(My column in Mint Lounge, January 19 2019)


Manubai Tambe was a woman of formidable spirit, long before she was lost to a nationalistic fog of myth and legend. Arriving soon at your nearest movie theatre with her more elaborate name, Manikarnika, she was, for instance, a sharp judge of horses. She wrote official letters in Persian and during the rebellion of 1857 famously led men—and women—into battle. Round of face, she was taller than most of her peers, and is said to have favoured simplicity, unlike the bejewelled depiction chosen by today’s film directors. “She bore,” an Englishman later recorded, “all the outward signs of a powerful intellect and an unconquerable resolution.” But if there was one thing that ruined the impression she left, it was her voice: as her legal adviser bemoaned, when the Rani of Jhansi began to speak, substance of great intelligence was conveyed in a sound that could only be described as “something between a whine and a croak”.

Lakshmibai, a name bestowed after her marriage (and one which she would make famous), was not born royal. Her father, Moropant, was a retainer of the Peshwas of Pune, serving the latter even after they were deposed by the British. It was in Varanasi that the future rani was born to this Brahmin, though the auspiciousness of the setting was dulled somewhat by the loss of her mother. But Moropant gave her both affection and the confidence born of education: she read, she rode, she fenced, and saw to it that her male playmates treated her as an equal. Many are the tales woven around her fascinating personality: once, it is said in a story that survives in multiple iterations, the Peshwa’s adopted son refused to take her along on his elephant. Years later, when she was granted three wishes on her wedding, she expended one of them to courier to this old friend the present of a particularly mighty elephant.

It was as a child-bride that the heroine of 1857 first arrived in Jhansi. The Newalkar family in power here were minor royalty of recent vintage. A late 18th century creation of the Peshwas, their loyalties were ceded in the early 19th century to the East India Company. “Maharajadhiraj Fidvi Badshah Jamjah Inglistan” (Devoted Servant of the Glorious King of England) was a title Lord Bentinck bestowed upon them in 1832, transforming this line from subedars to maharajas. And it was when Lord Dalhousie withdrew favour in 1853 that their fortunes were reversed. In 1851, meanwhile, young Manubai had given her husband an heir, but the baby did not survive. Two years later when the raja followed his child to the grave, there was nobody to occupy his place. With that the stage was set for the drama that now cements Lakshmibai’s memory: as the “Jezebel of India” in unkind Victorian eyes and as a patriot in the Indian imagination.

The annexation of Jhansi, as is well known, was opposed by the rani. It so happened that from his deathbed, her husband—a bibliophile whose love of drama sometimes saw him also appear personally on stage, according to scholar Joyce Lebra-Chapman—had adopted a relation as his heir. The British, of course, decided there was no compelling reason to recognize any of these proceedings: they had upgraded provincial officers into princelings, and they reserved the right to demote them now. Interestingly, this was despite popular sentiment: their own local representative had expressed confidence in the young widow (she was “highly respected and esteemed” and “fully capable” of ruling in her husband’s place), while another argued that since adoption had been recognized in a neighbouring state, there was no reason to deny the privilege to the Newalkars as well. The rani herself, meanwhile, petitioned the governor-general, arguing her case logically, highlighting portions from assorted treaties to show the latest British decision to be what it truly was: an injustice.

In an April 1854 letter, Lakshmibai appealed to Dalhousie to remember “How loyal the Rajas of Jhansi have ever been; how loyal are their representatives; how strong are the inducements that they should continue to be loyal in the future.” Her husband had not, she pointed out, any warlike characteristics, and Jhansi’s military capabilities were limited to “five thousand rusty swords worn by people called the army”. “Helpless and prostrate,” she ended, “I once more entreat Your Lordship to grant me a hearing.” Of course, she was exaggerating her helplessness and the impotence of her armies, but at this stage she was willing to plead with Dalhousie—if only he had relented, in 1857, she might even have stayed loyal, like other princes, to the British. Instead, however, the governor-general dug his heels in, leaving Lakshmibai to protest the “gross violation” of previous understandings, warning that this would cause “great disquietude” among India’s nobility, with lasting repercussions on the future of the Company and its designs.

Dispossessed, at first the rani declined the British offer of ₹60,000 per annum but was soon persuaded to accept the settlement. In the years that followed, however, there was much bickering and haggling—over the late raja’s debts, which were deducted from her allowance; over the continuation of the pension to Lakshmibai’s adopted son, which the British were against; over a temple; and even such issues as cow slaughter. When the rebellion broke out, at first the rani was undecided—in a letter dated June 1857, she hoped the rebels would go “straight to hell”. Even months later, by which time the local British presence was destroyed through a massacre, Lakshmibai was uncertain. It was only early in 1858, when many of her old friends, including the aforementioned Peshwa’s adopted son, became confirmed leaders of the rebellion and she herself was being viewed with suspicion, that she made her final choice: a choice that saw her ride out bravely on horseback towards tragedy, and enshrined her in India’s national history.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 12 2019)


In 1857, when the great rebellion swept much of north India into a storm of gunpowder and rage, one of the consolations the embattled British possessed was the loyalty of numerous Indian princes. Even as maharajas issued proclamations of fidelity, a number of them mobilized actual armies in service of the East India Company. Thus, for instance, leading princes of Punjab stood with the British, just as the reigning Scindia in Gwalior “strove hard to keep his…subjects faithful to his liege lords.” In Rajputana, similarly, support came despite public sympathy for the rebels. “At every town through which we passed,” an officer wrote of Jaipur, “the inhabitants cursed and abused us.” But the local ruler pitched his flag with the British, lending them troops who not only served the Company gloriously but even punished those “refractory villages” for flirting with mutiny.

From his position, it was a shrewd stand to take, for had it been otherwise, Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur himself might have been deposed and banished to the footnotes of history. Described as “a ruler of singular intelligence and enlightenment”, Ram Singh was only 22 at the time of the rebellion, and it was after some hesitation that he decided to endorse the cause of the British. He had spent his formative years under the guardianship of a regency council, which was really a coterie of noblemen. When in 1851 he succeeded to full powers, he had to balance several interests—in order to actually exercise his authority, he proactively sought the “active official support” of the British. But all the same, his courtiers remained influential, so when they showed sympathy for the rebels in 1857, it took some time for Ram Singh to make up his mind—on whether he should raise swords in the name of the mutineers, or fight for a foreign power which buttressed his own princely authority.

