Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Trip to Bijapur with Shivaji and Afzal Khan

A trip to Bijapur gets me some Dakhni Biryani, tales of mano-a-mano combat, mass graves and equestrian statues

When I eventually broke though the thicket, all my struggle and exhaustion gave way to an overwhelming feeling of eeriness. In front of me lay 9 rows of graves. Symmetrically arranged, this was not a regular graveyard since each of the grave markers was identical. All these people had, in all probability, been buried here at the same time.

Something terrible had happened here.

This rather morbid historical monument, situated around 10 kilometres east of the city of Bijapur in Karnataka,  is called Sāth Khabar (sāth meaning 60 and Khabar being the local Dakhni pronunciation of qabar or grave). R and I had gotten here with much difficulty, hiring an auto rickshaw to take us to this place. And while communication in Bijapur was hardly a problem, the city being mostly Dakhni speaking, once out in the countryside, Kannada took over and we had to search for Sāth Khabar using Umar, our auto driver as our Hindi-Kannada translator—an irritatingly laborious process. Even when we did get to the monument, as it turned out, we would have to trek the last kilometre on foot, there being no road. And trek we did dutifully, through thick bush, scrub and bramble. Halfway through this trek, unsure of whether we were even headed anywhere, we came across the corpse of decomposing goat—an image (sign? warning?) that would play itself up greatly when we were in the middle of 60 graves out in the middle of nowhere.

The name Sāth Khabar though was a slight misnomer or approximation, if one were to be charitable. There were actually 63 graves mounted on a plinth a foot high. On the eastern side of the graves stood a typical Bijapuri pavilion. Behind this pavilion was a well, choked up with weeds but still filled with water. If legend it to be believed, it was here that Bijapuri general Afzal Khan had drowned each one of his 63 wives just before he rode out to battle a recalcitrant Shivaji. Khan had volunteered for this battle but had also been told by an astrologer that this encounter would be his last. In an act of pre-posthumous jealousy, he killed his wives, drowning them in the well, so that they would be unable to remarry after he was gone. It was this mass burial ground that is now called Sāth Khabar[i].


Bijapur today is a small town in the north-west of the state of Karnataka, very close to its border with Maharashtra. Unlike towns of a similar size in North India, Bijapur is rather clean and well-organised with a surprising amount of infrastructure. The roads are well maintained and adequately lit, the place is dotted with open areas and parks and, surprisingly for an Indian town of only 3 lakh, it has a bus service. Just one stroll around the city though will tell you this is no ordinary mofussil town. Bijapur is absolutely dotted with monuments; masjids, tombs, gateways and dargāhs pop up with every turn you take. Markers of past greatness, strewn around like so many pebbles on a beach.

Founded in the 11th centuries, the name Bijapur is the local Kannada/Dakhni version of the Sanskrit Vijayapura, or city of victory. It was in the 16th and 17th centuries though that this city, as the capital of the remarkable Bijapur Sultanate, achieved its greatest glory.

The most amazing Bijapur

The Bijapur sultanate was a break-away from the first Muslim kingdom in the south, the Bahmani sultanate which in turn was carved out of the Delhi Tughlaq sultanate as it struggled to hold on to its southern regions.

For much of the reign of the Adil Shahis, the dynasty that ruled Bijapur, the kingdom was actually more prosperous than its Sunni counterpart in the North. That prosperity meant that the city of Bijapur was, till the reign of Shahjahan, far grander than the urdus (or cantonment cities) of North India such as Delhi, Agra or Lahore.

This wealth resulted in a fantastic intermingling of cultures—Persianate (which included the ethnicities of Afghan and Turk), North Indian (mainly Muslims from Delhi and its surroundings), Siddi, Maratha, Telugu and Kannada—to produce a sparkling syncretic Dakhni culture well before a certain Jalaluddin Akbar could begin his project up North.

Dakni zabaan

Arguably the greatest outcome of this syncretism is the local language of Dakhni, spoken in urban centres across the Deccan in places as varied as Bijapur in Karnataka, Hyderabad in Andhra (Telengana?) and Beed in Maharashtra. The language was first bought into existence as the armies of Khilji and subsequent North Indian rulers rumbled into the Deccan to try and annexe it for Delhi. These immigrants from the North carried with them dialects such as Khadi Boli, Haryanvi and early forms of Punjabi[ii] which, in the cities of Deccan, mixed with Marathi, Telugu and Kannada to give rise to Dakhni. Existing only as a street patois today, Dakhni was the first formal literary expression of Khadi Boli, the local dialect of Delhi and West UP. The Sufis of the Deccan used it as a utilitarian tool to preach their creed and in the hands of poet-kings such as Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (founder of Hyderabad) and Ibrahim II of Bijapur it reached the dizzy heights of literary expression.

