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Kings, Slaves and Bandits

Kings, Slaves and Bandits A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives (The New Cambridge History of India Series Volume 1.8) by Richard M Eaton; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK;


Kings, Slaves and Bandits

A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives

(The New Cambridge History of India Series Volume 1.8) by Richard M Eaton; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK; pp xiii + 221, £ 45.


n the writing of Indian history, the Deccan has occupied an ambiguous place. Traditional Indian history that has largely been a chronological account of dynasties and the struggles each waged against the other has tended to posit the Deccan as an arena of perennial conflict. Richard Eaton’s ambitious effort, thus, to write a social history for this region is complicated by the fact that there has never been one fixed geopolitical-cultural centre in the Deccan, that makes possible a smoother, straight narrative of history. Eaton, following the 13th century description by the writer, Mohammad Firishta, identifies the region as one where the Deccani languages are spoken. Firishta referred to the “Dakan” (one of the four sons of India – “Hind”) as the area native to speakers of “Kannada, Marathi and Telugu”.

Writing Social History

Social history as an arena of historical study has always fascinated as it is revelatory of the various processes at play during a particular period. For long, historians have had little faith in biography or depictions of human lives, equating such writings with popular culture. The past was explored not by tracing the lives of individual actors, but by studying vast socio-economic forces. In the 1980s and 1990s historians came around to the view that the biography could serve as a vehicle to aid in the recovery and mobilisation of social history. In his book, The Cheese and the Worms (Johns Hopkins Press, US, 1980),the Italian historian, Carlo Ginzberg used the trial records of Menocchio, the miller, accused of heresy, to show how one person responded to the confusing political and religious conditions of 16th century Italy. Far from being an ordinary miller, Menocchio was surprisingly literate. In his trial testimony, he made references to over a dozen books including the Bible, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and a mysterious book that “may have been the Koran”. Robert Darnton in his book, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (Vintage Books, New York, 1985) looks at several “ordinary” events in early 18th century France (before the revolution) in an attempt to show “not merely what people thought but how they thought – how they construed the world, invested it with meaning and infused it with emotion” (p 3); the book is an attempt to understand “mentalites” in the so-called Age of Enlightenment. Thus, Darnton, for instance, tries to explain that what occurred when the apprentices of a Paris printing shop in the 1730s held a series of mock trials, that led to the hanging of every cat they could lay their hands on, was in effect a workers’ revolt.

The eight lives that make up Eaton’s history, ranging from a maharaja, a sufi shaikh, a merchant, a generalissimo, a slave, a bhakti saint, a bandit and a dowager respectively, foreground social processes fundamental to the history of the Deccan. They fill up a span of 450 years, framed by two events that have historically been seen as having a seminal impact on the Deccan. Around the turn of the 13th century, the Deccan first became subject to the expansionist designs of the Delhi sultanate. It would be finally subjugated in 1323, following the long siege of the seemingly impregnable Kakatiya fort at Warangal, when the Kakatiya ruler Pratap Rudra was compelled to accept the overall sovereignty of Mohammad bin Tughlaq. In 1761, the Marathas suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Afghan warlord, Ahmed Shah Abdali. Between the lives of Pratap Rudra (who ruled between 1289 and 1323) and Tarabai (1675-1761), the Deccan witnessed defining changes in every aspect – societal, political as well as in the economic and cultural spheres.

Early in this period, initiatives were first taken to bring the interior dry upland plateau region of the Deccan, largely home to roving pastoral communities, into the realm of cultivation. With the settlement of these regions by stable agricultural communities, the Kakatiyas and the chieftains under their tutelage built large tanks for irrigation, some of which survive to this day. As reflected by inscriptions and excavated hero-stones, it was also a society remarkably fluid, with no caste rigidities imposed in terms of occupation and mobility. Hero-stones were dedicated by a varied cross section of people from warrior chieftains, women and small-time merchants. During Pratap Rudra’s reign, the Kakatiya state made the transition from being a regional, Telugu kingdom to one that was more Turko-Iranian in character, with symbols of state derived from the sultanate, a centralised administration as well as the noticeable influx of nobility from the north. The sultanate, however, was remarkably secular – in the western sense of the word – in orientation; many former nobles under the Kakatiyas found new service under the sultanate, a fact that would continue with the later kingdoms that would emerge once Tughlaq sovereignty had been eclipsed in the Deccan.

