For today’s #ReadInstead Litfest session, we had Manu S Pillai, author of Rebel Sultans, give us a fantastic lowdown of the untold story of India’s Rebel Sultans.

You can now read about his intriguing session here: 

Rebel Sultans is a book of history that is limited to the region that we call Deccan which is broadly Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. It includes several kingdoms that existed here, from the end of the 13th century or early 14th century till the late 17th century and the early 18th century. This period was extremely fascinating to me because, to begin with, very few people talk about it. When you think of the Deccan, most people talk about Shivaji because Shivaji emerged here as a real force to reckon with. He created something called the Maratha Swaraj, which then in the 18th century fanned out in parts of northern India and became a very major force that the British had to finally defeat in 1880 – so Deccan is equal to Marathas. 

Others talk about the Mughals, because the Mughals were already extremely powerful when they decided to start descending from Agra and Delhi into the Deccan. It started in Akbar’s time and went on all the way till Aurangzeb’s time, and Aurangzeb ended up spending decades of his life here trying to conquer and tame the Deccan and establish his power here. He ultimately failed and, more or less, ended up smashing to pieces his own pre-existing empire. So what was this Deccan that these rulers came down to and where Shivaji emerged in the 17th century? Who were the leading players here till that period? We had some tantalising glimpses in our school textbooks. I realised that this was a political space, a cultural space even, of great interest and value, but considering there was a towering Mughal emperor and towering Maratha hero, these poor Sultans in the middle seem to have fallen through the cracks and most of the people didn’t know their story. 

20200330_163251_0000Let’s go back to what I mean by the Deccan sultanates. After the old dynasties that ruled in the area, which were the Kakatiyas in the Andhra country, the Hoysalas in what is now Karnataka broadly, and the Yadavas who ruled from Devagiri. These were the old Hindu dynasties which ruled here till the early 14th century. These Hindu kingdoms were defeated by the forces of Alauddin Khilji and several successive sultans of Delhi in the coming decades. So who were these rebel sultans? The reason why I call them the ‘rebel’ sultans in the first place is for the simple reason that after the sultans of Delhi conquered the earlier Hindu kingdoms that existed here, they would in the Deccan various governors they trusted. Except when the governors got here, they realised that (a) they had massive resources at their command in terms of manpower, land, money etc, and (b) the capital, Delhi, was very far away and it would take weeks and months for news to reach Delhi, which meant that these men, as a natural corollary were very tempted to rebel against the power of Delhi. And that is how in the 1340s, a group of noblemen came back saying that they didn’t want to be under Delhi’s thumb anymore and that they wanted their own empire in the Deccan, which led to the formation of what is known as the Bahmani Sultanate. Interestingly, at the same time, in the southern part of the Deccan in the Karnataka territory, there is another kingdom being born because there was a power vacuum created by the chaos that the earlier invasions of the Delhi sultans. This power vacuum was now occupied by a band of brothers who had successfully conquered and stitched together different territories. Two of these brothers are prominent – Harihara and Bukka, who are normally credited as the founders of the Vijayanagar empire. So the northern part of the Deccan is the Bahmani Sultanate, and the southern half is the Vijayanagar empire.

What is interesting is that often we see these things through the binary of religion, which makes one a Muslim empire and the other a Hindu empire and that they were at loggerheads with each other. They were at loggerheads with each other for the simple reason that both wanted to dominate the Deccan for their own strategic reasons. Religion did play a role, but the mistake is in thinking that religion was the sole guiding factor, whereas the fact of the matter is that religion was one of several factors. There were political factors and economic resources were a factor as well. For instance, the question of who had access to the better ports – because one had to import the best horses from abroad – was critical for various empires. The other thing was strategic interests – they wanted a certain fort because that was on an important trade route, or that gave you access to a district full of gold or diamond mine etcétera. And of course, there was religion as well. The sultans and the kings used religion to legitimize themselves and shape their own self-image.

