Book Review: "Forts of the Deccan: 1200-1800" (edited by Nicolas Faucherre and Nicolas Morelle)

Published : March 07, 2021 06:00 IST

The Raichur fort built by the Kakatiyas of Warangal in the 13th century. Vijayanagar emperor Krishnadevaraya captured the fort in A.D. 1520 from Adil Shah of Bijapur. Photo: the hindu archives

The volume enhances the understanding of the forts of medieval Deccan and, concomitantly, the history of the region.

THERE has been a surge in historical research on various aspects of medieval Deccan in the past few years. Forts of the Deccan: 1200-1800, is a welcome addition to this corpus of literature. The book brings out different facets of fortifications in the Deccan through a collection of articles by archaeologists, architects, historians and art historians. The contributors include eminent experts on the subject such as Jean Deloche, George Michell, Helen Philon and Barry Lewis as well as lesser-known researchers.

Any traveller to the historical towns of the Deccan, a region that covers northern Karnataka, southern Maharashtra and Telangana, could not have missed the massive forts that give a distinct character to these places. While many of these forts have been studied by historians in the past decades both as specialised investigation projects and as part of broader surveys, Nicolas Faucherre and Nicolas Morelle, the editors of the volume, have brought together diverse and new explorations in the field and enriched this rather narrow area of historical research. In this pioneering effort, apart from focussing on well-known fortifications such as those in Daulatabad, Hampi, Bidar and Bijapur (now Vijayapura), they have turned the spotlight on fortifications in Torgal, Chitradurga and Naldurg in the hinterland of the Deccan.

Each essay is accompanied by photographs, providing a visual aid to the surveys. Architectural plans of the fortificaitons and generous line drawings serve to explain the technical aspects of the constructions.

Also read: Fresh perspectives on medieval Deccan history

What is the necessity for studying forts? The editors give an explanation in the introduction: “The fortification is often built by or for the ruler, so it reflects the nature and culture of the local (or foreign) power reigning over a territory through its style, inscriptions or the function of the defensive elements (use of archery, artillery). It tells us a part of the political history and the relationship between power and territory…. Thus, the arrival of the Muslim population has brought many defensive elements sometimes unknown in the pre-Muslim Deccan.”

It is fitting that the first essay in the volume is by Jean Deloche (the volume is dedicated to his memory), who through publications such as Four Forts of the Deccan (2009), gave an impetus to the study of castellology in south India. In his essay, Deloche asks how water harvesting was done in the “hill forts of the peninsular plateau” and attempts to answer how these forts had perennial access to water.

In his essay, Tejas Garge, an archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India, surveys the fortifications and about 270 cannons at the fort of Daulatabad. In the introduction to the survey, the author first recounts the history of the fort and then documents the bronze, wrought iron and cast-iron cannons, providing an insight into the “development of firearm technology from the 15th to the 18th century in the Deccan as well as the Indian subcontinent”. Garge observes that there was a “well-developed technology of gunpowder and cannons which had its roots probably in the 14th century, introduced by the Bahmanis in the Deccan.” In his essay on Daulatabad, Nicolas Simon, a French archaeologist, outlines the evolution of the city by focussing on “the stones used to build the fortifications”.

Warangal’s layout

George Michell, who has done an extensive study of the architecture of medieval Deccan focusses on Warangal, where the Kakatiya kingdom was superseded by the Bahmani Sultans in the 14th century. His detailed study of the layout, fortifications and gateways of the Warangal fort points to a “conscious act of planning based on a well-established tradition”. Warangal’s layout influenced the layout of Hyderabad, the later Sultanate capital, and also the emergence of Islamic urban contexts from their dialogue with Hindu architectural ideas in the Deccan, Michell argues.

