Cultural encounters

Print edition : May 30, 2014

Map showing Vijayanagara and Bahmanis kingdoms.

An important collaborative work that cuts across disciplinary boundaries and weaves together visual and textual histories to investigate the dynamics between power politics, cultural memory and architecture in medieval Deccan.

THE architectural landscape of the Deccan plateau is distinguished by the presence of magnificent medieval forts in whose making the natural terrain of the Deccan has been exploited to utmost advantage. The ingenuity with which nature and architecture have collaborated in strategising premodern defence through the creation of these once near-impregnable fortresses is perhaps a most remarkable and visually striking feature in this part of India. The strong walls of these forts, punctuated by bastions, towers and gateways, span several kilometres atop hills and over plains, and are today monumental memories of their once-significant role in the history and power politics of the Deccan.

The characteristic interplay of power, memory and architecture in medieval Deccan is investigated in this book by two well-known scholars, the historian Richard M. Eaton and the art and architectural historian Phillip B. Wagoner, who have brought together their respective expertise to produce a commendable volume on the political and cultural history of three highly contested sites of the Deccan. This collaborative project has succeeded in achieving the desired goal of cutting across the rigid disciplinary methodologies of history, art history, and archaeology, by engaging equally with material and textual sources. Refraining from viewing the Deccan’s history narrowly in terms of Hindu-Muslim binaries, or, only as a history of military encounters, the authors have also used both Sanskrit and Persian literary traditions to understand better the nature of the cultural encounters that took place during the period.

Eaton and Wagoner have chosen their sites with care. In place of the already well-represented primary urban centres such as Bidar, Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, Vijayanagara, and Golconda, they focus on three secondary urban centres, Kalyana, Raichur, and Warangal, which were also “frontier” cities. The city of Kalyana, as the authors point out in their introductory remarks, was a prize catch not only because it was the erstwhile Chalukyan capital but also for its strategic location at the frontier between three rival sultanates. Raichur was much sought after by Vijayanagara and the Bahmani, and next Adil Shahi, sultanates on account of its rich agricultural hinterland. And Warangal stood at an “ecological frontier” (xxii) between the fertile coastal plains and the arid plateau of the interior.

The book is most concerned with the turbulence of the 16th century but also situates its critical focus on the region’s history during the preceding centuries. The developments that took place under the Chalukyas of Kalyana (c. late 10th-mid-12th centuries), the conquering armies of the Delhi sultanate in the 14th century, the successor state of the Kakatiyas of Warangal (c. 12th-14th centuries), and of the Bahmanis and the Vijayanagara empire are discussed to provide an appropriate backdrop for a nuanced understanding of the Deccan in the 16th century.

The authors suggest that the brief conquest of the Deccan by the armies of the Delhi sultanate brought the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” in contact with the “Persian cosmopolis”, resulting in processes of literary and cultural intermingling which long survived the initial political conquest (page 32). Important issues are also raised about the manner in which successive rulers negotiated the visual potency of monuments built by their predecessors. This nexus between power and architecture was perhaps most clearly in evidence during the early period of the conquest of the Deccan, when Hindu temples, as monumental proclamations of Hindu authority, would naturally have drawn the attention of the new rulers. The demolition of Hindu temples under Muslim rule is perhaps one of the most debated and controversial issues in Indian history and historiography. The authors’ position is well-articulated and, by now, also well-established:

“The question, however, should not be whether ruling elites of the Delhi sultanate and their successors in the Deccan engaged in temple desecration, which they certainly did. The problem is that the question so framed is both too broad and too narrow. It is too broad in the sense that there was nothing distinctive about that activity. Ever since the seventh century, when royal temples were first perceived as objects of political contestation, states throughout India... routinely engaged in desecrating the temples of their enemies as a matter of policy. But the question is also too narrow in that it isolates only one response—physical desecration or even destruction—out of a wide range of possible responses that conquering or ruling authorities might have had towards temples occupying a conquered landscape” (pages 39-40).

There is a dire need to engage with more detailed, nuanced, and contextualised readings of the relationships between power and architecture—an area of academic research that rests at the crossroads of political history and art history.

Eaton and Wagoner bring these two alienated partners of historical inquiry together to interpret the inherent complexities of the dialogue between power and architecture in the Deccan’s history. They draw from visual documentation, field analysis and written records to show that the conquerors of the Deccan appear to have selectively employed a range of different approaches towards Hindu monuments in different circumstances—patronising, destroying, desecrating, adapting, reusing, rebuilding, or ignoring the monuments of their defeated predecessors.

The desecration of the Pillalamarri temple (1309 C.E.), located to the east of modern Hyderabad, for example, appears to have been the result of “an army on the march under orders to plunder” and as “collateral damage in Malik Kafur’s... siege of Warangal and the humbling of the Kakatiya sovereign” (page 42). In another instance, the desecration of the swayambhu linga in Warangal (1323 C.E.) at the behest of Prince Ulugh Khan also had the primary political motive of undermining Kakatiya authority and “removing a potential focus for a rebellion that might attempt to restore their state” (page 52).

