Islamic Art of North Karnataka


Royal patronage played an important role in the making of Islamic art, as it has in the arts of other culture. The glory of the great towns of northern Karnataka waned with the decline of Bahmani dynasty, although the Barid Shahi and Adil Shahi kings kept up their splendour, for a time, during their chequered rule, writes REHAMAN PATEL.

During the five hundred years after the death of Prophet Muhammad (saws) in 632CE, Islam spread far beyond its place of origin in the Arabian Peninsula. As Islam spread, a distinctive style of Islamic art gradually developed. It was used mainly for religious architecture, book illustrations, and the decoration of pottery, metal-ware, and other useful objects. Islamic art was influenced by different artistic styles that included late Roman, Byzantine and Persian art.

This new chapter, which was thus opened in the Islamic period, led to the creation of remarkable buildings of religious import. Iranian arts such as calligraphy, wall paintings, stucco (Plaster-cut), mirror work, tile work and metal art became closely tied together in this new era. Islamic architecture and building decoration are among the most beautiful means of expression. Decoration does not play such an important role in any other type of architecture.

Islamic art not only describes the art created specially in the service of the Muslim faith, but also characterizes the art and architecture historically produced in lands where Muslims artists flourished.

Calligraphy is the most important and pervasive element in Islamic art. A striking example of this influence is seen in northern Karnataka, for e.g., at Gulbarga, Bidar and Bijapur where there still exists the most beautiful wall paintings and stone engravings inside tombs and on the outer portions of the extant architecture.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the Christian calendar, a magnificent style of architecture was in vogue (fashion) in the Deccan, some specimens of which, in the form of religious shrines, are still preserved.

The history of Islamic art in the sub-continent starts in south India from the first Muslim ruler, Sultan Alauddin Hasan Bahmani (c.1347CE), who made Gulbarga, in Karnataka, his capital. Later, Bidar was made the capital of Bahmani kingdom in 1429CE by Sultan Ahmed Shah al-Wali. The ‘Palmyra of the Deccan’ as Bijapur is often referred to, was the capital of the Adil Shahi dynasty founded by Yousuf Khan, younger brother of the Sultan of Turkey, Muhammad, in 1490CE.

In the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Deccan was flooded with scores of eminent men from Delhi, including apparently architects, engineers, tile-manufacturers, metal engravers, painters and calligraphists.

Gulbarga: The largest collection of Islamic art is seen only at the domed ceiling and walls are adorned with painting containing calligraphy designs and floral, flower and plants and geometric patterns inside the tomb of Sufi saint Syed Shah Qhabulullah Husayni with natural colours. By religious restrictions, the artist was prohibited from depicting living beings in the interior of the tomb, and his imagination was, therefore, employed either in inventing new designs for religious texts or in adding further delicacy and subtleness to the geometric and floral devices by making the drawings more and more intricate. A small tomb situated beside the said Sufi’s tomb also has an excellent work painted flower plants on its ceiling. There is yet another deserted Shore Gumbaz on the outskirts of the city which, too, has superb, delicate designs on its domed ceiling.

The walls and ceiling of the tomb of Sultan Firuz Shah Bahmani can be appreciated which, although in monotone, represents, faithfully, the various creepers and floral patterns, the numerous geometric devices, and several calligraphic styles. The most notable building, however, of this period is the Jama Masjid of Gulbarga fort, built by a Persian architect named Rafi in 1367CE, during the reign of Muhammad Shah Bahmani I.

Bidar: The city is well-known for its metal art i.e., Bidriware, the black items engraved with silver or gold wires or sheets.The two most important buildings of Sultan Ali Barid’s reign are Rangeen Mahal and a tomb which he built during his lifetime. Rangeen Mahal literally means the ‘Coloured Palace’ and this name was apparently given to it on account of its wall-paintings richly decorated with colours, lovely wood-carvings and mother-of -pearls and tiles of different hues, traces of which still exist on the facade of the eastern halls inside the fort.

The Ahmed Shah al-Wali Bahman tomb’s interior, although somewhat dark, is artistically relieved by splashes of the most brilliant colours which have been used in the paintings on the walls and the vault.

The written work exhibits art of high order and, as in tile-decoration, the painters and the calligraphist seem to have worked it out jointly at the Mahmud Gawan Madrassa. The design is very simple, but, at the same time, most effective, and shows the ingenuity of the artist in placing it near an elaborate pattern for the purpose of contrast. The tiny squares are shown in white, yellow, light green, light blue and deep blue, thus producing a kaleidoscopic effect.

Other outstanding monuments – in terms of artistic work – are the Hall of Audience, the Long Gun, Chaaubara, Chaukhandi, Tarkash Mahal, Gagan Mahal, Takht Mahal, and the tomb of Alauddin Bahmani II.

Bijapur: Bijapuris strewn with monuments of historical significance as well as religious interest. Most of the monuments of the period, credited to the Adil Shahi rulers, are representations of Islamic art. They are single-handedly responsible for the cultural legacy of Bijapur and the various works of paintings, plaster embossing, engraving and architecture that abound in the city.

The most dominant architectural constructions are the various palaces or Mahals. Of notable significance is the fact that all these palaces are huge, lofty structures with paintings, intricate carvings and pillars. All the palaces have beautiful ceilings which are remarkably constructed and adorned. A few of the most noted Mahals include the Asar Mahal, Gagan Mahal, Anand Mahal, Saat Manzil, Chini Mahal etc. Other kinds of historical monuments are also to be found here, such as the remains of the fort built by the Adil Shahis, Landa Kasab, Hathi Khana, Mehtar Mahal etc.

Mehtar Mahal, which dates to 1620CE is one of the most elegant structures in the fort; the entry gate, in particular, has been built in Indo-Saracenic style. The façade has three arches, which depict an exquisite ‘cornice supported on carved corbels.’ A gateway leads to the Mehtar mosque, which is a three-storey building. It has two slender minarets that are covered with delicately carved birds and rows of swans. The carvings are in Hindu architectural style, in the form of brackets supporting the balconies and stone trellis work. The building has a flat roof and the minarets have a rounded top.

The Jama Masjid has a large west-centric Mihrab arch with beautiful calligraphy and which is wall-painted in geometric patterns in ultramarine-blue. There is also an embossing of original gold leaf on plaster at the place where the Imam takes his position to lead the prayer congregation. Mehtar Mahal, especially carved in black stone and with freehand designs, is among the several beautiful monuments built by the then-ruler of northern Karnataka. Its flat stone roof, supported by delicately carved stone brackets of birds, has long-puzzled engineers of succeeding generations. The other notable tombs in Bijapur are the Gol Gumbaz and the Ibrahim Rauza.



The glory of the great towns of northern Karnataka waned with the decline of Bahmani dynasty, although the Barid Shahi and Adil Shahi kings kept up their splendour, for a time, during their chequered rule.

Royal patronage played an important role in the making of Islamic art, as it has in the arts of other culture. From the fourteenth century onwards, especially in the eastern lands of the subcontinent, it has been the books of art which provided the best documentation of this courtly patronage for this delicate art in architecture.

Today, the finesttraditional arts in architecture are found in India, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Morocco, where the legacy of Islamic art remains alive and vibrant. 


Dr. Rehaman Patel is a faculty member at the Department of Studies in Visual Art, Gulbarga University. He receives his mail at:

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