Let’s take the example of Vijayanagar. As early as 1347, one of the Sangama brothers called himself the Hinduraya Suratrana. Suratrana is the Sanskritization of the word ‘sultan’. They were essentially calling themselves sultans among Hindu kings – which is not to say that they were disowning their Hindu heritage. They actually used the word ‘Hindu’, which is one of the earliest usages of that word in Indian history. (As many of you will know, ‘Hindu’ wasn’t a word Indians invented, it was a word used by foreigners for everybody who lived in India.) They called themselves sultans amongst Hindu kings because they realised that the world around them was increasingly dominated by Islamicate culture, Persian culture and these new sultans who existed in their northern neighbourhood. They were essentially saying ‘We are a part of this world, we are legitimate constituents of this Persian world.’ Successful rulers of course kept using the Sanskritized term for ‘sultan’ for themselves. But one also sees that while Vijayanagar remained a ‘Hindu kingdom’ in the sense that the Kings were Hindus (originally Shaivites and towards the end they become Vaishnavites), that they patronized great temples ranging from Madhura Meenakshi in Tamil territory to the great temple of Tirupati, that they patronized great literature in Sanskrit and even in the regional languages, they were also borrowing a lot of secular culture from the Islamic world. For instance, if one sees the Lepakshi murals, one will see Vijayanagar characters wearing robes and Persian caps that were very fashionable at the time. Much of the world, despite our individual identities and languages etc, wears clothes that are essentially western in origin. That doesn’t make us western, it is just that western culture and secular aspects of it have been borrowed in our time. So it was a little bit like that then. And the Bahmani Sultans of the Deccan also borrowed a lot of Hindu culture. For instance, there was this colourful sultan called Firuz Shah Bahmani who was in power in the early 1400s. To begin with, he loved languages, he was a great admirer of different tongues. He had wives from different parts of India and the world. So if he was going to the palace of his Arabic wife, it would be called ‘Arabi Mahal’ where she and all her attendants would only speak Arabic and he would practice his Arabic there. When he went to see his Maharashtrian wife, he would speak Marathi with her, and Persian with his Persian wife. So this was a man with a natural sense of curiosity. Although Vijayanagar chronicles are quiet on this, as they on several things that even favour Vijayanagar, Islamic chronicles tell us how in 1406 he defeated the Vijayanagara emperor Devaraya. One of the conditions of the emperor’s surrender was that he would give a daughter to the sultan. So Firuz Shah Bahmani married a princess of Vijayanagara. But when he did, in addition to the gold, the dowry, the diamonds, the mounds of pearls etcetera, he also asked for something unusual. He wanted thousands of artisans, thousands of cultural professionals like dancers, architects, masons, writers, scholars from Vijayanagar to come with his new bride all the way to his capital in the northern Deccan because he wanted to almost import their culture into his kingdom. One can see that a lot of Deccan architecture and art is influenced by south Indian temple architecture, south Indian mural paintings etcetera. 

The Bahmani empire and the first dynasty in Vijayanagar both come to an end. The Bahmanis essentially get a taste of their own medicine. As I said, they were originally governors to the sultans of Delhi, but eventually their own governors within the Bahmani empire started to become very powerful and the Bhamani empire started imploding. An interesting thing about the Deccan is that these were military states (Vijayanagar not to this extent because although it was part often Persianate ecosystem, it did not import foreigners from the outside to the extent the Bahmani sultanate did), and the Bahmani Sultans often brought in a lot of people from Persia. So the Shia Muslims that came in became one faction, the earlier Sunni Muslims who were already in India became another faction, and the African military slaves who were brought in became a third faction, and also, the Marathas had already become an important part of the Bahmani political structure and became the fourth faction. So there was a constant push-and-pull amongst these factions and different sultans managed to hold on and keep a balance of power. But in the end, it started to fail because of its own contradictions and one by one the governors exploited this for their own prosperity and their own future. So the Bahmani Sultanate breaks and there are five, broadly, that emerge. Then, the three prominent sultanates in the Deccan were the Adil Shah of Bijapur, Karnataka, the Nizam Shahs of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, and the Qutub Shahs of Golconda, Telangana. Although on the face of it these are Muslim dynasties, they all have very interesting origins. 


