False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma

India’s maharajahs have traditionally been cast as petty despots, consumed by lust and luxury. Bejewelled parasites, they cared more, we are told, for elephants and palaces than for schools and public works. The British cheerfully circulated the idea that brown royalty needed ‘enlightened’ white hands to guide it, and by the twentieth century many Indians too bought into the stereotype, viewing princely India as packed with imperial stooges. Indeed, even today the princes are either remembered with frothy nostalgia or dismissed as greedy fools, with no role in the making of contemporary India.

In this brilliantly researched book, Manu S. Pillai disputes this view. Tracking the travels of the iconic painter Ravi Varma through five princely states – from the 1860s to the early 1900s – he uncovers a picture far removed from the clichés in which the princes are trapped. The world we discover is not of dancing girls, but of sedition, legal battles, the defiance of imperial dictates, and resistance. We meet maharajahs obsessed with industrialization, and rulers who funded nationalists, these men anything but pushovers for the Raj to manipulate. Outward deference aside, the princes, Pillai shows, forever tested the Raj – from denying white officials the right to wear shoes in durbars to trying to surpass British administrative standards. Good governance became a spectacularly subversive act, by which maharajahs and the ‘native statesmen’ assisting them refuted claims that Indians could not rule themselves. For decades this made the princes heroes in the eyes of nationalists and anti-colonial thinkers – a facet of history we have forgotten and ignored.

By refocusing attention on princely India, False Allies takes us on an unforgettable journey and reminds us that the maharajahs were serious political actors – essential to knowing modern India.

Advance Praise

“Manu S. Pillai has once again given us an enthralling look into a neglected realm of Indian history. False Allies is at once lucid and accessible, all the while maintaining deep scholarly rigor . . . With the erudition that we’ve come to expect from his books, Pillai navigates the world of colonial Indian kingship and puts on display the complex and diverse personalities of the princes . . . and their interactions with their subjects and their colonizers, demonstrating that the period and its actors were far from monolithic. The result is a refreshing work that reframes the Indian princely states as both harbingers of tradition and agents of change, and demands we give them their due for their role in shaping modernity. False Allies is certainly a masterpiece of historical writing.”- Caleb Simmons, author of Devotional Sovereignty: Kingship and Religion in India (2020)

“Manu S. Pillai has done the double. He’s written a book that general readers will relish and scholars will respect. Using the life and paintings of Ravi Varma, India’s most famous artist of his time, Pillai re-examines some of India’s princely states and their rulers ‒ its maharajas. Through admirable research, he discovers skilful modernizers and deft political operators, struggling to keep the British at a distance and “modernize” in ways acceptable to themselves and their subjects. This cleverly crafted book will delight general readers and lead scholars to re-think ideas about the India of the 19th and early 20th centuries.”- Robin Jeffrey, editor of People, Princes and Paramount Power: Society and Politics in the Indian Princely States (1978)

False Allies is a monumental achievement. Its sensitive portraits of India’s princes rescue these long misunderstood figures from caricature and myth. By revealing how artfully India’s princes addressed the challenges posed by colonialism and modernity, Manu S. Pillai makes them at once more human and more grand, and thereby grants them a more fitting place in our collective imagination. Learned, erudite, and wide-ranging, False Allies is a landmark contribution to our understanding of modern India.”- Rahul Sagar, author of The Dewan: Raja Sir Tanjore Madhava Rao and the Making of Modern India (forthcoming) and editor of The Progressive Maharaja: Sir Madhava Rao’s Hints on the Art and Science of Government (2022)

“Manu Pillai proves once again why he is one of India’s most popular writers of historical nonfiction. Taking the work of master artist Raja Ravi Varma as inspiration, Pillai here paints his own luminous portrait of some of the colonial subcontinent’s most significant and flamboyant royals. With scholarly command, a meticulous eye for detail, and a sense of the dramatic, he mingles light and shadow to add rich texture to the region’s much maligned maharajahs, revealing complex characters who sometimes managed through perspicacity and perseverance to challenge the might of the British Empire and usher in new, progressive ideas of a modern nation.”- Manu Bhagavan, author of Sovereign Spheres: Princes, Education and Empire in Colonial India (2003)

