Ghulam Yazdani: First Indian Chronicler of the Deccan



There are many forgotten heroes who spent their lives in the quest to understand the history of the Indian subcontinent, perhaps none so much as Dr Ghulam Yazdani. He was, till the 1980s, more than two decades after his death, the No 1 go-to for all things pertaining to the history and archaeology of the Deccan, and he remains one of the most important primary sources for all modern authors of the subject.

An archaeologist, Yazdani was the founder and head of the Archaeological Department of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s dominions for three decades, between 1914 and 1943. It was in this capacity that a large swathe of very historic land in the Deccan, covering present-day Marathwada that was under the State of Hyderabad, came under Yazdani’s purview. No wonder then that the State Departments of Archaeology in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are all either completely or partially the legacy of this one man.

Sadly, in none of them is he really remembered.

The Entrance to the Fort of Naldurg, Dist Osmanabad, Maharashtra
The Entrance to the Fort of Naldurg, Dist Osmanabad, Maharashtra|Author

Yazdani: The Scholar

Ghulam Yazdani was born in Delhi in 1885. He pursued classical Persian and Arabic and he also received a modern British education. In 1903, when he passed his Intermediate examination at the Aligarh Muslim University, he held the first rank. He repeated his first ranking in Arabic, English and Oriental Classics in his Bachelor’s exams in 1905. He graduated from Aligarh Muslim University with a clean sweep of three of the most prestigious prizes of the day – The MacLeod Medal, the Aitchison Medal and the F S Jamaluddin Medal.

Soon after graduation, in 1907, Yazdani was appointed as a Professor in Persian at St Stephen’s College in Delhi, and as Professor of Arabic at the Government College at Rajshahi in Bengal by Sir Henry Sharp, in 1909. Sharp was the then Educational Commissioner of the Government of India. Soon after, in 1913, Yazdani was appointed as Professor of Arabic at the Government College in Lahore.

He came to the attention of the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, Sir John Marshall, who deputed him to the Nizam of Hyderabad’s Archaeological Department in 1914. He became the first Director of the Archaeological Department of the Nizam’s Dominions (Hyderabad State) and served in that position for the next 30 years, till his retirement in 1943.

Yazdani applied for and succeeded Josef Horowitz to the post of Epigraphist to the Government of India (Persian and Arabic Inscriptions) in 1915, and held this office till his retirement in 1941. This is the longest-ever tenure of a single person in this prestigious post

As soon as he took up his post in Hyderabad, Yazdani reorganised the State Department and brought it up to the required standards of world-class archaeology. He also edited the Annual Report of the Archaeological Department of His Exalted Highness The Nizam’s Dominions. His work there was outstanding.

The Madressa of Mohammad Gavan at Bidar
The Madressa of Mohammad Gavan at Bidar|Wikimedia Commons

Bidar, Ajanta & Ellora

Known for his conservation work on the amazing Bahmani-era site of Bidar (in present-day Karnataka), Ghulam Yazdani first visited the site in 1915. The monuments here, including the imposing fortress, Mahmud Gawan Madrasa and numerous tombs, were recorded, cleaned, conserved, preserved and documented thanks to his efforts. In 1915, he carried out extensive research and drew up a systematic plan for the comprehensive conservation of the monuments there.

Thanks to the keen interest of Mir Osman Ali, Asaf Jah (1911-1948), the seventh and last Nizam of Hyderabad, in the workings of the State Department, a guidebook to Bidar was published by Hyderabad State in 1917, barely two years after Yazdani had taken over. Later, in 1947, he published the first-ever comprehensive guidebook on Bidar, Bidar: Its History And Monuments. It was published by the Nizam’s government and printed at Oxford University Press.

Murals on the lintel at Ajanta Cave 17
Murals on the lintel at Ajanta Cave 17|Wikimedia Commons

During his tenure in Hyderabad, Yazdani carried out a series of critically important conservation works across the State of Hyderabad. He was the first person ever to photograph the Ajanta Cave Paintings, and it was he who put in place the first serious conservation of the Ajanta Caves (in present-day Aurangabad district). He also oversaw the conservation work at Ellora (also in Aurangabad district). He undertook extensive research, both exploratory and excavatory, at Ajanta and simultaneously at the Ellora Caves.

Yazdani went on to publish his work on Ajanta and Ellora in eight volumes. It was extremely well received in India and abroad and a plethora of honours was conferred upon him. These included: Fellowship of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Pune), Honorary Fellow of the Islamic Research Association (Bombay), and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. For his exceptional service to the monuments and history of the Deccan, he was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1936.

Ramappa Temple
Ramappa Temple|Priyanka Suryaneni

Kakatiya Temples in Warangal

The Kakatiyas of Warangal were merely a footnote in the history of the Deccan until Ghulam Yazdani visited the abandoned temples at Palampet (in Mullugu District of Telangana). The Ramalingeshwara or Ramappa Temple, built in 1213 CE, was actually written about by Marco Polo when he visited Warangal in 1289-93 CE. In his travelogue, he called it “... the brightest star in a galaxy of temples…”.

