(My column in Mint Lounge, February 16 2019)

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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.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 09 2019)

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In December 1971, Indira Gandhi famously abolished India’s princely order, terminating the privileges enjoyed by retired maharajas and nawabs since the integration of their states in 1949. To uphold titles, “customary rights, special privileges and privy purses without any relatable functions and responsibilities” was, in her mind, “incompatible” with “the spirit of the times”. Debate on this had begun well before, in fact, and, by 1967, there was considerable sparring in Parliament. The Bengali Communist leader, Bhupesh Gupta, for instance, described privy purses as “blood money” to feed a “parasitic class”, thundering that the Indian state was not an instrument to subsidize royal harems. Others, like Dahyabhai Patel of Gujarat, argued that reneging on a constitutional guarantee was not becoming of our nation. Would the government, he asked, “repudiate one by one all the agreement(s) that it has made, all the covenants it has entered into”? What authority would the state’s word possess in sensitive cases such as Kashmir, then?

Beyond contentious privileges—ranging from reserved pastures for their horses to immunity from legal prosecution—many were the constitutional issues involved in dissolving official recognition of India’s maharajas. In fact, Mrs Gandhi’s initial attempt had failed after the Supreme Court intervened, following which it was decided to amend the Constitution and discard the provisions standing in her way. And so it was that in the winter of 1971, the princes were relegated to the margins of history. Indeed, in one of her speeches in Parliament, Mrs Gandhi encouraged umbrageous maharajas to actually supporther—which, she averred, would leave them looking “considerably enhanced” in public estimation—instead of aching for gun salutes and vanities in a country so poor. The princes, predictably, were not pleased with her unsolicited advice, but it was too late: Mrs Gandhi carried the day, and with that the President ceased to recognize any more “rulers”.

Of course, India would not be India if broad legal positions translated immediately into lived reality. For there are still princes around the country who continue to be “recognized” and enjoy special rights despite Mrs Gandhi’s triumph in 1971. Indeed, even princely lines which were derecognized boast of public prestige and political power: Of the Scindias of Gwalior, the last maharani was a stalwart of the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, while her son and grandson went on to become leading politicians in Mrs Gandhi’s own party. In Mysore, a man was adopted in 2015 to “succeed” to what is strictly a non-existent title, essentially because the position retains religious and social significance. So too in Jaipur, the princely state whose maharani was at the receiving end of unusual hostility during Mrs Gandhi’s emergency rule, there is a 20-year-old titular maharaja, who holds in trust palaces and an extraordinary art collection, commanding considerable local reverence.

But if these are instances of princely descendants possessing respect for reasons of faith, custom or wealth, in Chennai resides a personage who is still recognized officially by the President. “His Highness the Prince of Arcot” is, even in 2019, a legal entity, with the perks of a Tamil Nadu cabinet minister. “Other special privileges,” a 1991 India Today feature noted, “include a full police escort, a state funeral” and some exemptions of income and motor vehicle tax. The arrangement may seem at odds with 1971, but Arcot was never affected by Mrs Gandhi’s zeal to begin with: That was aimed at princes who entered into agreements with the Indian union in 1949. Arcot’s status, as it happens, was decided well before. When, in 1855, the nawab of the Carnatic died, the East India Company annexed his territories under the notorious Doctrine of Lapse. The dead ruler’s uncle, who claimed succession under Islamic law, protested. And so, in 1871, a compromise was designed by which the uncle was created “Prince of Arcot”, with an allowance and specific prerogatives. The state’s obligations to his heirs were passed on by the British to independent India, the result of which is that the “prince” still enjoys legal sanctity in our anomalous democracy.

Kerala too is full of petty royalty with de facto recognition. For instance, while the privy purse of the Travancore maharaja was abolished in 1971, individual allowances settled on his family members by V.P. Menon, the civil servant who assisted Sardar Patel, are still disbursed: A niece of the maharaja, for instance, was aged 9 when the state merged with the Union. She was granted 833 per month then; today, at nearly 79, she still receives a stipend, raised to 3,250 in 2009. In north Kerala, meanwhile, treaties executed by the East India Company guide official obligations. When taking over Malabar, the Company had agreed to pay its princes certain sums in perpetuity. The Company disappeared after the rebellion of 1857, but its commitments were inherited by its successors: first, the British Crown and then the Indian Republic. So, even today, there is a “Zamorin of Calicut” entitled to about 5,000 per month according to an 1806 agreement; eight other title-holders in his 826-person family also receive pensions. As each incumbent dies, another succeeds and the state dutifully pays its legal dues to the newest arrival in this titular royal court.

