Ahmadnagar (also Ahmednagar) is a city of 400,000 in western central India, about 200 km inland, East of Mumbai. It is noisy, busy, trashy, and industrious with a few traffic signals, no street signs, and almost nothing that resembles a sidewalk. Like most of India, the informalities do not seem to bother the locals who endure the surging vehicle, pedestrian and animal traffic with mild detachment.
Ahmadnagar is located on the Deccan Plateau, the geographic feature that defines the triangle of the Indian subcontinent south of the Ganges River. It is a tropical climate, hospitable to humans since the Stone Age.
The Deccan hosted some of India’s major medieval dynasties including the Vakataka Empire, a Brahmin dynasty from the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the Northern Gupta Dynasty, during India’s “Golden Age”, a period of great scientific, cultural, economic and political advancements. Remnants of the Vakataka Empire include the rock cave complexes at Ellora and Ajanta, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Hindu (perhaps the world’s oldest religion), Buddhist and Jain dynasties competed in Southern India for centuries. As early as the 7th century CE, Islam began its influence in India as the original Middle East (Turkic) sultanates fractured. Invasion became the primary means of international diplomacy.
By the 10th century, Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms in India were being plundered by Turkic Mamluk militias, at least 17 times between 997 and 1030. But the real invasion began in the 13th century when the Mamluks established the Islamic Delhi Sultanate and colonized most of the subcontinent for the next 320 years. The fusion of Islam and Indian cultures led to profound growth of both civilizations. Trade expanded throughout Africa and Asia. Architecture, politics, literature, commerce and language were advanced, still now applauded with international renown.
The Delhi Sultanate also brought military credibility. While he was thrashing his way across the rest of Asia (including the homelands of the Delhi Sultans), Genghis Khan ordered an India invasion in 1221 in pursuit of a Persian-Turkic bad guy, Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu. His armies invaded and ultimately defeated Mingburnu, but stalled out against the stronger Delhi forces. Genghis left his 3rd son, Ögedei to pursue India, but his death in 1241 prompted the Mongols to return to friendlier (conquered) territory to the North. It took another 300 years for Genghis’s descendants (the Mughal Empire) to finally overcome the Delhi Sultanate.
Along the way, discontent was spreading through the Delhi Empire. In 1345, the Delhi sultan attempted to quell the uprisings by moving his capitol south to Daulatabad. It did not go well. His army was devastated by plague, demoralized, and rebellious. The troops switched allegiance to the remnants of one of the medieval Indian kingdoms, the Bahmani Sultanate, led by an Afghan military general, Ismail Mukh. They revolted against Delhi and re-established the historic empire, although now commanded by northern Islamic foreigners.
The new sultanate found itself wedged between hostile kingdoms who had held out against Delhi – Gujarat, Malwa, and the powerful Hindu Vijayanagara kingdom, as well as their own internal foreign sympathizers who were not well accepted by the locals, and vice versa. Bahmani shrewdly survived for 150 years through political, cultural, economic and military manipulations, but eventually, contention with the Vijayanagara kingdpm led to collapse into what became known as the five Deccan Sultanates – Nizam Shahs (Ahmadnagar), the Adil Shahs (Bijapur), the Qutb Shahs (Golconda), the Imad Shahs (Gawilgarh), and the Barid Shahs (Bidar).
Malik Nizam-ul-Mulk, patriarch of the Nizam Shahs, was a noble at the Bahamani court from a well off Indian family of Pathri. He had converted to Islam during his service to the sultan, and promoted the Nizam Shah Dynasty as the only “native” of the Deccan kingdoms. His Indian patrimony was a source of friction with the many Bahamani ex-pat nobles. Malik was assassinated by them in 1486, during the Bahamani break up.
His son Ahmad Nizam Bahri was then governor of Junnar, also in the Maharashtra District. He rebelled, defeating the Bahmani army on May 28, 1490 and declared independence for the Nizam Shahi dynasty.
In 1494, the foundation was laid for his new capitol, humbly named after himself, Ahmadnagar. He initiated construction of a fort that was renowned for its security (used by the British into the 20th century), began mosques and monuments and one of the most impressive waterworks of the era, an extensive underground storage and distribution system that delivered water over a 15 km network.
One of Ahmad’s zealous chroniclers, Tarikh-i Firishtah, described the scene:
… Ahmad Nizam Shah laid the foundation of a city in the vicinity of the Sena river, to which he gave the name of Ahmadnagar. So great exertions were made in erecting buildings by the king and his dependents, that in the short space of two years the new city rivalled Baghdad and Cairo in splendour.
After several attempts, he secured nearby Daulatabad the fort that had started the decline of the Delhi Sultanate. His son and descendants expanded the territory well into the 16th century, attracting the attention and hostility of the ever pressing Mughals who by 1526 had conquered and dispatched the Delhi Sultanate.
Through family intrigue (poisonings, traitorous regents, imprisonments …) and wars with the invaders, the dynasty survived for 109 eventful years before the Mughals finally won out, but not before Chand Bibi, Ahmad’s great granddaughter and India’s greatest female warrior, gave them several humiliating defeats.
The Mughals spent the 17th century trying to conquer the rest of India. In 1632, Shah Jahan, the 5th Mughal emperor (builder of the Taj Mahal), captured the fortress at Daulatabad, and imprisoned Hussain Nizam Shah III, the 13th and next to last king of Nizam Shahi. Shah Jahan appointed Aurangzeb as Viceroy of the Deccan.
Aurangzeb (Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad), “Ornament of the Throne”, rose to become the sixth Mughal emperor, reigned from 1658 to 1707. He died at Ahmednagar.