Ram Singh was one of the 19th century’s more remarkable Indians. That he was interesting was clear early on. When prince Alexei Dmitrievich Saltykov of Russia met him in the mid-1840s, the “plain-looking” adolescent left on his visitor a sparkling impression. He wanted to know, for instance, “where Russia is located and how long it would take to go there from Jaipur”. As an adult, the maharaja carved for himself an even more striking reputation as a modernizer. In 1867, he set up the first girls’ school in his capital despite “popular prejudice” against such ideas in a feudal environment. He set up the Maharaja College, where English and Sanskrit were taught side by side, even as he established a school of art, a public library, and a hospital. Gas lights were installed along thoroughfares in his capital, while other projects ranged from waterworks to a postal network. Changes in administration were also made, launching modern governance in the state. Meanwhile, fluent in English as well as Western thought, Ram Singh became a bridge between two worlds, tuned into evolving times, but also married firmly to his roots and to Indian tradition.

What really distinguished him, though, was a royal pastime that graduated into an enduring passion. When Louis Rousselet, the traveller, met Ram Singh in 1866, he was surprised that the maharaja’s “dress was handsome, but showed an indifference to ornament”; instead of jewels and a sword, there was “an immense revolver thrust into his belt”. But more interesting even than the ruler’s appearance, the Frenchman recalled, was their conversation on photography—Ram Singh, he realized, was not only “an admirer of this art, but is himself a skilled photographer”. In fact, for about a decade, the maharaja had been a member of the Bengal Photographic Society, long before he acquired his first camera in 1862. And while princes across India developed a fondness for photography, few mastered it in the way he did—or created a collection that encapsulates a world in which the Victorian and the Indian met both constructively as well as to do ideological battle.

It was portraiture that caught the maharaja’s attention. In 1870, for instance, he photographed Queen Victoria’s son just as he did his palace doctor. But what are more stunning are the portraits he made of women in his harem. There were Hindus and Muslims; senior concubines (pardayats) and junior mistresses (paswans). But, as scholar Laura Weinstein notes, to photograph women in purdah was “completely without precedent”. While Ram Singh never made portraits of his senior wives, by bringing his establishment into view through the camera, he dispelled multiple stereotypes about the harem. Where the British painted the zenana as a sinister place, lacking in fresh air and guarded by scheming eunuchs, the women who appear in Ram Singh’s photographs are powerful, dignified and far from Victorian cliché. “The zenana portraits,” tells Weinstein, “reveal no sickness or dirt, depraved or deviant faces, exposed bodies or sexually suggestive poses.” What they show is a world where there is no pressing demand for Western “light”—where there is nobody crying to be “rescued” from despotic oriental hands.

It is tempting to think that Ram Singh was making a conscious statement as he Indianized the gaze of the Western camera. By turning his lens towards the harem, he struck at norms that concealed royal women; and by photographing the zenana’s inmates in confidence, he was challenging colonial tropes about Indian women and royal depravity. Indeed, for all the things he achieved in his remarkable life, this is one of the most memorable. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, even as he carried out his programme of administrative reform in Jaipur, the maharaja honed his skill with the camera. And by the time he went to the grave in 1880, Ram Singh had journeyed through a world of experience: from the young prince of 1857, who gambled in favour of the British, to the photographer-maharaja who claimed for himself the right to depict Indianness and reject hackneyed images perpetuated by the Raj.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 05 2019)


When Vijayanagar was defeated at the Battle of Talikota in January 1565, what fell with it was the last formidable empire to tower over the Indian peninsula. To be clear, the old kingdom continued to exist for many more decades in a truncated form, but Talikota marked the end of all glories for a power that once boasted of such monarchs as Krishnadeva Raya. Weakened and emasculated, its rulers watched as their authority dissolved, and regional dynasts emerged, inaugurating the so-called Nayaka period in the south. In the northern Deccan, meanwhile, Vijayanagar’s traditional enemies—the sultans who emerged victorious at Talikota—ruled for a century more, till the Mughals swallowed their independence during the reigns of Shah Jahan and his son. With the fall of Golconda in 1687, even their tale was concluded—the next chapter pivoted around the feud between Shivaji the Maratha and Aurangzeb, the last Great Mughal.

What, however, would have been the course of history, had Vijayanagar survived? What if, instead of having his severed head impaled on a spear, Rama Raya, the de-facto emperor, had triumphed at Talikota? He did reign, after all, over one of the wealthiest empires of his day, lacking neither in men nor money; it was better artillery and fortifications that generally helped his rivals to the north. Had he defeated them, would he have annexed their lands or merely demanded tribute? The Qutb Shah of Golconda, in fact, was once a friend, whose years of exile as a youth were spent in Rama Raya’s court. The Adil Shah of Bijapur, another of Talikota’s triumphant sultans, was Rama Raya’s adopted son. It is likely that Vijayanagar would have allowed these Islamic states to continue as vassals, just as the sultans did not comprehensively attach Vijayanagar’s lands after victory in 1565. But their independence would have been limited, great riches transferred from their vanquished capitals to be heaped before the victorious Raya.

But what would this have meant for the Mughals? The picture is a fascinating one: to visualize Akbar presiding over an ambitious, growing empire from Agra, while the south remained the sphere of influence of Vijayanagar’s Rayas. The Deccan’s Sultans might have formed buffer states between these two great empires—one moment seeking friendship in Vijayanagar, the next trying to persuade the Mughals to help unshackle themselves from the southern yoke. They were also close to the Shah in Persia: would he have played politics through his Deccani allies to balance Vijayanagar and the Mughals? Or would he have allied firmly with the Hindu dynasty that dominated the peninsula—one which was more actively part of international networks of trade—than the Mughals who were his rivals in the wider world of Islam? And where would the Portuguese fit into this? After all, trade in the Arabian Sea was falling into their European hands, and overtures had been made from Vijayanagar for special understanding and friendship. Would the Portuguese have had to choose between the Mughal and the Raya?

