Hindu emperors who called themselves ‘Sultans’, a Muslim Sultan who called himself ‘Son of Saraswati’, African slave generals who led the army of the Marathas, and many other intriguing characters come alive in Manu Pillai’s book, Rebel Sultans: The Deccan From Khilji to Shivaji. Through this book, Pillai, whose previous work The Ivory Throne was about on the royal house of Travancore, looks at a fascinating period of Deccani history which, sadly, is not very well known.
In the last few years, there has been considerable international interest in the art and architecture of the Deccani Sultanates. In 2015, the MET in New York hosted a landmark exhibition ‘Sultans of Deccan India: (1500-1700) Opulence And Fantasy' and assembled a fantastic array of artefacts relating to these kingdoms.
Since then, several books have released, focusing on the paintings and architecture of this period. Pillai’s Rebel Sultan stands out as it tells the story through the lives of some of the most colourful personalities of the time, each of whom deserves a book on their own!
It was the armies of Alauddin Khilji that first conquered large parts of South India in the late 13th century. A few decades later, due to the policies of another Delhi Sultan, Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, the Delhi Sultanate’s rule in the Deccan crumbed in 1347 CE, when the Bahmani dynasty declared its independence at the Daulatabad fort. They would rule for a century before breaking into the successor states of Bidar, Berar, Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda.
Bounded by the sea on two sides, these Deccani Sultanates developed a unique culture of their own, very different from that of the North. Intent on breaking away from the Turkic influence of Delhi, they established closer ties to Persia. Thus, Persian poets, painters, architects and merchants soon made their way to Deccani ports.
In one of the greatest ‘what if’s’ of history, renowned Persian poet Hafiz boarded a ship and started making his way to Gulbarga, before a storm broke his resolve. And the man who had extended the invitation was none other than Sultan Muhammad Bahman Shah II (1378-97), described as the ‘Aristotle of the Deccan’.
The break-up of the Bahmani kingdom in the early 16th century produced no less exalted characters. The most notable among these was Ahmednagar princess Chand Bibi, who fought against the Mughal forces of Emperor Akbar, and later her nephew Ibrahim Adil Shah II, a fascinating man who wore rudraksha beads and composed devotional couplets invoking Hindu gods.
As the Mughals sought to put an end to Deccani independence, it was an Abyssinian slave general Malik Ambar who commanded the army of the Marathas and the Deccanis, engaging in guerilla warfare against the Mughals. However, the Deccani powers were felled by Aurangzeb’s sword in 1686-87, and it was the new powers, the Mughals and the Marathas under Chhatrapati Shivaji, who dominate the next chapter to Deccani history.
Overall, the book is a great read for anyone wanting an introduction to medieval Deccani history.
I spoke to author Manu Pillai on the story behind the book and the fascinating characters in it. Excerpts from the interview:
Akshay: Your earlier book was on the senior Maharani of Travancore, so why did you think of doing one on the Deccan?
Manu: Travancore in Kerala is the land of my ancestors, and my first book was in some ways a tribute to my forbears. All the same, I was raised in Pune, in the heart of the Deccan: So if my first book was a tribute to my Malayali heritage, the second is a tribute to the land in which I was raised. Growing up in Pune, Deccan history was a familiar topic, with Shivaji dominating our collective imagination. My school textbooks, for instance, had fleeting glimpses of the Adil Shahs, the Nizam Shahs and so on, but always on the periphery of Shivaji’s tale. They intrigued me, and over the years, their stories remained at the back of my mind.
The decision to actually proceed with a book on the Deccan, however, was taken in 2016, when I was in Hyderabad. I remember walking around the Qutb Shahi tombs outside Golconda Fort and being awestruck. After all, everybody’s general knowledge stops with the Mughals and the Marathas or is oriented towards Delhi and the North. Nobody really realizes that Golconda and Bijapur are full of monuments, full of the most tremendous stories, which are eclipsed in the mainstream. I thought it made sense to dedicate a book to the Deccan and try and fill the gap in popular imagination. Rebel Sultans is the result.
