The Deccan chronicles

Print edition : May 10, 2019
A racy, highly readable narrative of 300 years of Deccan political history from the 13th century to the 17th century.

IT would not be wrong to state that the pedagogy of history in India is skewed towards the study of north India. This extends across various levels of education in the country, from school to graduate education across universities in India. With fewer scholars opting to study peninsular India, this lack of attention percolates down to research students, who are compelled to focus on north India as there are fewer professors who can possibly supervise their research. This excessive focus on the rule of Delhi has resulted in the neglect of other parts of the country in history writing.

The fact that few invasions took place from the south to the north through history, whereas the lure of the Deccan spurred north Indian rulers to invade and eventually conquer it, is also perhaps another reason that the region of the Deccan has been marginalised in history writing. With the rise of linguistic nationalisms in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, regional nationalism (such as that of Shivaji [1630-1680]) has been studied but is restricted by language and modern geography, while the Deccan as a region has itself not been extensively researched.

The Deccan plateau is that broad mass of land that lies south of the Vindhya mountains and tapers as it gets flanked by the Western and Eastern Ghats of peninsular India. Linguistically, for historians of the medieval Deccan, the centre of this region is located at the crossroads of three languages: Kannada, Marathi and Telugu. The broader Deccan region branches out from this point. Although it was the cradle of historically rich dynasties that played crucial roles at important junctures in Indian history, the Deccan itself remains understudied.

Thus the Bahmani sultanate and its legatee kingdoms (of Ahmednagar, Berar, Bijapur, Bidar and Golconda), which persisted in various forms for more than 350 years in the Deccan since Alauddin Bahman Shah (r. 1347-1358) founded the Bahmani sultanate in 1347, were consigned to the margins in the larger histories of medieval India, eclipsed as they were by the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughals. In their heyday, the geographical realm of the Bahmani Sultans and their successors extended across vast swathes of central and peninsular India, touching both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. However, the absence of a comprehensive history of this epoch remained a lacuna until the publication of the book under review. For that, the author’s role must be acknowledged.

Manu S. Pillai’s ambitions are modest. He sets out to tell an easily accessibly political history—relying mainly on secondary sources in English—of around 300 years of the Deccan, from the end of the thirteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. This period is conveniently signposted by two invasions from north Indian rulers. The first one was led by Alauddin Khilji (r. 1296-1316), the only significant ruler of the short-lived Khilji dynasty, who, in 1296, came down all the way to Devagiri in modern Maharashtra, forging tenuous links between the Deccan and Delhi that were further strengthened by Muhammad ibn Tughluq (r. 1325-51) a few decades later.

The second action, which flags the end of the book, was personally led by the great Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), who conquered the remaining independent sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda in 1686 and 1687 respectively, ending the rule of the Deccan Sultans. While this would be the apogee of the Mughal Empire in terms of the geographical area it controlled and the peoples it ruled, Aurangzeb’s obsession with the Deccan would lead to the subsequent unravelling of the imperial control of the Mughals, resulting in the eventual downfall of the Mughal Empire

The book has seven chapters which look at the major players in the Sultanate era chronologically, with some overlapping of time periods between chapters. Pillai begins his book with a vignette from the Battle of Raichur (1520) when the forces of Ismail Adil Shah of Bijapur (r. 1511-34) clashed with the greatest of the Vijayanagara kings, Krishnadeva (r. 1509-1529) (commonly referred to as Krishnadevaraya).

By this time, the Bahmani Empire was well on its way to dismemberment at the hands of the “Rebel Sultans”. Adil Shah was continuing the tradition of the Bahmanis who constantly contested the region known as the “Raichur Doab”, the fertile tract of land between the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers that worked as a fluid boundary between the two great empires. After an easy victory over the Bijapur army, Krishnadeva heaped further humiliation on the defeated Sultan of Bijapur by ordering him to kiss his foot as part of the terms of defeat.

