A Khorasani gift to the Deccan - III

Parvez Mahmood on the madrassah built by Mahmud Gawan - the first of its kind in South Asia

A Khorasani gift to the Deccan - III
In the previous part of this article, the life history of Mahmud Gawan was explored from his arrival in India in 1453 till his execution in 1482. This final part will aim to describe the Madrassah, the first of its kind, that he established at Bidar – the capital of the Bahmani Kingdom.

Mahmud Gawan had arrived from Khorasan at a mature age. He had benefited from the educational facilities of northern Persia. During his life, despite the destruction caused by Mongols and then Emir Timur, the tradition of education persisted in Khorasan. He found the land of the Deccan absolutely barren in such scholarship. Having risen to the highest offices in the Bahmani Kingdom, he resolved to remedy the situation. He established a Madrassah in 1472 in Bidar for the education of the general populace.

15th-century copper coins from the Bahmani mint at Bidar

To get some context on the era, the reader will note that the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the year Gawan came to India. Emperor Babur was born in 1483, a year after Gawan was killed. Columbus arrived in America in 1492 and Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498 – that is, 20 and 26 years respectively after Gawan established his Madrassah.

After the decline of educational institutes in contexts such as the Gandhara civilization in what is today northern Pakistan, the Nalanda culture in northern India and the Sangam age in South India, the tradition of organized education had ceased to exist in the Subcontinent. While Alauddin Khilji established a limited Madrassah in Delhi in the early 14th century, it was Mahmud Gawan who brought the possibility of a quality education (for that era) to the wider population of the Bahmani Deccan.

The details of the Madrassah are well recorded by Farishta in his Tarikh; by Haroon Khan Sherwani in his Mahmud Gawan: The great Bahmani wazir, James Burgess in his Report on Antiquities of Bidar and Dr. Ghulam Yazdani in his Antiquities of Bidar.

Decorated minaret

I need to recall that Dr Yazdani is the “Dani” of “Molvi Nazir Ahmed ki kahani, kuch meri kuch unki zabani”; the immortal Urdu biographical note penned by Mirza Farhatullah Beg. Those who have not read this booklet, ought to do so now. It is accessible on the internet.

The Madrassah was a large imposing building built on an area of 205 feet by 180 feet, constructed in the architectural style of contemporary Transoxania, and resembling the Madrassah in Samarkand built by Ulugh Beg, grandson of Emir Timur. The structure surrounds a space of 100 feet square in the middle as a courtyard to allow sunlight and fresh air. The walls of the Madrassah measure 242 feet from east to west and 220 feet from north to south. The building is three storeys high and divided into apartments comprising a mosque, a library, lecture halls, professors’ quarters and students’ cubicles. In the middle of each of these U-shaped three sides, there is a large hall 26 feet wide and 52 feet long, rising to the full height of the building. Each of these halls has a dome on top over an oriel that projects beyond the line of the walls. There were numerous cubicles, 36 rooms for students and 6 suites for the teaching staff. Each room had a wide ventilator over the door. There was a stately minaret at two corners where the walls met. The 100-feet-high minarets had an octagonal base and a rounded top with two platforms in between. Stairs ran to their top from within while the outside of their lower halves were embellished with multi-coloured enamelled tiles in zigzag arrangement. The top of all the walls was decorated in kashikari style with Quranic verses in Kufic script, as is common in most of the mosques.
Famed historian Farishta visited Bidar in the late 16th century, over a century after the Madrassah was built and found the building well maintained, “as if only just finished”

Gawan was a rich man and spent most of his savings on the construction and upkeep of the Madrassah. Its library must have been generously stocked. Farishta writes that the founder himself donated 3,000 volumes to the Madrassah. The subjects taught were science, mathematics, language, philosophy and Islamic studies – the same subjects that were taught in the Persian schools. It is recorded by Burgess that over 500 students from all over the world were boarded here with free lodging and education. The number of day scholars must also have been significant. Gawan invited some of the greatest men of learning from Iran and Central Asia to deliver lectures here. Gawan himself felt at home in its library and lecture halls.

Famed historian Qasim Farishta visited Bidar in the late 16th century, over a century after the Madrassah was built and found the building well maintained, “as if only just finished.” However, it didn’t remain in that immaculate and operational state for long.

Bidar was ravaged in 1635 by Prince Aurangzeb’s general Khan Dauran. In 1656, Aurangzeb, now the Emperor, captured Bidar after a long siege. He closed the Madrassah and appropriated it for his military. One part of the building was used as barracks for his soldiers and the rest became a barood-khana – an ammunition depot. An accident caused the Mughal gunpowder to explode, inflicting great damage to the building. One minaret came down completely as did one of the domes. The rooms on one side collapsed too. Embroiled in his own destructive enterprises in the region, Aurangzeb never bothered to restore the building or its old educational activities.

The Gawan Madrassah ceased to impart education three-and-a-half centuries ago but its ruins remain an attraction for today’s tourists. A large part of the building survives today as a testimony to its old grandeur and as a reminder of its days of glory when the enlightening winds of Khorasan blew across this land.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on historical and social issues. He can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com