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.
Regional governors across the Deccan successfully rebelled against Delhi’s rule in the middle of the fourteenth century. This revolt instituted the Bahmani Sultanate in the north and established the Vijaynagar Kingdom in the south, and the sovereigns of both these new kingdoms styled themselves sultans. Eaton and Wagoner write that these states were “political twins,” and forged a distinctly Deccani identity that blended together influences from Persia and Kalyana. Deccani identity was both capacious and localised; it embedded rulers of all religious persuasions—Shia, Sunni and Hindu—within the region by formulating a common cultural lexicon and political heritage. This emphasis on local lineages often took the form of linguistic patronage; Sultan Ibrahim, for instance, instituted Kannada and Marathi as the official languages of his administration, displacing Persian from its position as the pre-eminent royal language.
Over the next few centuries, Deccan India was a place characterised by vigorous intellectual and material exchange with people from far beyond the region. The Bahmani court attracted Sufis, traders, wayfarers, artists and adventurers from across the Islamic world, and by the late fifteenth century the Deccanis had become an embattled elite. Caught in the feud between the westerners—usually migrants from Persia and the Ottoman Empire—and the Deccanis, the Bahmani Empire eventually collapsed into five successor sultanates in which the Deccanis were triumphant. The Deccanis succeeded partly because of the support of a third faction: the Habshis, who were former military slaves, usually of East African origin, and formed a courtly network that spanned the northern Deccan.
The Habshis were a circulating warrior elite, freelancing their martial skills across the region once released from bondage (manumission was a routine practice), and were trusted advisors to the nobility. Habshi mobility reflected the dizzying frequency with which many of the political elites of the era transgressed borders. Rama Raya, for instance, served the sultan of Golconda for two years before arriving in Hampi, the capital of Vijaynagar, where he participated in that kingdom’s dramatic rise to regional hegemony while the nascent sultanates in the north squabbled. Rama Raya married into the royal house and exploited the chaos that followed the death of the king to declare himself the new ruler of Vijaynagar, killing the old king’s heirs.
Kalyana was thus a potent symbol of imperial triumph for many sixteenth-century Deccan rulers. Eaton and Wagoner trace architectural patterns across 300 years of Deccan history to develop their argument about the “Chalukya revivals” undertaken by both the Vijaynagar and Bijapur kingdoms. In the eastern Deccan, similarly, the sultan of Golconda’s capital, Hyderabad, was heavily inspired by Warangal, another twelfth-century city redolent of royal glory. The successor sultanates of the western Deccan, eager to bolster their local credentials, turned to the memory of the Chalukyas—as did Rama Raya, the usurper-king of Vijaynagar. For almost 20 years, the various sovereigns of southern India played an intricate game of diplomacy and war, until, in 1565, faced with Mughal ambitions in the north, Portuguese encroachment in the west, and Vijaynagar’s ascendancy in the south, the sultans united against their most intimate enemy. The Battle of Talikota was fought under the influence of memory, a drug far more intoxicating than religion.
IT WAS THUS A POST-TALIKOTA WORLD that Chanchal travelled in 1603. Upon leaving Bijapur as part of the Mughal embassy, her convoy was threatened at the Ahmadnagar border by the Habshi general Malik Ambar, who had defied the Mughals for several years and would continue to do so for decades longer. Jahangir loathed him enough to commission a portrait in which the mighty Mughal emperor fantasises about shooting the decapitated head of a former slave, and yet Ambar both outsmarted and outlived him.
Ambar, East African by birth, began his life in India in 1571, as a slave to another Habshi, Chengiz Khan, the peshwa of Ahmadnagar. He attained his freedom upon the peshwa’s death and began his career as a mercenary in the Deccan, returning to Ahmadnagar just as it was being attacked by a Mughal army in 1595, and defending the sultanate alongside its queen, Chand Bibi.
