Shades of Sultans

(Published in The Economic Times, June 17 2018)


In 1397, following a coup that expelled a slave-turned-begum and her son from the halls of royal power, a sultan called Firoz Shah ascended the throne of the Bahmani kingdom in the Deccan. The Bahmanis were born from a rebellion of aristocrats and generals, who broke from the Tughluqs in Delhi and established their own regime in the south. Almost through lottery, one of them was installed as ruler, spawning a dynasty that survived two centuries, changing forever the character of the Indian subcontinent. Firoz Shah, for instance, was an unusual creature for his age of violence and conquest. Possessed of extraordinary intellectual capacities, he was a polyglot who spoke everything from Turkish to Marathi, reading the Hebrew Bible and composing Persian poetry. Between his wars and endless military campaigns, he attended classes on botany and logic, even giving lectures himself for an assortment of highborn students. His amirs (nobles) included leading Maratha warlords, while much of his bureaucracy was manned by the best of the Deccan’s Brahmins. The Bahmanis, in other words, first came to this land as foreigners and invaders—but when their power was entrenched, they sought to build bridges with its original custodians, beginning something that enriched the story of the Indian people.

In writing the political history of Islam in India, historians and scholars fall often in the trap of extreme ideological convictions. To some, Islam’s relationship with Hindu culture was gloriously syncretic — a splendid, pristine union of two great traditions — while to others of a certain political persuasion, Islam is the sole, wicked cause of every calamity that reared its head anywhere in the vicinity of India. The truth, as it often is, lies somewhere in the middle, and of this the careers of Firoz Shah and his brother are proof enough. There were violent wars and there was iconoclasm. If a shrine mattered to an enemy Hindu prince, it was most certainly a target for destruction during an invasion. But those very same kings who smashed idols and broke temples, appear also as paragons of syncretic co-existence in a different combination of historical circumstances — where they attacked shrines in enemy kingdoms, they often patronised and supported Hindu establishments within their own dominions, whether it is the Bahmanis or even someone as embattled in today’s textbook wars as Tipu Sultan. What helps negotiate this tricky landscape in an age of furious political polarisation, then, is a quick glance at that precious thing called context. For then, as now, politics was a universe of layers and complex factors, none of them black and white as much as shifting shades of grey.

Understandably, Firoz Shah, like other sultans of his time, crafted his ideology of state in terms derived from Islam. Mosques were constructed, and madrasas were patronised. But beyond his formal façade, the sultan proved perfectly flexible in bending ideology in favour of a more pragmatic policy. Some of it was simply personal. He was, for instance, a man with a prodigious sexual appetite. When his Sunni piety got in the way, he simply switched to the Shia practice of the temporary mutah marriage to collect an empire of wives. In addition to his Muslim begums, his harem featured Christian consorts, and women from lands as distant as Afghanistan and Arabia. In a political alliance, he obtained a Gond princess in marriage, while his nephew was obsessed with a Hindu king’s daughter, whom he lovingly called Zeba Chehra (Beautiful Face). Most famously in 1406, after war with Vijayanagar’s emperor, a princess of the Sangama dynasty was also given to Firoz Shah as a bride. But for her dowry, the sultan demanded not only the usual mountains of gold, gems, and silver, but also as many as 2,000 cultural professionals from southern India. Scholars, musicians, dancers, and other persons of talent from a different cultural universe, arrived in the Bahmani Sultanate, combining with Persian poets and immigrant Sufis to exalt (and transform) its own notions of taste, art, and culture. These were different worlds from which they emerged but together in a common space they also found points of convergence.

Firoz Shah’s brother, Ahmad — who may well have strangled Firoz to death — was, similarly, a formidable warrior and general. His military enterprises were justified in terms of faith, and the Persian chronicler Ferishta recorded, for instance, that every time Ahmad Shah killed 20,000 “infidels”, he threw a grand feast to celebrate the triumph of Islam. Leaving aside the improbability of the figure itself, this formal picture of the Bahmani Sultan is quite at odds with the cultural memory of his age, passed down through generations. To this day in the Deccan, he is remembered almost as a saint. The urs (anniversary) of his death is calculated not on the basis of the Hijri calendar but according to the Hindu lunar almanac. The commemoration is presided over not by a Muslim priest or even a Sufi, but by the jangam of the Shiva-worshipping Lingayats of Madhyal. With hundreds of devotees, this spiritual guru arrives at Ahmad Shah’s mausoleum, entering the tomb with great fanfare, smashing a coconut in consonance with usual Hindu custom, blowing the conch, and offering flowers at the grave. Even the Sultan’s son enjoyed a romance with Hindu tradition: he surrounded himself with so many Brahmins, that many of the latter’s colleagues argued that they were committing sacrilege by discussing the Vedas with a mlechcha (barbarian) and a Muslim.

