Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji review: Melting pot of ideas

(Published in The Hindu, September 16 2018)

By Ranjeeta Dutta

As a teacher of history, one is often confronted with students asking why the curriculum based on rigorous research has always remained confined to the precincts of university classrooms. Manu Pillai’s Rebel Sultans provides the much-needed bridge between the isolated world of academia and wider public audience. The book tells us a story of the fascinating world of Deccan, full of splendour, exciting political intrigues, glorious rulers, magnificent cities and fabulous treasures.

Writing in an eloquent and lucid style, Pillai holds his readers spellbound through a sweeping narration of a new era beginning from the end of the 13th century with grand kingdoms of Vijayanagar, Bahamanis, Adil Shahis, Qutb Shahis and Nizam Shahis holding sway and creating an impressive scenario that ironically became their nemesis with the mighty Mughals ruthlessly crushing them by the beginning of the 18th century.

The Deccan, long neglected in medieval and early modern history writing and viewed mainly through the prism of the Marathas and their entanglement with the Mughals, in Pillai’s writing provides us with important lessons in present times.

We are introduced to a cosmopolitan world where mobility, fluid identities, cross-cultural interactions and political strategies defy the modern imagination of fixed boundaries, watertight religious categories and definite notions of truth and falsity. The Deccan attracted people from Iran, Iraq, Europe, China, Africa and Southeast Asia. It was the hub of the trading world with some of the finest port cities. The immigrants from Persia and Africa and mercenaries from within the region rose to the ranks of nobles, becoming contenders to the throne and successfully establishing great kingdoms. Deccan became a melting pot, a land of opportunities, with channels of social mobility that questioned and re-casted established pedigrees.

The Qutb Shahis of Golconda with an Iranian tribal lineage, the humble Abyssinian slave immigrants like Malik Amber becoming nobles and masterminds behind changing dynastic fortunes, warrior queens like Chand Bibi, polyglot and literati kings like Krishnadevaraya and Feroz Shah Bahamani, travellers from France, Burma, and West Asia and artists from Holland and Persia, gem traders from as far as Flanders — all enriched the Deccan.

No one can overlook the grandeur of cities like Vijayanagara, Golconda, Bijapur and Hyderabad with impressive architecture and treasures, especially the fabled diamonds. So enduring was this impressive legacy that the narrative tells us that as late as 1813, an American city in Illinois changed its name from Sarahsville to Golconda and Vijayanagar was compared to Rome. The courts of the Vijayanagar ruler, Krishnadevaraya and Adil Shahi Sultan of Bijapur, Ibrahim Adil Shah II were legendary for their arts and culture with Persian, Telugu and Marathi languages scaling new heights.

Thus, Deccan had a pluralistic society that accommodated everybody. We are told that, despite strong political rhetoric against other religions, a clash of civilisations never had an enduring presence. The Deccani elites moved from one patron to the other for lucrative careers irrespective of their religious affiliations.

The ‘Hindu’ rulers of Vijayanagara patronised Sanskritic culture but also adopted the sartorial fashions from West Asia. They constructed temples, whose pillars had engravings of Turkish and Arabic figures and adopted titles like Hinduraya Suratrana meaning ‘Sultan amongst the Hindu kings’ and Yavana Rajya Sthapana Acharya, ‘the monarch who established the kingdom of the Turks’. Influenced by the Telugu world of the Vijayanagara kingdom we have the ‘Muslim’ Qutb Shahi sultan changing his name from Ibrahim to Abhirama.

The Adil Shahis of Bijapur were perhaps one of the most eclectic rulers whose attitudes defied all religious stereotypes. Ali Adil Shah invited Catholic priests to his court and his Persian text, Nujum al-Ulum (Stars of Sciences), included paintings of Hindu deities and a translation of a Sanskrit text on Varshik astrology. His successor, the famous Ibrahim Adil Shah, styled himself as the son of lord Ganapati and goddess Saraswati and Hindu gods like Shiva and Parvati and Hindu epics influenced his writings. Commissioning a painting of Saraswati in which the goddess was depicted as a Deccani princess, art under Ibrahim also evinced the influence of European styles. In fact, the narrative in the book is full of such instances and the author does not eschew any moment to assert this, sometimes a bit too self-consciously.

This brings us to the question: Can the history writing of the medieval and early modern India go beyond the overwhelming subject of the Hindu-Muslim? Further, in a constant attempt to draw lessons from the past, don’t we often burden it with our modern worldviews and anxieties? Perhaps this is the need of the hour, especially when history occupies such a prodigious place in public life and political discourse.

Pillai undoubtedly makes an intrepid effort to stir the hornet’s nest, pushing the reader towards uncomfortable moments of self-doubt without providing easy answers. Drawing admirably from existing scholarly works, some of which long forgotten like the works of H.K. Sherwani and P.M. Joshi and with detailed endnotes running to about hundred pages and an exhaustive bibliography, Rebel Sultans positions itself appropriately in both the academic and the wider world.