Madrasa of Mahamud Gawan: An intellectual centre of medieval era

The madrasa in Bidar, in news after a group of Hindutva activists entered it shouting slogans and performed a puja during Dasara, was a multi-subject university of medieval era that had drawn international attention

October 07, 2022 09:36 pm | Updated October 08, 2022 12:50 pm IST - Belagavi

The Mahamud Gawan Madrasa in Bidar.

The Mahamud Gawan Madrasa in Bidar. | Photo Credit: GOPICHAND T.

“I have heard that you have made Bidar the envy of Rome. It would be a pleasure to visit the city,’’ wrote Abdul Rehman Jami, the 15th Century Persian poet in a letter to Mahamud Gawan, the wazir or chief minister of the Bahmani kingdom.

He was responding to an invitation to travel to the Deccan and lecture students of the medieval university in Bidar, now called Mahamud Gawan Madrasa, on poetry. However, the writer of the influential poem Haft Awrang, politely refused. He said he was old and infirm and could recommend other young poets instead. His letters are quoted by Haroon Khan Sherwani, Hyderabad-based historian and principal of Nizam’s College.

Gawan invited some of the greatest men of learning in the Orient to deliver lectures in this college. A verse of the Koran, that still adorns the main gate, beckons everyone to come and partake of the “intellectual food” provided there.

The imposing building is a designated monument of national importance by the Archaeological Survey of India. It is not a ticketed monument and entry is restricted.

Ecclesiastical university

Gawan tried to build an ecclesiastical university that taught subjects ranging from poetry appreciation to astronomy. The Madrassa was not merely a centre of religious learning. In his letter to the scholars of Africa, Gawan points out that subjects like public administration and state craft, mathematics and science, astronomy and literary studies were taught here. Astronomy classes were held on the roof at night, to “show and tell.” There is a lime-mortar replica of the solar system built on the roof, that was used as a teaching aid.

“The Madrassa was the greatest legacy of Mahamud Gawan,’’ says Nalini Waghmare, of Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeetha who has documented the history of the Bahmani kingdom. In an essay on the life and contribution of Gawan, she has noted that the Madrassa was personally commissioned by Gawan.

Over 100 inmates

The centre was open to day boarders and hostel students. It had over 100 inmates. The students’ rooms were built in the shape of the English letter T, and provided separate living spaces to three students, with a common study area. The mosque is unique as it served as Gawan’s academic office too. It had a separate entrance for the Royal ladies. Its Mihrab faces the East, while Gawan’s seat faces the south. A committee headed by Mohmmad Sultan manages the mosque’s affairs, though the ownership remains with the ASI.

“Under Gawan, Bidar aspired to imperial grandeur on an impressive scale. Bidar looked to Samarqand and Herat, cities associated with high Persian culture, and especially, Timurid aesthetic and imperial ideals,’’ quotes Richard Eaton, Deccan scholar in an essay comparing Bidar and Timbaktu, the two centres of Islamic empires of the medieval era.

Grand structure

Ghulam Yazdani, the director of archaeology in the Hyderabad Nizam government, points out that the uniquely designed centre of learning was influenced by the Samarkhand University in which Gawan had studied mathematics and science.

He describes the building thus, “The front of the building, which was luxuriously adorned with encaustic tiles of various hues and shades, all arranged in different designs, had two stately minarets at each side, rising to a height of 100 feet. These minarets also were decorated with tiles arranged in zigzag lines, a pattern which lent the building a most attractive appearance. The building rises to three storeys in a most imposing position. Its entire length extends to 205 feet with a width of 100 feet, which so divided up into apartments comprising the mosque, the library, the lecture halls, the professors’ quarters and the students’ cubicles, leaving a space of 100 feet square in the middle as a courtyard.’’

“The building has excellent arrangement of light and air, and cannot be surpassed on these points by modern structures,’’ Mr Yazdani states in his book “Bidar, its history and monuments.”

Damaged and rebuilt

The building whose construction was completed in 1472, was damaged by an explosion during the reign of Aurangzeb in 1696. More than a quarter of the building was destroyed. It was repaired and the halls reconstructed in 1920 by the Nizam government under the supervision of Mr Yazdani.

Etched in blue tile is a line in Persian, by Mullah Sami, “Peace be on you that are good, so enter it for ever.”

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