(My column in Mint Lounge, September 28 2019)
In 1461, the Bahmani sultan in the Deccan was stabbed to death by a maidservant. He had reigned for only three years, but in that time already achieved enough to be recalled as Humayun the Cruel. His career began, for instance, with a younger brother challenging him for power—Humayun walked into court, slapped his sibling off the throne, and later had the man thrown before tigers. Others who backed the wrong horse in this contest, many of them senior Persian nobles, were boiled alive. A local faction rose instead to prominence, revealing again the constant tussle for authority between various interests: There were Dakhnis, or Indian Muslims; migrants from the glamorous Persian world called Afaqis; emerging Maratha lords; not to speak of Habshis, or African military slaves.
Indeed, the story of the Bahmanis is one of an eternal quest for the right balance of power: The Dakhnis formed the empire’s core, linked closely to Hindu elites on the ground, but the Afaqis connected it to international networks of trade and culture in the wider Islamic world. A good sultan was one who managed to keep all factions in check, while a bad one took sides, sometimes losing his own head. Humayun’s death left things in an unusually perilous condition, for his heirs were children. The older one died, so the younger would succeed to power, but in the interim it was his queen, Nargis, who had to rule through a council. Its first chief made the mistake of insulting her, so he was murdered. Instead, there emerged another talented nobleman, remembered ever since as the Deccan’s “Prince of Merchants”.
Mahmud Gawan, who would serve the Bahmanis for over 25 years, was originally a man of commerce. He dealt in slaves, pearls, silks and horses, and was educated in Cairo and Damascus. In another example of how business and power were entwined in the early modern Deccan, Gawan was made a nobleman almost instantly after his introduction to the sultan. Successful military expeditions in the late 1450s raised him in the eyes of his sovereign, adding to the advantage his personal networks brought to the Bahmanis. He could deliver to them the best warhorses, just as he succeeded in importing poets and scholars, whose presence at court was key to royal prestige. His own intellectual interests meant that Gawan corresponded directly with personages as significant as the Ottoman sultan and the king of Egypt, all of which turned his connection with the Bahmanis into a marriage of mutual interest.
By 1466, Gawan was the most senior figure at court, bringing a businessman’s efficiency to matters of state. To balance Dakhnis and Afaqis, he distributed governorships equally between their representatives. All the same, as scholar Richard Eaton writes, he reduced the size of estates—and, correspondingly, armies—held by individual amirs, increasing central power at the cost of potentially refractory nobles. He improved fortifications across the empire, snatched Goa from Vijayanagar, launched military ventures as far as Orissa, and enabled the first recorded use of gunpowder in the Deccan to bring down an enemy citadel. Under Gawan, as H.K. Sherwani writes, “the frontiers of the Bahmani realm (finally) extended from sea to sea”, bringing under a single political umbrella people who spoke Marathi, Telugu and Kannada.
Gawan was the proverbial selfless worker, for while there were countless efforts to topple him, nothing succeeded because he was so transparent. Empress Nargis made her favour clear by appearing before him without a veil, elevating Gawan to the status of a brother, while young men of talent found growth and prosperity under his patronage. Gawan also gave Hindu elites from defeated territories a stake in the Bahmani order, securing the long-term health of the empire. But the goal of transforming the sultanate’s capital into one of the Islamic world’s great cities was a constant: In 1472, Gawan’s madrasa in Bidar was thrown open, a magnificent structure with a library featuring 3,000 books. Such was the esteem he commanded that Gawan was addressed by a variety of titles, ranging from the modest “Deputy of the Realm” to a more grandiloquent “Lord of the Habitants of the Globe”.
To be fair, however, Gawan’s was still a military state, where the nurturing of armies, extraction of taxes from the hinterlands, and development of cities appear to have been the focus. Afanasy Nikitin, a Russian traveller, noted (after he denounced all local women as “harlots or witches” conspiring with poison) how the ruling class was Persian; how the towns were phenomenal magnets for trade and the palaces gilded with gold; and how the nobility were “opulent and delight in luxury”. But outside urban nodes, the land was “overstocked with people” and “those in the countryside (were) very miserable”. Gawan brought stability to the empire, but, as with other empires in the 16th century, even under this remarkable administrator the sultanate remained a feudal place.
In the end, the minister became a victim of his own success. In the words of the chronicler Ferishta, others, like “wounded vipers, writhing in the torment of jealousy”, began to resent him so much that a sinister plot was put into motion. The sober Nargis was dead by now and her impetuous son sat on the throne. Gawan’s seal-bearer was got sufficiently drunk before the minister’s mark was put to a seditious document. The sultan, who too was marinating in liquor, ordered death for his minister. And so it was that in 1481 a slave executed the Bahmanis’ greatest administrator, “not by one stroke but by successive strokes” to his neck. As soon as he knew his fate, Gawan had warned his king: An unjust act like this would to the sultan mean “the loss of an empire, and the ruin of your character”. He was not wrong: In a decade, the empire began to unravel as nobles transformed themselves into princes, and the sultan’s own heirs were reduced to pawning the family silver.