Akshay: Considering there is so much to write about the Deccan Sultanates, what was the most interesting discovery for you, while writing your book?
Manu: It was the personality of Ibrahim Adil Shah II. Learning history through the characters who made history is always interesting because it makes the period come alive. As human beings, we can always connect with other human beings. So even if four or five centuries separate us from a historical period, if we look at that age through the eyes of a person who lived then, we discover not only their context but also find history speaking to us. One such character was Ibrahim. I knew about him from my initial readings, but as I went deeper into my project, I couldn’t help but think, ‘My god! This man was a genius. What an incredibly colourful man!’
It is odd that we all talk about Akbar, his syncretism, his experiments with religions, his philosophical interests and patronage of the arts. But here is this contemporary of Akbar and Jahangir, and most people barely even know of him, despite a very similar record. Growing up in Pune, I didn’t learn as much about Ibrahim, who was closer to me in geography, as I did about Akbar. What Akbar had at Fatehpur Sikri, he [Ibrahim Adil Shah] had at Nauraspur, for example. While Akbar had his debates with Jesuits and Sufis, this man had his Shaivites and Yogis. He patronized artists, including at least one European, and built phenomenal monuments. And yet he languishes in the shadows.
From most readers, however, what I hear is that their favourite character in the book is Malik Ambar. I think the idea of a black ex-slave leading the armies of the Marathas, and defending the Deccan against the Mughals is fairly impressive and romantic (not to speak of surprising). And, most certainly, he was a very impressive figure. So whenever I sat up during the course of my research, it was either because of these individuals or because I was trying to look at things the way they saw them.
Akshay: The Deccan has generally been ignored in broader Indian history. There is a frequent complaint that our history is very Mughal-centric. Why do you think that is so?
Manu: I think there are several reasons. For example, power resides in Delhi. Even though the Mughals collapsed, the city itself retained value. The British saw value in it and ended up making it their capital. It is still our capital. So Delhi has a direct link to the past and a continuing place in our imagination. Even today in Delhi, one can see great structures that the Mughals left behind. By Aurangzeb’s time, they had travelled deep into South India also, and as late as the 1810s, the Rani of Travancore was paying tribute to the Nawab of Arcot, who represented Mughal imperium. The Mughals brought under one umbrella so much of the country that it makes sense to study them in detail.
On the other hand, the place of the Deccan in the historical imagination declined quickly. The great capitals of its Islamic dynasties were orphaned and largely abandoned after the Mughal conquest. Bijapur, one of the most splendid cities of its age, became a town of ruins, as did Ahmednagar and Bidar. Artists left, scholars departed, and there was no one to keep the memory of the place alive. The only exception was Hyderabad, where the Nizams arrived to occupy the void left by the Qutb Shahs. But the difference was that the Nizams made a very conscious effort to project themselves. So while Hyderabad survived as a major city, public imagination was steered towards the Nizams, and by extension, the Mughals.
Akshay: Talking about narratives, there were Hindu kings who called themselves ‘Sultans’ and Sultans who eulogized Goddess Saraswati. Today, we live in such polarizing times that people find it difficult to accept these historical facts.
Manu: History transcends politics, at least, that is the ideal. The sad fact in our country and around the world, though, is that history has always been deployed as an instrument of politics. Political parties across the board use history to legitimize their interests and that’s a reality we have to live with. One of the reasons I wrote this book at this particular juncture is because I thought it was a good time to hold up a mirror and point out that things were much more complex than we imagine and not black and white. In this time of manufactured Hindu-Muslim antagonism and hysteria, it made sense to remind the world that things were not quite so stark in the past.
That said, while the politicization of history is damaging, at the end of the day, no matter what the political agenda, no matter how much some try to polarize today’s masses through alleged quarrels of the past, you can’t go back and change what happened. You can try to whitewash it, you can try and pervert it, but you can’t change history. So I am not too pessimistic. Although times are bad, there is a plenty of scope to remind readers of what is correct.
