The medieval Deccan

A reading of three books throws light on the culture and politics of the Persianate world of the medieval Deccan.

Published : Dec 04, 2019 07:00 IST

Through fierce forays into southern India, rulers of the Delhi Sultanate like Alauddin Khilji (reign 1296-1316) extended the boundaries of their empire to its furthest extent at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries by dismantling the existing Yadava, Kakatiya, Hoysala and Pandya kingdoms. Khilji’s forces even reached Madurai in the deep south, where they established a base. Mohammed bin Tughlaq (reign 1325-1351), the eccentric genius of the Tughlaq dynasty that followed the Khiljis, moved the capital of his vast empire from Delhi to Devagiri or Daulatabad, located in what is now the central part of Maharashtra, in order to have his court more centrally located. The Delhi Sultans’ rule in these far-flung domains of their realm was always tenuous, and when Tughlaq’s rule, beset by internal crises and external challenges, withdrew to north India, many provincial governors rebelled, forming independent kingdoms or sultanates.

In the Deccan, an amorphous geographical region extending from the south of the Vindhya Range to the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers, the Bahmani Sultanate was established by rebel Tughlaq nobles in 1347 with its initial base in Daulatabad. Across the Krishna, the vacuum that had set in after the Tughlaq withdrawal had led to the founding of the Vijayanagara kingdom sometime between 1336 and 1346.

The Bahmanis would shift their capital to Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi) in 1350 and in the early 15th century, to Bidar. At its height during the reign of Muhammad III (reign 1463 to 1482), when Mahmud Gavan was the prime minister, the Bahmani Empire extended from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, helmed in by the Khandesh Sultanate in the north and the Vijayanagara empire in the south. While the Bahmani empire was a powerful state, ethnic affiliations overlaid with sectarian differences among the ruling nobility led to its implosion at the end of the 15th century. The provincial governors of Bijapur, Ahmednagar, Golconda, Bidar and Berar established their own Sultanates, snuffing out the Bahmani dynasty. Collectively referred to as the Deccan Sultanates, the 16th century would see these legatee states frequently fight with one another. The mighty Vijayanagara to their south usually sided with one or the other sultan in these conflicts.

Recognising the threat that the powerful Vijayanagarans perennially posed to them, the Deccan Sultanates came together in a temporary alliance in 1565 to defeat Vijayanagara, leaving it to totter to its eventual demise over the next century (See “Beyond the Hindu-Muslim Binary” in Frontline , January 18, 2019). This brief friendship was soon forgotten, and the Deccan Sultanates continued to fight with one another. Berar and Bidar were gobbled up by Ahmednagar and Bijapur respectively, leaving these two states, along with Golconda, as the unchallenged rulers of the Deccan for some time until their wealth attracted the attention of the Mughals. The expansionist policy of the Mughals led to the weakening and eventual subjugation of these regional powers as first Ahmednagar (1636) and then Bijapur (1686) and Golconda (1687) succumbed to Mughal might, ending the glorious epoch of the Deccan Sultans.

In popular understanding, medieval India is usually equated with the Mughal empire, but this is not to say that the Deccan was deprived of serious explorations of its medieval history. H.K. Sherwani and P.M. Joshi were early modern historians who looked at the Bahmanis and their descendants closely ( History of the Medieval Deccan: 1295-1724 , 1973). One of the books being reviewed in this essay, T.S. Devare’s A Short History of Persian Literature: At the Bahmani, the Adilshahi and the Qutbshahi Courts—Deccan (1961) is also from an earlier era. The work of these scholars has been followed by other prominent historians such as Richard Eaton and Phillip. B. Wagoner, who have closely looked at various facets of medieval Deccan. Manu Pillai ( Rebel Sultans , 2018) has attempted to tell the political history of the Deccan (for a review of this book, see “The Deccan Chronicles”, in Frontline , May 10, 2019). The architecture of the Deccan Sultanates has also been closely studied by architectural historians like George Michell and Helen Philon (the two scholars’ new book is being reviewed here). A new generation of scholars like Deborah Hutton, Marika Sardar, Pushkar Sohoni (for a review of Sohoni’s book, see “Deccan Architecture” in Frontline , August 2, 2019) and Emma J. Flatt (whose book is being reviewed in this essay) have begun to use innovative methods to explore other dimensions of the Deccan states, moving beyond political history.