Anecdote has it that a Dakhni poet, Wali Mohammed, displayed his poetry to the literati of Delhi who were impressed by this new literary language, most composition in Delhi at the time taking place either in Persian or other Hindustani dialects such as Braj and Awadhi[iii]. In this way, Dakhni gave rise to modern North Indian Urdu in the 18th century and 150 years later, North Indian Urdu would in turn give rise to Shudh Hindi, making Dakhni a grandfather of sorts to India’s current official language. Of course, once Urdu and Hindi had established their sway, they deposed their once grand predecessor and Dakhni was stripped of its status as a literary language, left only as a street argot in cities across the Deccan, right up to Madras. Given the status of the language today, in a fittingly symbolic gesture, the tomb of Wali Dakhni—the man who reintroduced the language to the North—situated in Ahmedabad, was razed to the ground in the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom.

The Dakni Akbar

The most remarkable work of Dakhni in Bijapur was also composed by a remarkable man, the 6th sultan of the dynasty, Ibrahim Adil Shah II. Ibrahim II would be the Deccan’s Akbar, a philosopher king with an eclectic taste in spirituality. An intense lover of music, his book Kitāb-e-Nauras is a treatise on Indian classical music which opens with an invocation to Saraswati. Much like Akbar, he founded a new city, Nauraspur, around 10 kms east of the original city. Very little of it survives now; when I visited the place, there were only two buildings, each in an advanced state of decay, the Sangeet Mahal and the Nari Mahal. The ASI was carrying out work there and the supervisor of the team, Anil was kind enough to show me around. As per him, Ibrahim II had only built Nauraspur in order to visit the ancient Narasimha Temple, situated nearby, in peace, away from the watchful eyes of the city’s orthodox ulema. Narasimha had cured Ibrahim’s daughter’s blindness and ever since then, he was a bhakt, informed Anil.

The orthodoxy of Bijapur, it seems are still fighting a losing battle, even after 400 years. The city has a thriving Sufī culture, consisting mainly of the Chistī, Qādri and Shattarī orders. On a visit to the popular mazār of Abdul Razzaq Qadiri (commonly known as the Jod Gumbaz or “twin domes”) I was intrigued to see women queuing up at the back with coconuts in hand. As their turn would come, a chap would take it from them, crack it open with practised ease and pour the water over the dehlīz (threshold) of the dargāh. “Isse mannate pūri hotī hain, betā,” a woman, who was probably younger than me, said by way of explanation, maybe being obligated to add the betā as a mocking response to my somewhat daft query of why she was doing this. All dargāhs in Bijapur also have a jot/deep/charāgh lit constantly. At the Ameen-ud-din dargāh, when I asked the sajjādā nashīn what the significance of the lamp was, he just nodded sagely and said, “Yahi dakkan ka rivāj hai” (this is the tradition of the Deccan).
The naryal-breaker hard at work at the Jod Gumbaz
The charagh inside the Ameen-ud-din dargah

The Empire's Maharashtrian backbone

In the 17th century, this syncretism also extended to the bureaucracy and army of the Bijapur Empire, in a form much deeper and more stable than seen in Delhi. Much of the Bijapur Empire was run and administered throughout its length and breadth by Maharashtrian desais and deshmukhs. This was due to a confluence of factors such as it already being an existing practise under the earlier Bahamani sultanate as well as the ethnic factionalism within the Bijapuri[iv] court itself. The court in Bijapur has always seen a tug of war between Deccan Muslims and foreign Muslims (such as Turks, Persians and Afghans). As Eaton points out, whenever Deccan Muslims have gotten a chance, starting from Ibrahim I, they have always appointed Maharashtrians to key position in order for it to act as a check against the foreigner class.

