Shock and awe in a mausoleum

On a recent trip to Bijapur, Karnataka, I realised how much history we can learn from the mausoleums of rulers. They tell us not only about the prosperity of kingdoms but also about the development of technology in those kingdoms.

Bijapur, or Vijayapura as it is now known, was the capital of the Adil Shahi dynasty from 1490 to 1686. It is famous for its impressive buildings and dargahs. Undoubtedly, the most magnificent mausoleum is that of the seventh ruler of the dynasty, Mohammad Adil Shah (1627-1656), called the Gol Gumbaz (round dome). Covering an area of 18,225 sq ft, Gol Gumbaz has the distinction of being the largest space covered by a single dome in the world, followed by the Pantheon in Rome. Its dome is the second largest, after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The mausoleum complex has a Naqqar Khana (drumhouse) that houses an archaeological museum and a mosque. From afar, the Naqqar Khana creates the optical illusion of being the Gol Gumbaz itself, as the dome can be seen rising over it.

Starkly simple, yet beautiful

Muhammad Adil Shah commissioned the mausoleum in his lifetime but died before it could be completed. Built of of dark grey basalt and decorated plaster, the plain exterior of Gol Gumbaz is beautiful in its stark simplicity. But the bare walls are not fully bare; they are enlivened by a rich, deep cornice, which runs around the four sides at a height of 90 ft. Also breaking the monotony of the plain walls are the four domed octagonal towers on the corners of the cube-shaped building. Each tower has seven storeys, and each storey has several windows which give the structure a dramatic, complex look. You can climb the winding staircases hidden by the arcades to go to the top of the towers and on to a flat roof. A ring of elegantly carved leaves surrounds the drum at the base of the towers and the central dome.

After soaking in the enormity of the structure and the exquisite detailing against the bare backdrop, I entered the huge chamber, which is a square apartment, 135 ft and 5 inches each way, and 178 ft high. Once inside the big arched door, I realised that the intention of the builder was not to impress visitors with aesthetics but to shock and amaze them with the scale and size of the structure.

As Percy Brown writes in his book, Indian Architecture (The Islamic Period), “Whether one stands thrilled before its noble mass or humbled under the vast void of its vaulted roof, one cannot fail to be impressed by the gifted imagination which conceived this great monument, and to marvel at the supreme genius which enabled it to be so splendidly realised.”

Five cenotaphs

This great compartment contains an elevated platform on which five cenotaphs are placed. These are of Muhammad Adil Shah, his youngest wife Arus Bibi, a daughter, a grandson, and his favourite mistress, Rambha. A wooden baldachin is placed over the Sultan’s cenotaph. As is usual in most mausoleums, the actual graves are underground.

Building the dome

The dome is a hemisphere of 124 ft, with its interior diameter measuring 5 inches. The thickness of the same at the level from which the dome rises is 10 ft; near the crown, it is 9 ft. Thus the total external diameter at the level from which the dome rises is 144 ft.

James Ferguson, in History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, explains the technical wizardry involved in building this: “The most ingenuous and novel part of the construction of this dome is the mode in which its lateral or outward thrust is counteracted. This was accomplished by forming the pendentives so that they not only cut off the angles but that their arches intersect one another and form a very considerable mass of masonry perfectly stable in itself: and, by its weight acting inwards counteracting any thrust that can possibly be brought to bear upon it by the pressure of the dome. If the whole edifice thus balanced has any tendency to move, it is to fall inwards, which from its circular form is impossible: while the action of the weight of the pendentives being in the opposite direction to that of the dome, it acts like a tie, and keeps the whole in equilibrium, without interfering at all with the dome.”

An interesting feature around the base of the dome is the famous 11 ft wide gallery where any sound is multiplied. It is aptly named the whispering gallery. Visitors, however, were misusing this acoustic marvel by shouting and delightedly exclaiming at the echoes of their own voices. This was typical but unseemly given that the mausoleum is a place to quietly remember the dead.

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 5:17:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/shock-and-awe-in-a-mausoleum/article24726821.ece

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