Contested histories: the Deccan, 1300-1600


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MY colleague Phillip Wagoner and I have just co-authored a study entitled Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014). The book has several broad aims. First, we sought a better understanding of how politics actually operated at the ground level, what one might call the ‘worm’s eye’ view of history. Most previous research on the early modern Deccan has focused on capital cities like Bidar, Vijayanagara, Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, or Golconda. But this focus has meant ignoring the region’s smaller but far more numerous secondary urban centres. The plateau is covered with such sites, many of which lie on the plains. Many more are perched on hilltops, ringed by formidable defensive outworks that take advantage of the plateau’s distinctively rocky terrain.

It is astonishing that historians have almost completely neglected these sites. After all, they provided the key economic, social and political links between the agricultural villages constituting their respective hinterlands, and the courtly élites in the capital cities. Their strategic importance derived mainly from their ability to control the agrarian resources of their immediate hinterlands, since troops garrisoned at such sites could enforce the collection of state-imposed (or self-imposed) revenues in the form of grain and other foodstuffs. Above all, such secondary centres converted the productive surplus of the land into political and military power, both for the city’s governor and for the crown. Hence they were invariably well-fortified, for their capture necessarily meant control of the resources of their surrounding districts. This also explains their pivotal role in state formation, a fact well understood by contemporaries. For example, in narrating how the founder of the sultanate of Bijapur rose to power in the 1490s, the chronicler Muhammad Qasim Firishta (fl. 1609) recorded that Yusuf `Adil Khan had ‘wrested many forts from the governors of [the Bahmani sultan] Mahmud Shah, and subdued all the country from the river Bhima to Bijapur, the inhabitants of which territory submitted to his authority.’1


Indeed, the greater part of any contemporary Indo-Persian chronicle, such as Firishta’s, is preoccupied with such struggles, since the political history of the Deccan revolved around clashes between primary centres over control of secondary centres. In a sense, the former were the wolves of the Deccan, while the latter – being the prizes so fiercely fought over by primary centres – were the sheep. This, for contemporaries, was what history was about; it was what mattered.

Our first aim, then, was to understand the nature of such struggles. Who were the contestants, and on what basis did they lay claim to particular secondary centres? Why were some forts more contested than others, and what can this say about the relative stability or instability of the plateau’s internal frontiers? Additionally, what did victors in such struggles do with the built landscape of conquered forts, in particular with monuments identified with defeated foes? From the scores of such centres that we could have chosen, we focused on three for special attention, each of which straddled a contested frontier of a specific sort. Kalyana, in present-day northern Karnataka, was located on a frontier between three rival sultanates; moreover, as the former capital of the prestigious Chalukya empire, it was a much sought after prize. Warangal, located in central Telangana, lay on an ecological frontier that separated the eastern edge of the Deccan’s dry, inland plateau from the wetter and more fertile plains of coastal Andhra. And Raichur, located in the heart of the rich doab between the Tungabhadra and Krishna rivers, was perennially contested by Vijayanagara and the Bahmani sultanate (and later, its `Adil Shahi successor) on account of its fertile, agricultural hinterland.


Study of struggles over secondary centres also revealed a great deal about what became a major concern of ours, namely, the links between power, memory, and architecture. We were especially interested in how power and memory combined to produce the Deccan’s built landscape, as seen in monumental architecture. Power, after all, enabled ruling élites to amass resources for dispensing patronage; memory of a prestigious past informed those patrons of what projects they would support, and the architectural works themselves publicly displayed both a visual manifestation of that memory and their patrons’ ability to project it. In tracking the projection of political power across the plateau, we of course followed military affairs, which are extensively covered in contemporary chronicles. But we also considered the kinds of power that could reinforce or erase collective memory. The most pertinent question was: In their struggles for control of secondary centres, how and why did authorities promote certain elements of their remembered past, while forgetting others? In as much as artifacts have lives of their own after their creation, especially as sites of memory, how can the study of the material evidence of the past, notably monumental architecture, shed light on this question?


