The Syncretic Crucible: Another Trip To Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Aib na Rakhe Hindi bola

Maine to chak dekhe khola

Hindi bola kiya bakhan

Je gur Prasad tha muje gyan.

[Don't think bad if I speak in Hindi,

What I experience I speak openly

In Hindi I have preached in detail

All the wisdom from my teacher's blessing]

– From Burhan ‘al Din Janam's Irshad-Nama (Oudesh Rani Bawa, Deccan Studies, 2009)

Rauza1The rich, complex synthesis of the arts, culture, mysticism, shared sentiments, and indeed, of serendipitous winds passing through the open doors of history and influence, are more than amply evident at Ibrahim Rauza, the mausoleum of the medieval sultan of the Bahmani succession state of Bijapur, Ibrahim Adil Shah II. From the striking domed entrance gateway, the serene lawns, to the two structures upon a plinth (the tomb and the adjacent mosque), all fecund with the intense intermingling of a staggering range of ideas, Ibrahim Rauza is truly, a feast for the eyes. “If you look up sir, you will see a carved phanas ka phal (jackfruit)”, says our immaculately dressed elderly guide in the regional Dakhani Urdu, coloured gently with a practiced lilt. “There, sun rays, lotus forms, and there, almost faded away, you will see painted in the alcove, a kalash” he points out, adding that one finds numerous features of southern temple design in the structure. This new phase of Bijapur architecture, “almost synchronizing with the reign of Ibrahim II”, writes Z.A Desai in History of Medieval Deccan (ed. Sherwani & Joshi, 1974), “was marked by better and more refined forms”. From more deftly integrated minars, elaborate bracketed cornices, to foliated parapets and refined arches, Ibrahim Rauza is widely considered to be one of the most glorious examples of syncretic Indo-Persian architecture. The lavishness of the Bijapur style “had reached its culmination” with Ibrahim Rauza, and the “most striking feature of the tomb”, Desai writes on, “is the amazing wealth of surface decorations, comprising of low relief carvings in a variety of geometric and foliage patterns, as well as in the form of beautifully interlaced inscriptions of the entire exterior walls of the central chamber.”

The tomb was originally intended for the sultan's second wife, Taj Sultana, but it was he who passed on first, and the complex was completed only after her death in 1633 CE, as is widely recognized, by Malik Sandal, an influential Habshi (Abyssinian) court official. As George Michell writes, there is a profusion of Indic themes in the design and decoration of the two structures and the “profound intermingling…may be interpreted as an expression of hybrid courtly culture”. Alongside lotus medallions and square mandala styled compartments adorning the ceiling of the outer verandah, the doorways of the sepulchre bearing calligraphic panels, and calligraphic jaalis or perforated screens, Michell points also to magic squares, wherein, “letters are arranged in rotational and mirror symmetry.” The calligrapher's name, Naqi al' Din Hussaini is found several times. The faded floral and geometric motifs in pale turquoise, green and pink, which our guide points out to us, seem to be related, he suggests, to contemporary textile design. Writing on the epigraphic program of the Ibrahim Rauza, Bruce Wannell indicates that although names, dates and chronograms appear on the structure, the inscriptions fail to provide a precise building history of the monument, however:

The texts reflect the shift of power from Shi'i Afaqi Iranians to Sunni Abyssinian and Deccani courtiers that took place in 1583, when Hanafi Sunni Islam was officially reinstated. They also reflect the syncretic flirtations with the Hindu goddess of music, Saraswati, by the monarch in his young maturity, from the 1590s until 1624.


Inscriptions with greetings and references to the prophet Ibrahim are seen in several instances, and this in turn runs in concurrent equivalence to the ruler himself. There are calligraphic references to divine mystical light, or nur-i-muhammadi, which appear on a medallion corresponding to the level of the heart. There is also a profusion of Arabic and Persian poetry alongside Qur'anic quotes and Wannell suggests here that there perhaps could be greater investigation into the “overall mood and dense web of allusions provided by the Qur'an quotes, the pious invocations, and the poetry of repentance and helplessness in the face of death.” Wannell also writes of a calligraphic panel, which appears, on the North door as “a powerful Arabic poem on God's unity and the penitent's utter dependence on Him. In a spiritual culture permeated by Ibn Arabi's concept of wahdat-al-wujud, the unity of being, the last line can be read as a clear allusion to Ibrahim's past flirtation with the Hindu goddess Saraswati.”