Why, then, this divergence between official chronicles and the legacy actually manifest on the ground?Texts and hagiographies commissioned by Muslim rulers in India, often in Persian and Arabic, were rarely intended for an Indian audience. Full of wild exaggerations about their aggressive efforts to rid the world of infidels, these were designed for consumption in Persia and beyond. Those were the cultural capitals of Islam, populated by dynasties and spiritual powers who were the fount of legitimacy for even Indian sultans. Simply put, upstart warrior lineages that transformed themselves into royal lines, either out of an inferiority complex, or to “fit in” with peers in the West, sought their approval in a language of fanatic puritanism.

Muhammad of Ghor, for instance, made much of his “destruction of infidels” during his conquests, when in actual practice he prominently featured the “infidel” goddess Lakshmi on his coins to win the cooperation of his new subjects. He made statements to impress the caliph of Islam on the one hand, while on the other he sought to mollify local Hindu elites to sustain his own power. In times of war and conflict, similarly, temples were often destroyed—to attack a dynasty’s chief temple was to strike at the legitimacy of a Hindu king. It was something Hindu rulers also did not hesitate to practise in the Deccan—more than one emperor of Vijayanagar was accused of destroying mosques in the territories of the sultans, even as in their own lands they endowed Muslim institutions and honoured the Quran. Exaggeration for political legitimacy, besides, came not only in Persian but in Sanskrit too. Long before he had encountered a single “Turk”, the king of the Yadavas was eulogising himself for being a terror of Muslims at the end of the thirteenth century. And as late as the eighteenth century, even as they paid tribute to the Mughals, poets of the Maratha king in Thanjavur claimed he had reclaimed lands as far as Banaras.

Iconoclasm, in other words, certainly existed, and Muslim power often drew validity from the uprooting of older institutions and centres of influence and cultural capital such as temples. But religion was not so much the guiding principle of statecraft, nor the principal faultline on which battles and wars were fought. It was strategically deployed at times, and its vocabulary exploited to justify naked political ambitions — on the ground, then as today, politics grappled with a whole variety of other parameters. When Ahmad Shah, for example, established a new capital for himself in Bidar, he chose the place for a number of reasons—it was, on the one hand, centrally located in a multilingual state of Marathi-, Telugu-, and Kannada-speaking peoples. But, more importantly, it was a city associated, from the days of yore, with prestigious Indian dynasties whose legacies offered cultural prestige to the Bahmanis. The Chalukyas, Kakatiyas and Yadavas all had connections to Bidar, and by occupying that space, the sultans were laying claim to an older tradition. The architecture of the city also reflected the plurality of influences at the court of the sultans: there were elements derived from South Indian temple styles, just as there were details that came with designers and masons imported from Persia and outside. And for all the formal theory of state, and the official chronicles of kings, in reality economic interests ensured a greater entwining of states across divides of religion. As the Vijayanagar poet Srinatha’s Haravilasam demonstrates, the same Hindu merchants importing goods from the west and the east, supplied the sultans of the Deccan as well as their Hindu rivals to the south. 

This did not mean there was no conception of “us” and “them”. Hindu princes realised that this was an age dominated by powerful sultans, and they found inventive methods of resistance. As Richard H Davis writes, “Hindu epics of resistance and other literary works… not only describe the heroic defence of temples but also the recovery and reappearance of images. With foresight of impending invasions, divine images go into exile. They move to less vulnerable temples. They hide in forests or in underground beds and await their chance to return… When danger has passed they ceremoniously emerge from their retreat and reenter their temples… The return of the image is often coupled with the declaration of autonomy by a new local Hindu ruler.”In other words, there was a “lying low” in the hope of restoration to glory tomorrow. In political terms, however, from the Vijayanagar point of view, for example, the Bahmani Sultan was only as alien as the Hindu Gajapatis of Odisha — on occasion, the sultans of the Deccan even allied with the Hindu rulers of Odisha against Vijayanagar, and there was no grand union of Hindu powers to expel Muslims from India forever. That said, for Hindu elites, a Muslim invasion certainly threatened the destruction of temples and the plundering of its riches, which, in degrees of brutality, might not necessarily be the case if the invader was another Hindu. In that case, as with Krishnadevaraya, the greatest ruler of Vijayanagar, an idol might be seized from a vanquished king and installed in a new temple in the invader’s homeland, but the idea of the temple itself was not under siege. 

The issue, then, is a complex one. For all the efforts today to paint the past in stark colours, to vilify some and absolve others, a mature understanding of history in its context doesn’t easily lend itself to political purposes — it offers, in equal measure, samples of syncretic union as much as it does violence justified in the name of religion. Both of these, however, are among several factors that shaped India’s past. Viewed from different angles, Firoz Shah and Ahmad Shah can appear as villains to some and heroes to others, when the simple fact was that they were merely men of their age, doing politics as they knew it then. That we cannot comprehend this today is not their failing, as much as ours; and that we must project our own anxieties in the present onto those who lived in the past is merely a convenient escape, one any good historian must necessarily take to task.