Reviews for False Allies

“Given the sheer number, as well as the enormous diversity of states…it is no easy task to pen an account that would be sufficiently comprehensive to give the reader a good idea about this diversity and, at the same time, rich in the kind of fascinating detail which makes for an absorbing narrative. Pillai performs this feat adroitly..”- India Today

“..[Pillai’s] scholarly gifts sit beside an ability to tease out juicy, hilarious, even bizarre nuggets from the nooks and crannies of historical sources. He buries the reader in mounds of notes and references, then regales with a saucy sense of humour…expertly researched…[False Allies] will complicate the reader’s understanding of India’s struggle for independence because the story rarely includes the stories of the princely states..”- Business Standard

False Allies…provides a balanced account of the complex politics that defined the era before the rise of Congress and the emergence of a Pan-Indian nationalist movement…[It] offers a meandering and delightful journey through Princely India that is well-researched and supplied with copious endnotes and illustrations. Rich in anecdote and interesting asides, this is a wide-ranging and accessible introduction to an often-overlooked and misunderstood chapter of India’s modern history.”-
Asian Review of Books

“[False Allies] is a revelation…[Pillai] smashes the notion that the royalty of pre-independent India was only about exotic lifestyles, indulging in baubles of extravagance or wasting away in a haze of opioids. Instead, a complex nuanced world is revealed…[and Pillai] shows the readers how the princes, their queens and ministers deftly played the chess game set by the British Raj…False Allies is a must read…”-
The Hindu

Publisher: Juggernaut
Buy: Amazon India

The Courtesan, the Mahatma, and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History

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From a Maratha prince who parodied caste to a Muslim deity in a Hindu temple; from a courtesan who became a warrior princess to another who sang for the gramophone; from a woman with no breasts to a goddess with three; and from an Englishman who venerated sacred Sanskrit to imperious Victoria Maharani—the essays in this collection open a window into India’s past, and to a world of such astonishing richness that it is surprising how much of it has been forgotten or expunged.

To dip into these essays is to be absorbed in India’s story and reflect on the experiences of men and women whose lives were full of drama and action. We discover the advent of the railways, just as we learn about the history of Indian football; we hear of the hated Lord Curzon’s love of India’s monuments, even as we unravel the story of the photographer who was Jaipur’s maharajah. In the hands of a consummate historian and storyteller, these men and women speak also of the concerns and perspectives of the present, showing us what was, and what might have been.

An exhilarating journey with the author of The Ivory Throne and Rebel Sultans, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin is a retelling of history no reader will want to miss.

Reviews for The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin

“This book is that old clichéd thing: a must-read…”- The Deccan Herald

“Pillai brings the sophistication and the rigour of the academy—minus the jargon…As a collection of essays, (the book’s) temporal and geographical canvas is dizzying…This book is perfectly timed to start conversations”- Open Magazine

“To sum up in a sentence, The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin is a rich store of historical anecdotes strung together to make for an absorbing read.”- Financial Express

“…a beacon of hope…(the book) has both gems and pebbles–fortunately more gems than pebbles.”- Outlook

“…this book should be made mandatory reading: Pillai wears his learning lightly and his prose style is exquisite.”- Deccan Chronicle

“…an eclectic collection of essays on interesting episodes from Indian history…Pillai’s prose is crisp, fluid and makes for an entertaining read…the essays are crafted cleverly and leave the reader with enough questions which hopefully will make him/her pursue further reading..”- The Hindu

“…each essay is a nugget of well-written history, easily absorbable…(with) some extraordinary stories and characters…Mr Pillai’s book–well researched and accessible–does a yeoman’s work in uncovering nuggets of history of which a general reader would have usually been unaware.”- Business Standard

“…Manu Pillai’s book is an important contribution. Wide ranging and informative…Pillai rescues history from being a compendium of incontrovertible data by allowing us to engage with the strengths and frailties of the humans who lived through it.”- The Tribune

“…a collection of eclectic, wide-ranging essays, bound by this central theme: That India is large, it contains multitudes.”- The Hindu Business Line

