On a July night in Bengaluru, I sat down at a local microbrewery with Walter Hakala, the director of Asian studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Over beer, he told me about his latest project: a study of the Deccan region’s Urdu inscriptions. He explained his findings, observations and spoke of the different far-flung corners of the Deccan his research had taken him to. The story of one inscription in particular—in northern Karnataka—sparked off a quest of my own.
Once one of the subcontinent’s most politically and culturally important cities, Bijapur is now a small town, peripheral to the centre of regional power, located over five hundred kilometres away from the state capital. It is home to a host of historically and architecturally significant mosques, palaces, stepwells and mausolea—built during its time as the capital of the vast Bijapur Sultanate, ruled by the Adil Shahi dynasty from 1489 to 1686. The striking contrast between the grandeur of Bijapur’s medieval monuments and the shoddiness of its modern infrastructure gives it an almost palpable aura of institutional neglect.
To the northwest of Bijapur’s modern city limits lies what was once the bustling market town of Shahpur. A hillock here long served as a base and focal point for Chishti Sufi activity in Bijapur. Today, the hillock is primarily known for the dargah of the seventeenth-century Sufi Amin al-Din Ala, which is built in the distinctive Adil Shahi style.
The shrine’s importance goes far beyond its religious significance. Around its entrance are 15 couplets written in an immaculate calligraphic hand, each couplet the verse of a ghazal. Its content is mostly spiritual and esoteric, referencing the Sufi concept of achieving union with god and his wisdom. A chronogram at the end of the inscription dates it to 1088 Anno Hegirae, or 1677–78 CE.
The inscription is a sight to behold. The verses of the ghazal flank the entrance, the exquisitely written text looming above the faithful who flock to the shrine. According to a report by the Archaeological Survey of India, this is “perhaps the largest single inscription to be found on a Muslim tomb in India, and indeed, even on other buildings, too.”