Importantly, as we grappled with these questions and with the data before us, we gradually found it necessary to rethink one of the basic categories by which South Asian history is conventionally studied, namely, the ‘Hindu-Muslim encounter’. Since the Deccan was conquered by Muslims from North India in the early fourteenth century, ours became a case study of a part of the world often seen in terms of a binary, religiously-defined ‘clash of civilizations’, the unfortunate phrase popularized by Samuel Huntington in the late 1990s. Rather than view our subject in such narrowly religious terms, however, we realized that Deccani history might more properly be framed in broadly literary-cultural terms, namely, as a complex and protracted encounter between Sanskrit and Persian literary traditions.

Whereas North India from the eleventh century on was the earliest arena of such an encounter, by the early fourteenth century the frontier of that arena had shifted south to the Deccan, following the conquest of the plateau by armies of the Delhi sultanate. This being the case, the question then became: How did an initially military encounter become transformed over the course of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, ultimately resolving in the mutual inter-penetration of these two literary and cultural traditions? We believe this to be a more nuanced and fruitful approach to the study of India’s premodern history than the conventional framework of an enduring and generally hostile confrontation between two allegedly homogenous and unchanging religious communities.

Finally, at the level of methodology, the book seeks to bridge a wide chasm that, reinforced by decades of disciplinary apartheid, has long divided history from art history and archaeology. On most university campuses anywhere, practitioners of these disciplines are invariably nested in different departments – often, different colleges – thereby inhibiting regular scholarly contact between them. But in the real world, as opposed to the academic project of compartmentalizing that world into autonomous ‘disciplines’, political history, art, architecture and memory, all overlap and influence one another.


So in an attempt to overcome this divide, Prof. Wagoner and I – he trained in art history and archaeology, and I in social and cultural history – not only combed through contemporary chronicles and literary, epigraphic and numismatic evidence; we also spent two field seasons (in 2005 and 2006) in the Deccan directly examining material evidence. The latter included, in particular, the rich architectural record found in some thirty-one secondary centres, most of them remote hill forts scattered across the plateau. In addition to the types of structures that architectural historians traditionally study – e.g., mosques, temples, tombs and palaces – we also scrutinized less-studied features such as moats, fortifications, city gates, tanks, step wells and granaries. And, while investigating such features from the standpoint of architectural history – i.e., determining an object’s patrons and builders, its intended use, or the influences on its design and style – we also wanted to learn what had happened to any given object after the moment of its initial creation. That is, we wanted to know how its fabric had changed over time, the different ways its purpose was re-conceived, and the changes in the different communities that used it. In short, we approached monuments and other material evidence as dynamic texts that could tell their own stories about how they related to different communities over time.


Since it soon became apparent that the memory of earlier sovereign domains exerted a profound influence on the Deccan’s subsequent politics and architecture, we began our study by looking back at those earlier domains. One of these was the illustrious Western Chalukya empire, which flourished between the tenth and twelfth centuries, its capital at Kalyana in the middle of the plateau. The other was one of that empire’s several successor-states, the Kakatiya dynasty of Warangal, which flourished in the twelfth-fourteenth centuries. What was it about these polities, we asked, that gave them such remarkable staying power in the collective memory of the Deccan hundreds of years after they had vanished as effective states?

We also traced and compared two literary and cultural traditions – the so-called ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ and ‘Persian cosmopolis’ – that came to dominate political and cultural activities in the Deccan in the period of our study. Structured around Sanskrit and Persian literary traditions respectively, each tradition was initially articulated by one of the two great empires that successively dominated the plateau between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, the Kalyana Chalukyas and the Delhi sultanate. How, we asked, did the ideals of the two cosmopolises over time displace, overlap, or merge with each other?

