Manu S Pillai’s ‘Rebel Sultans’ review: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji

(Published in The Business Standard, September 1 2018)

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By Aakar Patel

The Deccan is a sort of liminal space on the subcontinent. It is neither north nor fully south, though its name of course is derived from the Sanskrit word for south, dakshina. What was called Dakhan or Deccan was the area that began where Hindustan ended. And Hindustan ended at the border of the Narmada. The river cuts almost a horizontal line from the eastern edge of Madhya Pradesh through to Bharuch in southern Gujarat.

To the east of the Narmada is the tribal belt, which is hilly and was, then as it is now, peopled with communities that have differences of culture and language and tradition over what is seen as the mainstream. This geography made it difficult for the Deccan to be easily united with the north. Rulers who could easily cross the Khyber and then swoop down into the plains as far as Bengal, did not as easily manage to cross the Narmada-Adivasi axis.

The great Maratha chieftain and warrior Shivaji was the first to do this regularly. Every year, after the pujaof Dussehra, the Maratha cavalry of about 30,000 horse would cross north and raid Gujarat. In the period just before that, the young prince Aurangzeb extended the rule of the Mughals into the Deccan (apparently without the knowledge or permission of his father). For many of us, the Deccan is represented by these two individuals. Manu S Pillai, in this fine book, draws our attention away from them and towards the other interesting and just as important men who wrote the area’s history.

Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji is about the period beginning early in the 14th century to around the end of the 17th century. The people from this area developed their own unique culture and language, and Pillai says by the 15th century they were sufficiently different for the Sultan to separate them from the “Westerners” (Muslims from other countries) in court.

Pillai does two things: he sets up a sort of chronological and genealogical history of the place and takes us through the rulers of the various kingdoms in the Deccan. And so, the stories of the Bahamanis, Sangama dynasty, Nizam Shahis, Adil Shahis and the Imad Shahis. He also looks in deeper fashion at those individuals who are slightly more interesting. One of them has a chapter to himself. This is Malik Ambar, hated by Jahangir (there are four references to Ambar in the first volume of Jahangir’s memoirs, the Tuzuk-e-Jahangir ). The Mughal refers to him as “Ambar, the black-face”, and “Ambar of dark fate” because of the colour of his skin. A slave from Ethiopia, Ambar is sold to the Arabs, converted to Islam and shipped to India. Pillai tells us that our Indian word for Africans, Habshi, is derived from the word Abyssinia, (which is also derived from an Amharic word).

Here he is sold once again, to the chief minister of Ahmadnagar, and is seen as sufficiently loyal and liked by the family to be released from bondage on the death of his master. He spends the next 20 years as a mercenary, fighting around the Deccan. When he is around 50, he comes into his own, when he fights the Mughal army on behalf of the various Deccan rulers. The fact that he is effective can be seen by the many references from the usually contemptuous Jahangir. In one place, the emperor laments the fact that an attack on Ambar by the Rajputs was unsuccessful. “It is my design to fight the Mughal troops so long as life remains in this body,” Ambar wrote. Ambar attacked the Mughals as far north as Surat and his life’s story (he died a natural death, which is astonishing for someone who needled the Mughals at the height of their power) is very deftly told by Pillai.

One theme that the writer focuses on is Islam versus Hinduism as a fault line. Pillai is not blind to the idea that religious bigotry existed and it produced violence. But his approach is nuanced and, this might be seen as patronising and I apologise if this is so, highly unusual in one so young (he is still only in his 20s). He is convincing when he is assertive. Pillai tells us that the notion of religious differences being the cause of hatred and conquest is highly exaggerated. For example, he refers to the bombast that the various rulers — both Muslim and Hindu — use in their inscriptions about their greatness, and points out their similarities.

Example: “When his sword began to dance on the battle-field, the faces of the Turushkas (Turks) shrivelled up, Konkana Sankaparya was filled with fear, the Andhras ran into caves, the Gurjaras lost the use of their limbs, the Kambojas’ courage was broken, the Kalingas suffered defeat.” (This is describing the acts of a king called Bukka of the Sangama dynasty). Pillai compares this with an inscription in Sanskrit from another era by the Delhi Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban, which reads: “he issue forth on a military expedition…the Gaudas abdicated their glory; the Andhras, through fear, besought the shelter of the caves; the Keralas forsook their pleasures; the Karnatas hid themselves in defiles; the Maharashtras gave their places; the Gurjaras resigned their valour; and the Latas dwarfed themselves into Kiratas.”

It is this sort of material that Indians need to read more. Though it cuts through about 400 years in 200 or so pages, the book is not difficult to read (as is the case often with chronological histories). It is fairly tightly edited and produced quite well. There are some small errors (for example, the name of the chapter on Malik Ambar is different in the Notes), but overall it is high quality.

Pillai’s sources are all English, but the bibliography is 14 pages long. That is scholarship.