Magnificent architecture

George Michell and Helen Philon are recognised scholars of the architecture of medieval Deccan. Early in his career, Michell co-founded the Vijayanagara Research Project, which continues to have a vast scope and consists of leading researchers on the history of this grand empire. Since the 1990s, Michell has moved on to study the architecture of Vijayanagara’s traditional rivals, the Bahmanis and their legatee sultanates. That makes him the only architectural historian whose expertise spans peninsular India. His many publications attest to his reputation as the foremost authority on medieval Indian architecture south of the Vindhyas. Helen Philon has published on Sultanate architecture in the past and her guidebook on Gulbarga, Bijapur and Bidar has become classic reference material for travellers to these Sultanate-era towns.

These two historical and architectural experts have combined forces with the photographer Antonio Martinelli, leading to the publication of the gorgeous coffee-table book under review. There are 290 photographs in the book capturing various monuments and their details in a fantastic display of exquisite photography. A significant number of architectural drawings adds to the value of this book.

While it excels as a coffee-table book, Islamic Architecture of Deccan India is also a handy academic work that collates existing literature on the theme in its introductory essay. This essay is a thorough summary of the medieval history of the Deccan, displays impressive historical and architectural awareness and serves as a perfect prologue to the book whose pages are otherwise filled with photographs of monuments. There are nine chapters that follow, each focussing on a Sultanate-era town. Towns gained prominence in a linear fashion in medieval Deccan and the chapters follow that development, with the photographs and captions highlighting the evolution of architecture.

Daulatabad and its neighbour, Khuldabad, attained early importance as the peninsular headquarters of the Delhi Sultanate and later as the first capital of the Bahmanis. After this, the capital of the Bahmanis was moved to Gulbarga and briefly Ferozabad (which is a necropolis now) before being shifted permanently to Bidar. The Bahmani empire eventually broke up into five separate sultanates. Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda were the headquarters of these provincial kingdoms and boasted majestic architecture that saw a boost after the 1565 “Battle of Talikota” with Vijayanagara. These extensive chapter-long surveys end with Aurangabad, which was the Mughal bridgehead for conquering the Deccan. Interestingly, Michell and Helen Philon choose to include Burhanpur, the capital of the Khandesh Sultanate which separated the Deccan from “Hindustan”, in their examination of the Deccan. This is unusual, provoking the question as to what truly constitutes the Deccan.

Seeing the photographs in the book, each of which has immortalised a monument, one cannot help but recall Susan Sontag’s thoughts from her must-read book On Photography . She writes: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” Martinelli’s alluring and breathtaking photographs, accompanied by Michell’s and Helen Philon’s notes, not only make the reader aware of the magnificence of these monuments but also the relentless passage of time.

Persian in the Deccan

The second book under review is a reprint of a classic on Persian literature in medieval Deccan by T.N. Devare. A Short History of Persian Literature: At the Bahmani, the Adilshahi and the Qutbshahi Courts—Deccan was first published in 1961 and was the PhD thesis of the author, who died in 1957 when he was only 43 years old. It continues to remain relevant because it is the only book in English that exhaustively studies the vast corpus of Persian literature produced in the courts of the Bahmanis and the Deccan Sultanates. Devare’s contemporaries had made substantial progress in the study of medieval Indian Persian literature but their main focus was on the works produced under the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. Thus, Devare’s intention was to correct this academic anomaly and to show that great Persian literature was also produced in the Deccan.

