Deccan architecture

Architectural exploration in the sultanate of Ahmednagar can provide deep insights into the political history of the Deccan.

Published : Jul 17, 2019 07:30 IST

B Y the late 15th century, the Bahmani kingdom that had ruled much of the Deccan since its establishment in 1347 was imploding because of internecine differences among its nobility. Westerners, or the “Afaqis”—immigrants from Persia and Central Asia—had differences with the natives, or the “Deccanis”, an eclectic group of nobles that consisted of descendants of the early Delhi sultanate migrants, local converts to Islam, Habshis (Africans) and Marathas. The weakening of the kingdom was accompanied by ambitious provincial governors declaring independence one after the other, leading to the emergence of five separate principalities, or sultanates.

The earliest to break away and proclaim himself sultan was Ahmed Nizam Shah I, who was the governor of the north-west province of the Deccan, later to be known as Ahmednagar, after the name of the city he would build and designate as capital of the sultanate. Of the four other sultanates that would cleave away chunks of the Bahmani kingdom, Bijapur and Golconda were the large and important ones to emerge.

Ahmednagar survived as a robust Shiite polity for more than a century, until 1600, and then in a feebler form until 1636 before the Mughals, with their unceasing imperial ambitions, completely swamped the city. It took 50 more years for the Mughals to subjugate all the kingdoms of the Deccan when Aurangzeb finally defeated the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda in 1686 and 1687 respectively. Even though it was the first sultanate to fall to the Mughals because of its location, Ahmednagar survived as an independent state for more than 100 years.

During this time, it carved out a distinct identity in statecraft apart from leaving behind a fairly rich architectural legacy, which is the subject of study of the book under review. With this clearly defined ambition, Pushkar Sohoni, who is an architectural historian, has turned the spotlight on the sultanate of Ahmednagar and presented a method by which architectural exploration can provide deep insights into the political history of a geographical region.

The art and architecture of the Deccan sultanates was the focus of many scholars in the past. In pre-independent India, the region’s architecture was studied as an addendum to the Islamic architecture of northern India (for example, the second volume of Percy Brown’s seminal work on Indian architecture, 1942). More recently, the study of the Deccan as an independent area has come into its own, with scholars such as George Michell and Mark Zebrowski ( Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates , 1999) publishing detailed studies.

Among exhaustively edited volumes on the same theme, a few stand out in recent times, including Silent Splendour: Palaces of the Deccan, 14th-19th Centuries edited by Helen Philon (2010) and Sultans of the South: Art of India’s Deccan Courts, 1323-1687 edited by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (2011).

Richard Eaton and Phillip B. Wagoner have published a book titled Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (2014) that looks in detail at secondary urban centres of the Bahmani and Deccan Sultanate era such as Kalyana, Raichur and Warangal.

Coming to the scholarship on individual sultanates: Pramod B. Gadre has studied Ahmednagar in some detail ( The Cultural Archaeology of Ahmadnagar during Nizam Shahi Period, 1494-1632 , 1986); Deborah Hutton has looked carefully at the art of Bijapur ( Art at the Court of Bijapur , 2006); Marika Sardar has extensively studied the fortifications of Golconda (“Golconda Through Time: A Mirror of the Evolving Deccan”, unpublished PhD thesis, 2007). The book under review adds to this burgeoning bibliography on the art and architecture of the Deccan sultanates.

In his prefatory chapter, Sohoni makes a forceful case for the independent study of the Deccan, which had a distinct identity from “Hindustan”, or northern India, for most of the past. He writes: “The deep connections of the Deccan with West Asia, completely independent of Northern India, along with the autonomous cultural and historical developments in the south have shaped the Deccan very uniquely. Detailed studies of the polities of the Deccan, therefore, of architecture and statecraft, need to be undertaken in order to explain how, in moments of disengagement with the north, unique formations were created independent of developments in North India.”

This disconnectedness from north India led to the emergence of a distinctive architecture as the Nizam Shahis developed their own style. Sohoni’s argument is that the “...architecture of the Nizam Shahs does not follow a linear development from its Persian origins to the creation of a regional style. The buildings are variously of broadly Persianate and Indic characteristics, at times both, but to call them derivative is unfair, as the kingdom of the Nizam Shahs was trying to create a new architectural language as a regional claim.”

This study of architecture and the politics of Ahmednagar also leads Sohoni to argue ingeniously that the Deccani kingdoms saw themselves as “regionalists” who were resisting the “Hindustani” expansion led by the Mughals. This is an interesting perspective of medieval India.

Thus, the Deccan kingdoms were resisting the cultural expressions of the north by forging links with Persianate lands, which led to autonomous architectural representations. Chaul, Dabhol, Bhatkal and Goa were the principal ports through which connections with the wider Persianate world were forged independently, bypassing north India. In their architecture and in other aspects such as coinage, literature and painting, the Deccan sultans intended to bolster their independent claims as Deccan potentates. At the time, the Deccan was a multi-ethnic society with strong and independent connections to Persia.

