A colourful tapestry

(Published in The New Indian Express, November 24 2018)

By Shevlin Sebastian

KOCHI: On May 19, 1520, Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire (1509–1529) and Sultan Ismail Adil Shah of Bijapur went to battle. They both coveted the same prize: The highly fertile Raichur district which is in modern-day Karnataka. The district had numerous iron and diamond deposits and lay between the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers.

However, it was an unequal battle. While Ismail had 18,000 cavalry, 1.2 lakh infantry and 150 elephants, Krishnadevaraya only had 27,000 horsemen. But nevertheless, through clever tactical moves, Krishnadevaraya had an easy victory. Astonishingly, after the loss, Ismail sent an emissary to Krishnadevaraya asking for the city of Raichur, together with all the artillery, horses, and elephants that the sultan had lost in the battle. Krishnadevaraya told the emissary, “I will do so if Ismail Adil Shah comes and kisses my feet.”

In his reply, Ismail said that as a sovereign ruler he could not enter the territory of another prince. So, Krishnadevaraya offered to go to the border town of Mudgal, to meet the Sultan but before he got a reply, he went there. Not surprisingly, Ismail  stayed away. So Krishnadevaraya went all the way to Bijapur City but again the Sultan left before the Vijayanagara ruler arrived, to avoid the embarrassment of facing the king. Later, Krishnadevaraya had a good laugh about it.

This anecdote has been recounted in the book, ‘Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji’, published by Juggernaut, and written by young Malayali historian Manu S Pillai. The book has been well received and is into its third reprint. It details the history of the Deccan Sultans, from the 14th to the 18th centuries. They include the rulers of Vijayanagar, Bahamanis, Adil Shahis, Qutb Shahis and Nizam Shahis, not to forget the contribution of Shivaji. He writes about their rise, their long reign and the inevitable fall.

Asked the reasons for their decline, Manu says, “There were internal dissensions. It was a diverse society: there were thousands of Africans, many immigrants from Persia, Ottoman artillery men and artists from Iran. The Persians were called foreigners or Westerners, and most of whom were Shias. Then there were the Dakhnis who were mostly Sunni, and of Indian origin. Finally, there were the Marathas and various Hindu groups. If it was a wise Sultan, he would have had the skill to carry the various groups together. But some of the Sultans took sides. However, in the final reckoning, it was their inability to stay together that did them in. When the Mughals invaded the Deccan, if the Southern Sultans had united, they could have withstood the attacks.”

Asked whether any lessons could be learnt for the rulers of today, Manu says, “History is not black and white. While religion was a factor, it was not what motivated the leaders. The politics in those times was guided by the same things which guide politics today: Power, greed and money. Religion was a smokescreen to legitimise personal ambitions. Of course, there were numerous leaders who were bigots, but, interestingly, there were also kings who did the opposite.”

And Manu gives an example of the Bahmani Sultan Firuz Shah. He defeated the Vijayanagar king in 1406. But, as part of an agreement, he took a princess from the kingdom. “But Firuz also made an interesting demand,” says Manu. “He asked for 2,000 artists, dancers, musicians and writers from Vijayanagar because he wanted to develop a South Indian element in his own court. So his court had not only Hindustani culture, but Persian, and Tamil segments and all combined in a deliberate manner. So, it was no longer black and white but a rich and colourful tapestry.”

But for Manu, perhaps the most memorable leader was Malik Ambar. He was an Ethiopian slave who began life in Harar Province in Ethiopia. At age 10, he was enslaved and after spending a few years in Yemen and Iraq, he was sold to Chengiz Khan, the Peshwa of the Sultan of Nizam Shahi in Ahmadnagar, who was himself an Ethiopian. For twenty years, Malik served the Peshwa, gaining invaluable experience. After the latter’s death, in 1594, he managed to put up an army of his own.

“He was the only man standing against the ambitions of the Mughals, from the end of Akbar’s reign to Jahangir,” says Manu. In fact, so enraged was Jahangir that in his ‘Memoirs’, he called Malik ‘that black wretch’, ‘Ambar of dark fate’, and that ‘crafty, ill-starred one’. Interestingly, the talented court artist Abu’l Hasan did a painting where Jahangir is standing atop a globe and shooting an arrow through the severed head of Malik that was impaled on a tall pike. “What he could not achieve in real life was achieved through art,” says Manu with a laugh. “Malik remains one of the great figures of Deccan history.”

Box: The True Picture

The way Allauddin Khilji (1267-1316) was portrayed in the Bollywood hit film ‘Padmaavat’ was nothing short of sensational. “In ‘Padmaavat’, Alauddin is shown as a savage,” says historian Manu S Pillai. “That is not true. He was part of a long-standing court culture in Delhi. He did not eat like a barbarian. There was tremendous exaggeration in the film, to show him as uncivilised. If anything, he was a very clever man.”There is a famous story that when he conquered the Yadava Kingdom at Devanagiri in 1296, he did not have enough forces. When the Devanagiri army arrived, Allaudin sent off some horsemen into the distance and asked them to rake up a lot of dust to create an impression that he had a large army.“To paint all Muslim kings as violent people, we must remember that violence is not a one-sided affair,” says Manu. “We have read stories of Mughals who killed their brothers or sons killing fathers to become kings, but such cases also existed among Hindu kings.”