To think of India divided between two dominant powers allows for a grand (even if entirely imaginary) picture: the Mughals with their influence stretched across the Gangetic belt, and from Afghanistan to Bengal, while all that lay south of the Narmada became the dominion of the heirs of Krishnadeva Raya. At some point the two would certainly have clashed—Mughal ambitions and the ballooning of their empire could only lead them towards the frontier of the southern emperor, just as the latter’s ancestral conflict with Orissa’s monarchs would have mobilized Vijayanagar’s armies towards the north. So, instead of the sensational confrontation that the 17th century saw between the Marathas and the Mughals, would Aurangzeb have found himself battling the might of an imperial equal? Whose arms would have triumphed? The Mughals, after all, drew talent from across the Islamic world—warriors, administrators, artillerymen, and others—while Vijayanagar, even in its rivalry with regional sultans, was often unable to source the latest technology, or even the best horses. Would, perhaps, the Portuguese have filled the gap and become Vijayanagar’s agents and arms dealers?

Then there is the matter of culture. Persian sartorial tastes and much else from the Islamicate world touched life in Vijayanagar—its temple sculptures, architecture, and even the famous bronze of Krishnadeva Raya and his wives in the Tirupati temple, stand testament to this. A Vijayanagar princess was given once in marriage to a sultan, while another emperor is believed to have toyed with the idea of seeking a bride from Catholic Portugal. Could an alliance with Akbar have ended with a matrimonial bond between the two empires, perhaps after a military confrontation? Or would Akbar have had to concede victory to the Raya, ceding territory and becoming the lesser of India’s two great emperors? It would most likely have been difficult for either to completely overpower the other—but the constant balancing of power between north and south might have birthed interesting dynamics, even as these two major courts patronized a fascinating universe of ideas and culture, poets and scholars, artists and artisans.

If Vijayanagar had survived, India might have entered the modern age looking a great deal different. Its experience with the European trading companies that sought to colonize this land could have taken a different shape—a powerful emperor in the peninsula might have been able to contain Portuguese, Dutch, and English influence. Many later heroes—from Shivaji down to Tipu—might not have emerged at all, had Vijayanagar’s imperial order held. But fantasy is perhaps best tempered with the evidence left by reality: great empires often fell not because of external enemies but due to internal contradictions; because of the misguided policies of proud rulers than the arms of a terrible invader. So, for all we know, if Vijayanagar had survived after Talikota, it may yet have collapsed a few generations later, limited minds and incapable men bringing about what the Deccan’s sultans achieved in 1565 by force of arms.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 22 2018)


When Raja Ravi Varma died in 1906, what departed with him was a life not only of artistic success but also of immense personal glamour. Indeed, much of the painter’s triumph came from his innate skill as much as the advantage of high birth and social cultivation. Deftly navigating between the studio and the colonial ballroom, doors opened before him as he mixed with politicians and statesmen, intellectuals and maharajas. It was diabetes that seized him in the end, and much of the criticism of his style only came afterwards, allowing this “painter-prince” a career in which he was a celebrity as much as an artist. Indeed, well before these words were understood as we do today, Ravi Varma emerged as a man of network, to whom concepts such as publicity and promotion were not remotely alien.

Decades after Ravi Varma, there lived in India another man of art, with more than one parallel with the life of this painter of the Raj. Like him, the younger artist had a most exciting story surrounding his birth: where Ravi Varma’s pregnant mother was “possessed” by a spirit prophesying greatness, the other man’s birth was presided over by officials of the Indian state. While an infant Ravi Varma drew on palace walls and caught the eye of a creative uncle, it was the walls of the younger man’s village house that first won him the attention of scouts looking for talent and imagination. And where the 19th century nobleman gave new form to gods of the Sanskritic pantheon, our late 20th century tribal was captivated by his own gods, depicting Thahi Dev, Khairagadhia Dev and Bara Dev for the first time on paper and canvas.

But there end the parallels between Ravi Varma and Jangarh Singh Shyam—so named after he was born quite literally in the middle of a janaganana(census) of his people. For unlike the former, whose privilege equipped him to not only paint but also master life itself, the latter was lost when it came to things beyond art. He emerged from a village and when he moved in with shehri (urban) artists, bewilderment and competition were his companions. What he walked into was, we are told, a “ruthless global marketplace of art, whose pressures he was not equipped to cope with”. And when he hanged himself in 2001, aged 40, his life folded in tragedy. As his newest biographer writes, he did not lose himself because his art went nowhere, or because success shunned him. He was, instead, “trapped in the crossing,” lost between two worlds.

Jangarh Singh has found a resurrection in A Conjurer’s Archive, a splendid volume produced by the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru. Written by Jyotindra Jain, the art critic who was also his friend, the pages of the book are glossy, and the images stunning. But this well-designed volume evokes also the trouble Jangarh Singh had in applying to himself the gloss that “sold” in the art market, just as he struggled with the demands of a bureaucracy and its paladins. He was an alien in a world where his work fetched high prices—and so he followed advice that did not always make him happy. As Jain notes, a gallery in Delhi once wanted him in its brochure. But because the man in jeans and a shirt did not look “authentic” enough for a master of (erroneously named) Gond art, Jangarh Singh had to strip and pose in a loincloth.

Jangarh Singh was a Pardhan, a tribal group inaccurately classified with the Gonds. In 1981, aged 20, he was working in the field when associates of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal appeared out of the blue. Impressed by the paintings he had done on his walls, they persuaded him to join them, and for the rest of his career he stayed with the institution. Officially, he was first an “attendant” in the graphics department—which resulted in demands that he bring people tea and coffee—but very quickly it became clear that Jangarh Singh was an artist with a vision of his own, cultivating a technique nourished by the art of his ancestors, even as it drew influences from the world he observed, both urban and rural.