Sangeet Mahal, a dilapidated structure 4 km away from Ibrahim Rauza, is a focal point for the abandoned town Nauraspur that the sultan had envisioned. The epithet Jagadguru Badshah (master of the world) is often appended to his name, and his artistic interests and patronage were broad, eclectic, not to mention, influential.


As the town's name suggests, the fifth Adil Shahi sultan's ‘syncretic flirtations' ran deeper in his conceptual engagement with the classical aesthetic theory of nine-senses, or Nau Ras. Our young local companion interestingly refers to Nau Ras in his beautiful, idiosyncratic vernacular Urdu, as “nine kinds of local wines, which the badshah drank and was very pleased with”. Each wine, he informs us, had a unique flavour to it, and “local mein itna maza hai“, or, the taste of the local was so pleasurable that the sultan was very enamoured with it and that is why he named the new city, Nauraspur. The popular myth is an apt one; mystical and literary traditions alike have enduringly been infused with intoxication, whether of a worldly nature, or of a transcendent divine character. Whatever his poison may have been, Ibrahim Adil Shah II was an accomplished poet, and his work kitab-i-nauras, or nauras-nama, a sophisticated poetic treatise on music, is considered to be an early and exceptional example of Dakhani literature. Containing 56 songs, the treatise explores 17 classical ragas. Interestingly, some point to Muhammad Ibrahim Zuberi's history of Bijapur, Basatin us Salatin, wherein it is apparently written that the sultan employed four thousand musicians, a veritable army, known as lashkar-i-nauras – a charming idyll for these troubled times. (Deccani painting is beyond the scope of this essay but I will point to a manuscript described here as “'An important Deccani copy of Al-Jazari's ‘Book of Ingenious Devices.'”; see also the work of Jagdish Mittal & Mark Zebrowski.)



An exquisite lotus shaped oil lamp stands inside the entrance door to an enclosed tomb in Khwaja Amin dargah. A couple of small flames flicker delicately as we walk past it. Syed Mohammed Husayn Al Alim leads us into the tomb-shrine of his medieval ancestor, the medieval Sufi saint, Amin ‘al Din Ala, with the honorofic, ‘sher-e-khuda' appended to his name. The saint had composed several Dakhani works, including Panjatan-e-Pakh, he tells us, alongside his illustrious father and grandfather. Burhan ‘al Din Janam and Shah Miranji Shams ‘al Ushaq are important figures in Deccani Sufism, not to mention their significant contribution to the development of the proto-Urdu form, Dakhani (for further reading, see The Bahmani Sufis by M Suleman Siddiqi and The Sufis of Bijapur by Richard Eaton). The three saints were the spiritual inheritors, the janasheen, of the influential Chisti preceptor Saiyid Mohammed Banda Nawaz Gesu Daraz (see my previous accompanying essay), reveals the current day descendent, and this ‘inheritance', as myth has it, had been expressed by the yet to be born Khwaja Amin ‘al Din Ala in poetic form: “Muhammad key mehfil mey haazir hoon, ali ki wilayat ka nazir hoon, Dakhan key jagatguru Banda Nawaz hain, unki hukumat ka main wazir hoon.” The dargah is situated on a hillock and the area was then known as Shahpur, presumably with reference to the illustrious first resident saint Shah Miranji Shams 'al Ushaq who had spent over thirty years in Mecca and Medina before removing to the Deccan. As Ma'sud Husain Khan writes in History of Medieval Deccan (ed. Sherwani & Joshi, 1974), Shams 'al Ushaq was “another great name in this religio-mystic period.” Referring to pioneering work of Abdul Haq of the early 20th century organisation Anjuman-i-Tarraqi-i-Urdu, he points to the literary value of two poetic works, Khush-nama and Khush-nagz, the central character being a young girl named Khushnudi who is on a spiritual quest. These both, he writes, are “full of pathos.” The saint's son and spiritual successor Burhan ‘al Din Janam carried the torch on, composing several works of mystical nature and less of literary value. However, the first Dakhani prose work is generally considered to be Qalaimat'al Haqai'aq, which was written by him. Both Miranji and Janam's language, Khan writes on,

