Saturday, September 24, 2011

Golconda's Love Story

Reading Time ~ 10 minutes

One afternoon in 1579, Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah was riding his horse in the open space outside his home, the Golconda fort.  He was about sixteen and was a Qutub Shahi prince in line to the Golconda throne.  That day he wandered far and chanced on a temple in the village of Chichalam, near present day Shalibanda (Shah Ali Banda).  Performing in the temple was Bhagamati, a local danseuse.  He watched, mesmerized.

Those were the days when falling in disfavor with royalty was a big no-no.  The price to pay was high.  One could immediately lose favor, earnings, position, house and life without any recourse for an appeal process.  Especially if the displeased were the highest ones in power.   A head could be sliced off the neck without any notice.  And roll down a flight of stairs.  Before you finish solving the puzzle if you are the prone headless body up the stairs or you are in the head, your two-cents on earth gets paid up.
It was a different time from ours, so we need to follow the prime directive and tread lightly.  Or else our present sensibilities will take over and muddle up. One thing is for sure though, people in the middle ages lived in the moment.  Life was eventful, unpredictable and short.  Beauty tangoed with danger.
The life of the Kings casts light on the lives of the ordinary.  Citizenry of the middle ages had no documentation of their own, we can only gauge the quality their time and doings from the history of the ruler's benevolence and patronage. 

Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah began frequenting the village of Bhagamati aka Bhagmati.  He was amazed by her charm, dance and soulful voice.  Bhagamati was most probably older to him.  One day, as the legend goes, the Musi was in heavy flood.  It was raining.  There was lightning with thunder.  The currents were strong but the young Muhammed Quli Qutub was adamant.  He wanted to cross the Musi to reach Shalibanda.  He plunged his horse into the river and was almost carried off by the waters.  Both survived by the skin of their teeth and made it to the other shore.  The legend also has it that his father, Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah was so shaken by the incident that he ordered a bridge be built over the Musi.  Purana Pul, it was called and is in the old city.  To this day, folklore survives of how a prince jumped into the violent waters of Musi to go see his muse.

Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah
The father, Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah himself had a Telugu wife, Bhagirathi, who was also the mother of Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah.  Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah was a patron of the arts and literature, especially of the Telugu language in which he was an expert.  The poets Kandukuri Rudrakavi, Addanki Gangadharudu and a few others were in his court. He was an able administrator and was given a title Malkibharama.
The fall of the mighty Vijayanagar empire in the war of the century at Tallikota in 1565 expanded the Golconda kingdom deep into the southern areas.   There were no more strong opponents.  Almost the whole of present day AP and areas of eastern Karnataka came under the Golconda rule.
Golconda was already thriving as a Shia center in the sub-continent.  It was a major diamond and gem trading center.  Pearls and precious stones were sold in open street markets.  Even now, some centuries old traditions of artisans survive and we can see and buy handcrafted stone and pearl studded jewelry in the old city.  Diamond mines in areas south of Golconda are reputed to have yielded many of the famous diamonds now in museums and with royal houses. The name Golconda was synonymous with Great Wealth.
Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah died in 1580 and it was in this backdrop that Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah ascended the throne at  about seventeen years of age.  He was right away plunged into the political affairs and intrigues of state.  He appeared to have lost interest in going to Shalibanda. 

I have been to the Golconda ruins twice.  One was a school trip.
On the morning of the visit, while I was approvingly watching the mater pack an interesting lunch,  
Be careful, the steps are very big, I was told by my brother3.
Why are they so big?
Because the people then were very big!
My older siblings had a habit of giving incredulous answers. I had a habit of believing them.  I repeated this interesting fact to a friend when we were climbing the said steps.   She believed me.

Bhagamati waited for the Prince.  All she heard was news that occasionally traveled to her village from the fort. She heard that the King Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah passed away.  That Muhammed Quli Qutub was the new King, the Sultan.  She heard that he was married.  To the daughter of the Prime Minister, Shah Mir Taba Taba.

My second visit was as an adult, the stairs seemed quite negotiable this time around, but I wondered... if they were meant for horses and humans.   I could not imagine royalty climbing all those flights of stairs.  Everyday.
The engineering of the fort is still fascinating.  We clapped at the acoustic corner and looked up at the citadel to see if visitors at the higher levels heard.  They did.  We heard the same when we went up.  A fresh round of tourists were clapping, expectantly looking up.  We waved back like idiots, thrilled.  The theory is that acoustically modeled architecture carried sound as in a clap from lower levels to higher levels.  This was used for fast signaling.  The guide explained the air cooling effect at the higher chambers of the palace by air flow design of the stone shapes and placement, and indeed, cool air was flowing through the rooms.  He diligently pointed the women's beautiful bathing tank, points where long lost furnishings rested, imprints of rugs....
In the first school trip, we had lunch at the Qutub Shahi tombs and did not think it odd at all!  The tombs are in the plains below the hill. Tiles and decorations have long been lost but the grave-site of the dynasty is still serene and imposing.