We next examined the violent conquest of the Deccan by armies of the Delhi sultanate in the early fourteenth century, focusing especially on the complex interplay between power and architecture. Here we traced how officers of the Delhi sultanate and its successor state in the region, the Bahmani sultanate (1347-1510), responded to the Deccan’s built landscape during and soon after the conquest. A major issue was how Muslim officials dealt with Hindu temples, since these were the most durable, the most visually prominent, and the most culturally charged features of that landscape. Relying mainly on the architectural and epigraphic record, we wanted to understand why most temples were ignored, others were redefined, others were demolished, and still others were patronized. Moving beyond crude arguments respecting an alleged civilizational clash between Hindus and Muslims, we hoped to identify and explain the wide range of ways that, at a critical point in the Deccan’s cultural history, conquerors, administrators, and even local chieftains interacted with these key institutions.


Coming to the sixteenth century, which was a period of intense political turmoil, we explored how and why rulers in two of the Deccan’s primary centres, Vijayanagara and Bijapur, asserted a direct association with the long defunct Chalukya empire, which had reigned over the entire plateau from its capital at Kalyana more than four centuries earlier. Although the Deccan’s landscape had long been covered with that empire’s physical remains – including temples, water tanks, sculpture, or inscriptions – it was not until the sixteenth century that memories of the Chalukyas were, rather suddenly, publicly invoked. Rulers in both Vijayanagara or Bijapur, whether Hindu or Muslim, might claim direct descent from Chalukya emperors, incorporate ancient Chalukya temples into their palace complexes, or, most typically, relocate Chalukya columns into the heart of their respective capitals. As iconic tokens of former imperial power that were standardized in form and nearly ubiquitous throughout the plateau, such columns were immediately recognizable as belonging to the Chalukya period, and hence capable of conveying a sense of that dynasty’s remembered grandeur. From the standpoint of world history, the repositioning of these columns some four centuries after the Chalukya collapse was not at all unique. Such activity compares closely with the actions of emperor Charlemagne (r. 800-814) who, with a view to associating himself and his kingdom with ancient Rome five centuries after that empire’s demise, removed Roman columns from Italy to his capital in Aix-la-Chapelle (or Aachen), in northern Europe.


Deccani states of the sixteenth century also competed for control of the Chalukyas’ former capital of Kalyana, still saturated with memories of former splendour four centuries after its eclipse. Control of the city became an enduring preoccupation for members of Vijayanagara’s Aravidu dynasty, and especially for Rama Raya (d. 1565), owing to that usurper’s tenuous claims to legitimate authority. But Kalyana and its Chalukya legacy were equally coveted by the ‘Muslim’ sultanates of the northern Deccan. In 1592, when the city was under Bijapur’s control, Sultan Ibrahim `Adil Shah II went so far as to incorporate an in situ Chalukya temple into his royal palace there. Indeed, in the sixteenth century’s middle decades it was struggles over control of that city and its Chalukya legacy – and not some enduring Hindu-Muslim hostility – that eventually led to one of the most decisive and famous battles in the Deccan’s history, the Battle of Talikota, in 1565.

Memory worked in similar ways in the eastern Deccan. In the mid-1400s a Telugu chieftain named Shitab Khan had been banished from service in the court of the Bahmani sultanate. Four decades later, in 1504, he surfaced as a self-styled ‘king’ when he captured Warangal fort and carved out a new state on the eastern periphery of the declining Bahmani kingdom. This he did in part by strategically manipulating surviving material culture associated with a major Chalukya successor-state, the Kakatiya kingdom (1163-1323), which was still alive in collective memory several centuries after that kingdom had collapsed.


Memory of the Kakatiyas played out in even more surprising ways, suggesting again how a preoccupation with religion can distort our understanding of India’s history. It seems that the design and layout of Hyderabad, founded by Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah of Golconda in 1591 and today one of India’s premier cities, had been inspired not by some idealized model of an ‘Islamic city’ or by actual cities like Herat, Samarqand or Isfahan, as is conventionally thought, but by the layout of Warangal, the former Kakatiya capital. Like Shitab Khan, the Qutb Shahis, too, looked to local history for cultural inspiration.