Considering the demand in academic circles for a reprint, the author’s family took the initiative in reprinting this valuable book last year. Methods of historical and language research have changed substantially in the six decades since Devare did his research. Thus, the book’s conceptual approach and style may seem outdated if seen from the perspective of current scholarship, but its value lies in its wide scope and its ambitious attempt at collating texts and then critically discussing them. Merely locating all of these texts in the 1950s, when they were spread across several libraries and personal collections, must have been a tedious task.

By discussing the major works produced in the Deccan, Devare has also put together what could be read as an extended annotated bibliography of the literature produced at these courts, making the book both a useful primary and secondary source for historical research on Persian literature in India and the history of the Deccan Sultanates. Devare also reads all the Persian texts directly and interprets them for his readers. His work is foundational as he does not rely or build on the work of other scholars. It is rare, or almost impossible nowadays, to find a scholar with such advanced competence in medieval Persian. Devare also frequently translates passages of Persian poetry and prose, enriching the book.

Devare’s book is divided into seven chapters, not including an introductory chapter that looks at the historical connections between Persia (now Iran) and India. Reading these chapters, one becomes aware of the easy mobility of a vast number of Persian speakers who migrated to the Deccan. Five of the seven chapters have a clear focus on different kinds of personages and their contributions to Persian literature in the Deccan. In each chapter, Devare chronologically lists the writers, thematically linking them before discussing their work, devoting several pages to noteworthy contributors.

For example, in the chapter on saints of Islam and their contribution to the development of Persian literature, the longest discussion is on the literary contributions of Khwaja Bandenawaz, the Sufi saint buried in Kalaburagi, whose enduring spiritual legacy has established him as the most prominent Sufi of the Deccan. Bandenawaz wrote a number of treatises and pamphlets on religion and Sufism apart from the poetry that has been discussed by Devare.

Discussing the Persian literature produced by the rulers of the Deccan Sultanates, Devare devotes several pages to Ibrahim Adil Shah II (reign 1580-1627) of the Adil Shahi dynasty of Bijapur. Like the Mughal emperor Akbar (reign 1556-1605), his elder contemporary in northern India, Ibrahim Adil Shah II also had an eclectic spiritual curiosity that defined his world view. He was addressed as “jagat guru” because of his love for music and veneration of the goddess Saraswati. Devare’s exhaustive survey goes on to include discussions of the works of the prominent litterateurs, architects, calligraphists and other prominent nobles in the Bahmani, the Adilshahi and the Qutbshahi courts.

In the chapter on poets, the prominent poets discussed by Devare include Isami, the composer of the Futuh-us-Salatin , a masnawi (poem in rhyming couplets) on Muslim rule in India, who was at the Bahmani court, and Zuhuri, the master of ghazal writing who was employed by the Ahmednagar and Bijapur Sultanates.

In a chapter on historians, Devare discusses the craft of history writing as practised by Muslim historians before moving on to discuss the works of individual historians. He makes a rare accusation of plagiarism against Ferishta, the historian whose works provide the maximum primary material for writing the histories of those times. The last chapter of the book looks at the influence of Persian on Marathi and Dakhni languages.

A flaw, or rather, a handicap of the book is that most of the dates are mentioned in the Islamic or Hijri calendar, which makes it tedious for the reader to correlate them with the dates of the common Gregorian calendar.

Emma J. Flatt’s fabulous book adds tremendous new knowledge to the history of the medieval Deccan. Borrowing methodological tools from anthropology and seeped in a robust reading of original Persian texts, Emma Flatt’s book is a rigorously researched work that opens up the courts of the Deccan Sultanates in exquisite detail. Emma Flatt’s main intention is to investigate the “idea of courtliness in the political, social and cultural worlds of the late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Deccan Sultanates”. The book studies a wide set of practices among the elite of the Deccan courts and will certainly become a landmark of historical research as Emma Flatt has demonstrated how a finite set of primary sources can be interrogated to wring out new kinds of knowledge and add to our understanding of a historical period. This work is also academically exciting as there are hardly any historical works that analyse South Asian “courts” as a category apart from Daud Ali’s pioneering work on courts in early medieval India ( Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India , 2011).

