Fresh perspectives on medieval Deccan history

Print edition : January 01, 2021

Local States in an Imperial World: Identity, Society and Politics in the Early Modern Deccan by Roy S. Fischel, Edinburgh University Press, 2020.

Iran and the Deccan: Persianate Art, Culture, and Talent in Circulation, 1400-1700. Edited by Keelan Overton, Indiana University Press, 2020.

Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, a landmark that symbolises the Qutb Shahi dynasty (1518-1687). Photo: G. RAMAKRISHNA

A Bahmani style archway near the mausoleum of Hazrat Khaja Banda Nawaz in Kalaburagi (Gulbarga). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Two recent books, which focus on the Deccan Sultanates of the 16th and 17th centuries, and which chart the connections between the Deccan and Iran, serve to considerably enrich the growing corpus of medieval Deccan history.

Over the past few years, there has been a burgeoning interest in the history of the medieval Deccan, a region that was ignored in the early modern history writing traditions of the 20th century. Undoubtedly, the Sultanates of the medieval Deccan were imbricated in the politics of their neighbours, but their long and independent existence of more than 300 years did not get the scholarly scrutiny they rightly deserved. Thus, the increasing attention paid to it by historians over the past few years is welcome. The two new books under review, one by Roy S. Fischel, a historian at the School of African and Oriental Studies, London and the other edited by the independent art historian Keelan Overton, add considerably to our understanding of this epoch in the Deccan.

The history of the medieval Deccan, and especially that of the Bahmani and its legatee Sultanates, can be bookended by two events precipitated by rulers from northern India. The centrifugal melee unleashed over most of the Indian subcontinent as Mohammed Tughlaq’s (1325-1351) hold over his sprawling empire weakened gave rise to the independent Bahmani Sultanate in 1347, delinking the Deccan from both northern and southern polities. The Bahmanis, who had frequent skirmishes and wars with their southern (Vijayanagara) and eastern (Gajapathi) neighbours, ruled over vast areas of the upper Deccan plateau up to the Krishna river until the end of the 15th century when the Sultanate spectacularly imploded due to internecine differences among the “foreign” and “native” components of its nobility.

The provincial governors of the Bahmanis soon fortified their claims over their governorates, inaugurating the era of the Deccan Sultanates. Of the five legatee Sultanates of Ahmednagar (Nizam Shahi), Bijapur (Adil Shahi), Golconda (Qutb Shahi), Berar (Imad Shahi) and Bidar (Barid Shahi) that emerged from the Bahmani system, the former three survived as robust and large states into the 17th century. The Mughals, eager to extend their territorial domain, had long set their eyes on the Deccan, and finally absorbed Ahmednagar during the reign of Shah Jahan (1628-1658). Later, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), who had an intimate knowledge of the Deccan and who had, for long, sought to quell the Shiite rulers of the region, snuffed out the independent Deccan Sultanates of Bijapur (1686) and Golconda (1687), briefly extending the domain of the Mughal Empire to its apogee.

In post-independent India, the volume History of Medieval Deccan, 1295-1724 by H. K. Sherwani and P. M. Joshi (1975) drew attention to this region as distinct in space and time. The works of the prolific historian Richard M. Eaton, such as Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India (1978), A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives (2005) and Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau co-authored with Phillip Wagoner (2014), have added considerably to our knowledge of this period. George Michell and Mark Zebrowski’s Art and Architecture of the Deccan Sultanates (1999) was instrumental in focussing the interest of scholars on the Deccan. The publication of Sultans of the South: Arts of India’s Deccan Courts, 1323-1687 (2011) and Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy (2015), two lavish volumes put together by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar, following exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, also focussed attention on the medieval Deccan.

In the past two years, several new books on this era have been published and subsequently reviewed in the pages of Frontline, including Manu Pillai’s Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (See “The Deccan Chronicles” Frontline, May 10, 2019), Pushkar Sohoni’s The Architecture of a Delhi Sultanate: Courtly Practice and Royal Authority in Late Medieval India (See “Deccan Architecture” Frontline, August 2, 2019), George Michell and Helen Philon’s Islamic Architecture of Deccan India, T.N. Devare’s A Short History of Persian Literature: At the Bahmani, the Adilshahi and the Qutbshahi Courts—Deccan and Emma J. Flatt’s The Courts of the Deccan Sultanates: Living Well in the Persian Cosmopolis (See “The Medieval Deccan” Frontline, December 20, 2019). The two books under review are the latest addition to the swelling corpus on the medieval Deccan.

