The city of Ahmadnagar, close to the heart of India, has a handful of buildings that are among the few reminders of one of the first home grown Muslim dynasties in India. The Nizam Shahs dominated what is now most of Maharashtra, fought ‘the outsiders’ and helped draw the first outline for the great Maratha leader Shivaji. Who were they and why should we remember them? To find these answers we have to go back to the fractious Deccan of the 14th century CE - where the story begins.
The mid 14th century saw a fair amount of disquiet in the Deccan. Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s attempt to settle his capital in Daulatabad had failed - first the outbreak of a devastating plague in Bidar and then a rebellion in Bengal had forced the Sultan to head north. What was left, in what was once his ambitious new capital, were the remnants of a disgruntled force.
The Nizam Shahs dominated what is now most of Maharashtra
Not surprisingly, as Tughlaq’s hold on the Deccan areas loosened, a faction of his army, at Daulatabad, rebelled and declared independence under the leadership of Nasiruddin Ismail Shah (Ismail Mukh) in 1345. While Ismail Mukh abdicated in 1347 in favour of Zafar Khan, this rebellion laid the foundation of a new phase in the history of the region.
Zafar Khan, who took the title of Alauddin Hasan Bahman Shah became the founder of the Bahamani dynasty. Soon after, the Bahamanis moved to Gulbarga from where they ruled till around 1425, after which they moved to their new capital at Bidar. The Bahamani kingdom which controlled most of the central and northern Deccan, was buttressed between a clutch of hostile kingdoms - the Sultanates of Gujarat and Malwa, and the kingdom of Vijayanagara. Battles raged on all sides.
The Bahamani kingdom which controlled most of the central and northern Deccan, was buttressed between a clutch of hostile kingdoms
A new kingdom and an active army meant opportunity. This period saw a steady flow of Persian nobles and soldiers from the west as most arrived by sea. At the court, this led to misgivings and tensions and not surprisingly, by the second half of the fifteenth century, factional wars were rife. The outsiders, the Afaqis (from Persian ofq, which means horizon), and the sons of the soil, the Dakkanis, were at loggerheads. Khwaja Jahan Mahmud Gawan (1411-1482) a shrewd and powerful minister who became the de facto power centre in the Bahamani empire manipulated and managed the various ethnic factions at court, playing one against the other. This worked well, because in the last few decades of the fifteenth century, the Bahamani sultanate came apart, eventually resulting in the creation of a clutch of smaller states of the Nizam Shahs (Ahmadnagar), the Adil Shahs (Bijapur), the Qutb Shahs (Golconda), the Imad Shahs (Gawilgarh), and the Barid Shahs (Bidar).
By the end of the fifteenth century, the Bahamani sultanate came apart, resulting in the creation of a clutch of smaller states
Of these, only the Nizam Shahs claimed to have ‘local roots’ and they used this to good measure. Malik Nizam-ul-Mulk , the patriarch of the Nizam Shahs (d. 1486 CE) was an important court noble at the Bahamani court. He is said to have been from a Brahmin accountant family of Kulkarnis of the village of Pathri,and converted to Islam as a young companion of the Bahamani sultan. The attachment with and the claim of the Nizam Shahs on Pathri, a small town in present day Maharashtra, was made clear when his grandson Burhan Nizam Shah I (reg 1510-1553 CE) demanded the town and district of Pathri from a neighbouring king on the grounds that their ancestral town was still home to many of their relatives.
The Nizam-ul-Mulk was vehemently against the outsiders and he conspired against the Afaqi faction, which he felt was favoured by Mahmud Gawan; as a result Mahmud Gawan was executed. Because of his alleged high-handedness and arrogance at court, Nizam-ul-Mulk himself was murdered by the nobles and amirs in 1486. But he had set the stage for his son Ahmad Nizam Bahri (reg 1496-1510), who rebelled, assuming the title of Ahmad Nizam Shah I.
Ahmad Nizam Bahri should be a familiar name for anyone who has been to Ahmadnagar. Named after the founder of the Nizam Shahs, Ahmadnagar was the pivot point for a dynasty that dominated a large part of Maharashtra in the 15th -17th centuries CE. Today there are a smattering of old palaces in Ahmadnagar that were built during the Nizam Shahi days.