Linguistically, the result of this large scale intermingling meant that Marathi was inundated with Persian loan words, the language of the Bijapuri court along with Dakhni. In fact, As GH Khare points out, this resulted in a distinct register of Marathi being born (which Khare called Perso-Marathi) which was used to administer the Bijapur Empire. Rajwade’s analysis of the documents of the period reveal that nearly 40% of the words used in the Marathi used by the upper classes of the period were of Persian origin; an astonishingly high number[v]. And in what is probably one the most telling legacies of Bijapur, around 10%[vi] of the lexicon of modern Marathi is derived from Persian[vii].

Bijapuri general Shahji's son, Shivaji

One of the key examples of how important Maharashtrians were to Bijapur was Shahji Bhosle, the father of Shivaji, who was a key general in the Bijapuri armies (and had earlier served both Ahmednagar as well as the Mughal Empire[viii]) and responsible for conquering much of Karnataka for the Empire. In fact, to note one of the many ironies of that period, Shahji, had served under Afzal Khan in 1641, as the armies of Bijapur endeavoured to crush an uprising of Hindu Rajas in the general region of Vellore.

In the late 1650s, though, Shahji’s estranged son, Shivaji was creating ripples in the Bijapur court for his temerity of taking over a number of Bijapuri forts as well as capturing the lands of a prominent feudal family, the More’s.  However, caught up in the problems of succession (the emperor, Mohammed Adil Shah was on his death bed) as well defending itself from the armies of the belligerent Mughal prince, Aurangzeb, the empire did nothing and Shivaji got a free rein to build up his power. In 1659, however, with a new emperor in place, Bijapur decided to act. It marshalled one of its most capable generals, Afzal Khan to capture Shivaji. Khan already had a reputation for being a tyrant—in another story about his cruelty, he had once threatened to have officials squeezed to death in a mill for dereliction of duty—so combined with his combat with Shivaji, it is little surprise that legends like Sāth Khabar have sprung up.

Afzal Khan marches to Shivaji

As he marched from Bijapur to Pune (which is where Shivaji was) with a force of around 10,000 troops (a massive force by the standards of the depopulated, famine-stricken Deccan), Afzal Khan decided to adopt a policy of intimidation of the worst possible kind by destroying a number of Hindu temples on the way, the most important of which was the Vithoba Temple in Pandharpur. Till today, you see advertisements of tours to Pandharpur all over Bombay and it is probably Maharashtra’s most popular temple, a status it had even in the 17th century.  Though, as Stewart Gordan points out, “this behaviour was unprecedented for a Bijapuri force” given the Empire's past history of syncretism. And not only was this act by Afzal Khan morally unconscionable, but it was also highly impolitic since it served to alienated the bedrock of Bijapur's civil and military bureaucracy who were, as pointed out earlier, largely Maharashtrians. In the end, the strategy behind the destruction, that of forcing Shivaji to come down from the hilly Ghats to meet Khan’s large army on the plains was also a failure—Shivaji, wisely, did not budge.

Once Khan reached Pune, he found Shivaji had retreated to his fort in Pratapgarh. Shivaji dare not take on Bijapur's massively larger force on the plains and Khan did not have enough siege equipment to force Shivaji out of his fort. Sieging was a core part of medieval Indian warfare and the two sides settled down to 5 months of a protected cat and mouse game. Supplies though were a factor for both sides—food was running out for Shivaji, trapped inside his fort, and there was only so much the ghats could throw up for Khan's massive force. Both sides therefore engaged in protracted negotiations leading up to a truce meeting between Shivaji and Afzal—probably the single-most celebrated incident in Maharashtrian history. In the meeting, as is well known, Shivaji killed Khan. What is hotly contested, though, is who attacked first, a point on which there is little agreement between primary sources of that period. Marathi sources such the bhākās attribute the treachery to Khan. Mughal and Bijapuri sources such as Khafi Khan accuse Shivaji of premeditated murder. From a historiographical point of view, most colonial historians such as James Grant Duff and Stanley Lane-Poole blame Shivaji while nationalist historians such as Jadunath Sarkar blame Khan (naturally, it is this version which is disseminated in India).