Non-imperial states

Roy Fischel’s primary focus is on the Deccan Sultanates after the implosion of the Bahmani Sultanate. His main argument is that the Deccan Sultanates were “an example of non-imperial political organisations in the early modern world.” He bases this on the fact that the “key features of these sultanates were multiplicity and negotiation rather than expansion and centralisation”. This argument is borne out by the fact that none of the Deccan Sultanates tried to take “over the region in its entirety”. The “multiplicity” that Fischel mentions here is because the elite of the Deccan Sultanates had eclectic ethnicities. The main division and source of tension here was between the Deccanis or the “locals” (an ethnically diverse group consisting of the Muslim nobility who had come down along with the Tughlaq regime, local converts, the African-origin Habshis and the non-Muslim elites of the region) who had strong ties to the region and the “foreigners” (primarily Iranian migrants who were attracted to the opportunities in the Deccan and had trans-continental linkages).

This division of the nobility meant that “the ruling houses (of the Sultanates) had a special role in maintaining a delicate equilibrium between various actors by taking into consideration each group both politically and symbolically”. Considering that there were “multiple trajectories” operating in each Sultanate, the system of the state that emerged was unique “marking it as distinct from the top-down system typical of, or aspired by, the contemporary empires.”

In the first chapter, Fischel discusses the various meanings of the term “Deccan” in terms of its geography, political imaginations and linguistic-cultural understandings. He also narrates the history of the region from 1000 CE, and writes that “with these divisions, it is clear that there is no one satisfactory definition of the Deccan”. Yet, borrowing a concept from geographer Doreen Massey to understand a “region as a space”, Fischel argues that “this geographical, political, historical and cultural understanding of the Deccan as comprising a set of subunits in varying relations provides a useful tool for analysis of the region and the constraints within which the rulers were operating. First and foremost, was the need to keep it all together in a diverse and changeable environment, in which various forces operated against unity.” Through this initial chapter, Fischel demonstrates the “multiple spaces of the Deccan”.

Deccani-foreigner divide

In the next chapter, Fischel takes his narrative of the history of the Deccan ahead until the 1630s while focussing on ideas of the local, peripheral and foreign. He looks closely at the identity and the politics of the Deccanis who were “most closely associated with the core region of the Deccan”. The Deccanis had diverse origins; Fischel suggests that this was a “political identity” as the Deccanis emerge as a group in Persian chronicles “in parallel to their main opponents, namely, the Foreigners.” Linguistically, they were associated with the emerging Dakhani language. Fischel also makes an interesting argument in this section when he says that the Deccani-foreigner divide was the main source of tension among the elites of the time rather than the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims which “seem to have been calmer, as far as we can say based on the sources.” Thus, the great (Hindu) empire of Vijayanagara seems to have been “regularly included in the political system of the Deccan” whereas the Mughals and the Sultanate of Gujarat were perceived to be outsiders.

The “foreigners”, migrants from Iran who came to the Deccan because of the opportunities afforded, the “extensive use of Persian practices and language”, and because it was relatively more stable than north India at the time, form the theme of Fischel’s next chapter. The foreigners were remarkably influential in the Bahmani and Deccani Sultanates and were much sought after. Often treated as a cohesive political group, they were nevertheless diverse and offered unique skills and training, a “marketable commodity” in the Deccan which helped them maintain “their high position in Indian politics”. The migrants continued to retain their linkages with their homelands which “marks one of the main characteristics that distinguished the foreigners from the Deccani environment. Operating in trans-regional, usually urban networks, Foreigners were connected beyond boundaries.” They maintained these links because of their family networks and their skill sets, which meant that they were also able to swap patrons among the Deccan Sultanates, with some of them even moving over to the Mughals who were considered as outsiders by the Deccanis. There is a widely accepted theory that there was a Shia-Sunni divide that layered the tension between the foreigners and Deccanis, but Fischel disagrees with this.

Just before the interlude from Delhi and the Bahmani ascendance, the Deccan was ruled by the Yadavas, the Hoysalas and the Kakatiyas. The way in which the Deccan Sultanates sought to localise their rule by assimilating non-Muslim elites in the state system as well as by consciously incorporating pre-Sultanate imperial traditions is discussed by Fischel in his next chapter, where he focusses on Bijapur and Golconda. This process became even more important after the demise of Vijayanagara at the Battle of Talikota in 1565.

