54. Ivory Sarinda from the Adil-Shah Court in Bijapur

Central India, first half 17th century AD
Size: 36 cm

Bijapur is worth a visit. Not many people go there, it is a long slog from Hyderabad or Bombay, between which it sits midway on the northern edge of Karnataka, along thin roads rumbling with furiously driven trucks. The few hotels are designed for itinerant traders. Once there, however, it all seems worth it, not only, but mainly for, the astonishing Gol Gumbaz, a great behemoth built of basalt, with the second largest dome in the world, 40 metres in diameter, larger than Santa Sophia, and only a little smaller than St. Peter’s in Rome. The great dome is supported by a cube 47.5 metres on each side, and beneath it is a raised platform the size of a tennis court. Opposite the entrance is the only feature that breaks the cube: a deep, demi-octagonal, high-vaulted recess that occupies a good part of its wall. The acoustical properties of the space are extraordinary. Outside, each corner of the building has a seven-storey tower. At first sight it appears like a dark and squat prototype for the Taj Mahal, built less than a decade later.

Construction of the Gol Gumbaz began in 1626, in the last year of the life of Ibrahim Adil-Shah II, and continued under his son Muhammad until 1656, the very year the latter died. He was buried in the Gul Gumbaz, along with various members of his family when their time came, the graves marked by modest raised batons of marble arranged incongruously along one edge of the platform. And since then it has been a mausoleum.

But there is another version of the purpose of this mighty building. It was the music room of the Adil-Shahs. The deep recess was where the sultan and his

court reclined; the platform was large enough to accommodate a great number of musicians, of whom there were 3000–4000 at any one time at court; the ‘whispering gallery’ around the base of the dome was for the women; the walls are tunnelled with staircases leading to the windows, where wide sills provide seats for an audience. Ibrahim II was a renowned composer, as well as a poet and warrior – he mainly wrote poems to his wife, his favourite musical instrument, and to his elephant, Atish Khan – and it seems probable that the conception for the grandest music room ever constructed was his. He announced publicly that his aim was to establish a kingdom based on learning, music, and ‘Guruseva’ (serving the teacher) – in his case Hazrat Banda Nawaj, the Sufi saint of Gulbarga. His son, Muhammad, was mindful of his refined inheritance, and strove to keep it alive.

It is difficult to prove that this ivory instrument comes from the Adil-Shah court. There is one other comparable example known, but they both conform very exactly to the style of what we know of Bijapur. A refined court environment was necessary to produce instruments of this quality.