Gulbarga & the Great Chishti of the South



Great Sufi shrines dot the expanse of India and the most famous of them is the Dargah at Ajmer Sharif. But there is another that is as revered, though not half as well known. Tucked away at Gulbarga in Karnataka, the Dargah of the 14th century Sufi mystic Khwaja Bande Nawaz Gesu Daraz, is a must visit. The Khwaja is credited with introducing Sufism to the south.

It was the 17th December in 1398. The Central Asian conqueror Timur had just routed the Tughlaq armies outside Delhi, and was camping at Hauz Khas waiting to enter the city. Sensing impending doom, a large entourage of people left the capital, heading as far as possible, south. The very next day Timur’s army sacked Delhi and massacred its inhabitants.

Dargah of Bande Nawaz, Gulbarga, 1880s
Dargah of Bande Nawaz, Gulbarga, 1880s|Wikimedia Commons

Among the long line of people heading south was a 77 year old man, who was re tracing a journey he had made 70 years before. Mohammad Hussaini’s family had been forced to move south to the new capital of Daulatabad by Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlaq in 1328 CE. Now, seven decades later, he was trudging the same path, not as little Mohammad Hussaini, but as Khwaja Bande Nawaz Gesu Daraz, a Sufi cleric. Little did he or those around him know, that he was going to make history.


It was under the Tughlaq regime, that the Sufi Sheikhs began to move out of Delhi and spread Sufism across India.

Gesu Daraz belonged to the Chishti order of Sufism, named after the town of Chisht, some 95 miles east of Herat in present-day western Afghanistan, where it was first practiced. It was introduced in South Asia by Sufi Sheikh, Moinuddin Chishti (1142–1236 CE), whose famous Dargah is located at Ajmer. The most prominent Sufi cleric in late 13th century India was Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya, who famous Dargah now stands in Delhi. It was under the Tughlaq regime, with vast new areas coming under Islamic rule, that the Sufi Sheikhs began to move out of Delhi and spread Sufism across India.

Mohammad Hussaini or Gesu Daraz was a disciple of Khwaja Nasiruddin Chirag-Dehlavi, who had succeeded Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya as the premier Sufi Sheikh of Delhi. There is even an area in Delhi today, known as ‘Chirag Delhi’ named after him. Because he had long hair at the time, he was popularly referred to as ‘the gentleman with the long locks’ or ‘Gesu Daraz’. In 1356, when Nasiruddin died, he handed over the reins to Gesu Daraz and he became the most influential Sufi Sheikh of Delhi.


Because he had long hair at the time, Mohammad Hussaini was popularly referred to as ‘the gentleman with the long locks’ or ‘Gesu Daraz’

After fleeing Delhi in 1398, following Timur’s invasion, Gesu Daraz and his followers made their way to Gwalior, Chanderi, Cambay and then to Daulatabad, where he wanted to pay respects at his late father’s grave. Daulatabad was under the rule of the Bahmani Sultans. Originally Tughlaq governors, they had declared their independence from Delhi in 1347 CE.

Fort at Daulatabad
Fort at Daulatabad|LHI Team

With the breakup of the Tughlaq empire, as different governors became independent rulers, the Sufi sheikhs became extremely important. They gave the upstart ‘usurpers’ religious legitimacy. The Bahmani Sultans were no different. When Sultan Firuz Shah Bahmani (r. 1397 – 1422) heard that the Gesu Daraz was in his kingdom, he personally went to Daulatabad and invited him to accompany him to the Bahmani capital of Gulbarga.


Getting Gesu Daraz to Gulbarga was a political act on the part of the Bahmani Sultan

Gesu Daraz settled down in Gulbarga where he stayed for the next twenty-three years. This is where things get interesting. Noted historian Richard Eaton, from the University of Arizona who has extensively chronicled the life of Gesu Daraz in his book, ’The Social History of Deccan’, writes how getting Gesu Daraz to Gulbarga was a political act on the part of the Sultan, as he wanted a religious sanction for his newly founded kingdom. Traditionally, the Chishti sect of Sufism did not get involved in politics.

Eaton believes that this was not the case with Gesu Daraz and his followers. The bonhomie however didn't last long. Pretty soon there was a fallout between the Sheikh and the Sultan. However by now the Sufi had already made an indelible mark.

Map of Bahmani Empire
Map of Bahmani Empire|LHI Team

A well respected commentator on Sufi philosophy already, in Gulbarga Gesu Daraz became a cultural force. One of his biggest contributions was the introduction of the Dakhani language in the Deccan.


Dakhani Urdu introduced by Gesu Daraz was a mixture of Hindavi or Dehlavi spoken in the North, along with a mix of local tongues including Marathi, Gujarati and Persian

This came to be later known as the Dakhani Urdu. It was a mixture of Hindavi or Dehlavi spoken in the North, along with a mix of local tongues including Marathi, Gujarati and Persian, the languages spoken by different wandering Sufi fakirs, who were becoming popular with the masses. In fact, Gesu Daraz’s treatise on the life of Prophet Muhammad called ‘Miraj-ul-Ashiqin’ is the first known text ever written in Dakhani language.

A Sufi discourse, circa 1400s
A Sufi discourse, circa 1400s|Wikimedia Commons

Gesu Daraz passed away in 1422 at the ripe old age of 101. The Dargah of Gesu Daraz was constructed in the year of his death and enlarged in 1640 CE. By the mid-17th century, it became one of the biggest Sufi devotional shrines in India, even rivalling the Sufi Dargahs at Ajmer and Delhi. The Persian Historian Ferishta (1560-1620) who visited Gulbarga, wrote that ‘the inhabitants of the Deccan chose him for their guide in religious affairs, and so his residence has now become a place of pilgrimage to all sects.’


Gesu Daraz passed away in 1422 at a ripe old age of 101

Similarly, French agent Abbe Carre, who was travelling from Surat to Madras in 1673 CE and had stopped at Gulbarga, wrote vividly about the popularity of the Urs or annual fair in honour of Gesu Daraz.

Painting of Tombs and shrine of Gesu Daraz, Gulbarga by Colin Mckenzie,1797
Painting of Tombs and shrine of Gesu Daraz, Gulbarga by Colin Mckenzie,1797|Wikimedia Commons

However, the Chishti order of Sufism did not thrive in South India after Gesu Daraz, for reasons more political and less theological. The Bahmani sultans did not approve of the independence of the Chishtis . They wanted someone more pliable and open to courtly control. To counter the growing popularity of the Chishtis, the Bahmani rulers began a policy of inviting Sufi clerics from Iran. This worked and the Chishtis were contained to the north.

Few people who visit the world renowned Sufi Dargahs in Ajmer or Delhi, realise that there is a shrine far away at Gulbarga, in Karnataka that is as revered.


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