Centripetal Forces

Yet, some kind of sacred legitimisation was still required for the monarchy to be credibly accepted. The sanction of Mohammad Gisu Daraz (1322-1421), scion of an Iranian sufi family was seen as necessary for sultans to have some kind of legitimacy over their subjects or to decisively rule out rival contenders within the family. Sufi families in Iran were invited by the Bahmani sultans to come and settle down in the Deccan. Mohammad Gisu Daraz’s presence in the capital, Bidar, accorded some sanction to the rule of Firuz II; later the shaikhs would play a deciding role in the succession struggle that followed.

Mohammad Gawan (1411-81) was originally a merchant from the city of Gilan

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006 in Persia. He traded in horses, a business that flourished for fine Arabian stallions were greatly coveted by Deccani kingdoms seeking to boost their military might. As with other career noblemen from the west, Gawan too offered his services to the Bahmani sultan, and rose to become the chief minister. His life reflected the political struggle for one-upmanship that prevailed between the westerners (the nobles who migrated from Persia and west Asia) and the “Deccanis”, i e, the nobles of older descent from the north, who had rebelled against the Tughlaqs and saw themselves as kingpins.

Rama Raya (1484-1565) founded the third dynasty of the Tuluvas in Vijaynagar. His defeat at the battle of Talikota in 1565 at the hands of a combined sultanate force would see the destruction of Hampi and the downfall of Vijaynagar. The conservative view has posited the conflict between Vijaynagar and the sultanates opposing it, chiefly the kingdoms of Bijapur and Ahmednagar, as one between the last “Hindu state” in the Deccan and the several Islamic sultanates in the Deccan. But as Eaton’s close examination of the composition of the nobility and military under successive Vijaynagar rulers reveals, these comprised a diverse body of individuals

– nobles and chieftains who switched their allegiance from one ruler to the other, as Rama Raya himself did, offering his services to Krishna Raya after he was unceremoniously dismissed by the Bijapur Adil Shahi monarch. The Deccani states also formed their own mercenary units of soldiers recruited from Persia and Turkey. The evidence that emerges is that contrary to two hostile kingdoms starkly divided on religious lines, kingdoms continued to be largely secular in their political-cultural orientation. The battle of Talikota primarily took place against the backdrop of Rama Raya’s frequent machinations to secure control, even an indirect one, over Kalyana, the capital of the Chalukyas.

The backdrop to Rama Raya’s life was shaped by events that depict the great fluidity and movement of the time. Trade on the west and east coasts with west Asia and the south-east flourished; around this time the kingdoms of the Deccan also began drawing in elements of regional culture – in a reverse movement of what had happened during the 1300s. Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur sanctioned the use of Telugu in matters relating to revenue and other administration work. It was also a time paradoxically when elements of local culture were subsumed within a wider pantheon shaping itself around this time. Thus the traditional deity of the Vijaynagar kings, Pampa, gave way to the worship of the god Virupaksha, with a magnificent temple dedicated to him at Hampi. Later, and assisted by patronage from merchant communities, it was the Venkateshwara temple at Tirupati that received much wealth and adulation.

The ‘Subaltern’ Rises

The career of the slave, originally called “Chapu”, who rose to be a powerful, independent nobleman in his own right, Malik Ambar (1548-1626) provides the background to Eaton’s description of the institution of military slavery. On account of the conflict between successive claimants to the throne, and between the Deccanis and the westerns, it was slaves imported from east Africa, especially Ethiopia, that came to constitute a loyal support base. Later, many of these “Habshi” slaves earned their independence, became chieftains in their own right, as did Malik Ambar, and the relationship with their overlords soon changed – from one between a master and his slave to patron-client ties sustained by patronage and service conditions. Malik Ambar’s later career as a regent for the young Ahmednagar Sultan is juxtaposed against the growing interest of the Mughals in the Deccan. And, as shown by the rise of Shahji Bhonsale, Shivaji’s father, the period marked the rise of the Maratha chieftains, who held the forts in the fastnesses of the Sahyadri mountains that, in turn, controlled the trade traffic between the coasts and the interior.