A while after becoming the King, the new King, Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah appeared at Bhagamati's doorstep. He had not forgotten!
Oh, my dear, what can I say? Such are the affairs of state, I had to maneuver my way or I would have lost my Sultanate, he said, being the charmer he was.
Indeed, much later, Muhammed Quli Qutub, vexed with intrigue, would banish the Prime Minister, his father-in-law-1, Shah Mir, back to Iran, from whence he came. 

Ruins of the Golconda Fort
The Golconda's magnificence is striking even in ruins.  Built as a mud fort on a hill by the Kakatiya rulers in ~1143, it was called GollaKonda (Shepherd's hill).  After the Bahmani period the Qutub Shahis slowly rebuilt it into a massive fort.  Well planned and impenetrable, the fort did not fall to Aurangzeb's forces despite eight months of a siege.   By the end of eight months, the attacking forces morale was low and their supplies were depleted.  But the Shia Sultans of the Deccan were a thorn in the side of the Mughal King.   He wasn't one to give up without a fight at all costs.   In the end, in 1687, treachery by Mahabat Khan, a Golconda commander, brought doom.  He secretly opened the gates to the attackers.  The most benevolent of the Qutub Shahi kings, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah, nicknamed Tana Shah for his good singing voice and somewhat of an innocence about him, was captured.  He had to hand over the diamonds from the vaults to Aurangazeb, whose value increased multi-fold with the loot.  Golconda was pillaged and the fort was destroyed.  A new era began, which was significantly different from the reign of the Qutub Shahi dynasty.  Only the ruins of Golconda remained, eroding and going to dust. 

Though he was a young King, Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah did some bold and unprecedented acts.  He first named a fledgling new city across the river Musi, Bhagnagar, after Bhagamati1. A little later, they married.  This was despite much opposition from his clan for she was a commoner and a danseuse.  Bhagamati moved to Golconda and apparently lived in much esteem.  She had a special place in his queens.  A thousand horsemen were part of her entourage.
Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah ruled for 30 years. His empire expanded beyond Telangana to Machilipatnam and Rajahmundry in the south.  It is remembered as a peaceful reign for the region.  He was a patron of the arts.  He was not known for his territorial aggression but for being an administrator, builder and a poet.  He was a contemporary of the more famous Jalaluddin Akbar.
Muhammed Quli Qutub was fluent in Telugu.  His Persian and Telugu poetry did not survive but his Urdu poetry and ghazals survived.  He was a prolific poet effusive about romance, beauty and religion.  Some of his poems are sensual and bold.  It is said that Urdu gained a place in literature with his writings.
Repeated glimpses of Bhagamati come in between the lines of ghazals, referred sometimes as Telingan, dancer or Mushtari or HaiderMahal2.
Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah died young in 1611, at 48.  Bhagamati preceded him, she died young too, before 40.  His poetry is proof of their bond.
What did Bhagamati see in him? Most likely bestowed with unusual perspicacity, she must have seen the person behind the power and liked him enough to marry him.  But the legend that survived centuries is entirely hers- Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah had the new city on the other side of Musi, renamed after her new name, HaiderMahal.  So Hyderabad is a city still honoring a bond that transcended limitations of status, age, religion and ethnicity. 
Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah had large ideas and the will to implement.  Not only was a new city planned on a grid scale was built  with foresight to ease the congestion in the Golconda area, the Charminar was built to mark the end of plague and he personally laid the foundation stone of the Makkah Masjid. 
Some scholars dispute the existence of Bhagamati, her given name and the naming of the city after her.  The proof is again in the pudding- in the poetry of Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah, the Divan), first lost then re-discovered in 1922.  A partial version survives in the Salar Jung Museum.  Here is one poem2 even though the meaning and spirit may have been somewhat lost in translation-

HaiderMahal is as sweet as sugar
day after day is full of enjoyment and love
her tall stature sparkles like the navratan
all the lovely maidens are nothing before her
she wears the jewel of love on her forehead
which shines and twinkles like the navratan
wearing the shawl of love, she looks
like the red velvet beetle
her antics put to shame even the best coquettes.
Thank the Prophet and be grateful
that you got this woman, for
Haider deserves to wear a crown.”

If you visit Hyderabad, do go by the the Golconda ruins.  Hire a local guide.  Linger at the vista points to see and feel the rugged beauty of the Deccan Plateau.  Many forgotten have fought and died for their love and for a place in it.  In occasional oases, peace, prosperity, art, culture and humanity thrived.  Golconda was one such place.

1. The Akbarnama mentions the city of Bhagnagar.
2. Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah, Volume 216, by Mas'ud Husain Khan, Sahitya Academy, 1996.
3. Images are from the Wikipedia


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Kaput Anyway!