Chand Bibi is an elusive yet crucial figure in sixteenth-century Deccan politics. Her marriage to Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur, in 1564, sealed the alliance that won the Battle of Talikota a year later. Ali was assassinated in 1580, and she raised his heir, Ibrahim Adil Shah, whose wily diplomacy was partly attributable to her deft training. She was also the regent of Bijapur for a few years, until she returned to her natal home in Ahmadnagar in 1584. Chand Bibi then disappears from the historical record, resurfacing only in 1595, the year she declared herself sovereign. She was eventually murdered by her own troops, and the Mughals captured Ahmadnagar Fort in 1600, even as Malik Ambar launched a guerrilla war against them that lasted 25 years.
Ambar’s most recent biographer, Omar H Ali, explains in Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean, that the general’s longevity as a Mughal gadfly was enabled by his astute collaboration with the Marathas. Maloji Bhosle, the iconic Maratha king Shivaji’s grandfather, was his most trusted lieutenant. Ali also notes that Malik Ambar inspired the same fidelity and loyalty among the Marathas that he once displayed towards Chand Bibi. It was from him that the Marathas learnt the guerilla warfare that would serve them so well in their later battles with the Mughals. As Eaton writes in his classic Social History of the Deccan, Ahmadnagar under Ambar was a joint “Habshi-Maratha enterprise.”
Malik Ambar’s astonishing career has made him a lodestone for generations of historians. Chand Bibi, on the other hand, is scarcely to be found in contemporary scholarship. A cursory library search revealed dozens of hagiographies and histories that invoked Malik Ambar, while a determined hunt for this pivotal Deccan queen yielded precisely two accounts in English: a short book written in 1939, and a dissertation submitted in 2012. As I traced this reclusive queen through the margins of texts devoted to the men who ostensibly make history, I often imagined my two wandering widows, Chanchal and Chand Bibi, taking long walks through Bijapur together, chafing in solidarity at their constraints.
Ambar’s threatened attack on Chanchal’s convoy luckily never materialised, and she soon found herself safely in Ahmadnagar Fort. A few months later she reached Agra, where she became Akbar’s favourite elephant. In 1605, she fared badly in a fight against an elephant belonging to Prince Salim, Akbar’s son, who would eventually succeed him and become known as Jahangir. Some members of the court believed that her defeat caused the apoplectic attack that eventually led to Akbar’s death.
CHANCHAL WITNESSED A SUBCONTINENT as contentious and bewildering as the one we live in today —a fact often ignored in older scholarship that presents “Islamic” rule in India as one long and oppressive monolith. This unfortunate framework has been adopted by orientalist and nationalist historians alike, and it obscures our fascinating and complex history of negotiating difference. The subcontinent had been an important node on trading and scholarly networks for centuries: the Abbasid Caliphate invited Indian astronomers to Baghdad in the eighth century; a travelogue from the ninth century describes India as the “land of medicine and philosophers.” The twelfth-century Sanskrit chronicle Rajatarangini, meanwhile, refers to King Harsha as a “Rajataruska,” or “Turkish king,” because of his fondness for Turkish clothes and women.
This long history of interactions suggests that any account that assumes a primal moment of “first encounter” between India and Islam is making a polemical, rather than an empirical, claim. By the sixteenth century, moreover, these networks of elite circulation had intensified, and the subcontinent was home to people from all over the world—Europeans, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Habshis—all vying for political and intellectual prestige. To talk about the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century subcontinent, thus, is to describe a vibrant cultural landscape that accommodated a plethora of opinions and agendas, not a dreary and cowed country ruled by the sword. Representing this world accurately involves working across regional and linguistic borders, and writing what the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam calls “connected histories.”
One mode of doing connected history is to write lush and vivid accounts of the people who inhabit an epoch. Subrahmanyam’s own voluminous scholarly output about early-modern Eurasia demonstrates the potential of this approach, and his finest essays portray the eclectic and eccentric people who made this world their home, such as Mughal scholars who ambitiously retold the history of the world from their cubbyholes in Agra and a vagabond Englishman who tried to convince every ruler from Scotland to Persia to join an alliance against the Ottoman Turks. One significant drawback of the biographical method, however, is that it remains confined by the temporal horizons of individuals, and recent scholarship has sought to write connected histories by focussing on the circulation of texts and things as well as people. Eaton and Wagoner’s careful attention to the monumental memory harnessed by the building and refurbishing of temples and towns, for instance, allows them to weave a fascinating history that evokes a sophisticated political imagination shaped by both rupture and deep continuity.
