Telling Lives
Meena Bhargava
A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE DECCAN, 1300-1761: EIGHT INDIAN LIVES by Richard M. Eaton Cambridge University Press, 2008, 221 pp., 695
September 2008, volume 32, No 9

This book is a fascinating study of the Deccan from the early fourteenth century to the rise of European colonialism in the eighteenth century. We can locate the region called the Deccan in modern India in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Written lucidly and with extraordinary ease, not for a moment does it distract the mind of the reader. The merit of the book lies in its sound facts, empirical strength and exhaustive research with absolutely no element of monotony. Eaton weaves the history of the Deccan around the life of eight individuals, engaged in different careers and situated in different circumstances, nonetheless blended in a way that illustrate the social processes of the region’s history and the relationship of the people of Deccan with north India. The eight disparate characters are—a maharaja, a sufi shaikh, a merchant, a general, a poet, a bandit, an African slave and a woman regent and commander.

The Deccan as compared to north India, Bengal and Tamil south, is an understudied region probably because as Eaton suggests, it has lacked an enduring geo-political centre. Breaking this shackle, the author provides a cohesive, coherent narrative of the region by adopting the genre of biography. Till the 1980s and the 1990s biography as a genre was not much accepted by social historians but since then it has been increasingly argued that writing about the lives of men and women is not all that antithetical to social history. Eaton observes that he had a varied purpose in using the genre of biography in this book: to set aside unhistorical myths often appropriated by politically motivated myth makers and to reclaim for history a subject-matter abandoned by professional historians. Invoking the genre of biography and writing about eight lives, the author investigates processes like colonization, factional strife, elite mobility, slavery, intercaste relations and social banditry. Each of these individuals had lived through and was thoroughly immersed in one or the other of these historical processes. But when Eaton chooses to write about these eight personalities, it is not because they were the pioneers or causes of such social processes but to emphasize that individuals are microcosms of at least some if not many aspects of the social macrocosms in which they live. He observes that unlike European biographies which are ‘coherent, linear, tidy and above all objective’ (p. 5), the lives of pre-colonial Indian personalities were in the collective memory of communities rather than recorded by professional biographers. They were thus socially constructed often to suit the values and interests of a community. Therefore, when one constructs a narrative of such people one is also reconstructing the culture of the community that had preserved that particular individual’s memory.

Some might argue that the lives of pre-colonial Indians are so largely mythologized and even sanctified that they rather be considered hagiographies than biographies. But Eaton suggests that the eight lives that he discusses in this volume have elements of both hagiography and biography. However, since the lives of Pratap Rudra, Gisu Daraz, Tukaram and Papadu (chapters 1, 2, 6 and 7) are socially constructed, they are closer to being hagiographies but the discussion on Mahmud Gawan, Rama Raya, Malik Ambar and Tarabai (chapters 3, 4, 5 and 8) is more biographical because the information on their lives is derived from sources independent of a community’s collective memory. Eaton’s discussion of these eight personalities is confined within the chronological limits of 1300-1761 ad. He does this for two reasons: to emphasize the ascendancy of the Delhi Sultanate in the affairs of the Deccan and the defeat of the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat. Between 1300 and 1761, there were a range of interactions between north and south and the influences largely flowed from north to south rather than from south to north. Also, the careers of these eight ‘Indians’ were shaped by their relations with Delhi although it was Gisu Daraz alone who could connect Delhi with Deccan in a creative manner. Others like Pratap Rudra, Malik Ambar, Papadu and Tarabai faced invasions from the north and at least for two of them, these invasions had a disastrous impact.

Eaton discusses the reign of Pratap Rudra (r. 1289-1323), the last ruler of the Kakatiya dynasty in eastern Deccan to tell the story of the extension of imperial power from Delhi to the Deccan plateau and also to explain the transition from regional kingdom to trans-regional Sultanate. Pratap Rudra’s reign reflects the presence of both these state systems in Deccani history. The regional kingdom was a kind of polity found in Deccan between c. 1190 and 1310 and represented by the Kakatiyas under Pratap Rudra and his dynastic predecessors whereas the trans-regional Sultanate embodied a polity introduced in Deccan along Indo-Persian lines from north India also during Pratap Rudra’s reign and which remained the Deccan’s dominant form of state system until the beginnings of colonial rule in the eighteenth century. The trans-regional Sultanate state polity was introduced in the early fourteenth century when ‘Ala al-Din Khalji invaded the Kakatiya state to punish its ruler for non-payment of tribute to the Delhi Sultanate. Later Muhammad-bin Tughluq attempted to colonize Deccan by transplanting immigrants from the north. Pratap Rudra had acknowledged the sovereignty of both these Delhi Sultans. His submission to the Delhi Sultans introduced into the Deccan Persian symbols and notions of authority and established the first links that would connect the Deccan with north India and even beyond, to the Iranian plateau. The khilat or the robe of investiture, presented to him by the representatives of the Delhi Sultans, entered Deccani ceremonial usage just as the Arabic word for the garment i.e. qaba entered the Telugu language. Khilat in the Perso-Islamic culture symbolized political overlordship and wearing it implied Pratap Rudra’s incorporation within Delhi’s ‘circle of kings’. The king was also given the title of salatin-panah (the refuge of kings). By the use of the Turko-Persian term for supreme sovereign, Pratap Rudra was assimilated into a Perso-Islamic lexical and political universe that had already diffused through West Asia, Central Asia and north India.

