Manu S Pillai is one of the brightest young writers in India today. All of 28, he has already written a well-received account of the remarkable life and works of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last - and forgotten - queen of the House of Travancore in The Ivory Throne.
Now in Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (Juggernaut), he focuses on the history of the largely ignored South to come up with astonishing complexities and stunning insights.
Rebel Sultans, by Manu S Pillai, Juggernaut Books
As relevant now in the “age of immigration” as it was in the “era of empire”, Rebel Sultans gives us a glimpse of history as it was, not as simple binaries but as mixed-up bits of everything. So there is this hypermasculine Alaudin Khilji who can have a deep love for his general Malif Khafur, a Mahmud of Ghazni who can mint coins with Lakshmi's image and Devaraya II who can build a mosque for the Muslims in his service.
Here, he is in conversation with Kaveree Bamzai on why the past was neither a syncretic paradise, nor a zone of unrelenting conflict between communities and religions.
As he says: "Whether we channel the lessons of history for better or for worse, is our responsibility — choosing the worst and trying to blame it on Babur and his “children” is a manifestation of insecurity. And in a country as wonderful and historically endowed as ours, if insecurity is what we descend to, we are writing ourselves a tragedy."
Vocabulary of power: There was a Sanskritic notion and ideal of power, explained in Sanskritic terms and a Hindu vocabulary, as envisioned by Shivaji
Rebel Sultans tells us how wrong it is to box people into categories. The evil Muslim, the hypermasculine Muslim and the good Hindu, the warrior Hindu ruler. Yet as you say it is also true that there was a conception of a Hindu state by Shivaji and an Islamic state by Ghazni. Nothing is simple? Is it?
History is a mosaic of colours, and trying to simplify it into a convenient black and white is often the error we succumb to, in order to make sense of this complicated country. Some go to one extreme — that the past was entirely syncretic and cheerful, and that Hindus and Muslims swung hand in hand in a kind of paradise, while others think Muslims blasted their way into the Hindu garden of Eden and turned it into a graveyard of infidels.
Both are sentimental but unhistorical. These identities did not exist in their modern avatar till very recently, and the supposed historic animosity that has spawned a cottage industry today is of recent vintage, no matter how elaborate an ancestry its proponents seek to construct for it.
The actual position is more complex. To begin with, there was no concept of “the Hindus” and “the Muslims”— the Kashmiri Pandit had little in common with the Tamil untouchable.
A Tamil Brahmin had no idea what a Namboothiri in Kerala next door might be doing — where one wore his tuft of hair at the back, the other had it in front; where one saw white as the colour of widows, the other had brides who wore only white. So there was no uniform, homogenised community called “the Hindus”, and same with the Muslims.
However, at the elite level — that is, where power, economic control, and politics met — there could be Hindu and Muslim definitions and differences.
There was a Sanskritic notion and ideal of power, explained in Sanskritic terms and a Hindu vocabulary, as envisioned by Shivaji, for instance.
And Muslim rulers had their own vocabulary of power, in which Islamic ideals were elevated, as we see in the formal self-image of the Deccan’s sultans. And at a time where the vehicle of expression was not nationalism but religion, these were communicated in heady religious tones.
All of these helped project the formal self-image of these rulers and their feudal states, but were not a reflection of communal undercurrents among “the masses”.
If the Hindus were united en masse on one side and Muslims on the other, why did Shivaji have Hindu enemies, and why did the Qutb Shah of Golconda appoint Brahmin ministers?
If the 1565 battle between Vijayanagar and the Deccan’s Sultans was a Hindu-Muslim clash, why is it that thousands of Marathas were fighting on the side of the Sultans?
The point is that while the two religions informed different images of power, in practice, politics was built on compromise, exchange, and an acceptance of plural allegiances.
We see this clearly in the movement of the elites.
A poet like Kshetrayya, famous for his bhakti compositions, could find patronage not only in Madurai and Tanjore, but also in the Sultanate of Golconda. The same merchants supplied goods to Muslim courts as well as Hindu states in the Deccan.