Two recent books that adopt a textual approach to writing connected history are Manan Ahmad Asif’s The Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia and Audrey Truschke’s Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court. The Book of Conquest subverts the assumption that Islam is inherently alien to India by reappraising the Chachnama, a Persian text once used by British orientalists as the definitive account of the Umayyad general Mohammad bin Qasim’s invasion of Sindh in the eighth century. The Chachnama was composed by Ali Kufi in thirteenth-century Uch—an ancient city in Sindh that was founded, legend has it, by Alexander the Great—as a regional history of the kingdom of Sindh. Ali Kufi, Asif explains, seeks to establish his authenticity by claiming an authoritative Arabic linguistic heritage, a tactic that nineteenth-century writers took far too literally. Colonial officials such as Mountstuart Elphinstone and Richard Burton thus read the Chachnama as a direct translation of a lost Arabic text, mining it for historical facts while writing their own accounts of the subcontinent’s pasts. This meant ignoring vast portions of the Chachnama, believing them to be irrelevant or extraneous to this singular goal, and thereby misconstruing both its contents and the context in which it was composed.
Asif proposes that the Chachnama be read as a book of political philosophy rather than as a history of conquest, arguing that it is a layered text that draws on Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit sources to generate a deeply localised narrative about ethical governance and political legitimacy. The Chachnama presents the eponymous Chach, the Brahmin founder of Sindh, as an idealised and perfectly just ruler. Upon Chach’s death, his kingdom became a haven for pirates and rebels from the Umayyad Caliphate, until Mohammad bin Qasim was sent by the caliph to subdue the recalcitrant frontier. As related in the Chachnama, Qasim’s campaign in the region matches Chach’s own peregrination across Sindh during the founding of the kingdom, offering readers a striking parallel between the two rulers. The Chachnama constructs a political history that assimilates and valorises both Brahmin and Arab pasts, a vital nuance that is lost when it is read simply as a book of violent conquest.
As Asif notes, scouring the Chachnama for details about a cataclysmic rupture in the subcontinent’s history reveals a misunderstanding about how historical transitions occur, and it distorts our view of the events and centuries that follow this purported “first encounter.” Mohammad bin Qasim was not an archetypal forerunner for the millions of Muslims who made the subcontinent their home; he was just a soldier dispatched to the frontier by a restive caliph. To suggest, as the British did, that every Indian sovereign between the eighth and eighteenth centuries ought to be primarily sorted by religion—a religion that then determines a hegemonic set of beliefs and agendas that orchestrated their rule—is to ignore the complex dynamics that led to such realities as the lasting animosity between Jahangir and Ambar, and the reverence that Shivaji had for Ambar’s memory.
In Asif’s reading, the Chachnama is an exemplary bridge-building text that reflects a collaborative political imagination. This imagination would be assiduously cultivated within courts across the subcontinent for the next several centuries, and Truschke’s Culture of Encounters is about the robust interaction between Sanskrit scholars (represented by Brahmins and Jains) and Persian intellectuals in the Mughal court, especially during Akbar’s reign. Later Mughal rulers, such as Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, patronised vernacular languages more than Sanskrit, though they continued to employ Sanskrit scholars as scribes, translators and astrologers.
Truschke argues that the early Mughals’ deep investment in Sanskrit poetry and drama was motivated by the conviction that aesthetic production was an essential element of governance; while the Mughals certainly saw themselves as a vital part of a cultural universe that extended across Eurasia, they were eager to establish a distinctly Indianpolity, and they turned to Sanskrit to achieve this goal. The interaction between Sanskrit and Persian traditions often produced idiosyncratic texts that attempted to merge aesthetic conventions and religious convictions from both literary imaginations. Around 1580, for instance, Akbar commissioned the Allopanisad (Allah’s Upanishad) from an anonymous Brahmin scholar. In it, the author includes Allah alongside the Hindu pantheon and incorporates Akbar himself as a semi-divine figure. The Allopanisad has a peculiar history of reception. While it was quickly discarded in its own time, it was absorbed into some Sanskrit copies of the Atharva Veda and raised controversy within nineteenth-century scholarly circles. As Truschke notes, “the text demonstrates how some Sanskrit intellectuals participated in millennial attempts to formulate Akbar’s claim to divinity by mixing Sanskrit, particularly Vedic, and Islamic idioms.”