The Nizam Shahs claimed to have ‘local roots’ and they used this to good measure
At the time of his accession, Bahri was the decorated governor of the fort city of Junnar, in today’s Pune District, for the Bahamanis. He controlled key territories and a number of old forts along the Western Ghats including Junnar, Jivdhan, Lohogarh, Kondhana, Jond, Tung, Tikona, Purandhar, Pali, and Danda Rajapuri. These were all vested in his name as a jāgir (hereditary land grant) when he had captured them earlier in the name of the Bahamani sultan. His capital was the fort of Junnar and his core kingdom was roughly congruent with the Mavals (the valleys of western Pune district) of the foundational Maratha kingdom in the seventeenth century. Fluent in the Dakkani tongue and rooted in local culture, the very ambitious Bahri, like his father, was distrustful of the large numbers of foreign newcomers at the court who were given power and privilege.
It was from his capital at Junnar fort, now famous as Shivneri, where the great Maratha leader Shivaji was born, that Ahmad Nizam Shah I would mount a campaign every year to try and capture the strategic and affluent fort city of Daulatabad.
He founded the city of Ahmadnagar in 1494 on the banks of the Sina river, midway between Junnar and Daulatabad. The site where Ahmadnagar was founded was at a garden called the Bagh-i Nizam, where Ahmad Nizam Shah had defeated a Bahamani army in 1492. This was the perfect base from where he would launch his annual attempts at capturing Daulatabad, which he did a few years later in 1499.
Contemporary writers of the period narrate the founding of the city of Ahmadnagar, for example, Syed Ali Tabatabai, who wrote about it in the Burhan-i Maasir:
‘When it was finally decided to build a city in that spot, the king halted there and, having ordered the astrologers to select an auspicious day for the beginning of the work, summoned architects, surveyors, and builders from Junnar to lay out and build the city.’
Muhammad Qasim Astarabadi ‘Firishtah’ described it thus in his Tarikh-i Firishtah:
‘In 900, he [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.’
Ahmadnagar would serve as the Nizam Shahi capital till 1600. The sixteenth century saw enormous building projects, including multiple palaces in the city, along with other cultural expressions, such as a proliferation of literature and painting.
Several Sanskrit, Persian and Dakkani works were written in this period in the kingdom, and Sufis and Bhakti saints such as Shah Sharif and Eknath also operated in these domains.
The earliest paintings from the Deccan sultanates are from the kingdom of Ahmadnagar, which depict King Husain Nizam Shah I (reg 1553-1565) and his Queen Khunza Humayun sitting together on the takht (a platform throne).
Queen Khunza Humayun was the first of the two extraordinary and independent women associated with Ahmadnagar, the other being the more famous Chand Bibi, her daughter.
In the paintings, which are part of the manuscript called the Tarif-i Nizam Shah (1564/65 CE), all the images believed to be of the queen were scraped off by her son, for whom she managed the kingdom as the regent. His resentment of her power was part of his youthful rebellion. The defacing of the manuscript, his way of rejecting her authority!
The sixteenth century saw enormous building projects, including multiple palaces in the city
The city of Ahmadnagar did not have a royal residence, and the Nizam Shahs built several palaces in areas around the city. The Hasht Bihisht Bagh and the Farah Bakhsh Bagh (c. 1584/85) are among the many palaces that are still extant, and are exemplary examples of the architecture of the Deccan sultanates. The Farah Bakhsh Bagh, which is comparable to the Taj Mahal in scale, was built almost half a century before the latter. The grounds of the Hasht Bihisht Bagh contain a badgir, a ventilating tower as is found in south Iran. Such a structure kept subterranean chambers cooled through a clever combination of chanelling wind and cooling it with water, ideal for the dry and arid summers in the Deccan. Ahmadnagar was supplied with an extensive underground water supply system, which brought water from areas as far away as 15 km, thus obviating dependency on rivers and other seasonal water sources. This was one of the first such systems in the Deccan, other than at Bidar, and was later replicated in other settlements such as Aurangabad.
In the 1590s, after the reign of Murtaza Nizam Shah I (reg 1565-1588), the kingdom went through a very turbulent period, marked by factional fighting at court. Old rivalries resurfaced and new ones were added. By now the court was divided into four main factions: the 'Afaqis, Dakkanis, Marathas, and Habshis (later known as the Siddis) being the major ethnic factions.
In this period, the Mughals were also aggressively expanding into the Deccan, and the Nizam Shahs valiantly tried to oppose them.
It was in this campaign that Chand Bibi died, but the circumstances surrounding her death are uncertain. One version states that Chand Bibi defended the fort, but as she was preparing to come to an agreement with the Mughals, a court intrigue caused her assassination. There are no extant pictures of Chand Bibi from her lifetime, but her legend inspired several later portraits, all imagined. In fact, there are no monuments in Ahmadnagar associated with her, but her name survives in lore and people erroneously call the tomb of Salabat Khan as Chand Bibi Mahal.
