Forgotten empires

(Published in India Today, July 30 2018)

By G Krishnan

Most histories of the Deccan region have highlighted the ruthlessness of Aurangzeb or the valour of Shivaji. In Rebel Sultans, Manu Pillai instead explores the rise and fall of the empires of six earlier centuries.

Dakshina in Sanskrit, hence Deccan, was known for its monetary and cultural richness. As early as the first century, travellers wrote of the abundance of cotton and onyx in the region. Its welcoming rulers and bazaars heaped with silver, gold and diamonds attracted artists, poets and fortune-seekers from everywhere. It also drew invaders, especially from the north. But the Deccan was unyielding and, therefore, tantalising. To know India, Pillai writes, one must know the Deccan.

Rebel Sultans begins in the 13th century, with the Yadavas falling to Alauddin Khilji’s small cavalry, and the eventual seizure of the lands of the warring Hoysalas and Kakatiyas. The Bahmani Sultanate rises and, wracked by dissension, it disintegrates. Rebels emerge, only to feud over everything. Once they join forces, they destroy the Vijayanagara empire. But their unity is short-lived and their internecine quarrels lead to their downfall. Beheadings, blindings, poisonings and greed for power feature in every regime until the rise of Shivaji. Pillai populates the pages with portraits, family trees and tales: of a Raya of Vijayanagara who escapes his captors while hiding near-naked in a sugarcane field, of warrior queen Chand Bibi, who reportedly forges cannonballs out of gold and silver when she runs out of ammunition in battle, of an Ethiopian slave who becomes a ruler and speaks the language of the region, of the mining of some of the largest diamonds in the world, including the one called Hope, in Golconda.

When united, the rulers produced great art and poetry or built fine monuments, some of which still stand in Bijapur, Hampi and Hyderabad.

Contrary to the picture painted in many other histories, Pillai’s work shows that thirst for power and recognition, rather than Hindu-Muslim strife, was the prime motivator for the regions many conflicts. There are tales of Muslim rulers who appointed Brahmins as the local administrators or were devout followers of Goddess Saraswati and fluent in Sanskrit; of Hindu kings who called themselves Sultans; and of rulers who flaunted their status as Shudras. For all its meticulous detail, Rebel Sultans is an enjoyable read.