This temple and the adjacent temples were all recorded, conserved and preserved by Yazdani, as was the Warangal Fort, built in the 12th century CE by the Kakatiya Dynasty. The Ramappa temple (shikhara) was built using very light bricks (less than ⅓ the weight of regular bricks), reminiscent of the Uttareshwara and Kaleshwara temples in Ter in Marathwada.

These bricks are so light that they float on water, and it was Yazdani who determined that they were made using copious amounts of sawdust which was incinerated while baking, thus making the bricks light enough to build a tall shikhara. Today, the site has been proposed for a UNESCO World Heritage listing by the Telangana government, with sadly no reference to Yazdani.

The Jahaz Mahal at Mandu
The Jahaz Mahal at Mandu|Wikimedia Commons

The Wonder of Mandu

One of the most important, well-preserved archaeological wonders of the Deccan is the medieval city of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh. When Yazdani visited and systematically studied Mandu in the 1920s, the site was barely accessible and very remote. Yazdani’s work at Bidar was brought to the notice of the Maharaja of Dhar, who invited Yazdani and requested the Nizam to allow him to visit Mandu and replicate his success at Bidar. The comprehensive guide on Mandu that Yazdani wrote put the site squarely in the limelight, and it has remained there ever since.

Yazdani published copiously. In 1917, he published his first volume The Antiquities of Bidar; in 1922, he published his research on the hitherto unknown Kakatiya Dynasty Temples at Palampet in The Temples of Palampet; in 1927, he published Guide To Ajanta Frescoes; in 1929 he published the first comprehensive guide on the medieval city of Mandu, Mandu: The City of Joy; from 1930 to 1955, he published multiple volumes on Ajanta; in 1936, he published a silver jubilee souvenir of his own department.

After Yazdani retired, his list of publications grew even more rapidly. He published a comprehensive work on Bidar in 1947; a three-volume magnum opus called The History of the Deccan in 1952; and followed it up with a two-volume prologue called The Early History of the Deccan in 1960. These five volumes are so well written and meticulously researched that even today most writers shamelessly copy from these works, some with due credit and sadly some without.

As Epigraphist to the Government of India (Persian and Arabic Inscriptions) from 1915 to 1941, Yazdani edited multiple volumes of Epigraphia Indo-Moslemica (published by the Archaeological Survey of India). Some of the most fascinating Islamic inscriptions from across the length and breadth of India were published in these volumes.

These include inscriptions of the Khiljis and Tughlaqs but more importantly the hitherto little known inscriptions of the Adil Shahis of Bijapur, the Qutb Shahis of Golconda and of the Ahmednagar Sultanate. Yazdani was the first to publish an inscription of Ibrahim Adil Shah from Naldurg, one of the greatest fortresses of the Deccan which was also a part of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s dominions.

The Epigraphia Indo-Moslemica 1913-14
The Epigraphia Indo-Moslemica 1913-14|Author

His Legacy

Ghulam Yazdani left a scintillating legacy of trained junior scholars of the likes of H K Sherwani (an eminent historian) and P M Joshi (Director of the Bombay Archives), and younger scholars like A R Kulkarni, Teutonio R D’Souza and M A Nayeem. Almost all the historians of the Deccan in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s were either his students or students of his students.

He was also closely linked with education and played a very important role in the formation and running of Osmania University, right from its inception. For his service to the history of India, he was awarded the nation's third-highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan, in 1959.

Yazdani passed away in 1962, leaving behind a corpus of scholarship rarely seen in his day, or ours. Sadly, he is a forgotten architect of Indian history, and his contributions have never been celebrated by either the Archaeological Survey of India or the State Archaeology Departments of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana and Maharashtra, each of which have benefited greatly from his work. Perhaps his working for the Nizam, who is considered an ‘anti-India’ personality, contributed to this distancing from him.

Plate XLVIII from Percy Brown’s Indian Architecture (Vol 2) - Published 1942
Plate XLVIII from Percy Brown’s Indian Architecture (Vol 2) - Published 1942|Author

Nevertheless, it is perhaps Percy Brown’s famous quote in his almost canonical work, Indian Architecture (first published in 1940), that best sums up Yazdani’s legacy. Brown says the success of Yazdani and his department was such that even the then judge of the Calcutta High Court, Justice Imlay, had said (in the 1930s) while criticising the terrible deterioration in the conservation standards of the Archaeological Survey of India, that the monuments under the government of British India should perhaps be handed over to the Hyderabad Government for proper care and upkeep. This was solely due to the splendid work done by Yazdani and the number of superb publications that he churned out and that were greatly appreciated by the international archaeological community.

Sadly, when the State Archaeology Museum in Hyderabad established under Yazdani was renamed, it was called the ‘Dr Y S Rajasekhara Reddy State Museum’, and a great chance to honour Yazdani was lost. Even worse, Yazdani is not mentioned even once on the museum’s website.

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