When the Mughals captured the city and fort of Ahmadnagar in 1600, the Siddi Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian slave who had worked his way up to becoming the most powerful leader in the Deccan (1548-1626) became the de facto ruler and regent, and relocated the capital of the Nizam Shahs to Daulatabad sometime around 1607. Eventually he founded a new city of Khadki , later named Aurangabad.
Malik Ambar was one of the most successful examples of the successful Siddis, a community whose origins were in Africa, and who came to sultanate India as military adventurers and slaves. They held prominent positions in the sultanates of Bengal, Malwa, Gujarat, and the Deccan. Credited with major architectural, administrative and military achievements, this ethnic group most famously survived as the princely state of Janjira.
The Nizam Shahis are important for another reason. The rise of the Marathas who they employed in large numbers in their armies. The maternal and paternal families of Shivaji Bhonsale, the founder of the Maratha Swarajya, served the Nizam Shahs with great distinction, and upon the death of Malik Ambar in 1626, Shahaji Bhonsale (d. 1664) tried very hard to maintain the Nizam Shahi kingdom. Finally, it was the treaty between the Adil Shahs and the Mughals which forced him to surrender and accept service with the Adil Shah, who promptly posted him to the south. But he very astutely kept his core jāgirs in northern Deccan, roughly corresponding with those of Ahmad Nizam Shah I. His son, the great Shivaji, would soon proclaim independence and assert a local identity that allowed the Marathas to rule and build an even greater empire.
Malik Ambar was one of the most successful examples of the Siddis, a community that came to sultanate India as military adventurers and slaves from Africa
Both the Nizam Shahs and the Marathas bitterly opposed Mughal rule. The Mughals rid themselves of the Nizam Shahs by 1636, and firmly established themselves in the Deccan. From the embers of the Nizam Shahs, the Maratha kingdom was established. The Maratha King Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhonsale (1630-1680) tormented the Mughals to such a degree that they did not dare to annex the other two large sultanates, the Adil Shahs and the Qutb Shahs till after the death of Shivaji, lest more local Maratha courtiers in those courts join the cause of Swarajya.
Thus Bijapur and Golconda were allowed to survive much longer by the Mughals as a strategy to contain the Marathas. Chhatrapati Shivaji died in 1680, and only then did the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1620-1707) relocate to the Deccan. He came to the Nizam Shahi capital of Ahmadnagar in 1683 and annexed Bijapur and Golconda in 1686 and 1687 respectively.
Mughal dominance over the Deccan was now almost complete, but only lasted till Aurangzeb's death in 1707. The Deccan, as history had proven, was difficult to manage from the North. After Aurangzeb, his general Qilich Khan (1671-1748) set himself up as Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah (later to be known as the Nizams of Hyderabad). The Marathas found a new lease of life under Chhatrapati Shahu (1682-1749), who had been raised in Mughal custody from 1689 to 1708, and who appointed the Balaji Vishwanath Bhat as the Peshwa of his kingdom.
Both the Nizam Shahs and the Marathas bitterly opposed Mughal rule
The Adil Shahs of Bijapur and the Qutb Shahs of Golconda are well-remembered, but the Nizam Shahs have been reduced to a footnote. The Nizam Shahs were one of the largest and most important of the post-Bahamani dynasties, so why are they relatively obscure? Part of the reason, I believe, lies in the modern linguistic states of Andhra Pradesh (now further bifurcated into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Maharashtra, and Karnataka, and their identification with their own late medieval past. Since the two sultanates of Golconda and Bijapur were largely contained within the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka respectively, those two states recognised them as their own legacy for that period. The state of Maharashtra, on the other hand, had an enormous pride in the unique achievements of the King Chhatrapati Shivaji and the Maratha kingdom that he established that the sixteenth century for them, was the century of Shivaji and the struggles of his father, Shahaji. This came at the expense of the Nizam Shahs, and what was forgotten was the emergence of the Marathas from here.
Equally unremembered was the valiant resistance of the Nizam Shahs to the invasive Mughals, and the fall of Ahmadnagar as a catalyst for the Marathas to coalesce under a new regime. The last champions of the Nizam Shahs were two people who came from communities that had been close to power, but were always considered marginal: Malik Ambar of the Siddis, and Shahaji Bhonsale of the Marathas. Ironically, the Siddis appointed by Malik Ambar at Janjira, and Shahaji Bhonsale's son Shivaji, remained sworn enemies throughout their lives!
Nizam Shahs of Ahmadnagar were the first dynasty to assert local rule against the Bahmanis, establish the first of the post-Bahmani kingdoms, and alas, were also the first sultanate in the Deccan to fall to the Mughals.
Pushkar Sohoni teaches at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. He has lectured and written extensively about different aspects of the Deccan sultanates, including fortification and coinage.