Shivaji, a brilliant tactician

This, of course, is a ridiculously minor point. Both Khan and Shivaji had committed many deeds prior to this which would be considered highly immoral by today’s standards, including premeditated murder; you did not become a solider in the medieval Deccan by being any sort of mahatma. The morality (or lack thereof) displayed in this particular incident is immaterial. The issue should purely be seen from the point of view of strategy—an angle from which Khan comes out to be an overconfident fool and Shivaji a brilliant tactician—rather than any woolly notions of ethics. The problem is that the history of this period and this incident in particular has been sharply communalised and Shivaji and Afzal Khan are forever being moulded, twisted and contorted into shapes which conform to the Hindu-Muslim communal politics of the 20th century. Remarkably, as late as 2009 (three and a half centuries after the incident took place), the issue led to communal violence in the town of Miraj in southern Maharashtra as Hindus and Muslims clashed over the ostensible provocation of a welcome arch, put up by the Shiv Sena, depicting Shivaji killing Afzal Khan. In response to the bungling efforts to bring peace, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray attacked the government asking whether “Afzal Khan [was] a relative of the government” and in true Thackeray-style opined that “had it not been for Shivaji Maharaj, we all would have been reading namaaz today”.

Unaware of the controversy that this would generate 350 years later, the real Shiv Sena, on a signal from their commander, attacked the unsuspecting Bijapur army. The ensuing Battle of Pratapgargh was short and decisive as Khan’s leaderless troops (composed largely of Marathas, it might be noted, fighting loyally for Bijapur as they had done for centuries) were routed. This would be one of many instances in the career of Shivaji when his razor-sharp intelligence combined with his remarkable personal bravery resulted in an improbable victory.


On the way back from Sāth Khabar, we asked Umar to take us to the best biryani joint in town, rather than back to the hotel. The Kutchi Biryani of the Deccan is a marvellous creation and takes the standard the North Indian dish and adds some Dakhni masalas to it, to make it far spicier than anything found in, say, Delhi or Lucknow. As we stood at a crossing, waiting for the light to turn green, I looked out and saw a magnificent bronze statue of Shivaji astride a rearing horse, bang in the middle of the capital of his greatest foe, the Bijapur Empire. An old rotting garland was dangling from his neck, no doubt the result of the last political function.

Shivaji and His Times, Sarkar, Jadunath
The Marathas, Gordan, Stewart
The Mughal Empire, Richards, John
The Value of Dakhni Language and Literature, Mohamed, Sayed
A History of the Mahrattas, Duff, James Grant
Aurangzib and the Decay of the Mughal Empire, Lane-Poole, Stanley
The Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700, Eaton, Richard Maxwell
A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761, Eaton, Richard Maxwell

[i] Jadunath Sarkar had visited the place in 1916 and also noted the “utter desolation” of the spot (Shivaji and His Times). In his time though the story was still alive. When I visited it almost a 100 years later, none of the farmers in the area knew anything about the legends associated with Sāth Khabar other than its name.
[ii] Sufis of Bijapur, Richard Eaton. Eaton mentions that the language bears far closer resemblance to Punjabi than does modern Hindi-Urdu
[iii] Other people telling us about our own culture seems to be a rather entrenched Indian habit. See the urban popularity of yoga after its popularity in the West.
[iv] A practice inherited by all the Deccan Sultanates, not only Bijapur. Stewart Gordon, for example remarks that “virtually all of Malik Amber's [of Ahmednagar] troops were Marathas”
[v] Since this analysis was done using documents, the amount in in spoke speech would be lower. Perso-Marathi might have been a ‘high’ written register.
[vi] Joshi, “Kingdom of Bijapur”
[vii] I am not a Marathi speaker but having lived in Bombay some words I have picked up are phakt (faqat), jakāt (zakāt), bajār (bāzār), majā (mazā), rajā (razā). Of course, given Bombay’s status as a large city, a lot of them might have come in via Dakhni/Hindi-Urdu rather than directly from Persian as such.
[viii] In the absence of any Anti-Defection Law like instrument, this constant shifting of sides was rather common in the Deccan at the time. 


  1. Great piece. Surprised that I got through such a long piece on history. Great writing.

  2. Is it not true that Afzal Khan killed Raja Kasturi Ranga? If it is we can safely blame Afzal Khan.

  3. .Thanks for good words about Bijapur. Made me nostalgic. saath kabar is to the west and Narsimha temple to south of Bijapur

  4. This transported me back by a few hundred years/ your imagery and story-telling is marvelous!/ I am now craving for biryani.

  5. Wonderful trip. You have narrated your trip so well. Thanks for sharing your trip experience. Check out best hotels in Bijapur.