Anirudh Kanisetti’s Lords of the Deccan is a sprawling and riveting saga of a region that has often been overlooked in popular Indian history. The book focusses on kingdoms that had their core base in the Deccan, and whose histories were linked with that of deeper south India, as well as with the wider north Indian region between the 7th and 12th centuries, or the early medieval period.
Kanisetti’s provocation to write this book stems from the general ignorance about the history of this period during which these Deccan empires briefly held sway over most of the subcontinent. As he writes: “Ignoring the history of the Deccan in recounting the history of India is like ignoring the history of France or Germany in telling the history of Europe.” He also points out that the common understanding of Indian history is defined by north Indian imperial moments, and as a result, knowledge of the Deccan and south India is hazy at best.
Kanisetti states: “This book … is the story of India between two north Indian ‘imperial moments’, the half millennium or so after the end of the Gupta empire and before the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. In order to do so, it roots itself unabashedly in the Deccan. Yet it does not seek to replace a north Indian ‘imperial moment’ with a south Indian one, but instead seeks to develop a more complicated and interconnected narrative of the history of this enormous and diverse land between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean.”
Lords of the Deccan: Southern India from the Chalukyas to the Cholas
This lacuna in our general perception of Indian history is not only because of the north India-centric history pedagogy of school textbooks but also because of the fervent pace of events during this time period in the Deccan. Kanisetti has addressed both these gaps by writing a highly readable book without,to his credit, sacrificing robust historical research. “The erasure of the Deccan from our historical consciousness is one of the strangest reversals of fortune in Indian history, especially given what its contemporaries thought of it,” he writes.
Even as he lauds the achievements of these “lords of the Deccan”, Kanisetti also reveals their foibles and their savagery.
The book begins with the emergence of the Pulakeshin I, the progenitor of the later Chalukya Empire with its capital at Vatapi (modern Badami in north Karnataka) in the mid-6th century. By the time of his grandson Pulakeshin II’s rule in the early 7th century, “a true pan-Deccan superpower [of the Chalukyas] was emerging.” By defeating the north Indian ruler, Harsha, in 618 CE, it was clear that this upstart dynast had ensured that the Deccan could no longer be ignored by north India.
The Chalukyas’ imperial ambitions saw them wage battles against the Pallavas of the Tamil region, while one Chalukyan ruler, Vinayaditya, even sent his son on a raid to north India in 690 CE. By the mid-8th century, their spiralling rise would be checked by Dantidurga Rashtrakuta who defeated the Chalukyas and their vassals, the Gangas of southern Karnataka, in 748 CE, inaugurating the era of the Rashtrakutas. Among the Kannada kings of this dynasty, Amoghavarsha reigned for a staggeringly long period of 64 years in the 9th century. He was lauded by visiting Arabs as “one of the Four Great Kings of the World”.
The 10th-century would witness the rise of the Kalyana Chalukyas established by Taila and named after the capital city (modern Basavakalyan in north-east Karnataka) that they founded in the Deccan along with the rise of the Cholas in the Tamil country. The confusing series of battles between the Kalyana Chalukyas and the Cholas, which were waged for more than a century between these two medieval superpowers, are explained in some detail. The Cholas even sent naval expeditions under Rajendra Chola to raid the Srivijaya confederacy of South-East Asia which returned victorious in 1026 CE.
Kalyana Chalukya rulers such as Someshvara managed to hold their own against the Cholas who often were on the verge of defeating the Deccani rulers. With the collapse of these two empires by the 12th century, smaller kingdoms who were former vassals of the Chalukyas and the Cholas, such as the Yadavas in northern Maharashtra, Kakatiyas in Telangana, Hoysalas in southern Karnataka and Pandyas in the Tamil region, would emerge as kingdoms in their own right.
Kanisetti’s book is not only about the political upheavals that shook the Deccan. He also discusses the various ways in which these rulers, who were often of modest origin, went about legitimising their rule by creating elaborate genealogies and by transforming the political economy of the regions they reigned over. The book also discusses in some detail the transformation of religion over the course of this half millennium and the grand literatures in Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu produced in the courts of these Deccan empires.
When limited by the lack of primary sources, Kanisetti often intelligently speculates on the roles played by groups of people, such as tribals or Adivasis, who have not entered the historical record. While most history-writing is culpable in its silence on the role of women in past patriarchal eras, Kanisetti focusses on the contribution of women of the aristocracy such as Bhavanaga and Loka-Mahadevi. By directing the reader’s attention towards the developments in temple architecture, the functions of merchant guilds, and the Deccan’s role as a crucial hub in the emerging network of international maritime trade from Europe to China, Kanisetti also highlights that the study of regional history must be connected with that of contemporary global developments.
Two recent publications can serve as suitable segues to Kanisetti’s book. Manu Pillai’s Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (2018) picks up the story from the exact point where Kanisetti stops his narrative in the 12th century and tells the story of the Deccan for the next 500 years. Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times (2018) by Rajmohan Gandhi would be the logical next step in the reader’s journey to learn about the modern history of south India down to the present day.