Really, Royally Bloody

(Published in The Times of India, April 14 2023)

In the seventeenth century, troops serving the Wadiyars of Mysore were dreaded for an unusual military habit: a “predilection,” as scholar Caleb Simmons put it, “for nose-cutting”. That is, enemies of Mysore would have their faces mutilated. Some accounts suggest they did this during battle, for which a special weapon was carried; others, such as a 1649 Kannada text, indicate that it was after the enemy’s defeat that their men were rounded up for amputation. Either way, the intent was obvious: lifelong humiliation. And no distinction was made on grounds of religion or ethnicity: if the Wadiyars cut noses off soldiers serving Bijapur’s sultan, they did the same with men fighting for the Madurai nayakas.

I was reminded of this practice when observing social media chatter around the controversy on the Mughals and the space they occupy in NCERT textbooks. In a video I posted on this, many responses betrayed a belief that somehow the Mughals were uniquely violent; that Hindu kings were more pious and well-behaved. The fact, though, is that power and violence went hand in hand; in wielding authority, all political figures were happy to inflict pain. This continued into recent times, in fact: the British, for example, liked to pose as a benign, “civilised” power. And yet as late as the 1860s, they were blowing live men out of cannons, their flesh and blood flying through the sky.

In India, we have never had a shortage of political violence. The Arthasastra—which at any rate was composed long before the Mughals were around—has opinions on how plunder should be divided; it offers assassination as a legitimate option for kings; and lists gruesome punishments for offenses. These included, as we find in Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India (2017), being cooked alive, burned, and being torn apart. Interestingly, the last method was used for sedition in later times: in Travancore in the early 1800s, a minister had a local rival who tried to topple him ripped in two. The man’s legs were tied to separate elephants, moving in opposite directions. In time the British deposed the minister for rebellion; his body was hung up for days in a hideous public spectacle.

Then we have violence within political dynasties. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s recent The World: A Family History offers examples from around the globe. But in India, we tend think of Mughal wars of succession chiefly: of Jahangir blinding his son; or, notoriously, of Aurangzeb murdering nearly all his brothers. But long before, in Vijayanagara an attempt was made by a brother or nephew—the relationship is unclear—to liquidate Devaraya II. The plot failed, and according to one account, Devaraya, having relieved his rival of his head, mounted a horse and publicly trotted about with this bloody trophy. A successor, Virupaksha II, was less lucky: this emperor was killed by his own son. Patricide marred the Golconda sultanate too, where the second Qutb Shahi ruler murdered his father as he prayed.

Violence against women also occurred. The Mughals took wives from Hindu rajahs who they defeated in battle, just as they did from the Deccan sultans: in treating women as prizes there was no religious separation. Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara defeated the Gajapati of Orissa and took his daughter. Rape was—and still is—used as an instrument of terror during conflict. If we learn of Rajput women preferring mass suicide to seizure by Muslim kings, we also have inscriptions revealing sexual violence in Chola-Chalukya conflicts. In Kerala in the eighteenth-century, Martanda Varma didn’t simply punish men who tried to cut his power; their female relations and children were also enslaved. In the same era, we find the Marathas too violating women in Bengal, as graphically described in the Maharashtrapurana.

Kingship as an institution was linked to violence, then—and such violence was public. Nothing confirmed the decline of the Mughals, for instance, like the blinding of Shah Alam in 1788 by a former vassal—this, in the emperor’s own throne room. Soldiers raped royal princesses and made the padshah’s sons dance in women’s clothing. In nineteenth-century Mysore, during the Nagara revolt, the maharajah’s messengers were slaughtered by Virasaiva (Lingayat) peasants, with his proclamations spread out defiantly near the bodies. Interestingly, just over a century before, a Mysore king had massacred hundreds of Virasaiva religious leaders: they were invited for a conference, discovering too late that the plan was to eliminate them.

The point, ultimately, is that the historical archive is stained with blood. It doesn’t matter where in the world we look; it makes little difference what the faith of the parties was. For in exercising (and preserving) power, violence was deployed routinely. Women were no different: one Hindu head queen of the Bijapur sultanate, for example, finding a grandson subpar, had him blinded and replaced—reasons of state, not sentiment, dictated her decision. Today this might seem shocking, but kings were dangerous people, occupying an equally fearsome world of blood and fire. Viewed through the prism of brutality, thus, history has few heroes. If the Mughals were violent, it was not because they were Mughals; it was because they were royal.