The case of these surviving princes in our socialist republic is, in some ways, reflective of the countless ironies that make up Indian democracy. India remains, in many ways, a marriage of awkward histories and feudal legacies with the idealism of liberal thought and constitutional values. They do not sit easily with each other always, and sometimes jostle with force to make their presence felt. And yet the enterprise moves forward, one way or another: which perhaps explains why, even as we celebrate a Dalit president, newspapers descend into a frenzy at the advent of babies to freshly adopted maharajas; how even as a “chaiwallah” rises against the odds to become prime minister, there are princes and rajas to whom his government still owes a royal pension.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 02 2019)

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When Kabir, the poet-saint, died five centuries ago, he could not have predicted he would be reimagined over and over again, to allay the anxieties of every succeeding generation. To most, of course, this icon of Bhakti is a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, his Arabic name sitting cheerfully alongside the chant of Ram. Indeed, soon after his death, Abul Fazl, emperor Akbar’s chronicler, described him as “the asserter of the unity of God”, one who “discarded the effete doctrines” of his time, “revered by both Hindu and Muhammadan for his catholicity of doctrine and the illumination of his mind”. Sikhs too looked upon him with respect, dedicating to his work whole passages in their Adi Granth. And in the 19th century, European missionaries laid claim to the weaver-saint of Varanasi, delighting in his barbs against caste, finding in his sayings a reflection of such thought which could only, they were convinced, be Christian in origin.

“Kabir appears to modern India,” Charlotte Vaudeville pointed out, “to be the true symbol of non-conformity.” And yet everything about him is immersed in myth and awe. He was the poor son of Muslim weavers, though the vocabulary of his devotion led early on to Hindu claims upon him. Some invented for him a miraculous birth—he was the conception of a Brahmin widow, delivered through her palm. Abandoned, he was raised Muslim. Others said he descended enveloped in lotus leaves and light from the heavens, floating upon a lake where he was discovered by his Julaha father. He certainly did celebrate Hindu imagery over Muslim theology, evidently also enjoying the tutelage of the guru, Ramananda. But by most accounts he was definitely a Muslim, with a wife and children, coming to mean so much to Hindus that stories were invented to drag him, as Wendy Doniger records, “over the line from Muslim to Hindu”.

While he lived, ironically, there was enough in Kabir’s message to upset Hindu and Muslim elites alike. To Brahmins he asked whether they were born with a caste-mark on the forehead, or whether their mothers delivered them through a special canal. “And if you say you’re Turk,” added Kabir, “why weren’t you circumcised before birth?” So, too, he sneered, it was “dumb” if people sought salvation in ritual. “If going naked brought liberation, the deer of the forest would attain it first. If a shaven head was a sign of piety, ewes would be pious too.” That low-castes and kafirs were doomed to their fate by the accident of birth was nonsense. Only those “who don’t have Ram on their lips” were ignorant; they alone were the low-born of the earth. “Those who read the Vedas call themselves Pandits, those who read the Quran call themselves Maulana; they give themselves different names…(but they) are all,” announced Kabir, “in their own delusions, not one of them knows the Lord.”

Like many in the Bhakti tradition, Kabir too knew persecution, therefore. Many are the tales that place him at the receiving end of the ire of Sikander Lodi, sultan of Delhi. Punishment was ordered, and suffering inflicted, but here again Kabir laughed at the irony. Giggling, it is said, in the presence of the emperor himself, the weaver is said to have declared, “All my life I have tried to impress upon the Hindus and Muslims that God is one.” He had tried to build a bridge between different paths, only to be ridiculed: “How could a Brahmin demean himself by joining hands with a low-caste weaver? How could a maulvi degrade himself by allying with a kafir?” They did not listen to words of wisdom, but hate achieved what Kabir had failed to bring about: “They could never bear to stand together in the court of (God) the King of Kings, but today it amuses me to see them standing united in the court of a (mortal) king.” And this because the custodians of the faiths universally disliked Kabir and his message.

It was his large following—those like him, illiterate, weak, and devoid of books—that made him an asset to wardens of the great traditions after he went to the grave. Indeed, they fought over his remains when he died, till, legend claims, only flowers remained under the funeral sheet: Some were buried, the rest cremated, and both sides got to claim a share of Kabir’s legacy. He might have chuckled at the feud over rites and ownership. “His death in Benares,” he once sang, “won’t save the assassin from certain hell,” just as “a dip in the Ganges won’t send frogs—or you—to paradise.” Matters of ritual were futile: mere instruments to enthral the susceptible, shrouding true wisdom from the masses. But no sooner had he died than Kabir too became an instrument. “I say the world is mad,” he had laughed. “If I tell the truth, they rush to beat me; if I lie, they trust me.” Now that he was dead, owning him trounced his message—and for this, things he eschewed became now truly imperative.

