"A king should improve the harbours of his country and so encourage its commerce that horses, elephants, precious gems, sandalwood, pearls and other articles are freely imported … He should arrange that the foreign sailors who land in his country on account of storms, illness and exhaustion are looked after in a suitable manner …"
This extract from the Amuktamalyada, composed by Krishnadeva, the Raya of Vijayanagar, opens the doors to a world of its own. Here in the Deccan, where few rulers from North could establish their might, the history of India as a global power was shaped. Commerce thrived, with Turkish traders entering through the Malabar coast, bringing with them African slaves, who also went on to carve themselves a niche in the glorious history of the South. Foreign influences seeped in through the Malabar Coast, for instance, where they were met by welcoming and enterprising hosts. So in awe were they of India’s cultural glory, writes Manu Pillai in his latest book, Rebel Sultans, that they remained here, integrating themselves with local communities. It’s a far cry, really, from the bloody entry of Islam in the north, which culminated at one point, by the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. It stands too, in glaring contradiction to the politics of today, dominated by communal origins and religious belief. And it is the tale the young historian unravels, telling his story as only he can, through the eyes of the kings, sultans and rebels who crystallised the history of the Deccan.
A deep love for stories, a childhood spent in Pune and a fascination for the underdog lie at the heart of Rebel Sultans. Here, he delves into the titanic shadow of Shivaji, to explore the names who, in his words, "have been reduced to the footnotes of history." How many people, after all, know of the "kingmaker with skin the colour of coal?" Or, for that matter, the life of Malik Ambar the Siddi general in high regard by Shivaji himself. "In Bijapur emerged the Adil Shahs, thirsting for books and flirting with apostasy," writes Pillai. "And in Golconda... reigned the Qutb Shahs, their riches animating minds even in faraway America."
Rebel Sultans found itself moved up along Pillai's agenda, as he travels, by his own admission, from the South-west slowly into the North, spurred on by the bias and mundane linearity that drives today's realpolitik, where even a fascinating emperor like Shivaji has been reduced to “limited colours." As history finds itself at the root of the dominant political agenda, broken down into flimsy tales of good versus evil, Pillai couldn't help but resist the growing need to put history back where it belongs: in context.
And he found, along the way, that the forgotten pockets of history are often far more than bizarre than fiction itself. There is Ibrahim Adil Shah II, somewhat unfairly titled 'Akbar of the South' whose immense patronage of the arts had his subjects wondering if he was still a practicing Muslim. "His epitaph said he was not a Christian, Jew or Hindu, but a Muslim. He went to such heights of exploration that his own courtiers were a little confused." Whether it was Adil Shah who painted his nails red or the highly accomplished Firoz Shah, whose harem was famously filled with women from Afghanistan and Russia, or foreign sleight of hand, through the dreaded Malik Kafur, the eunuch general of Tughlaq, Pillai’s work brings to light the fragments of which history is composed into a comprehensive story, usually in retrospect.
"Context is vital, isn't it?" remarks Pillai. "Why does every government start with changing history textbooks? Perhaps we're still up in the air about who is writing history, about our identity as a nation. 70 years in the story of an independent country is a very short time, historically speaking and this has led to its share of confusion. One group elevates Hindu ideology and the constitutional set agrees everybody is welcome." The tendency with politics, Pillai remarks, "is to thrive on black-and-white categories. There are bad kings and good ones but in history, that's not so easily discerned. Politics often damages the cause of history." The story of Aurangzeb, made infamous by his reputation as a religious despot, was a Sunni Muslim born of a Shia mother. The family of Chand Bibi the warrior queen descended from Brahmin converts, her mother was of Persian origin, Pillai explains. "History is made up of so many layers coming together."
Perhaps that is why Pillai concerns himself with the people who made history, peeling back the layers to discover that you and I aren't too different from the Adil Shahs of this world. "When you get down to it, the range of human emotions is the same. Stories change and human beings have a propensity to seek them, too." It is here that the telling takes on gargantuan proportions, to sidestep the tendency to hold every story in direct correlation with oneself. "We look at history from a prism of religion but most historical figures did not. Yes, some people exaggerated it to justify their actions but most were confident monarchs. Our emphasis on religion comes from our own position of insecurity." The opening tale, Kiss My Foot, explains this beautifully. After having brought humiliation to the Adil Shah, the errant governor of the ailing Bahmani Sultanate, Krishnadeva, the Raya of Vijayanagar, took it upon himself to restore the aged Sultanate to its former glory. He was also acknowledged as the monarch who re-established the kingdom of the Turks.
Battles were fought, grisly deaths caused, and betrayal was rife in the durbars that dotted the country. Hearts were broken, dreams dashed and friends made. The lives and deaths of these monarchs, alien though they may seem to us, filled with elephant cavalries, golden brocades and turquoise thrones, contain the range of human experience, from loss and victory to ecstasy and despair. Diplomacy and war, despotism and tolerance all found their place in society, as they continue to do today. "We're too quick to jump to judgment and project our insecurities on social media. We can have our forum wars but those don't establish history. There is a surplus of opinion and a lack of informed opinion," smiles Pillai, who nibbles calmly on a brownie as he recalls his trolls. "A tweet may survive long enough to energise a political climate but not much else." This is where Rebel Sultans fits in, a pillar of factual solidity in a world of rapidly changing opinions. It’s the world in which Pillai immerses himself, with dayspent poring through libraries and archives, a world from which he emerges with some reluctance when occasion requires it. He says, in summary, “We can take from history its violence and bloodshed, or we can learn instead, from its wealth of wisdom.”
Rebel Sultans has been published by Juggernaut, in collaboration with the Sandeep and Gitanjali Maini Foundation....