Aurangzeb was a ruthless militant and religious fanatic. He subdued almost the entire subcontinent, burdened the Hindus and Sikhs with heavy taxes, destroyed temples, tortured and assassinated Muslim saint Sarmad , killed his own brother Dara Shikoh for un-Muslim behavior, bricked alive two young sons of Guru Gobind Singh, age 7 and 9, for not converting to Muslim.
The Mughal Empire reached its peak under Aurangzeb in 1700, a kingdom of 158 million subjects (world population 650 million at the time), 10 times larger in revenue than that of his French contemporary Louis XIV, and surpassing China as the world’s largest economy with nearly a quarter of world GDP.
At age 88, after 49 years on the throne during another military campaign in southern India, he realized that he was dying along with his intolerant empire, and was not destined to conquer the rest of the subcontinent. He died in 1707 at Ahmednagar on his way back to his hometown Khuldapur.
More than 300 years later now, in this city of Ahmadnagar, the remnants of the empire are a remarkable site against the bustle and clutter of today’s city. Four of the most enduring legacies include:
Damdi (Dumdani) Masjid Mosque
Built in 1567, this small mosque is an exquisite work of carved stone masonry, a fine example if Islamic-Indian architecture. The mosque is attributed to Queen and warrior Chand Bibi. Damdi was the penny of the Nizam Shah currency, honoring the contributions made by the peasants and laborers of Ahmednagar.
It is set in a Muslim cemetery, neighboring a non-mulsim graveyard and the Ahmednagar Fort. It is also the site of one of Ahmednagar’s famed water utilities, an underground water tank, a Bawli, connected to the city’s distribution network, offering liberal ablution opportunities for the worshippers.
The mosque was all but abandoned following the Partition of India (Ahmadnagar is now 90% Hindu), but maintained for generations by a local family.
The fort was originally built in 1427 by Malik Ahmad Nizam Shah I, namesake of Ahmednagar. It was made of mud but fortified in stone in 1562 after a 4 year upgrade. It is the site where, in 1596, Chand Bibi repulsed the Mughal invasion, though it fell under her leadership in 1599 and Chand was killed by her own troops during the 4 month melee.
After Aurangzeb died at Ahmednagar Fort on 20 February 1707, the fort passed back to the Nizams, then the Marathas and Scindias. During the Second Anglo-Maratha War in 1803, the British defeated Maratha forces and the fort was occupied by the East India Company.
In 1942, when Gandhi called on the British to leave India, his colleagues Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian National Congress drafted the Quit India Resolution. Nehru and most of the committee were arrested and imprisoned at the Ahmednagar Fort until 15 June 1945. Nehru used his time there to study politics and write his pioneering book “Discovery of India”.
Currently, the fort is under the administration of the Armoured Corps of the Indian Army.
Farah Bagh (also Faria Bagh, Farah Baksha) is a palace finished in 1583, intended for Burhan Nizam Shah I (1510-1553), the 2nd ruler of the Nizam Shah Empire. It was the center of a larger imperial complex situated 3 km outside Ahmadnagar on a lake, now seasonal.
The complex was started in 1573, completed for occupancy by the 4th emperor, Murtaza Nizam Shah (1565-1588), who played chess here and added a separate palace for himself in the garden. Sultana Chand Bibi also frequented the palace.
Nyamat Khan, a favored artisan, was assigned the design. Construction started, but his contemporary critics convinced Burhan Nizam Shah that the design was all wrong. He had it torn down, started again. The job was then delegated to Salabat Khan I who soon died from the burden, and construction was finished by his nephew, Salabat Khan II.
The octagonal 2 storey greyish-pink stone structure was set on an island in the lake, surrounded by gardens. The main chamber, called Rang Mahal, is a magnificent space with detailed stucco and carved stone features, about 60×100’ with a central dome maybe 30 feet high. The monument has a dimension of about 250 feet square consisting of chambers, corridors and stairways around the central hall. The style is called Iranian, noted for its stone arches. The palace also boasted an evaporative cooling and ventilation system tied to the lake and fountains.
The Ahmadnagar aqueduct fed the lake, reported to be seventeen feet deep and 150 feet wide. The garden and grounds extend about 500 yards from the palace, still traces evident today.
Farah Bagh’s overall volume and appearance is strikingly similar to the Taj Mahal. Muslim Emperor Shah Jahan, the one who captured Daulatabad, and appointed Aurangzeb to subdue the Nazim Shahs, lived in Ahmednagar in the early seventeenth century while he was rebelling against his own father. He knew Farah Bagh. His visit to nearby Daulatabad in 1632, the same year as he started construction on the Taj Mahal seems more than coincidental, feeding speculation that the structure was inspiration for his later monument.
Tomb of Salabat Khan
The Tomb of Salabat Khan II (Architect of Farah Bagh) is a three-story stone structure situated prominently 13 km from Ahmednagar, visible from almost anywhere in the city.
It is believed that the structure was planned to be seven-stories but only three were built. The plan is octagonal consisting of simple massive stone arches.
The tombs are set in the base where Salabat Khan and one of his wives lie, surrounded by the stone foundation, reported to be 12 feet thick. The 3 story arches rise to about 70 feet with a continuous gallery twelve feet wide all round, accessible by the narrowest of stairways, practically hidden in the wall.
Salabat Khan II, was a minister of the fourth Nizam Shah, Murtaza (1565-1588). He followed his father as a statesman, appointed minister (Sardar) in 1579 after the mad minded Murtaza put to death his previous regent in a fit of suspicion and rage. In 1588, Murtaza was killed by his son and successor Hussain Nizam Shah II. Salabat went on to complete the royal complex at Farah Bagh, and served the kingdom with distinction until his death in 1589.