Most revealingly, there was no irony in a powerful emperor like Krishnadevaraya marrying his daughter off to a man whose career began in a Muslim court — or in a Muslim prince choosing to live in exile in a Hindu kingdom.
A Hindu court was different from a Muslim court in its customs and forms, but the guiding political motivations had very many overlapping points. What guided actual conduct for all kings were the same things that guide the politics today — strategic interests, economic heft, and mutually beneficial alignments, without losing sight of the inherent rivalries that existed between states, then as now. Religion might have helped express a lot of it, but it was not the guiding force around which politics was conducted.
1565 Battle of Talikota: Why thousands of Marathas were fighting on the side of the Sultans? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Deccan was the centre of such trade in spices and textiles. Does that kind of early globalisation explain the rise of Bangalore as India’s Silicon Valley?
Haha, I can’t say Bangalore and its IT boom is a direct descendant of the Deccan’s Muslim and Hindu states, but yes, the principle of globalisation as reflected in today’s Bangalore is not a new phenomenon.
The term is new, of course, and its pace, reach, and sheer scale unprecedented.
But throughout history, human beings have shown an impulse to interact, to exchange, and to meet one another on certain terms, as much as they succumbed to quarrelling and inflicting violence on each another.
The Deccan is proof of that, as indeed are many other parts of the world: Rome was founded by people who came from other places — to be a Roman meant that you were a descendant of immigrants, as Mary Beard explains so well in SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
So too, the Deccan was a magnet for immigrants of all kinds, whether it was Persian Shias, Arab Sunnis, African military slaves, Caucasian harem inmates, all of whom helped shape a society dominated and infused with Hindu influence.
The Hindu side itself was tremendously diverse — a Telugu ruler over Tamil country, Kannadiga artists and dancers serving in a Sultanate whose princes came from northern India. This sort of mixing of cultures, people, ideas, art, and more was a process that existed, in one way or another, throughout history.
Of course there was violence too — when at the height of prosperity, we see a flowering of culture and exchange; in times of crisis, people revert to nativist impulses and there is a closing of space.
The question is, do we choose, now in the 21st century, to stew in resentments born out of some centuries-old grievances? Or do we choose those lessons of history that can take us to the heights of cultural confidence, and help us evolve as a people? History’s lessons are clear — which is perhaps why political groups prefer perverting history rather than allowing a sincere, contextual understanding of it to prevail.
So much of India’s pluralism is reduced to singularities in the nationalistic discourse. How do we rescue it?
By presenting the past to as many people as possible, making as much of an effort to not succumb to prejudices and biases, both personal and political.
The issue we face now, the crossroads we must negotiate — people have had to deal with similar issues in the past also. There is a lot we can learn from them, if only the lessons of the past can be communicated well.
This hyper-nationalist, hyper-masculine black and white narrative that is being almost force-fed emerges also, we must realise, from an intense inferiority complex.
This inferiority complex is useful in politics because it invents grievances and anxieties, helps channel the inferiority complex into an aggressive form of hate, which then supplies dividends for its political sponsors.
What we need to do is take a pause. If one were to look at history with maturity — and I do believe there is an appetite for this, no matter how many shrill voices scream atrocious things on Twitter every day — we would discover that our past is not an ocean of resentments.
It is a magnificent tapestry, in which different threads were woven by different people at different times. There was violence, but we had no dearth of people able to rise beyond violence and leave behind something bigger.
Author Manu S Pillai says the binary exists in head, and must necessarily end in the head. (Photo: Twitter)
So many women like Chand Bibi are lost to history. Why is that?
Women in general fare bad in history. I know this from the time of my first book, The Ivory Throne, whose protagonist — a remarkable, singular individual — was deliberaly written off by history.
Since you mention Chand Bibi, let me highlight her mother.
