14 April 2014
A dynasty’s tombs
India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was still free from British yoke. At the time, a multitude of kingdoms with their Muslim sultans and Hindu maharajas at their head were spread across the Indian subcontinent. It’s also about then that the British East India Company managed to increase its trade influence, Western powers playing behind the scenes supporting kings against one another and eventually leading to the downfall of the latter and their submission to the British empire.
So let’s go back in time. Starting in 1518 and for almost 170 years, the Qutub Shahi dynasty ruled over the kingdom of Golconda in what is today the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. All the sultans of the dynasty were buried in the mausoleums you can see in the album, the most impressive with domes that were originally overlaid with blue and green tiles but were neglected over time. Yet even if the tombs have lost their past splendour, the quiet atmosphere of the site contrasts sharply with the bustling life of the old city – or the bustling life of any city in India, I should say. I could only hear a distant muezzin calling for prayer but was otherwise left alone to my wanderings on the fairly large grounds of the tombs, save for a couple of men who could only speak five words of English to me (don’t forget that barely 15% of Indians can speak English), perhaps a little surprised I could enjoy such Indo-Persian architecture… just as I was surprised to think they would also actually care about ruins.
There’s one additional interesting building roughly towards the centre of the site, turning out to be one of the finest ancient Persian examples of its kind: it is the bath… the mortuary one, intended for washing the bodies of the dead sultans as part of the traditional ritual – before the bodies would be put to rest in burial crypts located just under the visible external structure. The mortuary bath is one of the places where I played with shooting techniques – in this case taking hand-held bracketed shots (i.e. photos at different exposures) so I could merge them together afterwards in post-processing and effectively render the details in the darker and brighter parts of the image (or what is called HDR – High Dynamic Range). The site also proved an easy testing ground for trying out the back-button focusing technique (AF-ON), following my dissatisfaction at shooting wildlife recently (stay tuned for an upcoming post about my attempts to capture some of the very last elements of an American species in California). But on that occasion at the Qutub Shahi tombs, I wasn’t too dissatisfied with my shots and also had some fun playing with post-processing, in particular using some Google+ tools (you may recognise the HDR scape, drama, and black & white effects).
But let’s return to my dead people. Some got lucky, if I may say so: they were the favourites of the sultan and got to be buried next to them – a couple of physicians, a pair of courtesans, a commander-in-chief. But only two tombs – of all tombs – don’t bear any inscriptions. Can you guess why? I actually don’t know the exact answer but I speculate this has to do with the bloody actions caused by one of the two. The founder of the Qutub Shahi dynasty was in fact assassinated… by one of his own sons… who didn’t stop there as he blinded his elder brother and forced his other brother to flee. Nice. The exiled brother would however be reinstated back on the throne eight years afterwards, the murderous brother eventually dying from cancer after seven years and his young son only reigning for a year… those two being the ones whose tombs stand free from inscriptions. I guess the architects of the tombs had reached the limits of how much history can be bent in a favourable way...