This exercise was easy for Golconda, which inherited the well-defined Telugu linguistic zone of Telangana from the Kakatiya rulers. The process was trickier for Bijapur, which ruled the area that fell between the core regions of the Marathi and Kannada lands and whose core was away from the centres of past non-Muslim dynasties like the Yadavas and the Hoysalas. Here, Fischel makes a radical argument linking “Bijapur directly to Vijayanagara.” Fischel’s evidence to support this potentially tendentious argument stems from the treatment of the Vijayanagara king Krishnadevaraya (r. 1510-1529) in certain Persian sources, the Bijapur rulers’ engagement with Indic ideas, and the way in which Bijapur under Ibrahim Adil Shah II (r. 1580-1627) celebrated Id-i Nauras mimicking, in form at least, the Vijayanagar celebration of Mahanavami which preceded Dasara. Fischel writes: “This continuation not only emphasises the political centrality of the festival, but also hints at the possibility of its reincarnation in post-Talikota Bijapur. The similarity between certain aspects of Id-i Nauras and the Mahanavami is striking.”

While the Deccan Sultanates ruled the Deccan for a considerable period, there were certain limitations to the Deccani system which are discussed in Fischel’s next chapter. For instance, the Qutb Shahi state of Golconda could not expand beyond the core of the Telugu country and its authority, when it was there, remained weak in Andhra and Rayalseema regions. There were also certain distinct local factors that led to the decline of Ahmednagar (where the Habshi Malik Ambar and Marathas gained ascendancy in the early 17th century), Bijapur and Golconda when challenged by the Mughals.

Iranian connection

Keelan Overton has brought together works of both advanced as well as younger scholars in this richly produced volume of interdisciplinary essays teeming with photographs that “chart the travels and fortunes of Iranian elites and Persian cultural norms across a transregional Iran-Deccan geography” between 1400 and 1700 CE. Since the establishment of the Bahmani Sultanate in the Deccan, the region was a favoured destination for the Iranian elite. Even as they thrived in the Deccan, these migrants retained their links with their homes across the Indian Ocean. As part of the cabal of “foreigners” in the nobility of the Deccan, they were a crucial component in the politics of the era. Two of these first-generation migrants, Yusuf Adil Shah (1450-1510) and Qutb Shah (1470-1543), even went on to found the longest surviving Deccan Sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda respectively.

Keelan Overton’s prefatory essay provides the context of these peregrinations. She writes that for many Iranian elites, “it is useful to frame mobility through two temporal lenses. The first involves the initial migration from Iran to the Deccan…and the push-and-pull factors that informed this decision, which were both forced and voluntary…The second temporal frame concerns the migrant’s (or simply itinerants) circulations within the Deccan plateau and Indian subcontinent at large.” The “push” factor that Keelan Overton mentions here could include “political instability and warfare”, “a rift with a ruler-patron” and so on, whereas the most significant lure of the subcontinent was “its wealth and economic prospects.” Keelan Overton has also included a valuable appendix to her chapter which acts as a handy reference guide to tracing the careers of 48 Iranian elites as they moved from Iran across the Deccan Sultanates and even to the Mughal court. Thus, we can see how someone like Malik “Ain ul-Mulk” Gilani (d. 1593), who was from Gilan in Iran, fluidly moved across the courts of Bidar, Bijapur and Vijayanagara, the last of which is sometimes considered a “Hindu” empire. The ease of the elite’s movement shows that in reality it was a part of the Deccani system.

In three chapters which are brought together under the theme “Iranian Elites and Their Trails”, Keelan Overton clubs together papers that focus on “the human conduits at hand”. Thus, questions such as who were these Iranian elite and why did they migrate to the Deccan, how did they self-identify and what contributed to their success and failure are addressed. The two historians Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Muzaffar Alam, whose joint forays have brought about paradigmatic shifts in the study of the early modern South Asian world, provide an important backdrop for the book under review as they chronologically look at this migration with a couple of case studies to demonstrate their point. Wheeler Thackston’s translation of an excerpt from Rafi al-Din Shirazi’s Tazkirat al-Muluk on Yusuf Adil, the founder of the Bijapur Sultanate, is a useful account to understand the path of this migrant who was destined for greatness in the Deccan. Shirazi writes that when Adil was destitute in Lar (in Iran) and was being pursued by his father’s enemies, “he had a vision of an aged and very impressive man” who said, “You must go to the Deccan, for your bread will be cooked there.” Roy Fischel has also contributed a chapter in Keelan Overton’s book which covers the same terrain as the third chapter of his book where he closely looks at the “foreigners”.