Jain, for instance, highlights his Pandawani work, which, despite its name, tells tales not only from the Mahabharat but also the Ramayan. His community were bards, and he too told tales in paint of their legends, heroes and chieftains. “What is noteworthy,” writes Jain, “is that the characters…are shown sporting modern clothing such as shirts and half pants”. There are aircraft and other motifs from modernity, in works that the market insisted had to be branded “tribal”. Some pushed for him to stick to the rustic, taking it upon themselves to decide what was “authentic” tribal art and how much its painter could experiment. Jangarh Singh was naturally frustrated and often upset, but he did what he did anyway, exploring new media and becoming a master even of serigraphy.

His death in 2001 is mired in controversy. For ₹12,000 a month, he was deputed to an art gallery in Japan for a quarter of a year. Shy and a misfit, he grew lonelier still, writing pained letters home. When the gallery unilaterally extended his stay, it crushed a man already, perhaps, in the grips of depression. And so, as an official of the museum wrote, “he lost the balance and connection between the reality and…cut all the connection with life, wife, children and friend and he took the path of death.” It is condescending to suggest that pressures of the market alone killed him—perhaps there were other factors too. Either way, after a sparkling career of 20 years, the artist decided he’d had enough—unlike Ravi Varma, who knew both art and the ways of the world, Jangarh Singh knew only to paint and couldn’t quite navigate the rest.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 15 2018)


In 1857, soon after the sepoys rose against the East India Company in a burst of volcanic fury, the Delhi Gazette carried a proclamation issued in the name of the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Popularly called the Azamgarh Proclamation, this was authored most likely by a junior member of the imperial household, though its contents are not remotely less fascinating on this account. Besides predictable denouncements of the “tyranny and oppression of the treacherous” English, the document was also a manifesto that sought to win support from influential quarters, offering—like political manifestos today—a cascade of promises. Thus, for instance, the rights of zamindars were guaranteed, just as attractive pay was guaranteed to soldiers. More interestingly, among promises made to the commercial classes was one that speaks much of the age in which the mutiny took place. For it was pledged to men of trade that when the badshahi regime was restored, they would enjoy “gratis” the use of “government steam-vessels and steam carriages for the conveyance” of their all-important merchandise.

As it happened, the rebels scattered and the Mughal emperor fell. But on his journey to Burma (now Myanmar) in a bullock cart, Bahadur Shah Zafar did witness the construction of railway lines on which would ply the “steam carriages” that only yesterday were offered free in his name. While rebel leaders discerned advantages in this new mode of transport for purposes of trade, they were hardly alone: 10 years earlier, The Times in London had claimed that while “there may be no diamonds (left) at Golconda”, there was “the worth of a ship-load of diamonds in the cotton fields of the Deccan.” All that was needed to exploit this plentiful land was a reliable network. Then, of course, the mutiny confirmed for the British the military advantage that the railways offered, as loyal armies could in future make their way at record speed and contain any threat of rebellion. This, perhaps, was among the reasons that agitated Gandhi when he beheld the welding of India’s geography with steel and steam, declaring ominously that this was all for “bad men (to) fulfil their evil designs with greater rapidity”.

Leaving the Mahatma’s suspicions aside, the railways in India roused many, from Rudyard Kipling to Rabindranath Tagore, Florence Nightingale to R.K. Narayan. Talk of its introduction in the subcontinent began in the 1830s and, ironically, endless concerns were raised. One question was of viability: would “the Hindoos”, with their caste and religious taboos, embrace the railways, or would they boycott it resolutely? In the event, “the Hindoos” nodded approval: pilgrimages that took weeks could now be covered in days, even if by means of the devil’s contraption. Others argued that the fire carriage was at best a vanity project—India’s destiny lay in waterways, insisted Sir Arthur Cotton, whose thousands of statues stand testament to his efforts in this direction in the Godavari belt. Meanwhile another set of people welcomed the steam engine for its political potential. “If India is to become a homogenous nation,” wrote Sir T. Madhava Rao, the 19th century statesman, “it must be by means of the Railways [and]…the English language.” (Good for him that he lived then, for today he would be labelled anti-national.)

The dawn of our railways (now fourth largest in the world, transporting billions and with over a million employees), like new technology in general, inspired opportunity while also birthing subversion. As scholar Arup K. Chatterjee writes, the railways could become “clandestine spaces for experimentation” where “vegetarian looking businessmen” tasted chicken and mutton: removed physically from their everyday universes, days and hours spent on the track offered a window into something new, something that was usually taboo. To Europeans in India, meanwhile, the way the railways functioned offered a “nominal provincial Europe” on wheels, where the food, cutlery, décor, and everything else reminded them of home. And then, all the same, there could also be disease and horror—to quote Ira Klein, “plague (too) rode the rails”. In 1947, similarly, the railways conveyed death across the border, as photographs recorded their role in the tragedy of Partition.

The British, of course, presented the railways as proof of their civilizing mission—this when it was an elaborate commercial enterprise delivering obscene profits to English investors at the expense of the Indian peasant. Then the railways also allowed for architectural experiments: buildings like the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai projected colonial splendour, visually stamping India with the presence (and threat) of British imperium. To the dismay of the architects of empire, however, the railways also ended up transporting that inconvenient thing called nationalism. Soon, even the Mahatma was able to Indianize the railways, using it, as Chatterjee notes, to collect donations just as much as to launch forth on swaraj, every station and every third-class carriage a platform for his invigorating politics. Revolutionaries, meanwhile, could disrupt rail lines, and even such small things as travelling ticket-free or pulling the chain became acts of civil disobedience. What began as a (lucrative) civilizing mission, then, ended up embodying Indian resistance.

In the end, the story of the railways in India is one of splendour as well as shock, elegance as well as embarrassment, opening up many worlds in which its carriages and engines have served as both witnesses and participants. In its early avatar, it was a symbol of colonial oppression. But like with foreign ideas that were seized by Indians for their own domestic purposes and intentions, the railways quickly won our imagination, becoming integral to the shaping of our national character. The Father of the Nation might well have continued to suspect the railways even as he used it, but there is no doubt that its steel frame occupies a place of importance in our tale as a people: one that bridged far and diverse provinces, even as it connected everyone from Bahadur Shah Zafar to the Mahatma himself.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 8 2018)


In 1683, a little before the Mughals completed their final conquest of the Deccan, a Brahmin subordinate of the Qutb Shah of Golconda made a fascinating remark to a friendly Dutchman. Akkanna, whose brother was minister to the sultan, was talking to Michiel Janszoon of the Dutch East India Company. And in the course of their discussion, the Brahmin said to the European: “You yourself can imagine which government serves the king best, ours or that of the Moors (i.e. Muslims)”. He and his associates were “not people who have or seek other countries” and, in consequence, were “fullheartedly devoted to the welfare of (this) country”. The “Moors”, on the other hand, came to the Deccan with the chief intention of “becoming rich and then to leave for those places which they consider to be either their fatherland or holy”. In other words, their sole interest was self-aggrandizement, all at the cost of the country that enriched them in the first place.