Of course, Kabir was no perfect man. His message resonated with the masses, and with quiet confidence he stood up to the power of those who held the keys to heaven. But he too had prejudices. “Woman,” he declared once, “is the refuse of the world” so that “noble men will put her aside, only the vile will enjoy her.” Elsewhere, he compared the female to a 20-hooded serpent, and “if she stings one,” he warned, “there is no chance to survive”. We can try and console ourselves that perhaps this streak of misogyny was a reflection of his age; that he never himself claimed to be a perfect man, or the one true soul in whose words lay answers for all. He was merely Kabir the weaver—a mortal made of flesh and blood—and he cared for Ram alone, not for the world and its numerous other battles.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 26 2019)

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In the summer of 1795, soldiers attached to a Mughal jagir in present-day Uttar Pradesh rose up in mutiny and chained their commander-in-chief to a gun carriage. It was the nadir of their ultimately foiled enterprise, but the whole episode was packed with extraordinary drama. To begin with, the commander-in-chief—who languished for a whole week in the heat—was a woman. She had launched her career as a dancing girl, rising not only to become the begum of Sardhana, but also to win the affection of the emperor in Delhi who styled her Zeb-un-Nissa (“Jewel among Women”), Farzand-i-Azizi (“Beloved Daughter”) and Umdat-al-Arakin (“Pillar of the State”). She had spent her youth by the side of a much older German lover, inheriting his fortune, and later joined a Frenchman in a doomed marriage. Now, as she lay shackled and humiliated in public, riding heroically to her rescue was a former Irish paramour, one who would title himself the “Rajah from Tipperary”, becoming famous for his own military exploits.

Begum Samru, as our protagonist is best known, was born in the 1750s to the junior wife (or mistress) of a petty Mughal nobleman. The early death of her father saw both mother and child turned out on to the streets, and by the time she was in her teens the part-Kashmiri girl, who would one day take the name Joanna Nobilis, was a courtesan in Delhi. It was at this time that she encountered Walter Reinhardt. A serial deserter turned mercenary, he had upset everyone, including the French and the British, the latter placing a bounty on his head after he presided over the massacre of dozens of Englishmen in Patna. Known also as Sombre, a French corruption of Somers (a name he assumed while attempting a cunning reincarnation), he readily added the dancing girl to his entourage. And before long, despite the existence already of an Indian bibi, this young girl had become his partner, living with him for over a decade, sharing in his numerous adventures.

This period with Reinhardt, in fact, transformed the begum. Accompanying her “husband” on military campaigns, she also became his right hand in managing his jagir. After Reinhardt’s death in 1778, she played her cards with uncommon shrewdness, having Delhi recognize her, and not her husband’s hopeless son, as heir to his estate and all its appurtenances. Even though her dead spouse’s reputation as the “butcher of Patna” continued to plague her for years, she won admirers across the board; all of them noted her determination, charm and store of wisdom. Indeed, successive commentators recorded her “masculine” gifts, which, in that patriarchal age, as Julia Keay wrote, was their highest compliment. The begum too encouraged such an image: She sported, unusually, a turban, also appearing unveiled in paintings, with a hookah pipe in her hand. Essentially, she was making, as Alka Hingorani argues, “subtle alterations of traditionally masculine prerogatives”.

In 1781, Begum Samru took the unusual step of converting to Catholicism, an act as much of religious conviction as of political imagination. Though she shared no tongue with the priest who baptized her, and despite disapproval for having retained an Islamic appearance even after her conversion, the begum spent lakhs of rupees on Christian institutions (besides exchanges with the pope), constructing also what is considered north India’s largest church. All the same, becoming a Christian seemed a suitable strategy for a woman unhappy with Islamic restraints on her sex: Catholicism gave her the freedom she required to rule Sardhana while creating a legitimate (and distinct) space in contemporary Hindustani politics. Some, in fact, claim that she foresaw British dominion and wished to curry favour with India’s future masters by accepting the Christian faith—a claim not borne out by evidence, even if it lends itself to heady speculation.

As a military commander, Begum Samru showed all the qualities that marked leadership in her tumultuous age. When it was necessary, she could be ruthless: Two maidservants who set fire to her buildings were buried alive at her orders. When the Mughal emperor was imperilled, it was she who rode more than once not only for the defence of his imperial person but also of his capital. All the same, the begum also had to balance factions within her own armed forces. A motley crew of European adventurers and assorted Indian sepoys, they had their own politics, the worst of which the begum suffered after she married an unpopular French gun-founder, provoking that mutiny which saw her tied up and left to die in scorching heat. She survived the debacle and was restored to power, but never again permitted her heart to reign over her head.

By the early 19th century, the middle-aged begum (“a bejeweled vision of delight”) became a British ally. Instead of military engagements, it was her soirées that now attracted Europeans for whom she was also an object of curiosity. As late as 1834, when she was “bent in two” and “shriveled like dried raisins”, her energy didn’t cease to dazzle. In fact, writes Brijraj Singh, she actively “preferred European people and things to their Indian counterparts”—a potential adjustment to altered political realities after the emperor and his dynasty went into terminal decline and British supremacy became India’s new normal. Of course, though they admired her, Company officials never saw her as an equal. But it didn’t matter to her, either, in the big picture: She had begun life in poverty and crisis and worked in a public house. Now, by the eve of her demise, she not only enjoyed military salutes, but was also one of India’s richest women. As her memorial in Sardhana records, then, when “Her Highness Joanna Zeb-ul-Nissa” died on 27 January 1836, she was “revered and lamented by thousands of her devoted subjects”—not a predictable ending for someone who was once a courtesan, and whose successes so bewildered the world that rumour insisted she was actually a witch.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 19 2019)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.