In the next two chapters, Keelan Overton discusses “Bidar in the International Timurid”. Bidar was the capital of the Bahmani Sultanate when Ahmed Shah (r. 1422–1436) moved his court there sometime after he ascended the throne. Relations between Iran and the Deccan accelerated after this shift. Royal ships were regularly dispatched to the Persian Gulf to lure the Iranian elite to cross the Arabian Sea. Peyvand Firouzeh maps “the nexus between individuals and visual and textual material that coalesced in fifteenth century Bidar” by looking closely at the “calligraphy network”, which means “people and objects connected through the art of writing” between Iran and the Deccan. One part of Firouzeh’s examination looks at the links between the family of the Sufi Shah Nimatullah and the royals of the Bahmani Sultanate. In the next chapter, Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom closely study the architecture of the madrasa of Mahmud Gavan (d. 1481), often called the “prime minister” of the Bahmani court. Blair and Bloom argue that the architecture of the madrasa derived from Iranian/Central Asian models. They also go a step ahead and “link the structure directly to Khurasan” and suggest that the “architectural transfer” was undertaken by “a plan rather than a person”.

The next three chapters deal with “Religious Codices and Shi’i Sectarianism” and are “concerned with a religious codex that flowed between Iran-Deccan worlds.” Maryam Habibi formally analyses the Quran manuscript endowed to the shrine of Imam Riza in Mashhad (in Iran) by Ibrahim Qutb Shah of Golconda (r. 1550-1580), a linkage that reified Ibrahim’s Shi’i creed. The next chapter is a translation of the endowment deed that is in the Quran manuscript. The subsequent chapter by Rachel Parikh is a close study of the Falnama (Book of Omens) that was created in the Qutb Shahi Golconda court. While there are four other Falnamas that were created, the relative anonymity of the Golconda Falnama “is most likely due to the fact that it is not ‘mainstream’, that is, neither Safavid or Ottoman.” Parikh demonstrates that this volume, which contains 37 illustrations, was “part of the Qutb Shahi dynasty’s larger initiative of promoting its political power and assimilation into the Safavid empire” and that it “reflects Shi’i political identity.”

Keelan Overton, Kristine Rose-Beers and Bruce Wannell examine the St. Andrews Quran manuscript which, as a religious codex, had a fascinating trajectory. It was produced during the Safavid-era in Tabriz or Herat, from where it found its way to Bijapur under Ibrahim Adil Shah II (r. 1580-1627); the Mughal library during the reigns of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb; the minor state of Savanur and then to the Mysore court of Tipu Sultan (r. 1782-1799). After Tipu’s defeat, the Quran travelled to Calcutta (now Kolkata), then London and ultimately to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland where it remains to this day. The authors write that the St. Andrew’s Quran “encapsulates a staggering number of agendas and authenticities and flowed seamlessly between Timurid, Safavid, Mughal and Deccani worlds.”

While Chapters 11 (by Jake Benson) and 12 (by Hamidreza Ghelichkhani) discuss “Album Culture, Calligraphy and Diplomacy”, Chapters 13 and 14 are explorations of “Dakhni Literature and History” by Sunil Sharma and Subah Dayal.

Both the books under review provide new perspectives on the medieval Deccan. Fischel’s pioneering argument linking Vijayanagara and Bijapur stands out because it weakens conventional scholarship that has argued that the Battle of Talikota was a religious confrontation (See “Beyond the Hindu-Muslim Binary” Frontline, January 18, 2019). It would help if the author expanded his bibliography to Kannada and Marathi sources while developing this argument further. A recent project that translated 21 volumes of Adil Shahi-era material to Kannada may provide some new responses on this argument from historians in Karnataka (See “Making History Accessible” Frontline, June 21, 2019).

In her introduction, Keelan Overton writes that the intention of the edited volume is to provide “foundational tools and sources for the ongoing integration of the region (the Deccan) into textbook studies of the Indo-Persian and early modern global worlds.” One aspect of the interaction between the Iran and the Deccan which could perhaps have been added to the volume is the manner in which the ritual of Muharram emerged as the chief public event in the Shi’i Sultanates of the Deccan, and transmogrified later into a syncretic local event which is still marked across thousands of villages and towns in the Deccan (See “Muharram Celebrations in North Karnataka: A Festival of Harmony” Frontline, October 11, 2019).

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