It is a remarkable statement for its time, almost Savarkaresque with its talk of fatherlands, holy lands, and the alleged illegitimacy of some groups on account of their foreignness or lack of religious commitment to India. Equally interesting is that this statement appears soon after the celebrated Maratha warrior, Shivaji, articulated his own dharmic vision of power and kingship. Was this, then, the beginning of the crystallization of religious identities, if not in India as a whole, at least in the Deccan? Was it the start of the creation of a modern sense of being Hindu, defined against “the Moors” and their faith? And what does it say of scholarship that suggests that Hindu-Muslim relations in India were largely syncretic, poisoned by communal acrimony only as a consequence of colonial divide and rule? The answers, as it happens, are about as complex as the questions.

Notions of “us” and “them” among elites did exist but these sat alongside everyday syncretism—Akkanna’s brother was a sponsor of elaborate Muharram observations in Hyderabad, just as he fed numerous Brahmins during Hindu festivals. The Qutb Shahs were patrons of the Telugu language, admirers of the Sanskrit epics, husbands to Hindu women, and well integrated into the land where their forbears were immigrants. But when it came to articulating their power, it was Islamic ideals they upheld, imitating Persian customs and seeking approval from the Shah of Iran. In other words, where formal definitions of power were concerned, it was Islamicate ideas that held primacy, even if actual, lived politics was a different matter. In Hindu royal houses, too, things were not different: the kings of Vijayanagar formally expressed their identity in Sanskritic terms even as they employed Muslims, respected the Quran, adopted Persian sartorial tastes and called themselves “Hindu Sultans”. One emperor evidently even suggested a marital alliance with Catholic Portugal. But despite multiple exchanges on the ground, the formal self-image of Hindu and Muslim houses could be different.

Bigotry existed too: temples were demolished during war, usually to flatten the legitimacy of enemy kings. But sometimes wanton acts of violence were also possible on account of individual fanaticism—Afzal Khan’s desecration of the great shrine in Pandharpur on his way to battle Shivaji is a case in point, an incident that deeply offended even those Marathas loyal to the Muslim general. For the most part, however, just as religion lent itself as a gloss to power, it was also deployed for purposes that had less to do with the gods than claimed. As the Mughals made gains in the Deccan, for example, restrictions were placed by its Sunni emperors on Shia practices at the Qutb Shah’s court—and this despite the fact that Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb were married to Shia women, and many of their own generals were also “heretics”. It did not matter so long as they were loyal to the Mughals: but when Shiism was the enemy’s religion, it supplied a “legitimate” excuse to mask the age-old impulses that governed politics—avarice, a quest for power, and more—and commence conquest in the name of a formal ideology.

So Shivaji was described as an “infidel” even as Aurangzeb despatched precisely another “infidel”, the famous Rajput general Jai Singh, to fight him; a man addressed in one firman (imperial edict) as “faithful and obedient to Islam”. Bukka Raya, who founded Vijayanagar, might call himself Krishna-incarnate to rid the world of mlechhas even as he sought an alliance with Delhi’s mlechha (foreigner) sultan. Signs of religious sympathy exist too: Aurangzeb’s final siege of Golconda in 1687 saw his Shia nobles betray concern for the Shia enemy, just as Jai Singh looked away during Shivaji’s famous escape from Agra. All this being the case, what exactly was Akkanna talking about in 1683 when he expressed hostility towards the “Moors” in the name of his homeland?

The Qutb Shahi court was a balance of factions: there was a Persian Shia faction, a Sunni party of Indian Muslims, groups of Hindu warlords, and eventually a powerful Brahmin bureaucratic establishment. Different groups held disproportionate influence at different times, and in Akkanna’s day the Brahmin network acquired more power than ever before. Akkanna, for instance, was even granted a senior military rank—and this when he never went near a single battle. When he referred to “the Moors”, the idea was to stand up to the Persian immigrants and not all Muslims as a blanket category, and to increase the power of the Brahmin faction, under whom the state was run with a certain vision—one where the wealth of the kingdom stayed in the kingdom. In the end, in 1685, Akkanna and his brother were murdered at the behest of two begums by their African slave (yes, there was an African faction too). But when they were gone, did Brahmin influence end? No—for the two years of Mughal-free independence the state had left, the Qutb Shah granted his favour to other Brahmins, including Vessanna, another brother of the dead Akkanna.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 01 2018)

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 12.27.13 PM.png

In the winter of 1935, the celebrated American activist, Margaret Sanger, arrived in India to spread the message of birth control. She hoped to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to give her his endorsement which would, she wrote, “be of tremendous value” to her cause. When they met, Gandhi was welcoming of Sanger but not her ideas: abstinence from sex, he argued, and not birth control, was the way forward for India and its families. Sanger was dejected: “He can never accept sex as anything good, clean or wholesome”, she complained. Unhappy, but undefeated, she carried on with her travels, journeying to 18 cities, delivering 64 addresses, and meeting everyone from Rabindranath Tagore to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ironically, among those who stepped forward as Sanger’s champions at this juncture was the junior maharani of Travancore—a woman who would win the Mahatma’s appreciation for her role in throwing open Hindu temples to Dalits. Late in December 1935, the maharani invited Sanger to Thiruvananthapuram, her son’s capital, to deliver a lecture. It was a sensation. After all, this was one of south India’s great seats of orthodoxy, in a principality described by a previous ruler as hopelessly “priest-ridden”. It was a temple town, and the royal family lived a cloistered life of Brahminical ritual and piety—and here was the ruler’s mother organizing a discussion on such scandalous themes as intercourse.