Yet another one of the individuals from amongst the eight was a Chishti sufi shaikh, Muhammad Gisu Daraz (1321-1423). Like the earlier sufi shaikhs during the reign of the Tughluq Sultans, Gisu Daraz contributed to the stabilization and indigenization of Indo-Muslim society and polity in the Deccan. The influence of the north Indian sufis in the Deccan during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries led to deep changes in the political and religious character of the region. While Khalji and Tughluq invasions had lacked a moral basis, as these were undertaken simply for plunder or tribute, the influence of the sufi’s notion of spiritual sovereignty (wilayat) in the region provided a moral legitimacy to Indo-Muslim political authority (hukumat) and could also transform dar al-harb (abode of war) to dar al-Islam (abode of peace). Gisu Daraz’s role in Deccani popular religion was such that after his death a tomb-shrine was built in Gulbarga. It later became an important symbol of Muslim devotion in the Deccan and has remained so ever since. Assessing the contributions of Gisu Daraz, Firishta, a contemporary chronicler has written, ‘the inhabitants of the Deccan chose him for their guide in religious affairs, so that his residence became a place of pilgrimage for all sects’ (p. 54).

To tell the story of a merchant and also to what extent the Deccan was incorporated into the global regimes of commerce in the fifteenth century and particularly in the Iranian plateau, Eaton cites the example of Mahmud Gawan. Gawan represented the most refined and cosmopolitan aspect of contemporary Persian culture. A high-born Iranian merchant, he had sailed down the Persian Gulf and across the Arabian Sea, docking at Dabhol on the Konkan coast in 1453. Dabhol was then in the Bahmani Sultanate and an important link with the western world. Gawan was welcomed by Sultan Ahmad II Bahmani especially since Persian or Persianized talented men were in great demand after the Bahmanis’ anti-Tughluq revolution in 1347. Isolated from north India both politically and commercially, the Bahmani Sultans had to look beyond the Arabian Sea for both administrative talent and warhorses. Gawan joined the other Iranians who for decades had been migrating to the Deccan and had taken up service in Bidar, the Bahmani capital. He organized regular commercial relations between Bidar and markets throughout West Asia. The meteoric rise of Gawan was facilitated by the Bahmani Sultans. His political ascendancy began in 1466 when he was made the regent of the two sons of Sultan Humayun. Subsequently the deceased Sultan’s wife allotted him the general supervision of the Bahmani provinces and made him the chief minister. For the next 25 years, Gawan held high posts and impressive titles. His greatest legacy is the Bidar College or madrasa that he had commissioned in 1472. It still stands as a reminder of Gawan’s cosmopolitanism and devotion to scholarship.

Analysing the cultural and political evolution of the Vijaynagar state, Eaton discusses the career of Rama Raya, who entered the service of Krishna Deva Raya in 1515. More significantly, Rama Raya appeared in Indian history at a critical point i.e. 1510-1512, when the Timurids and the Europeans were trying to connect the subcontinent with the outside world by land and sea respectively. Rama Raya was a Telugu warrior who had earlier been appointed military commander and assigned land in the Sultanate of Golcunda in 1512 by Sultan Quli Qutb al-Mulk. The fact that he could take up service in the army of the Sultan of Golcunda suggests that for elite soldiers the entire Deccan constituted an area of opportunity and not as many historians have imagined a land divided into a ‘Muslim’ north and ‘Hindu’ South with the Krishna river running between them. Rama Raya’s career explains the remarkable extent of elite mobility that was occurring in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries throughout the Deccan plateau, further facilitated even if partially by the diffusion of a common Persian culture in the whole region. Rama Raya was understood by his contemporaries in different ways—to his subjects he was the son-in-law of Krishna Deva Raya, to many others he was a powerful general, godfather of a sprawling patriarchal state, saviour of that state from civil war and patron of Telugu literature and the Venkateswara temple at Tirupati.

Discussing a completely different identity, that of a military slave, the author analyses the career of Malik Ambar. In doing so, he studies Afro-Indian relations and more specifically Africa’s role in the rise and fall of military slavery in the Deccan between the mid-fifteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries. To understand the large extent of trafficking of military labour from Africa to India, Eaton evaluates the commercial system of the basin of Arabian Sea and also the political system of the Deccan Sultanates. He examines as to why this trade began, why it ended and ultimately what happened to the military slaves who were imported to the Deccan. Malik Ambar (his original name was Chapu, a name that suggests an origin in the Kambata region of southern Ethiopia) was a slave from Ethiopia, who was sold to a merchant in Baghdad. Recognizing Chapu’s intellectual abilities, the merchant raised and educated him and converted him to Islam, giving him the name Ambar, before sending him to Ahmadnagar. Both Ahmadnagar and Bijapur had the largest number of such slaves and Ambar was one of the thousand habshi slaves purchased by Chingez Khan. (Chingez Khan himself was a habshi and a former slave). Malik Ambar’s career explains a number of issues related to the social history of Deccan—issues of race, class, gender and the institution of slavery. It was during 1595-1600 that he rose to prominence in Ahmadnagar and became a major challenge to the Mughal army in Deccan. In 1610, he even managed to expel the Mughal army from the Ahmadnagar fort. His rise to power was also supported by the Marathas. In fact, the Ahmadnagar Sultanate under Ambar’s direction had effectively become a joint habshi-Maratha enterprise.

