Of Hindu sultans and padshahs (16 February 2019)

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 16 2019)


In 1352, Bukka Raya, one of the five brothers who founded what would become the empire of Vijayanagar, flaunted a most extraordinary title in a royal inscription. Along with such typically flamboyant styles as “punisher of enemy kings”, “vanquisher of kings who break their word” and “auspicious hero”, this son of Sangama introduced something unusual, used previously in India only by his brother: He assumed the title of “Hinduraya Suratrana”, or sultan among Hindu kings. It was a remarkable claim to make, adopting all at once the nomenclature of “Hindu”—hitherto applied by foreigners to describe Indians in general—while also transcribing into the Sanskritic vocabulary and imagination the concept of “sultan”, a potent new form of kingship which resounded across the land as Islamic dynasties entrenched themselves in the north, and took fire and steel into the south.

As part of imperial bombast, “Hinduraya Suratrana” was essentially employed in Vijayanagar, though a stray reference evidently appears also in a 1439 inscription in Sadri, Rajasthan. But the Sanskrit translation of sultan as suratrana itself was not a Vijayanagar innovation. In 1323, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq appears as Suratrana Gayasadina, and, three years before Bukka, we find the term in Nepal—after his invasion in 1349, Shamsuddin of Bengal was remembered there as Suratrana Samasdina. The term was in vogue even in the 17th century, used to describe the Mughals. And yet some deny any connection between this Sanskrit term and its Arabic root. Suratrana, to them, comes from sura (god) and trana (protector), which would mean that Bukka Raya saw himself as a protector of Hindu deities, and was not borrowing an Islamic title. The etymology could be entertained, but the fact is that in practice the words were certainly used synonymously: where the Delhi Sultanate’s coins used the Arabic sultan on one side, the reverse was inscribed in Sanskrit with suritana. So too when literary works referred to the Suratrana of Yoginipura (Delhi), it is unlikely they were flattering Muslim kings as guardians of Hindu gods.

In the larger picture of the interaction Islam had with India’s diversity of traditions and cultures, this indigenization of a foreign title is hardly surprising. The dominance Muslim rulers enjoyed for centuries saw the import of Persian culture into the subcontinent, and much from Farsi and Arabic blended with Indian tongues. Persian’s place as the language of diplomacy, for instance, meant that as late as the 1810s, communication between a Malayali queen (whose minister was her dewan) and the English East India Company were conducted in that language. In some Indian languages, in fact, Persian and Arabic left imprints that are indelible, marking their nature as much as their cultural and literary identities. Marathi, for instance, borrowed a great many words from these foreign bhashas so that, as the scholar V.K. Rajwade noted, “old Marathi documents are as unintelligible to a non Persian-knowing Maratha, as to a foreigner”. The 19th century Maharashtrian thinker Vishnushastri Chiplunkar too had no qualms admitting that the “roots of our language” lay as much in Persian and Arabic as in Sanskrit. And just as the emperors of Vijayanagar projected themselves as Hindu sultans, the Deccani hero Shivaji was described in the Sabhasadbakhar (a kind of Marathi historical chronicle, derived, evidently, from the Persian akhbar) as a Maratha padshah.

While suratrana and padshah were titles related to dynasts and kings, foreign influences made their presence felt even at lower levels, travelling down to our own time. Scribes who worked for Muslim kings and wrote their Farsi letters were called Parsnavis, from which emerged today’s surname of Parasnis, just as the Maharashtrian name Daftardar is descended from an official bureaucratic title. Fard-Navis, or secretary/note-taker, is what birthed Fadnavis, the last name of the present Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Maharashtra. The bharud drama-poems and poetry of Eknath, the celebrated Bhakti saint, meanwhile, are replete with words of Persian origin, while even personal names used by Marathas sometimes had a foreign provenance: names like Sahebrao, Serfoji, Rustamrao, and so on. Shivaji’s own father and uncle were named Shahaji and Sharifji to celebrate a Muslim pir called Shah Sharif his grandparents admired.

Shivaji, it is true, made a pointed effort to erase Persian influences and concepts from Marathi, even commissioning a dictionary to help discard yavana (foreign) words and replace them with Sanskrit alternatives. But as the power of the Marathas spread across large parts of the country, Persian’s status as a link language made its resurrection inevitable. The Peshwas, a dynasty of hereditary ministers to the Maratha king, were orthodox; but even their title was Persian. In a 1775 letter the prominent Maratha figure Nana Fadnavis sent on behalf of the Peshwa to the British monarch, the scholar Sumit Guha actually highlights words that are of Perso-Arabic origin (daulatbiradarbahutmahzabat, and so on), noting that though not as extensively as before, these were back in circulation. Such Islamicate influence was not, to be fair, limited to language, administrative jargon and titles alone: The Marathas also adopted Persian sartorial fashions and styles of architecture, so much so that the samadhi of Shivaji’s grandfather has been mistaken for a tomb owing to its striking resemblance to Islamic mausoleums.

Considering the plurality of influences that as a rule makes up Indian culture—a civilization with no single origin—none of this ought to surprise anyone. By the 19th century, however, efforts were already under way to “purify” languages and give them a classical pretence by overcompensating with Sanskrit words and trying to divert everything Persian and Arabic along religious lines to a specific class of people. In many respects, the project is still ongoing, and there is among certain sections of people even today a quest to find the “true” essence or purest version of the past. The irony, of course, as history shows, is that such a past does not exist, and what exists is not “pure” but rich and layered and splendidly complex—a past where there are Hindu sultans and Maratha padshahs; where forebears of a Hindu king could name their sons after a Muslim pir.

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