While Sanger was delighted, this was merely one of many unconventional things the maharani accomplished in her life. Sethu Parvathi Bayi was an interesting, complicated woman, who combined phenomenal confidence with an unapologetic quest for power. Born in 1896 into the lineage of the Kolathiri rajas of Malabar, she was adopted aged 4 into Travancore’s ruling house. Under the matrilineal system, it was her sister, the senior maharani, who occupied the formal limelight, and early on Sethu Parvathi Bayi realized she would have to stand out to be noticed—even if this meant breaching tradition. As her son remembered, she “never blindly follow(ed) custom” but “would respect (it) where it was desirable.” And, of course, the judge of where it was desirable was the maharani herself.

Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s personality was tremendous. As a child she learnt to play the veena, later cultivating a formidable reputation as a patron of Carnatic music—Mutthiah Bhagvathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer both sang her praises. As a pregnant woman in her teens, when custom recommended rest and worship, she insisted on her daily round of golf and French lessons. In her 20s, she was the toast of south Indian society, struggling, however, with a conservative husband who sat with lemons at banquets to disperse any caste pollution. Years later, John Paton Davies Jr, an American diplomat was startled as he watched a temple procession with the maharani—while her son piously led the deity for a ceremonial bath, she served her companions scotch whisky.

Inner resolve the maharani possessed in immense quantities—in the early 1930s, she dismissed every Brahminical argument against crossing the kala-pani and became the first in her family to venture abroad. She met European royalty and collected art, also giving the Pope’s officials a dressing down when they tried to lecture her on how much make-up was appropriate. Her conversational skills were legendary: Paton Davies also noted the ease with which she moved from discussing a visit to Bali to “modernistic” furniture to finally contemplating the emotional range of elephants. As for food, a great-grandson recalls that when old and bedridden, she still kept a stove in her bedroom where she personally prepared small delights for her family.

In politics, however, Sethu Parvathi Bayi occupies a darker space. When her sister (and rival) was in power, the maharani had no compunction in backing various moves to destabilize her government, with the British recording everything from fake news campaigns to black magic. When her son gained power, Sethu Parvathi Bayi was perceived as a Hindu consolidationist, their subsequent policies sparking discontent among minorities. “She is arrogant, uncharitable, egotistical, bad-tempered, insular and vindictive,” noted one report, and was “cordially hated” by ordinary people. Her son himself, it was recorded, was powerless: Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s “usurpation sub rosa of ruling functions” meant that as late as the eve of independence, the viceroy, Lord Wavell, could diarize that while the maharajah was “not altogether a fool”, he was “entirely overshadowed by his mother”.

The maharani’s greatest misadventure, however, came towards the end of princely rule. Mass agitation throughout her son’s reign led to a Communist uprising in the region—it was brutally dealt with in 1946, leading to the killing of hundreds. In 1947, it was declared that when the British departed, Travancore would become “an independent country”—a misguided decision taken, to quote historian Sreedhara Menon, by “Their Royal Highnesses…the son and the mother.” Of course, an assassination attempt against their minister put paid to these plans, and with the integration of the princely states into the Indian union, Sethu Parvathi Bayi lost power. Hereafter, she was merely a titular maharani, diverting herself from the exercise of authority to full-time patronage of the arts.

By the time she died in 1983, the maharani was wheelchair bound. It is not known if she had any regrets—her sister, for instance, grew so fed up with royal life during the junior maharani’s heyday that soon after independence, she abandoned the palace and moved away forever. And even if she did, it would be impossible to know today. What can be said, however, was that Sethu Parvathi Bayi was a remarkable woman—one with disquieting proclivities in politics, but also a fascinating appetite for life—a combination that saw her championing birth control one day, dining with colonialists the next, and condoning violent action when it came to preserving the power of her state: power which she could deploy with furious effect.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 24 2018)


On 1 November 1858, Queen Victoria formally extinguished the fires of the great rebellion of the preceding year with a historic proclamation. Two pages of grandiloquent text was all it took to inaugurate a new chapter after the “mutiny”, and possession of India was transferred from the bloodied hands of the East India Company to the custody of the British Crown. Everything was infused with the moral legitimacy of a maternal sovereign, her words offering a world of guarantees, from territorial integrity for princely states to freedom of religion for the masses. Writers on all sides descended into ecstasies about this “Magna Carta of Indian Liberties”, though bureaucrats in actual command prevented too liberal an interpretation by the queen’s new subjects. But for all that, the proclamation generated a sweep of goodwill across the board—a clean slate for colonial officers, and hope for India’s earliest generation of nationalists. And in the meantime, Queen Victoria was also transformed, becoming India’s own Victoria Maharani.

The process was a fascinating one, despite its unequal politics. From the very start, the queen had shown interest in matters Indian, often revealing a broadness of mind that horrified the men who really operated her government. As Miles Taylor argues in his excellent new book, The English Maharani, if the queen was magnanimous it “always came from belonging to the winning side”. But even as she collected baubles and gems from the subcontinent, there was an awkward sincerity to her politics. The proclamation itself was a document with which she was not satisfied: she wanted a firm statement that Indians would be “placed on an equality with (all other) subjects of the British Crown”, a proposal Parliament watered down to a vague line on her “obligations of Duty” towards India. Elsewhere, she won—while an earlier draft loosely committed to the “relief of poverty”, Victoria revised this to promise Indians “peaceful Industry”, “Works of Public Utility”, and a government “for the benefit of all Our Subjects” whose prosperity, contentment, and gratitude were tests of its success.

Of course, what followed was revealing. To successive viceroys appointed in India at the head of an extractive state, the queen’s proclamation of 1858 was held up as a mirror of shame. As late as the 1890s, Dadabhai Naoroji’s campaigns in Britain cited the promise of 1858, while in 1908 Mahatma Gandhi was referring to the proclamation to demand rights in South Africa. The proclamation became the standard against which the Raj could be judged, and everyone, from dethroned princelings to people fighting property disputes, appealed to Victoria’s words—and often directly to her—to live up to its meaning. Even the introduction of income tax was lambasted as flouting guarantees in the proclamation. So the men in charge found a typically British solution to play things down: a protocol was evolved to determine which petitions actually reached Victoria’s desk and, as Taylor records, soon “the Government of India (was) transformed from postman to the sovereign to censor of the royal mail.”