Of course, there is evidence of bigotry also. I am not saying there were no bigots in the past, or as a right-wing meme claimed about me, that our ancestors were “secular”. But if we are drawing lessons from history, the question is, what do we want to focus on? Does one pick and choose instances of the bigotry and inflate them to justify bigotry today? Or should we try and draw lessons of wisdom from the past? The choice is ours.
We should try and stop classifying kings as good or bad: that is not the point of history, passing moral judgments on people from centuries ago. Our job is to understand them in their own context, and try and learn.
Akshay: How do you view Hindu-Muslim relations in the Deccan at the time? Were they particularly different from those in North India?
Manu: The experience of Islam in the two regions was very different. Where in the North, Islam arrived with invaders, in the South it was imported through networks of commerce. So, to begin with, the trajectories of the two regions are different. In the South, it was not as disruptive an idea as it was in the North. One reason is that the South is a peninsula and home to trading societies. So, for centuries, people were aware that there were others who were not like them, who were different. So Islam was merely one of many ideas that travelled to their land and were welcomed there.
If you look at Vijayanagar, the Bahmani Sultanate, and its successor principalities, while formal ideologies of state were rooted in religious ideas, the actual experience was more syncretic. The very first Adil Shah was married to a Maratha woman, so from the start, there was plenty of Hindu influence in Bijapur’s court culture that was ostensibly Islamic. Official ideology was certainly expressed in Islamic terms, but the fact remained that none of the Sultans could function without Hindu support. The result was that there was more than accommodation. There was actual interaction between faiths.
This does not mean that the elites did not realise there was a difference. I am not saying that the past was paradise. Of course, people were aware that there was a difference between two competing ideas, but these ideas were able to mix and find common ground. Violence and war was often justified in the name of religion, just like politics today is justified in the name of nationalism or whatever you want. (Because frankly, politics has always been driven by the same things: greed, avarice, ambition and that sort of thing.) But even as they claimed to act in the name of religion, then as now, political leaders were willing to compromise on more practical grounds and accept things that sat in contradiction to their own stated goals.
We see this also with Vijayanagar, for instance. Their official court ideology was expressed in Sanskritic terms, but their actual live experience drew very much from Islamicate influences, whether it was their clothes, their sculptures or architectural forms. If one were to visit Tirupati, where Krishnadevaraya’s famous bronze sits, you can see him flaunting a Turkish hat. In other words, while court ideologies were expressed in religious vocabularies, live reality was a different experience.
But what you are saying is true. While it wasn’t so much about religion, it was defined by issues like who was from this country and who had other places to go. In the book, towards the end, there is a striking line by the Akkanna, the Qutb Shahi Minister, who says something like, ‘Oh, these Persians come here and make money and then go back to their father lands or holy lands, whereas we only have this one country and our [sons of the soil] government is much better for this country.’ It is a Savarkar-esque statement in the 17th century, which is quite remarkable.
But this is still different from today’s communalism. What we see in the 17th century is an elite preoccupation, an elite competition for royal favour and access to power and resources. So when the Brahmins say ‘we’, they also include local Dakhani Muslims, standing up against the Persians. The Africans sided with the Hindus and the Dakhani Muslims because the Persians looked down on them. There were no blanket Hindu and Muslim categories; things were much more mixed-up. We should not confuse factional interests with religious interests as we understand them today.
Akshay: Coming to the last question, for you, what was the biggest takeaway from this book?
Manu: That history is not about easy answers. It is a complex, layered but also rich, truly interesting affair. People in history were not different from us. They too were human beings, with the same impulses, their own eccentricities, their own prejudices, and their own wonderful tales. Once you realize that yesterday’s people were not very different from us, the past itself comes alive. And you learn to be kinder to history, instead of plotting revenge on those long dead and gone.