“What emerges through the book is a different idea of “greatness”, a persistent, if sometimes weak, uniquely subcontinental strain of liberalism. At a time when the philosophy is often attacked for being western-centric, an accessible but more complicated picture of the past is invaluable.”- India Today

“…an eclectic collection of some astonishing nuggets of Indian history…Pillai writes in impeccable prose…an exhilarating read…(and an) exquisite book!”- The Pioneer

Publisher: Context
Buy: Amazon India

Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji

REBEL SULTANS jacket..jpgIn 1707, when Emperor Aurangzeb went to his grave, the Mughal empire began to crack into a hundred fractured pieces. It was the lure of the Deccan that drained this conqueror’s energies, putting him on a course of collision with his most threatening adversaries. After all, the Deccan was a land that inspired wonder. Its treasures were legendary, and its kings magnificent. It was a horizon of rousing adventure, attracting talent from beyond oceans. A traveller here might encounter bands of European snipers available for military hire or forbidding fortresses where African nobles scaled the heights of power. Diamonds and pearls lay heaped in the Deccan’s bazaars, while in its courts thrived Persians and Marathas, Portuguese and Georgians, presiding over a world of drama and betrayal.  A thousand fortunes were made in the Deccan, drawing the formidable envy of generations of Mughal emperors.

In Rebel Sultans, Manu S Pillai narrates the story of the Deccan from the close of the thirteenth century to the dawn of the eighteenth. Packed with riveting tales and compelling characters, this book takes us from the age of Alauddin Khilji to the ascent of Shivaji. We witness the dramatic rise and fall of the Vijayanagar empire, even as we negotiate intrigues at the courts of the Bahmani kings and the Rebel Sultans who overthrew them. From Chand Bibi, a valorous queen stabbed to death and Ibrahim II of Bijapur, a Muslim prince who venerated Hindu gods, to Malik Ambar, the Ethiopian warlord, and Krishnadeva Raya on Vijayanagar’s Diamond Throne–they all appear in these pages as we journey through one of the most arresting sweeps of Indian history. Unravelling a forgotten chapter in our medieval past, Rebel Sultans reminds us of a different age and a different time in the Deccan–one that ended an empire and rewrote India’s destiny.

Praise for Rebel Sultans

“Deftly and with great vividness, Manu S Pillai takes us through 400 years of roiling history and returns the Deccan to the centre of our attention–where it belongs.”
Sunil Khilnani

“Minutely researched and yet instantly accessible…Rebel Sultans will bring the fascinating history of the medieval Deccan to a whole new generation of readers.”
William Dalrymple

“In this lively study, Manu S Pillai does a superb job of re-orienting the narrative of late medieval and early modern South Asia towards the Deccan.”
Muzaffar Alam

“In Rebel Sultans, the Deccan is presented in seven engaging chapters, each focused on a pivotal moment, character or symbol, that together trace the dynamic history of the region and convey its unique flavour.”
Navina Najat Haidar

“With enviable elan and ease this book recreates the history of the Deccan in the late medieval and early modern times. It is a marvellous achievement and will stoke future scholarship on the area and era.”
Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Reviews for Rebel Sultans

“[Rebel Sultans] is dazzling storytelling. Pillai has employed an extraordinarily powerful imagination and a prodigious talent with words to write a genuine thriller that is near impossible to shut before reaching the end.”- The Indian Express

“For all its meticulous detail, Rebel Sultans is an enjoyable read.”- India Today

“…this rather remarkable young author is back with Rebel Sultans…a fast-paced greatest hits of the [Deccan’s] medieval roller-coaster ride…”-

“…this fine book…(is) nuanced…convincing when assertive…(this) is scholarship.”- The Business Standard

“…Rebel Sultans is a remarkable, daring book.”- The Hindustan Times

“…a fascinating book, with delectable minutiae in practically every page…”- Outlook

“Writing in an eloquent and lucid style, Pillai holds his readers spellbound…”- The Hindu

“One of India’s finest young historians…Pillai unravels a forgotten chapter in our medieval past…A charming and contemporary history book…”- The Times of India

