THERE ONCE LIVED AN ITINERANT ELEPHANT called Chanchal. Born in the late sixteenth century in the sultanate of Bijapur, which straddled what is now the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, Chanchal spent her early life in the shadow of her mate, Atash Khan, Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah’s beloved elephant. Atash Khan, however, was promised to the Mughal emperor Akbar as a gift, and, in 1603, the emperor’s envoy came calling. Atash Khan, alas, was by then dead, and Chanchal made the long journey to Agra, the Mughal capital, in his stead. She buried her grief by drinking several barrels of Portuguese wine along the way. This is a story about the people Chanchal met, even if she was perhaps too drunk to notice. It is also partly a story about the peculiar, confusing, knotty terrain—Deccan India—that Chanchal traversed on her way to Agra. And it is certainly a story about how we can tell better stories about the world in which Chanchal lived.
The first luminary in Chanchal’s company was Sultan Ibrahim himself. A masterful diplomat, Ibrahim protected his kingdom not only from the expanding Mughals—who had, under Akbar, recently embarked upon their century-long conquest of the Deccan—but also from the covetous Portuguese, who were hosting a rival claimant to Ibrahim’s throne in Goa. Ibrahim inherited his kingdom from his uncle, Ali Adil Shah, who participated in the infamous Battle of Talikota in 1565, in which the four fractious Deccan sultanates—Ahmadnagar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda— victoriously united against Rama Raya, the ruler of the Vijaynagar Empire in the southern Deccan. This battle is often depicted as a communal clash, but historians such as Richard Eaton, Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have pointed out that the claim that it was motivated by religion is untenable: a few years before it, Rama Raya and Ali Adil Shah had together defeated the ruler of Ahmadnagar. In their recent book, Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on the Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600, Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner argue that a more proximate reason for the sudden unity displayed by the sultanates was their alarm at Rama Raya’s territorial ambitions, specifically his desire to control Kalyana, an old city in the northern Deccan that was the capital of the western Chalukya Empire during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries.
The centuries since the disintegration of the Chalukya Empire had been tumultuous ones, with successor states establishing fiefdoms within the Chalukyas’ sprawling former domain. It was only with the Delhi Sultanate’s southern expansion during the late thirteenth century that a pan-Deccan political formation emerged once again. The Delhi Sultanate cultivated its power in the Deccan for 50 years, absorbing provincial rulers into the imperial administration as well as encouraging elite migration from the north. Eaton and Wagoner explain that the political ideology adopted by the sultanate bore interesting parallels to Chalukya idioms of rule, emphasising the role of the sultan as a just ruler of a cosmopolitan and diverse polity. This creative thirteenth-century encounter between Persian and Sanskrit political philosophies would be deeply influential in later Deccan history, generating a cultural and political discourse that lasted far longer than the Delhi Sultanate’s tempestuous rule in the region.