This conversation between two of India’s best historians who are currently in circulation – William Dalrymple and Manu Pillai – exposes the cardboard cutout history that is routinely taught in India’s schools and which infect the popular narrative of how India has evolved.
Pillai points out that whilst Shivaji (and his war with the Mughals) is the main prism through which most of the view the Deccan in the Middle Ages, the history of the Deccan is far richer than that:“The Deccan witnessed fascinating events, presided over by even more fascinating people. We have Persian immigrants transform into kings; African warlords marrying their daughters to Sultans; begums who refused purdah (provoking their sons to blot them out of paintings); and a constant religious exchange, whether it was at court where Hindu poets sang of the Mahabharata to Sultans, or on the ground where the saint Eknath could produce a ‘Hindu-Turk Samvad’.”
In fact, as Pillai explains in his book “Rebel Sultans”, the Deccan can boast of a star cast of heroes beyond Shivaji and the Mughals: “Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur ranks high on my list. This late-16th, early-17th century prince was an extraordinary figure. He could get, given the times in which he lived, cruel where matters of power were concerned…To some today, this sort of action can be taken out of its historical context and used to paint people as “good” or “bad” when the fact is that across the board, till a few centuries ago, violence and power went hand in hand. Ibrahim, however, was supremely interesting. His patronage of art (including a luckless European painter and the miniaturist Farrukh Beg), his love for music, his interest in literature, his contribution to architecture, all combined in a long reign to establish him as one of the finest historical figures to have shaped early-modern India.
The other figure has to be Malik Ambar. Here was a man born in Africa, snatched as a boy and sold into slavery, who arrives in India and rises to near-princely rank through sheer determination and not a little shrewdness.
As the Mughals begin their conquest of the Deccan in the early 17th century, all that stands in their way for decades is this man, and at least two generations of emperors were reduced to barking insults in frustration. Jehangir, especially, hated him to the extent that he commissioned a painting showing himself shooting an arrow at Ambar’s impaled head — something he never succeeded in doing in real life, of course.”
Pillai also does his bit to dispel the notion that the Deccan is where Islam and Hinduism clashed to the detriment of one or the other. Religion, Pillai explains, was used then – as it is now – as a way of canvassing support: “Naipaul is not the first to succumb to the romanticised idea of Vijayanagar as a Hindu bulwark against Islamic aggression. It was certainly founded by Hindu brothers, whose ideology of state was set in Sanskritic terms. But from the very start, we find that it was not driven by religion. Bukka, one of the empire’s founders, for instance, was hardly a man who despised Muslims — why, then, would he invite the Sultan of Delhi to ally with him and destroy the Bahmani state? In inscriptions, we find that ‘Turks’ are only despised as much as other Hindu kingdoms are, and Muslims are not at the receiving end of any pronounced, unusual hostility.
Besides, Vijayanagar wasn’t sunk in a sea of religious resentments from the past — it was a land of bold innovations that looked enthusiastically to the future. One of the most remarkable things about this empire and its rulers is also that, from the late 1340s, we have them use a particularly revealing title. They called themselves Hinduraya Suratrana, Sultans among Hindu Kings. This is fascinating because on the one hand this appears to be the first time that Indian sovereigns use the word ‘Hindu’ consciously in projecting their self-image. But while they do so, they also lay claim to the title of ‘Sultan’. At once, they were both — Hindu Sultans alongside Muslim Sultans.
Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmadnagar too are interesting from the ‘Hindu-Muslim’ question. They too formally projected themselves as ideal Muslim rulers. The Sultans were out to “destroy infidels”, while Vijayanagar wanted to rid the world of “Turks” and “mlechchas”. But real life was not over-blown rhetoric — we find Hindus at the feet of Muslim saints, and Muslims adopting Hindu customs. Vijayanagar actively sought Muslim cavalrymen for its forces, just as the Sultans needed Brahmins and Marathas to sustain their power.”

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Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor financial advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services. Marcellus Investment Managers is also regulated in the United States as an Investment Advisor.

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