“…in an elegant and lucid style…Pillai brings together a wide range of sources to weave a fascinating narrative of a historically important and understudied region and period in South Asian history…Pillai’s book is significant not only because it is the first history of the Deccani Sultanates written for a general audience, but also because of the breadth of sources it integrates…(which) gives the work a notable sophistication…Rebel Sultans is an excellent contribution…from which both scholars and the general public will benefit.”- Studies in History

Publisher: Juggernaut
Buy: Amazon India

The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore

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In 1498, when Vasco da Gama set foot in Kerala looking for Christians and spices, he unleashed a wave of political fury that would topple local powers like a house of cards. The cosmopolitan fabric of a vibrant trading society – with its Jewish and Arab merchants, Chinese pirate heroes and masterful Hindu Zamorins – was ripped apart, heralding an age of violence and bloodshed. One prince, however, emerged triumphant from this descent into chaos. Shrewdly marrying Western arms to Eastern strategy, Martanda Varma consecrated the dominion of Travancore, destined to become one of the most dutiful pillars of the British Raj. What followed was two centuries of internecine conflict in one of India’s premier princely states, culminating in a dynastic feud between two sisters battling to steer the fortunes of their house on the eve of Independence.

Manu S. Pillai’s retelling of this sprawling saga focuses on the remarkable life and work of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last – and forgotten – queen of the House of Travancore. The supporting cast includes the flamboyant painter Raja Ravi Varma and his wrathful wife, scheming matriarchs of ‘violent, profligate and sordid’ character, wife-swapping court favourites, vigilant English agents, quarrelling consorts and lustful kings. Extensively researched and vividly rendered, The Ivory Throne conjures up a dramatic world of political intrigues and factions, black magic and conspiracies, crafty ceremonies and splendorous temple treasures, all harnessed in a tragic contest for power and authority in the age of empire.

Reviews for The Ivory Throne

“…a gem of a book…”- The Indian Express

“…the wealth of information crammed into this book is bewildering…Especially when you keep in mind that Pillai is only 25 and this is his first book, The Ivory Throne is a magnificent effort.”- Mint

“This 700-page whopper of a book…swirls through Kerala’s history like a dervish possessed by the intention of telling a magnificent story, and telling it marvellously well.”- The New Indian Express

“A detailed work of history…The achievement of the book matches its ambition…You will not regret the many hours you commit: It is an absolute delight.”- Business Standard

“…a brilliant debut…The Ivory Throne is an exceptional work; the achievement falls into perspective when you realise that Pillai is just 25 years old.”- DNA

“…a particularly fascinating account…The Ivory Throne is also a sociological study– perhaps the first of its kind…”- The Tribune

“A riveting read…Even a cursory glance makes one forget that it is a debut work by a writer in his mid-twenties…an awesome achievement.”- The Hindustan Times

“…a gripping historical account…”- The Telegraph

“A clear-headed history…Well-researched and well-written, The Ivory Throne adds a new point of view to the study of Kerala.”- Outlook Magazine

“…vast and learned…Pillai has given us a wonderful book.”- Asian Review of Books

“…a distinguished piece of work…”- The Deccan Herald

“…Pillai’s work breaks new ground…”- Fountain Ink

“…a thoroughly enjoyable read…”- India Currents

Publisher: HarperCollins India
Buy: Amazon India 

Serena Chopra: Bhutan Echoes (with an essay by Manu S Pillai)


Bhutan Echoes features a selection of evocative black and white photographs taken over a decade ago by Serena Chopra in Bhutan, that form a unique personal photographic study of the landlocked Himalayan country. The publication, produced in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name, also features an introductory essay by Manu S Pillai.

Having travelled extensively across the length and breadth of Bhutan, Chopra captures the unique landscape of this country with its surprising blend of the secular and the religious, myth and reality, the traditional with the modern, and the immense contrast between its smaller townships and faraway ancient villages. A rich archive of human emotions, these photographs offer a window into the lives of the Bhutanese people as they move towards a certain modernity.

Publisher: Tasveer
Buy: Amazon India