Tukaram (1608-49) followed a succession of other bhakti saints; his life reflects the rising non-brahmin resistance to brahmanical domination. Tukaram’s compositions of his paeans of devotion to Vithoba, called ‘abhangs’, were written in the vernacular Marathi. Tukaram’s was essentially a protest against the long brahmanical monopoly of the scriptures in Sanskrit. Nevertheless, Tukaram did not radically question the caste system; he spoke up for a more individual path towards salvation – bhakti – following the footsteps of his predecessors such as Jnanesvara, Namdev, Eknath, Chokhamela and others. It was during this period that the institution of the ‘varkaris’ came into place when hymn-singing processions of devotees from different centres

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

of Maharashtra made their way to Pandharpur, to the temple of the god, Vithoba.

The life of Papudu (turn of the 18th century), the “social bandit”, who hailed from a low-caste family of toddy-tappers is reconstructed from folk ballads and Khafi Khan’s account based on contemporary retellings. Drawing on Hobsbawm’s analysis of “social banditry”, Eaton argues that Papudu rose during a time when the Deccan witnessed severe economic and political ruptures, coinciding with the last years of Aurangzeb’s rule. A more remote Mughal administration had taken shape that sought to farm out revenue collection to the highest bidder; besides, there was the flourishing presence of merchant networks all along the coast. The contradictions in Deccan society were most clearly brought out in Papudu’s life. He amassed great wealth, sealed himself up in a fort, had his land cultivated by landless peasants, and also managed to secure an audience with the new Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah, whose granting of an imperial robe finally united the opposition against Papudu for he was still seen as a low caste upstart.

Defining the ‘Marathas’

During the lifetime of Tarabai (16751761), Maratha power reached its apogee and also witnessed its own humiliating decline. The events that framed her life, Eaton argues, were shaped by the increasing militarisation of the marathas – their traditional ‘bargi’ (guerrilla) mode of fighting boosted by the availability of many peasant soldiers who fought during the offseason. Marathas also successfully fructified a policy of making incursions and having a base in the north India – a policy decided by Tarabai herself during her first stint in power during the 1720s. During the 34 years that she was confined to prison, a family from the chitpawan brahmin community rose to become the hereditary peshwas, following the weakening of Sambhaji’s successors. Brahmins were also increasingly dominant as bankers and financiers, extending money to chieftains to pay their armies. The question as to who were the marathas also came to be posited. First defined as primarily a linguistic community, the marathas, during the initial period when Shahji Bhonsle and Shivaji dominated, came to be identified as a warrior, martial clan; however, in Tarabai’s time, kunbis, a cultivating community, began to lay claim to the status (an early instance of “sanskritisation”).

The book could perhaps have appeared more complete had Eaton also discussed the advent and the impact that printing presses obviously had on the different regional kingdoms that frame his study period. It was around the 1530s that the printing press made its appearance in India, first on the western coast, where western missionaries from Portugal translated and then printed the Bible and other works into Konkani, Tamil as well as Marathi.

The Europeans (“hat-wearers”) also make their appearance in bits and pieces. The marathas witnessed a severe blow to their ambitions at the battle of Panipat, an event with which the book ends. But besides Abdali’s onslaught from the north, all along the coast, in the west and the east, the Portuguese, Dutch, French and the English were beginning to make their mark from the mid-16th century onwards. The first Portuguese interactions with the marathas were, it appears, limited to their supplying arms. But there are records of frequent Portuguese diplomatic and trade missions to Vijaynagar from 16th century onwards. During a period of political uncertainty in Vijaynagar in the 1540s, the Portuguese in Goa also made plans to launch a sortie on “pagodas” (notably, Tirupati, which they called, “Rome of the Gentiles”) [Subrahmanyam 2001]. Only a few decades later, the conflicts between European powers would come to play a central role in shaping later events.

The medieval period has been one of the most vexatious and difficult eras of Indian history. James Mill in his influential history of the early 19th century equated the medieval period as the Muslim period; which in turn had great influence later in the writing of a communal Indian historiography. The historian, Sumit Sarkar has argued that Indian history be written with the approach of social history – that would take into account the varied processes at work in a particular time period. Richard Eaton sheds light on a period that has been for long historically much misunderstood. He also successfully manages to reveal the historical complexities at work in a region; forces, that would continue to play a decisive role in later decades.




Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (2001): Penumbral

Visions: Making Politics in Early Modern South

India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

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