employ a diction overlaid by tatsamas and tadbhavas. They are also largely influenced by the Hindu system of thought and freely employ its terminology in their writings. This tendency later on produced a special literary style among the Bijapuri writers and their inclination towards Hindu philosophy and idiom. Ibrahim Adil Shah II's Kitab-i-Nauras, a treatise on Indian music, is a clear proof of how much Bijapur Court had imbibed the cultural traditions of Indian music.


Myth has it that the senior saint established his khanqah at the Shahpur hillock due to a special mystical character to it. When the land was struck by a stick, as was foretold, it emanated a wondrous aroma. In the second sepulchral chamber of the complex, the son Burhan 'al Din Janam, “noor-e-nazar, lakthey jigar“, and two daughters as well, are buried alongside the senior saint. With some regret, Husayn Al Alim says to us that unfortunately, due to some mistakes in the past, their library at the moment is empty but he wishes to bring back some of the books of his ancestors to the dargah. “It's like jumping into a vast sea to extract precious stones – no child's play”, he adds.


In A Survey of Deccani – Problems and Prospects (Deccan Studies, 2003) David Matthews writes that although many manuscripts of the 16th and 17th century have been found, edited and published, there are several more that “lie uncatalogued and unread in the havelis of Hyderabad and other parts of the subcontinent and are usually found in a very poor state, prone to the ravages of insects and the weather.” The decline of Urdu too has played its part. It is critical fact, he argues further, that the contribution of the Deccan to the development of Urdu literature is poorly understood and the early Dakhani writers “merely form a preface in comparison to the account of the great writers of Delhi and Lucknow, who came after them.” This is comparable, he adds further, to “an account of English literature with only passing reference to Beowulf and Chaucer.”

The pioneering work of the early Sufis to the development of Dakhani, a proto-Urdu form, reframed as qadeem Urdu, is profound. Oudesh Rani Bawa (Deccan Studies, 2009) writes on the correspondence between the religious writings of the Sufis and Hindu Sants, who similarly explored Vedanta, and how these writings influenced Dakhani quite significantly. Easily understood spoken vernacular was commonly used in songs and discourses, and in fact, by the time of Burhan ‘al Din Janam, she argues, the language used by both groups was a common one.

Richard Eaton writes in Sufi Folk Literature and the Expansion of Indian Islam that there has been a general tendency in scholarship to focus on mystical works rather than folk literature. The ‘high traditions' included abstract thought and reflections on mystics such as Ibn al' Arabi. The link between “religious philosophy and popular religion” that Sufism exhibits, is expressed in medieval Bijapur, Eaton writes, through the local vernacular.

This literature employed indigenous themes and imagery for the propagation not of complex mystical doctrines of the sort mentioned above, but of a simpler level of Sufi and also of Islamic precepts. Written mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth century by Bijapur Sufis belonging to the Chisti order, or by their descendants scattered elsewhere in the Deccan, this literature has been preserved in the oral tradition of the Dakhani-speaking villagers throughout the Deccan plateau.