Let’s look at the Nizam Shahs. The Nizam Shahs of Ahmednagar actually descended from a converted Brahmin. This Brahmin bloodline that becomes Muslim also becomes Shia Muslim, and with teh exception of the first of teh Nizam Shahs, almost all of them sent their bodies to be buried in Karbala, which is a holy city for the Shias in Iraq. So it is fascinating to think that these people of Brahmin blood are buried in Iraq, and they lie there to this day. The Nizam Shahi family brought in brides for their princes not only from Persia or Maharashtra, but also Africa. There were at least two sultans in Ahmednagar who had black begums. One of the sultans there couldn’t rule for very long and one of the reasons he couldn’t get much support was because he was considered half-black and he wasn’t favoured by a lot of the Persian nobles at the time. So again, although they were all Muslims, there was ethnic rivalry between them – Shias did not like the Sunnis and none of them liked the Africans that had come from outside. 


The Adil Shah’s of Bijapur were born from a founder of theirs called Yusuf Adil Khan (hereafter Adil Shah). He came to the Bahmani kingdom towards the fag end of the Bahmani rule and he became the General under a very prominent Bahmani minister. That minister died and Yusuf realises that he had no loyalty to the court, he was only loyal to his minister, and now he set out to carve out his own kingdom. Yusuf then marries the sister of a Maratha called Mukund Rao, and he creates the Adil Shahi dynasty. He himself is a Shia, his successor is a Shia but some Adil Shahs are often Sunni. But from day 1 they were a mix of Iranian culture as well as Maharashtrian culture, so much so that in the reign of Ibrahim Adil Shah II who was Akbar’s contemporary, a Mughal ambassador was quite scandalised to come and discover that Adil Shah spoke Marathi better than he spoke Persian, he in fact preferred Marathi. He was one of the most striking figures in the Deccan because while he was a Sunni Muslim, he called himself ‘Son of Saraswati and Ganapati’ becaause he loved these two Hindu deities, Saraswati especially. He even enames Bijapur as Vidyapur. He even got made this beautiful portrait of Saraswati. If one looks at it, it looks like any other Islamic princess in terms of clothes and overall style etc, but if one looks closely, one will find that she has all the marks of Saraswati, for example, the conch, the veena. 