Beginning with this evocative episode, Pillai’s racy narrative takes the reader back to the ferocity of the Delhi Sultans who, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, expanded their dominions explosively, establishing control over almost all of India, leaving their footprint even in Madurai in the deep south. This was to be short-lived, though, as (Muhammad ibn) Tughluq’s control over Delhi weakened and two empires emerged from the dust—the Bahmani sultanate with its capital in Gulbarga (and later, Bidar) and Vijayanagara with its capital, Hampi, on the banks of the Tungabhadra river.

There are fifteen kings (some only in name) who followed Alauddin Bahman Shah’s reign. The capital was shifted from Gulbarga to Bidar in the fifteenth century, and powerful rulers such as Feroz Shah (r. 1397-1422) and Ahmad Shah (r. 1422-1436) established their reign and ruled from the “Turquoise Throne”, the Bahmani seat.

Pillai also discusses the prime ministership of Mahmud Gawan (1411-1481), who became the most important man in the kingdom. After Gawan’s death, the local governors of the Bahmanis began to assert their independence. The Bahmani line continued for the next 50 years, getting increasingly titular until the dynasty was snuffed out in 1538. Across the Raichur Doab, their southern neighbours remained relatively stable, although separate dynasties reigned from Hampi, with each change precipitated by courtly intrigues that Pillai narrates interestingly. Adopting the Persianised style of the prevalent political ethos, the Vijayanagara rulers modelled themselves as “Hindu Sultans”.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is the one on the five mutinous Bahmani governors who cleaved out chunks of the weakening empire and their brief alliance to defeat Vijayanagara during the Battle of Talikota (1565). Pillai describes in some detail the differences between the “Westerners” (that is, the courtiers who came from Persia and other realms overseas) and the “Deccanis” (an assorted bunch that included local converts and descendants of the initial cohorts of soldiers who had come down with the armies of the Delhi Sultanates) which led to the end of the Bahmani Empire and the emergence of the five separate sultanates.

In Vijayanagara, after the passing of Krishnadevaraya, it was his son-in-law, Ramaraya (1485-1565), who eventually became the regent. It was Ramaraya’s hubris which encouraged an alliance between the squabbling Deccan Sultans, who prevailed over the Vijayanagara army at the Battle of Talikota, vanquishing the glory of that empire. Pillai is at pains to dispel the popular understanding of the battle as a civilisational clash between Hinduism and Islam.

In subsequent chapters, Pillai looks at the later histories of the sultanates after the Battle of Talikota. The alliance forged between the sultans did not last beyond 1565, as the sultans went back to their internecine rivalries. Of the five sultanates, Pillai narrates at length the fate of Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda as these would remain politically significant. In this story, characters such as Ibrahim Adil Shah II (r. 1580-1627) of Bijapur who venerated the Hindu goddess Saraswati, Malik Ambar (1548-1626) who was a slave-turned-regent of Ahmednagar, Chand Bibi (1550-1599) who played important roles in Bijapur and Ahmednagar, and Madanna, the Brahmin minister of Golconda, make colourful appearances. Pillai concludes by briefly discussing the rise of the Marathas as a political force in the Deccan.

The most accomplished living historian of medieval Deccan is Richard Eaton (of the University of Arizona), whose work Pillai has extensively relied upon. The tedious methodology of historical research and the academic system has ensured that someone like Eaton is not well known outside the confines of history departments of universities and beyond the aficionados of medieval Deccan history. The advantage of writing broad histories for a popular audience becomes evident when authors such as Pillai take advantage of the immense freedom that the genre allows them, unconstrained by academic methodology.

Thus, Pillai shuffles between a variety of sources, not interrogating them in the manner of an academic historian. His book also does not break any fresh ground as far as academic scholarship is concerned and no pioneering insight is offered. But in Pillai’s defence, it is clear that he does not even attempt to do this. His mandate is limited—he sets out to tell the story of the Deccan from the invasion of Alauddin Khilji to the rise of Shivaji, and this he does well.

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