Knitting his varied subjects remarkably, Eaton weaves the discussion of non-brahmin religious cults around Tukaram (1608-1649), a devotional poet, who had a deep impact on the social history of seventeenth century Deccan. Tukaram, born in a modestly wealthy merchant family, was a sudra in the caste hierarchy. Within the sudra category, Tukaram affirmed his identity as a kunbi, Maharashtra’s dominant agrarian community. As a non-brahmin, he had no direct access to Sanskrit scriptures but he wrote in vernacular Marathi on religion and could thus transgress the established socio-religious norms of his times. In this sense, he can be seen as a social revolutionary. Affected by family problems, he found solace in Vithoba, the form of God Vishnu and the songs that he chanted in praise of the deity were not composed in Sanskrit—the language of the Gods, preserved by the brahmins—but in Marathi, the language of Maharashtra’s common people. Looking beyond the caste system, Tukaram insisted that Vithoba’s devotees had no caste. Eaton uses the works of Tukaram to explore the relations between brahmins and non-brahmins in the early seventeenth century and to analyse the social base of non-brahmin devotional cults, in particular the Varkari movement centred in Pandharpur, Maharashtra. He also discusses how vernacular devotional literature and the Deccan Sultanate’s use of vernacular records in their revenue and judicial systems contributed to the formation of linguistic communities. In the Marathi speaking western Deccan such processes helped to lay the groundwork for the appearance of a new political entity viz. Shivaji’s Maratha kingdom. Tukaram’s abhangs or verses, familiar to millions of ordinary Marathi speakers, entered the collective consciousness of a substantial portion of the Deccan’s population regardless of caste and class and facilitated the evolution of the Marathas as a political community.

Moving with considerable ease from Maharashtra to Telengana and also maintaining a certain continuum, the author focuses on the brief and stormy career of a toddy tapper, Papadu. Toddy tappers are a low caste community who made their living by extracting the sap from palm trees, fermenting it and selling the liquor product. Papadu’s first defiance was that he refused to follow the occupation of the caste into which he was born. Subsequently he turned a brigand during the chaotic period following the Mughal conquest of Bijapur and Golcunda. Papadu, in fact, became celebrated in local memory as a hero who boldly defied imperial authority. Some historians have called this phenomenon ‘social banditry’, a form of rebellion that Eric Hobsbawm finds in many pre-industrial peasant societies. This form of subaltern resistance, largely documented from the nineteenth century onwards, provides a rare glimpse of a pre-colonial counter-hegemonic movement. It also tells us about caste, class and communal relations at the micro-level of Telengana society.

Providing an exemplary discussion on the varied identities in Deccan, Eaton discusses the rise of coastal brahmins in the central institutions of the Maratha state founded by Shivaji. He also analyses the changing meaning of the term ‘Maratha’ and the social groups included within that category during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To understand these developments, the author evaluates the extraordinary career of Tarabai. Tarabai was married to Shivaji’s second son, Rajaram, at the age of eight. Her father, Hambir Rao Mohite had been the commander-in-chief of Shivaji and this marriage cemented the alliance between the two Maratha lineages—the Bhonsle and Mohite clans. Between 1700 and 1710 when Papadu was active in Telegana, a powerful anti-Mughal resistance movement in the Maratha-speaking western Deccan was led by Tarabai. She comes across as an active administrator who coordinated and defended Shivaji’s falling kingdom against the imperial Mughals. She ruled as the regent of her minor son because Maratha political culture debarred a woman from assuming the symbols of royalty for herself. Yet the Portuguese did not hesitate to call her a rainha dos Marathas or the Queen of the Marathas. This characterization confirms what we know from other sources as well i.e. her gender in no way limited her ability to exercise the functions of an absolute monarch. Looking at her long career span and her achievements, one can conjecture that perhaps without Tarabai’s exertions, the declining Maratha kingdom founded by Shivaji would not have survived the onslaughts of Aurangzeb.

The book makes for a remarkable reading not simply because of the interesting lives and careers of the chosen eight individuals but also because of the discussions beyond them, focusing on the political and economic developments of the kingdoms in which they lived. Apart from all else the book is also a valuable source on the Iranian migrants to India. The maps, dynastic graphs and colour plates make the volume attractive and impressive.

Meena Bhargava teaches in the Department of History, Indraprastha College, University of Delhi, Delhi. 

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