Through the book, Emma Flatt reiterates the point made by the historians Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner in the past that it is erroneous to view the various Deccan Sultanates and the Vijayanagara Empire as having fixed geographical boundaries and that, as the movement of the courtiers showed, there was a fluidity in these boundaries. Emma Flatt writes: “During this period, individuals of different backgrounds and cultures moved from across the Persian-speaking world to take up service at the courts of the Deccan Sultanates, and between the Deccani courts with a felicity that belies modern assumptions about the fixity of political and geographical boundaries on the one hand, and the incompatibility of Indic and Islamicate religio-cultural systems on the other.”

Emma Flatt relies on three key theoretical terms—the court, ethics and the Persian Cosmopolis—to take her argument forward. By virtue of the easy movement between a variety of courts, the courtiers acquired a certain courtly disposition that was widely shared across the “Persian Cosmopolis”, a phrase that has recently acquired tremendous heft in its expression of the shared set of cosmopolitan training in Persian texts that informed the subsequent world view of the elite across a vast swathe of land from Persia to Bengal. Emma Flatt’s book looks at facets of these courtly societies and examines certain courtly skills that were necessary for courtiers in order to become part of this courtly culture.

The book is broadly divided into two parts containing three chapters each, “Courtly Society” and “Courtly Skills”. Emma Flatt argues that there was a shared cosmopolitanism that the courtiers acquired through a shared foundational education of key Persian texts whose aim was not merely the acquisition of knowledge but the development of a “specific type of disposition within each individual”. This helped them move easily across the Persianate Cosmopolis, allowing them to find employment in various Deccani courts, as evinced in the careers of two individuals discussed in the next chapter.

By examining the careers of two elite noblemen, Muhammad Nimdihi and Hajji Abarquhi, Emma Flatt demonstrates how individuals used familial, scholarly, mercantile, religious and friendly networks in order to move across the Persian Cosmopolis.

The court society of the Sultanates was heavily influenced by “...the practices, the commodities and the vocabulary of long-distance trade”. She looks at the biographies of three powerful individuals, Khalaf Hasan, Mahmud Gavan and Asad Khan Lahri, in some detail to argue this point.

In the second half of her book, Emma Flatt looks at the courtly skills that were required for “worldly success and ethical refinement”. She writes: “By disciplined repetitive practice, the participant honed his ability at a particular skill, and simultaneously refined his soul, rendering the pursuit of skills an ethical endeavour.” Emma Flatt looks at scribal, esoteric and martial skills as part of the training for worldly success and the development of a courtly disposition.

The importance of scribal skills in the development of a refined courtier is examined through the epistolatory skills of Mahmud Gavan (1411-1481), the dynamic merchant-scholar who rose to become a vizier of the Bahmani rulers.

In a fantastic chapter that looks at the esoteric skills that courtiers could acquire to rise in the eyes of the rulers, Emma Flatt does a meticulous reading of the “Nujum al-Ulum”, the esoteric text composed in the Bijapuri court of Ali Adil Shah I (reign 1558-1580). In its divergent sourcing from both Islamicate and Indic cosmologies, she sees “conceptual commensurabilities” for a courtly society made up of a people belonging to a plurality of religious and cultural beliefs.

In the last chapter, Emma Flatt looks at “ the acquisition of martial skills was associated with an ethical ideal known as javanmardi or young-manliness, an ideal structuring the daily lives of courtly and urban men in the medieval Persianate world”.

This brief review hardly does justice to the wide scope of Emma Flatt’s work which will be valuable for anyone interested in the history of the medieval Deccan. As this review essay shows, there is a substantial amount of ongoing research in the history of the medieval Deccan, but compared with the large body of work on the Mughals, much remains to be done for historical research of the medieval Deccan.

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