Referring to the work of Zeenat Sajida in this area, Eaton further points out that before the advent of cinema and electronic media, Dakhani Sufi folk poetry played a dominant role in village cultural life. And this folk poetry was for the most part, sung by women whilst conducting household chores. The ‘most common types' are the chakki-nama song, sung while grinding food grains. Then there are the charka-nama or spinning thread song, lori-nama or lullaby, shadi-nama or wedding song, suhangan-nama or the married woman song, and the eulogistic song, suhaila. Such folk poetry must have pre-existed in Marathi and Kannada oral traditions, he argues, and what the Sufis seemed to have done was “adapt the simplest elements of Sufi doctrine to the already existing vehicles of folk poetry and to substitute vernacular Dakhani for vernacular Marathi or Kannada.” One such chakki-nama is attributed to Amin ‘al Din Ala, “a Sufi of notably heterodox tendencies”, but it seems an erroneous one Eaton argues further, given that the song refers to events after his death. Pointing to Ibn al' Arabi, Eaton writes that simplistic themes are mirrored in the following charka-nama:

The tongue is the unspun thread for the message of God;

The tongue is the rim of the spinning wheel

Bring out the thread of breath and show it oh sister;

Both of these memories should be in our throat;

God has given us the ability to turn our hand,

And it is that which moves the wheel, oh sister.

(See also Hugh van Skyhawk's Oral Traditions of Women at Sufi Shrines in the Deccan).


D.J. Matthew's writes in Eighty Years of Dakani Scholarship that “J.F. Blumhardt mentions briefly a number of important Dakani works” in his catalogue of Hindustani manuscripts at the British Museum. The pioneering work of Maulvi Abdul Haq, popularly known as Baba-e-Urdu (father of Urdu), in drawing attention to and editing several rare Dakhani manuscripts including the Kulliyat of Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, is well recognised. The Kulliyat, according to Haq, contained 50,000 verses, with poetry in Urdu, Persian, and Telugu, although there is no evidence of any Telugu poetry in it (or in fact, that the sultan knew any Telugu). Haq headed the influential Anjuman-i-Taraqqi-i-Urdu, which although located initially in Aligarh, moved to Aurangabad in the state of Hyderabad, at his behest.

In her recently published work, The Language of Secular Islam, Kavita Datla fascinatingly explores the ideas and politics surrounding the work of Haq and the other important figure of Urdu/Dakhani scholarship of that time, Saiyid Mohiuddin Qadri Zore, a Hyderabad native, whose association with the Idara-i-Adabiyat-i-Urdu is considered to be greatly influential. As Datla writes,

For Abdul Haq, the importance of Deccani lay not only in its age or its location but also in its making use of the elements of Hindi, and Indian, poetry and imagery. He explained, for example, that unlike Urdu poets who followed him, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah made reference to Indian, and not Persian, landscapes and customs.

Haq, as Datla writes, refers to the syncretic blending of linguistic traditions, alluding to the popular ‘Ganga-Jamuna' metaphor. His attempts at reconciliation of the diverse traditions, Datla intriguingly writes on, is linked to “his concern for understanding the historical connections between his adopted home and the North Indian cultural legacies with which he was familiar….Abdul Haq admitted that the cause of Urdu would best be served by bringing the language closer to Hindi.” Unlike the Anjuman though, Zore's project was more intimately linked to the Deccan, and “The Idara was also more explicitly interested in preserving the literary and historical heritage of the Deccan in particular.” The Idara began to publish a monthly journal Sab ras, Datla writes on, which took its name from a 17th century syncretistic prose work of the Golconda poet Vajhi. Zore argued that Dakhani was but a branch of Hindustani, just as modern Hindi, Gujari and modern Urdu was. He also asserted its distinct devolpment. This, Datla argues, was part of a greater design emanating from the intellectual activity and scholarly work being conducted in the early years of Osmania University. This design was positioning Urdu as a ‘true' language of the nation, of a secular character, and which represented all its people and its diversity. “Both Abdul Haq and Zore were interested in uncovering a history of a truly national language, a language that had a historic claim to different regions of India”, Datla writes.


There is a fair amount of English language scholarship on Dakhani at hand today (not to mention the tireless efforts of several Urdu scholars and translators), and it occurs to me as I pass the fabulous Arts College building of Osmania University in Hyderabad on my return from Bijapur, that the Deccan still remains quite distinct; its idiosyncratic flavours, accents and tempers may not be fare for all, but what remains hidden behind is the complex history of exchange and synthesis. If it is the allure of such peculiar, bountiful blending that I am immediately drawn to, it is then the inevitability of it all that strikes me the most.