And of course, there were the Qutub Shahs in Golconda who had blue-blood interestingly. They were the only ones whose ancestors were once kings in some part of Iraq and then they eventually lost all that power and one set of people came to the Deccan and established their independent kingdom in Golconda as Bahmani power collapsed. The Qutub Shahs were great patrons of the Telugu language, a lot of devotional poetry and padams were composed in Telugu under their patronage, they were the founders of Hyderabad and so on. Now while the Bahmani empire collapsed and the successive states of the Adil Shahs, the Qutub Shahs and the Nizam Shahs were formed, Vijayanagar also transformed because the original dynasty of the Sangama brothers eventually went into decline as their rulers were upto no good. There was a coup and it was taken over by a military leader, but that didn’t last for too long, and so the third dynasty which was the Tuluva dynasty of the famous Krishnadevaraya came into existence and this love-hate relationship between the sultans and Vijayanagar continued. One sultan would sometimes take Vijayanagar’s aid against another sultan, Vijaynagar would ally with two sultans against a third sultan. When Krishnadevaraya wanted to fight the Adil Shah of Bijapur in the 1510s, he informed the other sultans that this was just his quarrel with Adil Shah and the other sultans gave him the green signal and said that they didn’t like him either. That was the kind of relationship that existed. But over time, suspicion started growing in the minds of the sultans that Vijayanagar was essentially playing them, one against the other while its own power was increasing. This started to really worry them till in 1565 the sultans decided to ally together and fight Vijayanagar. This is again one of those instances where people present it as this cataclysmic battle of a Hindu empire with a Muslim jihad called by these sultans of the Deccan, but again, the matter iiss more complicated. Yes, it was Muslim sultans who defeated Viajanagar, Hampi reached its current state of ruins because of this battle, but the battle was never purely a Hindu-Muslim affair. On the side of the Vijayanagar emperor there was a celebrated Muslim called Gilani, there were 6000 Marathas at this battle of 1565 in Talikoota but the Marathas were fighting for the sultans. Of the sultans who were present there, the Qutub Shah had lived for years in Vijayanagar as a youth in exile and it was from there that he took one of his wives. The Adil Shah of Bijapur at that time was an adopted son of the ruler of Vijayanagar and till recently had been on very good terms with Vijayanagar, it was only when the dynamics changed that he decided to fight Vijayanagar. The Nizam Shah, who descended from a Brahmin, had a genuine grievance against Vijayanagar and was motivated by passion. What is interesting is that many decades earlier, Krishnadevaraya in poetry claimed that he had impaled the severed head of the Adil Shah of Bijapur on a spear, and now, you find that Vijayanagar’s de facto ruler Ramaraya’s head has been severed in the battle and put on a spear by the sultans of the deccan, and it all comes to an end in this way. 


The Vijayanagar empire continues, in theory, that is to say that its glory is gone but the empire exists. And Vijayanagar doesn’t collapse overnight because the sultans attacked it, it collapses because it’s own subordinates and governors who were called nayaks, as happened with the Bahmani sultanate earlier, started saying that the centre has fallen, the capital is no longer powerful, one can start making their own kingdoms. That is how the nayakas of Thanjavur, the nayakas of Gingee (Senji) and other kingdoms started flexing their muscles and seeking independence. They did not outrightly go ahead and declare independence till many years had passed, but they started becoming more and more autonomous and that is how finally Vijayanagar collapsed. Its last titular emperor is left as a king without any kingdom, he has to keep going from one kingdom to the other because he has nothing directly under his control. Meanwhile, the sultans of the Deccan, while they did prosper with the wealth and territory gained after the defeat of Vijayanagar, they had to now start facing the Mughals. The Mughals decided that they were going to conquer the Deccan this time and that’s how the final chapter of the Deccan sultans began. For the longest time the Deccan sultans were defended by an Afrrican general who worked in the court of the Nizam Shah of Ahemednagar, his name was Malikambar. He resisted the Mughals for a very long time, for a good 25 years he was like that wall that prevented the Deccan by the Mughals. Jahangir was furious with this man. Emperor Jahangir has a famous painting made in which Malikambar’s severed head appears on a spear and the emperor is taking aim with a bow and arrow – this was all pure fantasy because this never happened in real life. Malikambar died a very old man in his 80s. After his death, the Nizam Shahi kingdom folded because there was nobody capable and the Mughals managed to take that part of the Deccan. By the 1680s, they had inflicted successive defeats on the Adil Shahs of Bijapur and the Qutub Shahs of Golconda. But Aurangzeb’s ambition meant that he was determined to annexe these kingdoms, and finally in the mid-1680s both these systems collapsed and that was the end of the Deccan sultanates.


But what Aurangzeb did not realize (this is not part of the book) is that he had defeated the sultans but a new power called the Marathas had emerged. One of Malikambar’s close comrades was a man called Maluji who had a son called Shahji. Shahji was also a close courtier of Malikambar, in fact after Malikambar died, he was the one who stepped up to protect the Deccan from the conquest of the Mughals. He did not succeed, but his son, a man called Shivaji, is the one who decided to give the Mughals the battle that would finally end up smashing the Mughal emperor. That however is another story! 

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