At the other end of the spectrum, just three years later, is the Sanskrit inscription of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq/Ulugh Khan (1326 C.E.), recording respect for the Madhukeshvara temple at Kalyana, and mentioning repair, protection and the reinstatement of worship in the temple. A rationale is offered by the authors for this apparently contradictory approach towards Hindu temples in Warangal and Kalyana by the same sultan/prince within a short span of three years: In 1323, the swayambhu temple in Warangal represented the authority of an enemy king and had posed a definite threat to Tughluq rule. But Kalyana in 1326 was past its heyday as the capital of the Chalukyan kingdom. The Madhukeshvara temple in Kalyana had ceased to be politically relevant, posing no threat to the stability of Tugluq rule in the region. It thus received patronage and protection from the sultan.

Architectural reuse

The important role of memory in the history of the Deccan and its interactions with power and architecture during the 16th century is investigated in the succeeding chapters. The authors point to a very interesting shift in the pattern of architectural reuse during this period. Earlier, such reuse was linked to the expansion of the Delhi sultanate in the Deccan, tending to be focussed on the dismantling of politically relevant temples and the reuse of their architectural elements in mosques. Sixteenth century architectural reuse related to parts of much older temples being employed in the construction, not just of mosques but also of secular structures and temples! Eaton and Wagoner’s careful analysis of this paradigm shift in architectural reuse suggests that “revival” (associated with memory) rather than “displacement” seemed to have been an important motive determining architectural reuse in the 16th century. The authors test their hypothesis of the phenomenon of reuse of Chalukyan temple components by the Vijayanagara elites and also by the Adil Shahis in the Bijapur sultanate. This is achieved through a refreshingly detailed and contextual visual analysis of the architectural elements being reused, coupled with careful readings of the geopolitics of renewed interest in Kalyana during this period. Their interpretation of the employment of Chalukyan temple components, especially the door lintel depicting the epic battle and the ceiling with the eight dikpalas (guardians of the directions) in the shrine of Bhuvaneshvari in the Virupaksha temple complex at Hampi, is of particular interest (pages 98-106).

Attenuation of religion

The role of memory in shaping the dynamics between power and architecture is also evident in Shitab Khan’s evocation of the Kakatiya legacy through architectural reuse. When Shitab Khan captured Warangal from the Bahmanis (1504 C.E.), he resurrected the memory of a glorious past, namely, the reign of the Kakatiyas, through monumental and iconic reuse and the restoration of Kakatiya cults and practices. Among these attempts, an important example is his revival of the cult of swayambhu Siva at Warangal. At a more subtle and ideational level is the “reuse” or adaptation of Warangal’s conceptual layout in the planning of the new city of Hyderabad by Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah of Golconda in 1591 C.E.

Eaton and Wagoner argue for a more layered understanding of the Qutb Shahi sultanate, dismissing its interpretation as being exclusively Persian in character. They make out a strong case for the role of the local Telugu-speaking majority and the presence of a composite (Persian and Hindu) culture in its making. By arguing for some of the developments at sites such as Warangal and Hyderabad in terms of the “attenuation of religion” and merging of the “Sanskrit and Persian cosmopolises” during the 16th century, the authors have contributed in no small measure to fresh and more nuanced ways of examining Hindu-Muslim encounters in the Deccan:

“The attenuation of religion in the Deccan plateau was actually one dimension of a deeper trend in the region’s cultural history, which saw a gradual merging of the Sanskrit and Persian cosmopolises—a process that grew increasingly apparent between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Before they first encountered one another in the Deccan in the fourteenth century, the two cosmopolises had remained distinct, stemming as they did from different literary traditions. But by the sixteenth century their mutual intermingling had proceeded to a remarkable degree, especially in courtly contexts” (page 326).

Gunpowder technology

Power as revealed in the introduction of firearms technology and the consequent military revolution in the Deccan is examined through the contested site of Raichur. As the authors surmise, the ongoing struggle of the primary centres of power in the Deccan for control over strategic secondary centres had a significant bearing on arms and ammunitions technology and military architecture. The defeat of the Bijapur ruler at the hands of the Vijayanagara king, Krishna Raya, at Raichur in 1520 led the Bijapur rulers to build upon gunpowder technology.

The enterprise in military innovations eventually empowered the sultanates of the northern Deccan, leading to the routing of the Vijayanagara ruler in the famous Battle of Talikota (1565 C.E.). The authors’ observations regarding the stabilising impact of the military revolution on the Deccan’s “internal political frontiers” are of significance to the region’s history.

The final chapter on city gates and their political functions in the Deccan is a very interesting one. The scant attention paid by Indian historians and architectural historians to the important subject of city gates has rightly been pointed out. However, while Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s pioneering work on city gates is aptly referred to, the authors seem to have missed out on more recent writings about the form and significance of city gates ( pratolis) and other archways and portals ( toranas). Since repeated references to both these architectural forms pervade the text, it may be of some interest to the authors to look at the important work on forts and fortifications ( Bharatiya Durga Vidhana, 1971)by M.A. Dhaky and P. Sompura, where city gates are discussed at length. Also of interest, perhaps, may be this writer’s work on Toranas (2010).

Power, Memory, Architecture is undoubtedly the result of exemplary and painstaking research. With its meticulously rendered text, appendixes, maps, plans, drawings and photographs, it speaks volumes for the scholarship and collaborative efforts of Eaton and Wagoner. The contribution of this work towards a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the historical processes that transpired in the Deccan between the 13th and 16th centuries is difficult to overestimate. It is also a call to other scholars—historians, art historians and archaeologists—to come together for more such collaborative projects devoted to the interpretation of South Asia’s past.

Parul Pandya Dhar teaches South and Southeast Asian Art history in the Department of History, University of Delhi.