History is often described as a boring drag, with too many names and dates to remember. But if written in the right way, it opens a treasure trove of larger-than-life stories with colourful characters, and paints vivid pictures of battles, court scenes and everything else in the daily lives of people back then. And if these stories are about one of the least researched areas of Indian history, then it becomes even more interesting and captivating. In his latest book “Rebel Sultans — The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji”, young writer Manu S. Pillai does exactly that, captivating readers’ imaginations and promising them a riveting journey into the history of the Deccan, and delivers on that promise.
The book begins this journey by tracing the path of plunder taken by Malik Kafur, who led expeditions to loot Devagiri, Warangal, Dwarasamudra and Madurai for his master, Sultan Alauddin Khilji of Delhi. The book then tells us about the rise of the Bahmani Sultanate from the remnants of the southern half of Muhammad Tughlaq’s kingdom, the foundation of Vijayanagara, the breaking up of the Bahmani kingdom into five independent sultanates (Ahmadnagar, Bidar, Berar, Bijapur and Golconda), the reigns of Deva Raya II and Krishnadeva Raya and the golden period of Vijayanagara, the eternal rivalry between all six kingdoms, and the ultimate downfall of Vijayanagara when Rama Raya became too ambitious. It tells us about the people of these kingdoms, their daily lives and the relations these kingdoms had with the outside world, trade or diplomacy.
The author, at times quoting famous travellers like Domingo Paez and Ibn Battuta, skillfully paints a vivid picture of Deccani lives during the times of Ibrahim Adil Shah II, who was himself a man of great knowledge and culture. And lastly, the book delves deep into the geo-politics of the area, right from the times of Hassan Gangu up till the Mughal arrival in the Deccan, with Chand Bibi, Ibrahim Adil Shah II and Malik Ambar being central figures of resistance. At the very end comes Aurangzeb and his Deccan campaign, when he successfully conquered Bijapur and Golconda, ending the Adil Shahi and the Qutub Shahi dynasties. The book ends with an epilogue about the rise of Shivaji and the Marathas, and how, within thirty years of Aurangzeb’s death, this Deccani kingdom had carved out a large empire encompassing the whole subcontinent.
The book, at times, dives deep into the court intrigues between the Deccan kingdoms, so much so that it almost feels like a suspense thriller movie. The author successfully retains the interest of the reader till the very end, something history books are not known for generally. The characters, the battles, and the court culture come alive, and the quoted descriptions of the Deccan way of life by the contemporary travellers bring forth the history of an area long ignored by mainstream historical circles. The descriptions of the great cities of the Deccan, their architectures and the bedazzling markets are quite stunning revelations which point at how prosperous the Deccan was.
The roles played by prominent figures of Deccan like Hassan Gangu, Mahmud Gawan, Harihara and Bukka, Deva Raya II, Krishna Deva Raya, Chand Bibi, Ibrahim Adil Shah II and Malik Ambar in shaping Deccan history have been properly highlighted. 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. 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. (Dutta Ranjeeta, Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji review: Melting pot of ideas, (2018). https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/rebel-sultans-the-deccan-from-khilji-to-shivaji-review-melting-pot-of-ideas/article24954055.ece)
Attention has also been paid to the mentioning of the languages spoken in court and by the common people, which included Dakhni, Telugu, Persian, Marathi, Kannada and even Sanskrit. Contrary to popular myths about Vijayanagara being a monolithic, “pure Hindu” empire which “stood vehemently against Islamic invaders” and “saved Hinduism from extinction”, or that the “barbaric” Sultanates “looted and pillaged Hindus,” the author provides plenty of examples and anecdotes which easily proves that there was religious tolerance and multiculturalism in practice in both Vijayanagara and the Bahmani kingdoms. There are also humorous anecdotes, including how once, in the middle of an ongoing war, the kings of the two sides almost got caught by the opposing armies, how a Raya of Vijayanagara visited Bijapur just to make its ruler kiss his feet, and how a Sultan cleverly kept the greatest Mughal emperor at bay by simply showering his agent with magnificent gifts.
In this book, Pillai takes the reader through kings who sailed from alien lands and rose to great power in the Deccan, sultans who painted their nails red and wrote paeans in praise of the goddess Saraswati, and rulers who had “skin the colour of coal”— in the process establishing Deccan as a riveting place where the potential of upward social mobility was possibly far more than today, albeit through gruesome bloodshed and fratricide. (Jyoti Dhrubo, Review: Rebel Sultans – The Deccan From Khilji to Shivaji by Manu S Pillai, (2018) https://www.hindustantimes.com/books/review-rebel-sultans-the-deccan-from-khilji-to-shivaji-by-manu-s-pillai/story-rr8vKN8Q3PresaaYei7tiP.html)
The book is indeed an asset for all history lovers and a good recommendation for them who are always eager to learn new historical information. For the ones familiar with medieval history of North India, this book will fill them in with whatever was happening at that time down south (indeed the cameos by rulers of North India will help the readers keep a track of time). For the newbies, it will act like a door which introduces them to the vibrant and culturally rich world of the previously unexplored medieval Deccan.
The writer of this review is a post-graduate in Medieval Indian history from Jadavpur University, and now teaches the subject in a school. He is an avid reader of books on Mughal history, and loves biryani.