Bijapur’s most famous monument, the Golgumbaz, was built in 1659.

The shrine of the great Sufi mystic and poet, Sheikh Amin ud-Din A'la, lies on the Shahpur hillock, two miles to the North of the great black walls of Bijapur, the most beautiful of medieval city states of the Indian Deccan. I went there on a warm night in early summer. From a dark corner of the courtyard of the shrine came the sound of singing: an elderly long-bearded Sufi, accompanied by his much younger disciple on a tabla, were serenading the long dead saint as he slept in his marble cot. A group of pilgrims had gathered around the musicians and were swaying to the music, some with their hands raised. Facing them was the brightly lit, sharply cusped archway leading into the shrine. On either side of it sat two of the pirs or guardians of the shrine, one with his books and low writing desk, the other with his morchand wand of peacock feathers.

Sitting there among the pilgrims in the half-light, listening to the music, I met Samina Hussein, a young doctor from Bangalore. Like myself, Samina and her family — all well-to-do middle-class professionals — had arrived in Bijapur just a few hours before, after a hot journey through the relentless plains of the Deccan with its rolling planisphere flats of dried maize and wilted, dust-blown sunflowers. Yet while I was planning to return to my hotel for dinner, a shower and a night in soft bed, Samina and her family said they were planning to spend the night in the dargah [shrine]. As there were no rooms free at the shrine, they had laid out their bedrolls on the marble near the entrance to the dargah and were now heating some dal on a primus stove. This was the last leg of a three-week round trip they were making of the shrines of the Deccan, and they were used by now to roughing it:

"We will be safe," said Samina. "The other people here and the saint will look after us. And anyway, you should not be too comfortable when you are on a pilgrimage."

As she spoke a party of Hindu pilgrims passed by with their offerings; trays full of coconuts and incense sticks. With them they brought two young men, one gently wimpering to himself. Both of them were clearly severely mentally handicapped. One of the pirzadas put his hand on the boys, told them to sit, and gave them each a blessing, touching their heads with his peacock wand.

"I have a degree in psychology," said Samina, leaning across to me. "But many times I have seen the simple cures in these dargahs work. These people cannot afford medical treatment, so sometimes the change of place and the spiritual atmosphere of the shrines will help them. Rather than suffering at home they come here. Other people with the same problems are here so they are not alone. And sometimes — just occasionally — miracles may be there: these saints are very powerful in such cases. Both Hindus and Muslims find help here."

At my prompting she asked one of the group of Hindu pilgrims— villagers from near Mysore — why they had made the effort to come all this way:

"Because the saint saved our child," replied the man simply.

"When our boy was an infant he became very ill," said the man. "No medicines from any doctor helped. We tried everything, but our son only got weaker. Then some neighbors said we should come here. We were desperate, so we got on a bus and brought the boy straight to the shrine. One of the pirs [guardians] cured him in a second. What could not be done in twelve months he did in a minute."

"The child was sick, and he was made right," said his wife. "So now we believe. Each year we come back to thank the Khwajah Sahib [Amin ud-Din], and to bring him our problems. Every year our wishes are fulfilled."

"Amin ud Din is still here," said her husband. "Many people see him in the crowd."

"Its true," said his wife. "Some see him sitting on his tomb, dressed in a white robe with an orange turban and a green scarf. Others see him walking around his shrine. To others still he appears in dreams.

"It depends on the intensity of your devotion," said the man. "But Amin ud-Din looks after every one of his followers."

Sheikh Amin ud-Din lived in the early seventeenth century, Bijapur’s Golden Age, when the city became a beacon of tolerance and learning that attracted scholars, artists and mystics from across India and the Middle East.

Relations between Hindus and Muslims had always been easier in the Deccan than in the more polarised North, and its had long been a Deccani tradition that every Muslim sultan should have a Hindu Chief Minister. But during the lifetime of the Sheikh, under the rule of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II, that tradition of tolerance and syncretism reached an astonishing climax. Early in his reign Sultan Ibrahim gave up wearing jewels and adopted instead the rudraksha rosary of the Hindu sadhu, and assuming the title of Jagat Guru, or Teacher of the World. In his writings the Sultan showers equal praise upon the Hindu Goddesses and the Muslim Sufi saints of his kingdom. Perhaps the most astounding passage occurs in the 56th song of his diwan where the Sultan more or less describes himself as a Hindu God: "He is robed in saffron colored dress... and he loves all. Ibrahim whose father is God Ganesh, whose mother is Saraswati, has a rosary of crystal round his neck... . and an elephant as his vehicle."

This atmosphere of languid, courtly free thinking is reflected in the Bijapur school of miniatures which underwent its Renaissance under Ibrahim’s patronage. In these wonderful otherworldly images, water drips from fountains as courtesans as voluptuous as the nudes of South Indian stone sculpture attend bejewelled princes. There is a sense of timelessness and calm, of quiet abandon to the joys of love, music and poetry.

I went to the mausoleum my first morning in Bijapur. The tomb — an exquisite jewel box of a building — lies within a low walled enclosure just beyond the black bastions of the Adil Shahi walls. Behind it lies open farmland, rich well watered black earth where bullocks plough fields edged in palm groves and mango and guava orchards.

There are no high rises, and from the roof of Ibrahim’s tomb, the screen of trees shuts out the cars and roads and new villas, returning you instantly to the world of the Bijapur miniatures: of domes and palms and soaring palaces; of the Jama Masjid and the shrines of Bijapur’s many holy men.

All around the city fragments of this old courtly world survive almost completely intact, yet nowhere more so than at the shrine of Sheikh Amin ud-Din; and on my last night in Bijapur, I returned to see it for one last time. There I found a large group of Hindu villagers. I asked them whether, as Hindus, they found themselves welcomed in a Muslim shrine.

"Of course," replied one of them, a dark skinned farmer, obviously surprised at the question. "We never have any trouble. We think all Gods are the same. Amin ud Din did not just welcome the Muslims: he welcomes everyone."

"There is one God only," agreed his wife. “We are friends with our Muslim brothers and we have faith in their saint. Most of the pilgrims who come here are Hindu."
"We try to keep up this tradition," said one of the shrine’s Muslim guardians who had walked up and was listening to what the woman had said. "As in the day of the sheikh Amin ud-Din, no one is turned away. The saint welcomes everyone. This has always been the tradition of this city."

NOTEBOOK: Bijapur in Karnataka was the capital of the Adil Shahi kings (1489-1686). The city’s largest and most famous monument is the Golgumbaz. Built in 1659, it’s an enormous building, containing an immense hall, buttressed by octagonal seven storey towers at each of its corners. The mausoleum is open 6 am to 6 pm. William Dalrymple’s new book, White Mughals: Love & Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India, set in the Deccan, was reviewed in Traveler’s India, Vol.7, No.1.