and embody the rise and fall of historic dynasties.