It is politics at the highest levels of state that Taylor highlights, but the picture he paints is vivid without being uncritical. For Victoria, India opened up something new on a deeply personal level: renewed relevance. “Denied a political role at home” by constitutional convention, he argues, “she found it instead in her Indian dominion”. From the 1840s, for instance, she corresponded privately with viceroys, and while this still offered a lopsided picture, it eliminated some filters installed by officialdom in London. While reports of atrocities against British women during the 1857 rebellion appalled her, she soon suspected sensationalism in the press, asking for evidence. And she revelled in the adulation that came from India’s elites—whose nationalism at this stage did not sit in opposition to loyalty to the queen—as they composed poems comparing her to Hindu goddesses. Her affection for her Hindi munshi is, of course, well known, and even from afar India came to mean something special for her in a way it did not for others in her establishment.

Naturally, Victoria also grew defensive of her position. During the celebrated 1875-76 tour of the country by her son and heir, Edward VII, she was determined to ensure that the masses did not mistake him for their sovereign. Much to his irritation, she made it clear that he was the Viceroy’s guest and not her representative. “She even,” notes Taylor, “refused to countenance the prince conveying a message from her to the people of India.” In fact, when the tour became a success, the queen chose to orchestrate a grand event of her own to surpass it: the assumption of the title “Empress of India”. It was another matter that the innovation was received with borderline hostility in Britain itself, for powerful sections in the House of Commons were appalled by this gaudy claim of imperial status. The queen was furious, but the episode also highlighted the utility India held personally for her—her daughter, married to the German crown prince, was set to one day become an empress, and Victoria could not imagine being outranked by her offspring. Her son meanwhile used the occasion to pay his mother in her own coin: he famously wrote to the prime minister that he had no desire to be styled His Imperial Highness.

In the end, as Taylor argues, Victoria represented something for everybody in connection with India, becoming a bridge between competing ideologies and identities. To the British, she could be used to contain the earliest stirrings of Indian nationalism; to Indian nationalists, her proclamation allowed for calls for reform to be issued, couched in a language of loyalism. For Victoria herself, meanwhile, India offered both an empire and queenly purpose, carving out an unparalleled position that no British monarch after her was quite able to emulate—or imitate.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 16 2018)


In 1543, when the first Qutb Shahi ruler of Golconda was stabbed to death, one of his sons fled to Vijayanagar to save himself from his parricide brother. For seven years, he lived in exile at this Hindu court, before coming home after the death of his murderous sibling. What followed was a phenomenal reign: the new Qutb Shah Teluguized his name from Ibrahim to Abhirama, patronized poetry on the Mahabharat, produced 30 children of his own (two of whom he put to death for plotting against him, fearing his father’s fate), and inaugurated an era of prosperity and splendour (despite, that is, the general violence of his age). Golconda’s ports attracted merchants from the world over, while its mines threw up diamonds in heaps, and by the time Ibrahim went to the grave in 1580, he was lord of one of the richest realms in India.

But the Qutb Shah—who once also compared the moustaches of his enemies to the pubic hair of “public women”—was never fully pleased with life in his old fort. He tried first to build an unwalled city towards the west. But when want of water aborted the enterprise, he constructed a bridge over the Musi river and looked instead to the east. His death meant that it was his heir, Muhammad Quli, who actually realized Ibrahim’s dream, founding what is today the city of Hyderabad—the latest place to attract the zeal of that special kind of politician anxious to rename great cities of the past instead of confronting challenges in the present. Hyderabad, either way, was only one of many feathers in Muhammad Quli’s cap. As a patron of the arts too he was substantial, authoring a celebrated collection of works called Kulliyat that covers everything from kabbadi to the festival of Basant Panchami.

Hyderabad, however, was an ambitious project and from early on seems to have attracted the envy of the Qutb Shah’s rivals. Fourteen thousand shops and public buildings were envisioned in the new city, with the magnificent Char Minar built over its central crossroads. The palace was a sensation, said to exceed any contemporary Mughal building—seven or eight floors high, with interiors studded with gems and gold. “A citie that for sweetnesse of ayre, conveniencie of water, and fertility of soyle, is accounted the best situated in India,” is how the English merchant William Methwold described it, while the French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier thought the bridge “scarcely less beautiful than Pont Neuf at Paris”. Indeed, what the Qutb Shah envisioned in Hyderabad was not only a city unparalleled by rival capitals, but a “replica of paradise” itself.

The founding romance of Hyderabad is a story repeated by every tour guide in the vicinity. One day, we are told, when Muhammad Quli was out riding, he encountered a woman of exceptional beauty. Her name was Bhagmati, and having married her, he decided to name his new urban project Bhagnagar. Later, when she was styled Hyder Mahal, the city became Hyderabad. The story is certainly old—we have the contemporary Mughal poet Faizi writing to Akbar that the place commemorates “a hardened whore”—but it is unlikely that it reflects fact. Hyderabad celebrates Ali (also called Hyder, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin), who was venerated by the Shia Qutb Shahs (whose Shiism was also lambasted by Faizi), and while coins record both Hyderabad and Golconda, no mention occurs of Bhagnagar. Indeed, Muhammad Quli, who catalogued the names of his 17 beloved ladies, himself evidently makes no mention of Bhagmati, and in the Kulliyat, the city he founded is always referred to as Hyderabad.

What is more likely, as the historian H.K. Sherwani noted, is that Mughal antagonism towards the Deccan sultanates—which they would annex after generations of strife—meant everything impressive about them had to be disparaged. Just as the Qutb Shahs were never acknowledged as independent rulers by the Mughal emperor, it is likely that this grand new city had to be dismissed as nothing but a vanity project that flattered “an old mistress”. Such a tale, in fact, may well have found an audience even in the other Deccan sultanates, which oscillated between friendship and war with the Qutb Shahs on account of their own ever-changing dynamics. So, in the end, as Sherwani concludes, what was a “sneering sentence” from a Mughal officer grew “into a paragraph, the paragraph into a section, and the section into chapters”, repeated often enough to imitate the truth.