For the most part, the hybrid scholarship characteristic of Akbar’s court involved more conventional translations of the Sanskrit canon—the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Vedas—into Persian. Truschke’s meticulous book demonstrates the intricate negotiations required to ensure that this textual production remained attentive to both Sanskrit and Persian sensibilities, as well as the ways in which this cross-cultural interaction contributed to constructing the Sanskrit canon. She notes, for instance, that the popularity of the Persian translation of the Mahabharata, the Raznamah, cemented the authority of the Mahabharata as a definitive account of “pre-Islamic” South Asian history and ensured that it was taken as such by other historians.
The selective canonisation that occurred during this period is most obvious in Truschke’s fascinating chapter on Ain-i Akbari, the closing section of the Akbarnamah, a definitive history-hagiography of Akbar’s reign by his grand vizier, Abu Al-Fazl. Like the Chachnama, the Akbarnamah is a thoroughly political history, one that portrays Akbar as an admirable and nearly divine sovereign destined to govern Indians of all creeds. The Ain-i Akbari’s role within this scheme was to provide scholarly grounding for this ideological vision by demonstrating deep understanding of local knowledge, institutions and idioms of rule.
Abu al-Fazl emphasises Sanskrit’s status as a language of learning at the expense of the vernacular traditions he glosses as “Hindu” or “Hindi.” He also makes choices within the Sanskrit tradition, selecting certain schools of Brahmin philosophy as deserving of more attention than others; he is so baffled by atheism that he simply dismisses it. Despite a considerable Jain presence in court, he associates Sanskrit primarily with Brahmins, as Truschke notes, accepting “Brahminical ideas as dominant, standard beliefs and others as deviant.” In Abu al-Fazl’s account, Brahmins represent the Sanskrit tradition, and the Sanskrit tradition represents Indian learning.
One way of reading the Ain-i Akbari is to locate it geopolitically, amid the famous rivalry between Safavid Persia and the Mughals, who desired to reinforce their claim on the subcontinent. The diplomatic tussle between the Safavids and the Mughals played out partly in the Deccan, where Persian migrants were a powerful elite. A contemporary Portuguese account of Talikota, for instance, lays the blame for instigating that battle squarely upon “Safavid intrigue,” suggesting that Safavid foreign policy was focussed upon securing a more united Deccan to oppose the Mughals. The long shadow of Safavid Persia is perhaps why Abu al-Fazl turned to the Sanskrit tradition, perceived as more ancient and more local, to support Akbar’s claim to ultimate and universal sovereignty. Abu al-Fazl’s extensive reliance on Sanskrit reinforced two imperial idioms by merging them into a singular ideological platform.
ABU AL-FAZL’S SCHEMATIC CONSOLIDATION of the Sanskrit canon in the Ain-i Akbari alerts us to the most pernicious problem in historiography: erasure. History sediments in layers, each epoch filtering the past to suit its own purposes and politics, reifying hierarchy under the banner of received truths and common sense. How does one, then, access the multiplicity of the past, and write about the people and ideas that have been ignored and maligned in the quest for a coherent orthodoxy? The danger with hybridity as a cultural and historical metaphor is that it can imply unmediated co-mingling, the fluid exchange of texts and things without significant barriers. Invoking concepts such as hybrid history and syncretism can reinforce borders: to assert that Akbar, for instance, facilitated conversation between the Sanskrit and Persian traditions is to assume that such monoliths existed all along. To assume the existence of a tradition, rather than several competing and contradictory ones, is to effectively construct one. Another problem with connected histories is that they are usually elite histories: the existence of cross-cultural connections often depends on networks of circulation accessible only to the privileged and the literate. But what about those whose lives and truths never entered the archive—or, worse, are distorted by the archive? This is the question that Shahid Amin asks us to ponder in Conquest and Community, his recent book about the cult of the warrior saint Ghazi Miyan.