Khunza Humayun was a formidable woman who planned battles, reigned for six years as regent for her son, and demonstrated marked ambition. In the end, she was not only unseated by insecure nobles, but even her son decided to try and expunge her from the record — there are miniature paintings where she appeared with her husband (and in poems there are erotic descriptions of her beauty), and her son actually got court artists to paint over her and reduce her to a giant blot in the picture!
So there is the fact that the stories of women were not always told, and that men often did their best to remove whatever traces of these stories remained.
But the contribution of women is very real — so no matter how much you try to wipe them out, the tales will survive. And some day or the other, voices will emerge to tell those tales again.
India, even Deccan which is not so well known, was a melting pot of races. We are a nation of immigrants just as much as America? Isn't it?
Melting pot is a cliché, but it is a cliché because it is true to a great extent.
Again, not all the melting was cheerful and pleasant, but that is how history was and we can sit and cry about it today or move on and look to a happier future — power and violence went hand in hand in earlier days, but do we want that to be our future as well?
And yes, we are a land where (as my ex-boss Shashi Tharoor says) everyone is a minority.
You can try your best to construct a homogenised nation in which everyone falls into one rigidly defined box, but the very essence, the cultural DNA of this country is pluralism, and there is no getting away from that.
To homogenise, you will have to standardise and very soon impose — that is merely a form of imperialism. What would be wiser is to accept that difference and diversity is wedded to the soil of this country, and to learn to embrace the richness this presents.
The kings of Vijayanagar knew they were different from Muslims, so they applied the word “Hindu” consciously to themselves (Photo: Britannica)
What was the fascination that Hindu rulers had with Muslim sultans? You talk of the Islamic network.
Muslim kings were connected to an Islamic network that stretched from Egypt and the Middle East into the far east (we even see a Thai king obsessed with Persian culture).
This provided them access to manpower from across countries and cultures, technology that might be born in Ottoman Turkey but could be quickly sailed across the Arabian Sea to the Deccan, and a degree of cultural confidence that came from being part of a mobile, flexible movement of sorts.
We must remember that these Deccan states thrived at a time when the Muslim states were at their peak across the world, with Persia, Turkey, and the rise of the Mughal empire in India.
We do find, in India for example, that Hindu kings could sometimes be at a disadvantage in this situation.
So Vijayanagar always found that though it was larger and richer than the Bahmani Sultanate, the Bahmanis (thanks to the ease with which they could connect to the Islamic network of exchange) obtained better horses, better artillery technology, latest upgrades in fortification strategies, and so on. Then there was the reorientation of the political landscape itself that the coming of Muslim kings and the idea of Islam sparked — the kings of Vijayanagar knew they were different from Muslims, so they applied the word “Hindu” consciously to themselves.
But they were equally keen to appropriate the title of “Sultan” which reflected a new, advanced, highly successful kind of power and military strength that was changing the political landscape.
So where the Bahmanis were Muslim Sultans, the Rayas of Vijayanagar called themselves “Hindu Sultans”. To be sure, Muslim kings were also drawing from the Hindus states — artists as well as warriors, architects and also scholars.
It was a two way street, but given that the age was one (till the Portuguese arrived) in which Islamic networks controlled international commerce and exchange, Muslim kings had a relative advantage over Hindu rulers. And in Vijayanagar at least, they were conscious of this and tried themselves to tap into the Islamic network.
So many binaries. Despots and democrats. Temple destroyers and temple restorers. Good Hindus. Bad Muslims. Where do these end? And how can they be resolved without violence.
These binaries exist in our head more than in the reality of the past, and are a product of our own narrow, limited worldview. So they must necessarily also end in the head — which means we must open our eyes to a more mature understanding of the past.
And that means we must read more good books, and more people should make an effort to write the books that will set the record in the correct context, reminding people that the past is not a playground for today’s political anxieties, but a realm of its own, which helped make us who we are.
Whether we channel its lessons for better or for worse, is our responsibility — choosing the worst and trying to blame it on Babur and his “children” is a manifestation of insecurity.
And in a country as wonderful and historically endowed as ours, if insecurity is what we descend to, we are writing ourselves a tragedy.