After Kalyana and Warangal, the third principal site we studied was Raichur, located in the rich tract of land separating the state of Vijayanagara from the Bahmani sultanate and its successor states to the north. The intense and protracted rivalry between these states over control of Raichur had several dimensions that have been overlooked in the historical literature. One of these was the use of city gateways to proclaim possession of the city. Occupying exceptionally prominent public spaces, such gates were understood as iconic tokens of the city, its public face, so to speak. Thus, as Raichur changed hands, victors would subject its entrance ways to extensive ‘face-lift’ operations – either remodelling earlier gates or building new ones – illustrating what Oleg Grabar called ‘the symbolic appropriation of the land.’ And yet, even while Raichur’s gateways emphasized the city’s political affiliation with one or another dynasty, their Indic and Persianate associations had, by the sixteenth century, become thoroughly intermingled. Thus, a bas relief above a gateway built by Krishna Raya soon after he seized Raichur in 1520 associates the Vijayanagara king both with the Hindu deity Rama and, on account of the tall, conical headgear he wears, with contemporary Persian ruling élites.


Another dimension of the struggle over control of Raichur involved the advent of gunpowder technology, since the earliest recorded deployment of firearms in India’s interior occurred there – and not, as is often supposed, at Panipat, where Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi in 1526. At the Battle of Raichur (1520), the forces of Vijayanagara under Krishna Raya soundly defeated those of Bijapur under Isma`il Khan. Notably, the victorious southern kingdom used mainly heavy cavalry on that occasion, while Bijapur made extensive use of the new gunpowder technology with which Deccani engineers had been experimenting since the 1460s. The battle’s counter-intuitive outcome probably explains its virtual absence in the historical literature.

What is most significant about this battle, however, is the different ways the two kingdoms responded to its outcome. At Vijayangara, Krishna Raya’s decisive victory lulled him and his successors into a state of smug complacency in military matters, as a result of which they largely ignored firearms and gunpowder technologies. At Bijapur, on the other hand, defeat at Raichur led to an astonishing spurt of experimentation in gunpowder technology, their innovations in this domain surpassing in some respects anything in the rest of the world. Bijapuri engineers rebuilt their forts to accommodate huge swivel-mounted cannons that could sweep 360 degrees when placed on tall, specially built bastions or free-standing platforms. They also developed more efficient matchlocks and field cannon. All of this culminated in the Battle of Talikota (1565), where Vijayanagara’s neglect of gunpowder technology led to the destruction of its great metropolitan capital and the virtual collapse of the state.

Our book is written with several audiences in mind. For readers who perceive premodern South Asia mainly as the story of the great dynasties of North India – those of the Delhi Sultanate, or the Mughals – this study offers a glimpse of most of the lower half of the subcontinent which, for the period 1300-1600, has been relatively neglected in scholarly literature. For those who see South Asia in this period mainly through the prism of a protracted Hindu-Muslim encounter, this book offers an alternative analytical approach. Instead of foregrounding competing religious communities, we trace the complex encounter between two literary-cultural systems, the Sanskrit and the Persian, each of which both encompassed and transcended religious systems. For conventional historians, accustomed as they are to mining libraries, archives, or record rooms, this book makes an appeal to engage in true ‘fieldwork’ by examining first-hand the rich body of material evidence that can be found out in the mofussil. And for art historians who might understand visual data as inhabiting a nearly autonomous realm of human experience, this book urges a more complete integration of the visual with the many other kinds of data available for study.



1. John Briggs, tr., History of the Rise of Mohamadan Power in India (4 vols. London, 1829; repr. 4 vols., Calcutta: Editions Indian, 1966), 3:4-5. Spellings modernized.