Reading Time ~5 minutes. 
Two galaxies on collision course, as if in a cosmic exclamation point was caught by Chandra X-ray telescope and the image was published by NASA in August.
Galactic Collision: A Cosmic Exclamation Point!
3-5 billion years from now our own Milky Way will merge with our neighboring galaxy, the Andromeda.  Which brings me to my exclamation point.  How will it appear to us, on Earth?  To us, on Earth, a planet hitched to a medium sized star which in turn is earnestly burning away on an arm of the Milky Way?

Will the Andromeda come at us with the spiral face-on or sideways? Wait.  Did you say 3-5 billion years?  Close finish that will be, since the Sun has a remaining life of ~5 billion years.  Oh wait again.  Isn't the Earth supposed to become too hot for life in ~1 billion years?  Darn.  So we will not be around.  On Earth at least.  We may be still around as specimens of a species, if we figured a way  and traveled to other places to live.  Either way, forget about lying in the yard in a reclining chair, sipping Merlot and watching the night sky with a spiral galaxy slowly moving towards you.

I saw the Andromeda galaxy once.  It was a few years ago.  The Foothill College in Los Altos has an observatory. It is open for public viewing on late Friday evenings. I was in a waning phase of an obsession with astronomy, so guess what?  We spent our Friday evenings waiting in a line.
Cold, wintry conditions give the clearest skies for sky watching. The colder the better. However it is not the best time for waiting in line.  A long line too, from the central room of the observatory to the bottom of the winding stairs to the open outside. Filled with huddled frames of people, arms tucked in,  lightly bouncing up and down, heel to toe, toe to heel, trying to keep warm.  Sometimes, actually at rare times, there is no line and we can even make requests of the volunteer in attendance.  If still in a good mood at that hour, he may just oblige and turn the telescope around to focus on our object of desire.  He then punches the name on a keyboard, the computer program looks up the co-ordinates and bingo! the telescope moves, weee weee weee, along with the sliding roof, giving just the right level of opening.  
All I had to do was to look through the eye piece when my turn came. There it was, the Andromeda, slightly to the side, a small, neat spiral, just like our home galaxy.  Very nice, seeing the heavens.  But the magnificence of the epiphany was so effortless, it was difficult to hold on to. 

Not too long before then, the husbn bought me a telescope.  We were then in Chicago and the night sky of the city only allowed for moon viewing. After settling down in a new job and California, one day, I thought the skies were clear enough to try some viewing.  I opened the box and set the telescope up in one corner of the balcony.  A brownish-orange object in the sky seemed a perfect target.  It was in a portion of the sky which was clear of the surrounding pine tree branches. After sending some good vibes in that direction, I trained the telescope with eyepiece1 on it.  I was quickly able to put the object within range but it was a blur.  Next level eyepiece.  Blur again.  It didn't matter how I messed around with the focus.  Whaa.  Will I ever see anything?
Then came the last eyepiece, of highest magnification.  I lost the object.  Could not locate it.  The range was very sensitive.  Back to eyepiece2.  Okay, move the co-ordinates so the blurred object is at the center.  Change to eyepiece3 veeery gently.  Don't bump into tripod.  Easy, slow.  Gone again.  More iterations.
I wasn't giving up.   I kept searching, slower than a snail.  Bam.  Something at the edge.   A blurry, faint light.  I brought it to the center and focused.  Back and forth until I hit the right focus.  I could not believe my eyes.  A planet with all the tell-tale markings, and four moons.   Jupiter!
I walked away and came back.  It was Jupiter alright, exactly like in the images.  Except that only four of the moons were visible with the telescope I had.  I kept looking at it every now and then.  I was home alone.  The moment was mine.

With a little practice, finding and focusing became easy.  Next day I saw Jupiter again.  One moon was missing.  Ayyo!  Only three were visible.  Oh okay, it went behind.  I was in awe.  Saturn with its rings was easy too and just as beautiful.

Working even to the extent I did to find the object, the surprise element and the beauty of a different world made the experience  somewhat similar to what some others may have and call as a religious experience.  Reading a good poem, unique art, unusual scenery, unexpected grace of a person or a musical piece can evoke too, if they come at the right time and mood.  The consciousness perhaps shifts imperceptibly after the sensation hits different areas of our mind.  From where, the world and our view of it can seem slightly peaceable than before.  How much of this stays with us is subjective to our general inclinations and the nature of the impression.
For me, even now, seeing Jupiter in the sky brings up a smile. We have a shared secret, you see.

Sometimes some visiting children have asked for a viewing if they spot my telescope all set-up (it is back in the box now).  I usually ask what they want to see, set everything up and all a child had to do is look through the eyepiece.  Because of my own viewing at Foothill, I do not expect an aha moment.  But I never fail to see some bewilderment on what do with this very accessible yet extraordinary vision.

Note 1. The NASA's picture of the Cosmic Exclamation Point is the face of the new Facebook page of this blog! A galactic collision is inconsistent and incomplete, isn't it?

Note 2.  Silent movie time: A simulation of the Milky way and Andromeda Collision by the University of Toronto: