(My column in Mint Lounge, September 07 2019)
In 1680, a few years before emperor Aurangzeb swallowed up the sultanate of Bijapur, two court artists in that city produced a striking genealogical painting. Rich in quality, with ink, watercolours, as well as gold and silver generously employed, the picture shows all the rulers of the doomed Adil Shahi dynasty, save for one who was blinded and discarded for not being up to the mark. In the centre, on the throne, for instance, sits Yusuf, the man who sailed from Persia and founded the house with his Maratha wife in the 15th century: In a mark of the kingdom’s allegiance to the Shah of Iran (as opposed to the Mughals), Yusuf is shown receiving a key of sovereignty from the Iranian emperor. Then there is Ali, who appears in armour—a symbol of the role he played in the defeat of Vijayanagar in 1565—just as there is the boy-king Sikander, the smallest figure in the group, who would spend much of his life as Aurangzeb’s dethroned prisoner. Created on the eve of the kingdom’s demise, the painting is at once a family tree but also, as one scholar puts it, a “painted curtain call” for the extraordinary Adil Shahi dynasty.
But the portrait is significant also in another way, in that it depicts the contrasts that can develop in the same ruling house and in interpretations of its official ideology. The Adil Shahi state was formally Muslim. From the start, however, it was influenced not only by multiple religions but also by different identities. So, for instance, Ismail (reign 1510-34) chose to highlight the family’s Persian heritage—he made his troops wear Iranian uniforms and himself adopted the 12-pointed cap, a reference, as the scholar Deborah Hutton notes, to the 12 imams of Shia Muslims. Ibrahim II (reign 1580-1627), on the other hand, was Sunni and is depicted in a style associated with the Indian faction at court, a reflection of his own attitudes. He was, for example, not only a lover of Marathi (much to the horror of a Mughal envoy, who found Ibrahim’s Persian weak) but also a great admirer of Hindu traditions. It was he who proclaimed himself son of Saraswati and Ganapati, studied Sanskrit, and went to the extent of renaming Bijapur “Vidyapur” to honour his favourite goddess. Only two generations divided the orthodox Shia Ismail from Sunni Ibrahim (who was rumoured to be secretly Hindu) but there was a world of difference in their outlook.
The Adil Shahs certainly presented themselves as good Muslim rulers—indeed, even Ibrahim’s grave carries an inscription denying rumours that he was an apostate, affirming that he was a true believer of the Prophet’s message. But as this column showed previously in the case of Hindu Vijayanagar, official identity and self-image did not preclude the absorption of multiple influences, or even contradictory practice. The Adil Shahs, even as Muslims, alternated between Sunnism and Shiism, and it was their latter identity that often supplied the Mughals an excuse to invade in the name of religion—this when even Aurangzeb, who led the final charge against the “heretics”, was himself the son of a Shia mother. Add to this a give and take of culture from not only the Marathas (including Shivaji’s father, who served the Adil Shahs) but also Ottomans, Europeans and African grandees at court, and Bijapur was confirmed as an eclectic, mixed universe—one where the king had a formal identity that he could interpret strictly or with deliberate laxity, depending both on his predilections and official necessities.
But in this the Adil Shahs were hardly unique. The rayas of Vijayanagar shaped their self-image in Sanskritic terms and declared themselves consciously Hindu. And yet, one of them sought a marriage alliance with Catholic Portugal; many of them used the title “sultan”; and their sartorial tastes and everyday lives were influenced visibly by Persian culture. A raya might keep the Quran in court so that his Muslim nobles could prostrate before it, even as he destroyed mosques in enemy territory—policy depended on the context in which the king found himself. Further north, in Kashmir too, as Richard Eaton shows in his India In The Persianate Age, we witness such ironies. Sultan Sikander (reign 1389-1413), for instance, was a destroyer of Hindu shrines and burner of Sanskrit books. But his son Zain al-Abdin (reign 1420-70), officially as devout a Muslim as his father, implemented the opposite policy: Not only did he resume temple grants, but under him the court also witnessed an unprecedented production of Sanskrit literature, as well as translation of Hindu texts into Persian for the ruler’s edification.
The greatest controversy, of course, arises in understanding Tipu Sultan of Mysore. To some, he is a giver of grants to Hindu temples and a protector of his non-Muslim subjects. Others cite his cruel conquest of Malabar, where Hindus were forced to renounce their religion, their temples demolished. But, simply put, the question is not one of either/or: The same king could act in opposite ways in different settings. In Malabar, its chiefs and people were “infidels”, but in his settled territories in Mysore, Tipu had no qualms employing “infidel” Brahmins (including the celebrated Purniah) as officials. One was a land of conquest, where destruction of significant shrines was, to him, legitimate, while forced conversions were a method of flaunting to the Islamic world his commitment to their faith; but in his home territory, he was king in a broader sense, accepting of the land’s realities as well as its people. A villain in one reading, he could be a hero in another, employing his religious identity in different degrees, determined largely by the contingencies of politics.
It was this complicated reality that the painters of that Adil Shahi family portrait inadvertently conveyed in their work: a house of Muslim kings with Maratha blood, who cheerfully switched sects as they desired, and whose dynastic roster included all types—those whose faith guided them to extremes, and others for whom religion was more a formality, engaging as they did with a land of diverse realities.