The weight of historical evidence does seem to lie with Sherwani, but Bhagnagar continues to live in popular imagination. European travellers in the 17th century used the name, for instance. Indeed, proponents of the Bhagmati story argue that if the lady does not exist in local records, it is because she was proactively wiped out—the idea that the new capital was named after a courtesan appalled enough people for this to be expunged. Such an erasure is possible—Ferishta, who wrote in the Deccan in the lifetime of Muhammad Quli, notes that Bhagnagar was named after a “prostitute” called Bhagmati, but that the Qutb Shah felt “ashamed of his amour” and renamed the city. But the fact that Muhammad Quli could name over a dozen of his mistresses, including his five favourites in a work spanning 1,800 pages, and not mention Bhagmati at all renders the matter open to debate.

In any case, for the politician seeking to rename Hyderabad Bhagyanagar—a Sanskritized version of Bhagnagar—it may come as news that the last laugh will still be had by the ghost of the Qutb Shah. If he was forced to erase Bhagmati’s name, this might be justice done for a Hindu woman who loved a Muslim king; if she never existed at all, the Qutb Shah’s memory still triumphs. After all, he built a city that still endures, while the men seeking to wipe this out have only a pretended glory that begins and ends with waging war on the past.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 10 2018)


In 1812 the fortunes—quite literally—of heaps of temples in southern Kerala found themselves in the hands of a man who was born in faraway Scotland. It was one of those strange ironies of colonial rule in India, for Colonel Munro had originally come to princely Travancore as the East India Company’s representative. Quickly, however, he was also elevated as minister by the ruling princess, a formula designed to give the British the power they desired while skipping actual annexation. Munro’s goal, with his split loyalties, was to balance the government’s books and ensure the company received regular tribute. And as part of his campaign to augment revenues, he took over 348 significant temples and 1,171 smaller shrines across the land, so that 62,000 gardens and 63,500 acres of cultivable land became state property overnight. Hereafter, sums were disbursed to the temples for their upkeep, but so valuable was the real estate seized that it still produced an enormous balance—an amount that could be used for other purposes, including to service political obligations to the company.

It was an act that birthed repercussions felt to this day, for some of Kerala’s celebrated shrines—including Sabarimala, for example—remain under government control, provoking persistent questions about what business precisely the state has in institutions of faith. To be fair, Munro’s action was not unilateral—temples, with unregulated funds and powerful trustees, were a political threat to the emerging modern state on the one hand, while on the other, there were complaints that revenues were being embezzled; in some instances, trustees decided to steal even the idols of their deities. In neighbouring Tamil provinces, too, the story was similar: the collector of Thanjavur, John Wallace, noted that temple custodians in his jurisdiction had piled up debt to the tune of ₹2 lakh (a colossal figure at the time). Like in princely Travancore, in British territories, too, the company was embroiled without delay in the business of religion. And here, too, profits followed: in 1846, after all expenses were deducted, the Madras Presidency found itself with Rs 8 lakh in surplus from temples, a figure promptly diverted to the “general education fund”, while another lakh was “expressly devoted” to a highway project between cotton-producing Tirunelveli and the port of Thoothukudi.

To be clear, as political sovereigns, the company did possess certain prerogatives where these establishments were concerned. Hindu rulers reserved the right to intervene in the affairs of shrines should the need arise, and in 18th century Madras, the Christian British often continued traditions instituted by previous powers, intervening when necessary. So, for instance, in 1789, when quarrels arose in the Thiruvallur temple and officials discovered that the Brahmins in charge “had mortgaged part of the property for their own private use”—the company saw to it that the men were made “answerable for the few things missing”. Devotees also, without means to stand up to influential local trustees, approached the company, inviting the latter to proactively intervene in temple affairs. This led, in 1817, to the earliest official legislation (in Madras presidency) on the subject to ensure incomes from temple endowments were disbursed “according to real intent and will of the granter” and not frittered away by untrustworthy trustees. It was a good step in theory, though in about two decades, the company found itself involved in as many as 7,600 temples—a state of affairs it had not quite expected when it set out to uphold tradition.

As it happened, despite financial gains, this was an uncomfortable position for the company. Missionary propagandists, for instance, lambasted British officials for promoting “idolatry”: by protecting temples, organizing festivals, supervising repairs, and settling disputes, the company had become primary trustee for assorted Hindu deities. As one reverend complained in 1831, “When we point out to (the Hindus) that idolatry is not the worship of God…they ask, ‘How can you say so? Who keeps our pagodas in repair?…Do you not do it yourself? If you do these things, where is the reasonableness and propriety of saying idolatry is sinful?’” In fits and starts and under growing pressure, then, the British attempted to extricate themselves from this knot. While in Travancore the Hindu ruler clung on to the temples, in Thanjavur over 2,000 shrines were returned to locals, and bigger temples were placed in the hands of committees, panchayats and sometimes “influential” individuals. This, predictably, led to its own politics, featuring caste competition, sectarian rivalries, and much confusion, made worse by flawed legal interventions through the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the end, what the colonial regime began, secular India inherited, and this peculiar mix-up of government with temples continues to this day. For the British, the issue eventually became one of several complications to negotiate in the subcontinent—from the start, the company ruled through bureaucracy and centralization, essential instruments for a foreign power in an alien land. One-size-fits-all rules were put in place despite contradictions, which, however, in independent India raise valid questions that the colonial power wasn’t earlier obliged to answer. In Sabarimala, for example, this is one of the arguments posed by critics of the recent Supreme Court judgement—that different temples have different features which cannot be guided by a single principle. Certainly, there is room for a new framework to preserve the individuality of India’s countless shrines—a new vision with an accommodative mechanism—though some overarching principles must still prevail. After all, even before the days of Colonel Munro and the British, Indian sovereigns intervened in temple affairs. Now, the Constitution is supreme, and while diversity should be respected, this paramount document must necessarily be obeyed.