The Indian history is not just restricted to a frequently described clash between Hindu and Muslim rulers but has important aspect of a Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb, the culture of the central plains of Northern India, especially the doab region of Ganges ( Ganga) and Yamuna rivers, which is regarded as a fusion of Hindu and Muslim elements. The history is dominated by the clash between Mughals and Marathas where as the bond between the Hindu Kings and Muslim Sultans in Deccan has been mostly neglected. 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.
Manu S. Pillai, a 29 year old historian, through his “Rebel Sultans” facilitates our journey from Allauddin Khilji to Shivaji. In 1707, when Emperor Aurangzeb went to his grave, the Mughal empire began to crack into a hundred fractured pieces. It was the lure of the Deccan that drained this conqueror’s energies, putting him on a course of collision with his most threatening adversaries. “The Deccan was a land that inspired wonder. Its treasures were legendary, and its kings magnificent. It was a horizon of rousing adventure, attracting talent from beyond oceans. A traveler here might encounter bands of European snipers available for military hire or forbidding fortresses where African nobles scaled the heights of power. Diamonds and pearls lay heaped in the Deccan’s bazaars, while in its courts thrived Persians and Marathas, Portuguese and Georgians, presiding over a world of drama and betrayal. A thousand fortunes were made in the Deccan, drawing the formidable envy of generations of Mughal emperors.”
In Rebel Sultans, Manu S Pillai narrates the story of the Deccan from the close of the thirteenth century to the dawn of the eighteenth. Packed with riveting tales and compelling characters, he takes us from the age of Alauddin Khilji to the ascent of Shivaji. We witness the dramatic rise and fall of the Vijayanagar empire, even as we negotiate intrigues at the courts of the Bahmani kings and the Rebel Sultans who overthrew them. From Chand Bibi, a valorous queen stabbed to death and Ibrahim II of Bijapur, a Muslim prince who venerated Hindu gods, to Malik Ambar, the Ethiopian warlord, and Krishnadeva Raya on Vijayanagar’s Diamond Throne, Rebel Sultans reminds us of a different age and a different time in the Deccan–one that ended an empire and rewrote India’s destiny.
Pillai analyses the chronology of the historical events in one of his articles in January 2019: “To think of India divided between two dominant powers allows for a grand (even if entirely imaginary) picture: the Mughals with their influence stretched across the Gangetic belt, and from Afghanistan to Bengal, while all that lay south of the Narmada became the dominion of the heirs of Krishnadeva Raya. At some point the two would certainly have clashed—Mughal ambitions and the ballooning of their empire could only lead them towards the frontier of the southern emperor, just as the latter’s ancestral conflict with Orissa’s monarchs would have mobilized Vijayanagar’s armies towards the north.”
“Persian sartorial tastes and much else from the Islamicate world touched life in Vijayanagar—its temple sculptures, architecture, and even the famous bronze of Krishnadeva Raya and his wives in the Tirupati temple, stand testament to this. A Vijayanagar princess was given once in marriage to a sultan, while another emperor is believed to have toyed with the idea of seeking a bride from Catholic Portugal.”
Certainly, right up to and including Shivaji, the cultural identity of exalted power throughout the Deccan is endlessly fluid. Perfectly illustrative is Alauddin Shah, the very founder of the Bahmani Sultanate, said even then to be “half a Mussulman and half a Hindu.” As Pillai writes, he “became one of the earliest Muslim kings in India to declare that ‘no jiziah should be levied from non-Muslims in lieu of military service’, a policy most famously associated with the Mughal emperor Akbar who ruled many generations later…A number of prominent local Hindu princes were invited to the Bahmani court which was established at Gulbarga. In 1352, endearingly, the Sultan even opened his eyes to the glories of Buddhist and Jain traditions by visiting the Ellora caves, taking with him a scholar to interpret all that he saw there in its ancient frescoes and carvings.”
Pillai states quite bluntly about the internal contradictions of the empires when there is a fashion to blame external enemies all the time: “If Vijayanagar had survived, India might have entered the modern age looking a great deal different. Its experience with the European trading companies that sought to colonize this land could have taken a different shape—a powerful emperor in the peninsula might have been able to contain Portuguese, Dutch, and English influence. Many later heroes—from Shivaji down to Tipu—might not have emerged at all, had Vijayanagar’s imperial order held. But fantasy is perhaps best tempered with the evidence left by reality: great empires often fell not because of external enemies but due to internal contradictions; because of the misguided policies of proud rulers than the arms of a terrible invader. So, for all we know, if Vijayanagar had survived after Talikota, it may yet have collapsed a few generations later, limited minds and incapable men bringing about what the Deccan’s sultans achieved in 1565 by force of arms.”
The ‘Hindu’ rulers of Vijayanagar 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 Vijayanagar 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 II, 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. This makes us to believe that the Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb extends even to the Deccan!
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(The writer is a Socio-political Historian. E-mail: [email protected] )