February 07, 2014

The Lord Of The Plains Stands Silent

At one time, the Malik-e-Maidan (Lord Of The Plains) was the largest medieval canon known to mankind. Now it stands in silence, muzzled as much by the passage of time as by events that rendered it inconsequential.

It’s past four in the afternoon as Madhav and I ride north through Godbole Mala in Bijapur. We ride past elegant stone houses with sloping roofs and balconies projecting over quiet lanes. The old stone houses stand no higher than two storeys and mark themselves out with portholes set in gables, fascia boards, decorative awnings, architraves, and eaves boards.

Soon they give away to tenements crowded roadside, structures that barely fit families and backdrops to their inhabitants’ lives lived on the street. Old elegance stands uneasily with deprivation.

It’s the month of Ramzan, and the streets are silent. In a little under an hour, as evening falls, neighbourhoods will resonate to the call for prayer from mosques in the old city, many of them centuries old. Two hours later as dusk sets in, the neighbourhoods will resonate yet again, this time with Iftar call, and in Muslim homes, rich and poor, the faithful will gather with their families and break their Ramzan fast.

Soon we turn left and head for the traffic circle where an imposing statue of Shivaji, the legendary Maratha Warrior King, stands on a high pedestal. Astride a horse his raised sword points west, along a road that breaches the old fort wall along its north-south perimeter before disappearing up a gentle incline that buses bound for Belgaum and Solapur take on their way out of Bijapur in North Karnataka.

It’s a busy road, one that I would often cycle along on my way out of the old city to Torvi, a little over 4 kms. away, and a gateway of sorts to the great plains of the Deccan, the scene of many a fierce battle shaping the history of South India, and by consequence that of India itself.

The Chalukyas, the Yadavas, the Khiljis, the Sangamas of Vijayanagara, the Mughals, the Bahamanis, the Nizam Shahis, the Marathas, the Qutab Shahis, and the British among others sought their destiny in the Deccan through the centuries, triggering tumultuous events in their wake. And Bijapur figured in many a fierce struggle, its fortifications, and guns booming across the plains, and surviving to tell the tale long after their masters bit the dust.

My ride to Torvi would take me past Navraspur where Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the fifth King of the Adil Shahi dynasty, known more for his pursuit of the Arts than war, once made an ill-fated attempt to build a new capital dedicated to music, Nav-Ras-Pur (City of New Raga) outside the formidable fort wall that encircled the city and to whose bastions by the traffic circle Madhav and I were headed, to see the canon known as the Malik-e-Maidan, Lord Of The Plains.

Not for nothing has the massive canon earned its sobriquet Malik-e-Maidan, earned as much for its dimensions as for the sheer terror it sought to sow in the hearts of the enemy.

Said to be the largest battlefield bell metal armament ever cast in its time (1549 AD), it is 4 metres long, one and half metres wide, and weighs a staggering 55 tons, the latter being one reason why, it is said in some quarters, the British did not ship it out of India as booty given the cost of transporting it to the coast after first considering sending it to the King of England in 1823. 

It was just too big a loot to carry to add to those looted from India.

When Madhav and I stepped past the entrance and took the flight of broad stone steps cut in the side of the fort wall, the lawns running along the length of the walls on the inside were empty save a group of college-aged youth resting in the soothing patch of green with their backs to the wall, savouring snacks they had brought along.

There’re not many places in Bijapur aside of monuments maintained by the Govt. of Karnataka, where one can see green lawns. There’s little water to go around in the city.

An elderly lady, Fatima, sat on the steps offering tourists pictorial strips of Bijapur’s tourist sights for Rs. 10/- each. Most visitors were on the right side of thirty, locals on an evening out, and had little use for the pictures. I bought one. The Malik-e-Maidan featured in the listing along with the other obvious choices, Gol Gumbaz, and Ali Rauza among others.

The steps lead to an entrance that conveys visitors past a lawn to Sherza-i-Buruj or the Lion Tower, so named after the two lions etched into the stone wall by a second entrance inside that leads to the tower by a short flight of steps. 

By the two lions, a stone tablet bearing inscriptions and sheltered by a stone slab projecting on two stone brackets is affixed in the tower wall, likely indicating the provenance of the twin bastions.

A narrow, covered entrance opens into the bastion, a massive battlement that sweeps a wide curve and looks out west. Two adjacently raised circular platforms for canons, reached by a short flight of stone steps, man the bastion.  

Both circular platforms are empty. The occupant of one, the Malik-e-Maidan, supported on wearing wooden beams, is now located behind protective fencing by the steps leading to the circular platform.

Of the three inscriptions on the canon, two indicate it was cast by Muhammad Bin Husain Rumi in 1549 in Ahmednagar. 

The third inscription was added by Aurangzeb after he breached Bijapur’s defences and conquered the city in 1685. Visitors from near and far have etched their names on the cannon seeing permanence in the canon’s immortality. Of the other occupant on the adjacent platform there’s no sign nor any indication of what happened to it.

From the circular platform in the bastion projecting outward, the walls of the fort can be seen extending north-south in either direction, with portions of the once formidable construction in disrepair approaching the north-western entrance manned by the Shahpur gate, not far from Chand Bawdi and Uppli Buruj.

A wind is blowing hard as Madhav and I trace the semi-circular notches in the surface, evidently to allow for the massive cannons to be steered into firing position.

An opening in the circular platform, now covered by iron grills, provides a view of what was once a water tank. The bastion also held powder chambers.

An uncertain but steady of visitors flow past the legendary canon, each stopping by the behemoth out of curiosity and awe, probably wondering of the significance behind the canon’s muzzle shaped as the head of a lion with wide open jaws swallowing an elephant.

The Malik-e-Maidan was carted back to Bijapur as a war trophy by Ali Adil Shah after the retreat of Nizam Shah in 1562, apparently taking the effort of 10 elephants, 400 oxen and several hundred men to accomplish the task. And to think, in 1854, it was offered up at an auction for Rs. 150/- for its metal, only to be saved upon the cancellation of the auction.

Clouds shut out the sun, enveloping the ramparts with a melancholy hue, almost solemn. Standing by the canon long silent it’s difficult not to cast one’s mind back to the heydays of the city, of the wonder that must’ve gripped the army upon having this bronze colossus in their midst, of the confidence and pride it must have bestowed in their ranks, of the power it projected onto the battlefield, a power now silenced by the tide that turned history.


Anuradha Shankar said...

lovely post, Anil! i have yet to visit Bijapur, but reading this, I felt I was already there! what a sad state of affairs, to think that such a historic artefact would have been auctioned away... in these days, if it was any lighter, it would probably have been stolen though... as its companion probably has :(

Riot Kitty said...

Your travels take you to some amazing places - and you write about them so well. I bet you see things that many others miss.

Anil P said...

Anuradha Shankar: Thank you. The British wanted to take it away like they did with possibly thousands of other artifacts.

Riot Kitty: Thank you. I'm glad you like reading them.

Maybe so. I suppose if the intent is to meander one ends up observing things.