Robert Brubaker’s study of the fortifications at Vijayanagar draws the attention of the reader to a dominant feature of medieval Deccan, which was the recurring rivalry between the Vijayanagar Empire and the Bahmani Sultanate and, after its implosion at the end of the 15th century, its legatee Sultanates. This continued until 1565 when Vijayanagar was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Talikota. While political, cultural and architectural historians have written about the varying facets of the encounters between the two rival states, Brubaker traces the timeline of fortifications constructed in Vijayanagar (the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire) for over two centuries, to provide another explanation for the defeat of the Vijayanagar kingdom at the hands of the Deccan Sultanates. During the 14th and 15th centuries, there was an emphasis on fortifications at Vijayanagar. This gradually tapered off by the beginning of the 16th century when the empire, “reflecting a new sense of security”, shifted “resources by the elite from the construction of fortifications to the establishment of even more numerous, larger and more elaborate shrines and temple complexes”.

Also read: Medieval monarch

Helen Philon has examined the site of Bidar, the Bahmani capital. She uses a broad range of historical and archaeological sources to argue that “the scanty evidence we have from the architectural remains appear to reflect the city’s troubled socio-political history and provides grounds to suggest that it was fragmented along ethnic identities and their associated Sufi affiliations”. Bidar became the Bahmani capital after Ahmed Shah Bahmani shifted his capital from Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi) in the 1420s. By the close of the century, the Bahmani Sultanate was in its death throes because of the rivalry between the “foreign” and “native” components of its nobility. Helen Philon reads this relationship in Bidar, offering a fascinating insight into the last days of the Bahmani Empire, but she confesses that she is unable to answer an important question “regarding the whereabouts of the local Hindu majority in this apartheid metropolis”.

In the most exhaustive essay of the volume, Ameen Hullur, whose research is supplemented by photographs and drawings by Kushal Kumar Kamble, provides a comprehensive survey of the fortifications in Bijapur. He ventures to look at the vestiges of fortifications in the nearby areas of Shahpur and Nauraspur.

One tendentious argument that stands out is the symbolism of the number ‘108’ as manifested in the fortifications: for instance, the wall of the Bijapur fort has 108 towers. “The number is sacred to Hindus and especially to Lingayats living in the Deccan who use a 108 rudraksha beaded lace for meditation,” Hullur writes, linking this aspect of Hinduism to Ibrahim Adil Shah II (r. 1571-1627), the ruler of Bijapur who was renowned for his syncretic world view.

The American anthropologist Barry Lewis, who has spent many years researching the principality of Chitradurga, has contributed an essay on the fort at Chitradurga, which is a lesser-known architectural marvel. Lewis traces the “fort’s development and organisation in relation to the rise and fall of its rulers from the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century”. He observes that “the Nayakas created most of what is now regarded as Chitradurga Fort, the Mysore rulers extensively renovated it, and the British simply used it”.

Also read: The medieval Deccan

Nicolas Morelle has contributed two essays in which he talks about the forts of Torgal and Naldurg, which were located on the peripheries of the Sultanates. About Torgal, Morelle concludes that the fortifications “are proof of the evolution of Deccan fortifications from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Through well-preserved fortifications at the site, the diversity in defence is clearly visible showing the context of medieval and modern warfare in India.” Naldurg was a great border fort, and Morelle’s study shows that the fort adapted to the increasing use of artillery.

While the essays enrich one’s understanding of the forts of medieval Deccan and, concomitantly, the history of medieval Deccan, more attention could have been paid to the quality of writing. The editors could have checked the manuscript for minor errors in grammar and style. While these peccadillos do not detract from the rigour of the research in any way, a little effort on this aspect would have certainly added to the overall quality of the book.

The editors, both French academics, state in their introduction: “France has long been an enthusiastic contributor to the field of Indian studies and castellology…. The underlying goal behind this work is to stimulate research on Indian fortifications through collaboration with researchers, universities, institutions and the Government of India.” While part of this mandate has already been served through this volume, historians in India will certainly welcome similar valuable investigations in the future.

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