Notes From Bijapur: Why Its Architectural Legacy Is At The Risk Of Oblivion

A monumental challenge.

Struggling against an orgy of shouting, clapping, and singing, the solemn weight of history dissolves in the deep shadows of the Gol Gumbaz. A royal tomb, the Gumbaz is sublimely grave in a way only maqbaras can be. Yet, after half a millennium it is also the sanctuary of a motley public. Despite its sepia magnificence, it is reinvented daily and is many things and places simultaneously.

And why not? Buildings, after all, do have a life of their own. They breathe and suffer, and are reborn with the communities who live in and around them. They change with the people who come to them as much, perhaps, as people are changed by their experiences of them. This infusion of character is constant and dynamic, and so the original creative intent becomes one amongst an unending matrix of meanings which emerge from brick and mortar.

This flux characterises Bijapur, a palimpsest notable for the legacies of the monumental Adil Shahs. The long shadows of memory and the tangible history of built form make the boundaries of past and present sfumato with constant use. From the Baran Kaman to the Taj Bauri, from Ibrahim Rauza to Gagan Mahal, the past speaks in Bijapur. It whispers of ambition, the seductions of power strange and terrible, desire and aspiration immortalised in stone. Born of vanity and vision, it symbolises a fusion of form, time, and space not only in terms of what was but also of what can be.

How do we imagine — spatially, economically, and affectively — the contours of such a fusion though? Who belongs to a city, and to whom do its edifices, not just its monuments but also buildings and infrastructure, belong? The law shelters the business of conservation from the commerce and traffic of daily life. Our conservation apparatus seems designed to institute alienation, and rarely does a neighbourhood, community, or people claim trusteeship over a building. We care about our homes, the houses we live in, but find it difficult to think of our cities as home, to care for the songs and shadows they surround us with.

The personal, therefore, is exiled from the communal, and the voice of memory and affect is unable to find a niche under the arch of history. In turning deaf to these voices, in seeing our past not as vibrantly alive but as delicately dead, we perform a grave disservice to our future. The Jami Masjid in Bijapur, for example, belongs both to the community of worshipers, as to the conservation apparatus which serves to memorialise it as a beacon of dakhini architecture. These meanings are not necessarily contrary, but that they often can be is a story local not just to Bijapur but to scores of cities across the subcontinent.

What is needed, then, is a marriage of interpretations and practice. Writing in 1889, Henry Cousens, then Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India (Western Circle), related that 'Bijapur has been called the Palmyra of the Dekhan'. In almost a century since, as the Palmyra lies devastated, the built legacy of Bijapur is at risk of an oblivion given the splintering of civic belonging and urban development. The manifold significance of the past is often in its ability to overwhelm, to instil a reverential awe which prompts interrogation and introspection. As we cloister these works and stories of our ancestors behind higher walls and turn blindly towards the future, we risk becoming harsher, meaner, and poorer.

Our heritage belongs to all of us. We cannot privilege one meaning and practice, without irrevocably losing the layered richness which grounds us organically to our communities and cities. The processes of use and interpretation have to be contextual, and it is through constant conversation alone that this erosion can be checked. How, for instance, do we make Taj Bauri relevant to the potable needs of residents without losing sight of the public generosity which informed its making? How do we reinvent Gol Gumbaz as a rendezvous point for a citizenry starved of safe public spaces? Can Baran Kaman become the breathing emblem of ambition which soars, and fails, and yet lives? The challenge at hand is to birth a future which sustains as much from the past as it loops back to it, where growth will aspire to be not from but with a common legacy. This challenge is monumental in itself, for it is not specific to Bijapur. It is ours, a shared task: it is a challenge to make the past one with the future.

Anubhav Pradhan is an Urban Research Fellow with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. The views expressed here are his own.