Plateau’s republics

(Published in The Week, Issue dated 15 July 2018)

By Vaisakh E Hari


IN THE RUINS of Hampi in Karnataka, even the weeds sprout diffidently, as if weighed down by the scars of a violent past. The capital of the famed Vijayanagara empire was, in the words of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, a kingdom awaiting conquest. It was the land of untold riches, where precious stones were traded in open markets, a civilisation at its zenith, gripped by a fatalistic fervour that presages extinction. In its afterlife, the empire mutated into a political entity—a Hindu paradise on the wrong side of the Tungabhadra river, that barbaric Muslim invaders laid to waste.

Young historian Manu S. Pillai, in his latest book Rebel Sultans, reanimates the Deccan, the history of which is often conflated with the rise of Shivaji. Nothing could be a graver injustice, argues Pillai, as he dives headfirst into the history of forgotten men who shaped the landscape much before the famed Maratha warrior took his baby steps. In his retelling, Pillai explores the rich tapestry of historical figures with nimble prose that in no way compromises on academic rigour; the result is an enjoyable, illuminating journey into the middle India of yore. “In the Deccan, I don’t want to focus yet again on the Mughals and the Marathas. I would rather write about the rich historical figures who ended up with the short end of the stick,”he says. In his tales manifest African warlords who haunted Mughal emperor Jehangir’s nightmares, fearsome queen warriors, feuding kings, disintegrating empires and palace intrigues, all viewed from the prism of a truant moment of time that rewrote destinies. Alauddin Khilji’s manoeuvre with a ‘ghost’army fells Yadavas’ famed Devagiri; in the heat of the battle, an almost naked Raya of Vijayanagar manages to slip through the fingers of adversary Ahmad Shah’s soldiers; a Sufi sheikh in the court of Bahmani sultan Firoz Shah hastens the end of his rule.

Twenty-eight-year-old Pillai, a popular face as the former chief of staff of MP Shashi Tharoor, hails from Kerala. Though he grew up in Maharashtra, the cultural interactions in his home state, and tales from his family history, played a significant role in sparking his interest in historical research. “Ours was a mixed family,” he says. “My father grew up in poverty. My paternal grandfather was an illiterate farmer. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was an English-speaking man of intellectuality. As a result, I was exposed to two different kinds of culture; my paternal grandfather would tell me stories from his life, and I learnt of cows and farming, starvation and suffering. On some philosophical level, that got me interested in the underdog, the forgotten man.” Pillai’s first book, Ivory Throne, was an intricately researched treatise on the extraordinary life of Travancore Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. The book won the 2017 Kendra Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. “I don’t think I would ever write another 700 page book,” he laughs. “It was a kind of idealism that drove me. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was practically written out of history, relegated to a mere footnote. I wanted to resurrect her.”

In the academic and popular history circles, there are lacunae when it comes to the history of the south. There is a definite north Indian bias in historical research, says Pillai. “There are twice as many books published on the Mughals and the Marathas than there are about the rest.” If William Dalrymple’s White Mughals was a love story that shone a light into the early dynamics between Christianity and Islam in India, Rebel Sultans spotlights the cultural reciprocity that existed between Hindu and Muslim rulers at the time. While Akbar is widely considered the epitome of a model, secular ruler, it was Hasan Gangu, the first Bahmani Sultan from Gulbarga, who was one of the earliest rulers to abolish the jizya (tax on non-Muslims). Deccan was a model of syncretism at its finest, with unbridled cultural exchanges from as far as Persia, Arabia and Europe. Hindu kings anointed themselves hinduraya suratrana (sultans). There were displays of social mobility even within the deeply entrenched caste system—rulers like Prataparudra of Kakatiya dynasty openly proclaimed their shudra status. Muslim ruler Ibrahim Adil Shah II, Pillai writes, described himself as a man whose “father is guru Ganapati and mother the pure Saraswati”. Brahmins and local chiefs were given duties of everyday administration of sultanates.

Doesn’t this also fly straight in the face of the dominant narratives of ruthless Islamic despots, mass murder of ‘infidels’ and forcible conversions? “One sultan lived for seven years in Vijayanagara. Another exiled Delhi prince chose to live there, and not a sultanate,”says Pillai. “These people didn’t necessarily view the world through a religious lens. When the war came, heady religious language was used, but religion itself did not drive the conflict. When Vijayanagara fell, why were the Marathas on the side of the sultans if there was a grand Hindu cause?

“Truth is not in black and white. It is always somewhere in the middle. The more I learn, the more I understand that even grey is not a colour that does justice to the richness of Indian history. Till a couple of centuries ago, power and violence went hand in hand. Power had to be demonstrated, sometimes violently, to show that you were in control. So even the best of the Deccan’s heroes, from Shivaji to Ibrahim Adil Shah II, functioned in an age of violence. What made them great was that they managed to transcend this and develop a new vision.”

The vast brown expanses of Hampi are no more amenable to an artistic rendition in monochrome than the history of the place. Dotting the landscape is the bustling temple of Virupaksha, dedicated to Shiva, which was strangely left untouched in the Vijayanagara sacking. It is worthwhile noting that, at the time, Shaivism was fast waning and Vaishnavism was gaining hold. “The Sangamas, who founded Vijayanagar, were Shaivites,” says Pillai. “But, the later Tuluva kings like Krishnadevaraya were Vaishnavites. That is why you find that he starts promoting Madhwa Brahmins over Shaivite Brahmins, and more emphasis on temples like Tirupati.” Was the answer that simple? Dominance? “It is very likely that the invading forces and the sultans weren’t planning to occupy Vijayanagara,”says Pillai. “They won the war, got their loot, settled a long-standing feud and proved their point. They would have no interest in demolishing the place brick by brick.”

Given the amount of research necessary to recreate a narrative version of the events, how cumbersome did he find a lack of reliable sources? As Pillai points out in his book, there were biases inherent in almost all chroniclers. Ferishta, for instance, was prone to aggrandisement of Islamic rulers. “The biases are always there. We have to go through multiple chroniclers for different versions, and look at it in context,”says Pillai. “Who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who are the intended audience? When Vijayanagara forces annexed Madhurai Sultanate, there was a poem written called Madura Vijayam. It sings about cows being slaughtered, rivers running red with blood and temples being eroded by termites. It is almost as if the Muslims had destroyed everything and the Hindu rulers were reclaiming what was theirs. Who wrote it? A Vijayanagara princess. Why was it written? They were predominantly a Telugu-Kannada entity and they had to win the Tamil people over by uniting them against a common enemy.”

As of now, Pillai is busy with his PhD in London—buried in books for almost 10 hours in libraries every day. However, he hopes to return to India by the end of the year. “Elections are always an interesting time, and I hope to be a part of the campaigns next year. It gets me up and about. I always like to have one foot in the real world,”he says.