Conquest and Community is, Amin writes, a story about “the quotidian reshaping the historic.” It is less about a person than about a memory—a memory that has been preserved in both a shrine and a text. The text, Mirat-i-Masudi, was written in 1620, by which time the shrine, the mausoleum of Ghazi Miyan in Bahraich, 500 kilometres north-east of Agra, had supported the cult of Ghazi Miyan for half a millennium. Mirat tells the story of a martyred prince, Salar Masud, ostensibly the nephew of Sultan Mahmud Ghazni, who raided north India several times during the early eleventh century from his stronghold in present-day Afghanistan. Mirat reports that Masud, born in Ajmer during one of his uncle’s campaigns, participated in the infamous razing of the Somnath temple, in modern-day Gujarat, as a young man. Court politics then force him into exile in Hindustan, where he conquers Delhi, declines the throne, and proceeds to Bahraich in northern Awadh. Here he encounters a suraj kund, a shrine devoted to the sun god, and is simultaneously distressed and fascinated by it. Masud is soon attacked by local chieftains, and retreats to the suraj kund after each battle, and it is here he is finally killed and buried. His grave further deifies a sacred space, and the suraj kund accretes stories, ballads and miracles, becoming a dargah of such importance that the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta is invited to visit it alongside Mohammad bin Tughlaq, then the ruler of Delhi. So it is that Salar Masud becomes Ghazi Miyan, whose legend deepens over the centuries. By the sixteenth century, local people believe that Ghazi Miyan can heal the blind, impregnate the barren and visit his faithful in their dreams.
Amin notes that Mirat is a historical fantasy—Mahmud Ghazni never had a nephew called Masud—but it presents itself as an accurate history. Its author, Abdur Rahman Chishti, relies on several familiar strategies to sustain his authority: he credits his history to the fortuitous discovery of an eleventh-century text that apparently includes a first-hand account of the events he chronicles, and describes a chance meeting with a contemporary Brahmin who is “perfectly versed in the works of Hindu historians” and can corroborate this fictional text exactly. Much like the Chachnama, Mirat mobilises a powerful mythology in the service of canonical truth.
If Mirat mined the past to appropriate the present, it was mined, in turn, by later political actors. The British, for instance, were entirely bewildered by the affection that local people, especially lower-caste Hindu women and cowherds, had for this “iconoclast invader.” As many scholars have demonstrated, British historiography about the subcontinent began with the assumption that the past could be neatly divided along religious lines, and colonial authorities justified their own civilising mission by painting their immediate predecessors—the “Muslims”—as an undifferentiated mass of indolent oriental despots. It is one of the tragedies of colonialism that this historical vision has had such a tenacious hold on our imagination, and the fate of Mirat in the last two centuries is evidence of this cruel legacy.
Mirat was written as a hagiography. It celebrates the life of a mythical figure who was Indian and Turkish, warrior andsaint, invader andprotector. Its very existence is testimony to thousands of years of creative bridge-building, and while Mirat might be a fantasy masquerading as history, it was a fantasy with very real political effects. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformers of every stripe stripped Mirat of its context, translating it into a linear history of conquest. It was deployed against the very mythology that gave it life, and used as proof that the legend of Ghazi Miyan was a hoax perpetrated upon a credulous population. Memory made history, and then history ruined memory.
Scholars of the subcontinent have abided by colonial paradigms for far too long. We have taken as axiomatic the assumption that the past resembles the present, and can be described through the categories of the present, and have obediently divided our archives, languages and memories accordingly. We have accepted the incredibly racist idea that the precolonial past was a static country, and was punctuated only by a succession of essentially similar empires—that all we had were wars and gods, until the British taught us how to be liberal individuals in a modern world. Whether we seek glory in that past or depravity, what is lost in the quest is heterogeneity. We need to learn to write histories not only of the present, but histories that survive the present, histories that investigate the silences and distortions that make our present possible. All the books discussed in this essay seek to restore a protean past, filled with possibilities for different futures and multiple modes of being South Asian. Several centuries of empire have failed to quell our irrepressible diversity, and it is time we insist that scholars stop trying to.