There was also a great deal of cultural interaction and churning in the region involving ethnicities as diverse as African, Arab, Central Asian and South Asian. Thus, Sohoni provides ample evidence to back his argument that the Deccan has to be studied independently from “Hindustan”.

Sohoni’s intervention is valuable for the much-needed nuance it provides to the story of medieval India. In the reductive nationalist and colonialist versions of the time, Muslim rulers are seen as invaders “...upsetting indigenous practices until the ‘Hindu revival’ under the Marathas in the seventeenth century which is a simplistic and naive model of regional history”. Through Sohoni’s work, we see that the Nizam Shahi’s forbears were Brahmins who converted to Islam. Sohoni goes on to demonstrate, through his close reading of visual architecture, that the Nizam Shahi state “...formed the basis of the nascent Maratha state that emerged in the mid-seventeenth century under Shivaji Bhonsale”.

Sohoni delineates his method of studying architecture: “In this book, art-historical methods of visual inspection and formal analysis, along with documentation of architecture and construction, expand on earlier attempts to overcome the limited interpretations of previous text-based histories.” His book has a detailed historiographical note on the Nizam Shahis combined with the study of other aspects, such as the role of guilds and the material used in buildings of the time, providing a fulsome interpretation of architecture.

Sohoni also looks briefly at the literature, visual culture and coins of the Nizam Shahs. It is interesting to note that Ahmednagar started minting its own coins only in the second half of the 16th century, and this was done only when it realised the implications of Mughal expansion and had to symbolically demonstrate its independent status.

Commencing his detailed look at the architecture of Ahmednagar, Sohoni dedicates a chapter to urban patterns in six settlements of Ahmednagar: Junnar (the first capital of the Nizam Shahis), Daulatabad (the older capital of the northern Deccan), Ahmednagar (the capital built from scratch by the Nizam Shahis), Chaul (a major seaport), Parenda (a fortified military centre built by the Bahmanis) and Sindkhed Raja (the hereditary fief of the Jadhavs, Maratha nobles at the court of the Nizam Shahs). He also looks at the water technology and the fortifications in these settlements.

In the next chapter, Sohoni looks at the palaces and mansions of Ahmednagar such as Farah Baksh Bagh, a large building originally set on a raised platform in a pool of water. Sohoni spends some time on this monument before moving on to detailed discussions of other monuments such as the Hasht Bihisht Bagh, Manzarsumbah and Kalawantinicha Mahal.

In a subsequent chapter, Sohoni discusses the architecture of 12 mosques spread across various settlements in erstwhile Ahmednagar. Interestingly, Sohoni points out that there was no main congregational mosque in Ahmednagar where proclamations of sovereignty could be made on Friday, which is something unique and can be attributed to the Shiite orientation of its rulers. In the next chapter, Sohoni looks at tombs. One would imagine that like their royal forbears and peers among the Deccan sultanates the Nizam Shahis would also have grand tombs, but barring the first king of the dynasty, none of the other kings are buried here as their bodies were embalmed and sent off to Karbala (Iraq) in homage to their Shiite belief.

Thus, the 14 tombs that have been discussed are of the higher nobles who were buried in the region and memorials that are attributed to Maratha nobles, such as the ancestors of Shivaji in Verul and that of Lakhuji Jadhav in Sindkhed Raja. Another chapter is dedicated to the discussion of miscellaneous buildings, including royal hamam s.

Sohoni does not claim to have catalogued all the extant buildings from the Ahmednagar era, but his list is fairly thorough and includes all the prominent monuments in the region.

Through his work, the author sounds an urgent note of caution as many of these buildings are in a poor state of preservation with a few even slated for demolition. Several noteworthy monuments are not even protected by archaeological authorities. Sohoni has provided accompanying photographs and architectural plans for many of the monuments in his work. His detailed appendix is also useful as it provides an annotated listing of inscriptions on several monuments.

Sohoni concludes by providing an overview of what the Nizam Shahis represented. They were the last medieval state that the early modern Mughal state encountered as it swept across the Deccan.

He writes: “This study locates the Nizam Shahs as a critical component of the architectural and political history of the sixteenth-century Deccan, and hopefully can restore to them some of the status that they once commanded in their own time.” Drawing a direct link from the Nizam Shahis to the incipient Marathi state that emerged, Sohoni contradicts reductive scholarship that sees the Marathas as breaking from an Islamicate past. He writes that “ is possible to conclude that there was no nationhood or polity based on an ethnic identity, and that their ethnic identity was a marker of social rise through military service. The cultural forms of the greater Islamicate world, as expressed in the Deccan by the Bahmanis, the Vijayanagar kings, and the later sultanates, were also adopted by the Maratha courts. In conception, execution, and ornament, the architecture of the early Marathas was exactly the same as that of their sultanate overlords and peers. The structural forms, decorative details, and planning logic conform to the Islamicate architecture of the Deccan sultanates.”

This book is valuable to architectural historians and historians of medieval India. A logical expectation would be for similar research to be done on the other Deccan sultanates, each of which represented robust regional resistance to the imperial policy of the Mughals.

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