In the days following 23 January 1565, a mighty empire was dealt a mortal blow. A coalition of Deccan kingdoms had defeated the army of Vijayanagara, their neighbour to the south, at the Battle of Talikota. The eponymous capital city of Vijayanagara, perfectly equipped for dealing with hostile forces of cavalry, was unprepared for the Deccan armies’ gunpowder weaponry, and its people began to flee in terror. What unfolded in the days and decades to follow show us that it’s high time we stop letting a handful of politicised incidents in North India govern the way we think about Muslim rulers. It is important to remember how the South challenges our notions of Indian Islam.
A Muslim scholar in the ruins of Vijayanagara
Much has been said about the ‘destruction’ of Vijayanagara. Twentieth century scholars, such as Robert Sewell, KA Nilakanta Sastri, and S Krishnaswami Aiyangar, used later texts to declare the city as having been catastrophically destroyed, all its temples desecrated and its peoples persecuted. (Of course, modern politicians have been quick to repeat these claims in their screeds). Such claims are based on sources written over a century after the events; archaeological research shows that the reality of what happened was more complex.
First, it is important to establish that the city was sacked, and that there was certainly destruction, both deliberate and accidental. This is very much in line with premodern warfare in India, with rulers such as the Cholas making similar claims. The Great Platform in Vijayanagara’s Royal Centre, known today as the ‘Mahanavami Dibba’, originally had a towering wooden superstructure; this was set aflame, and it slowly crumbled and collapsed down one side of the platform. Later, rains washed the soot and ash away, and some of this has been discovered in the shrine known as the Underground Shiva Temple nearby. Significantly, the temple itself was left untouched, and the ‘linga’ can still be seen.
Many shrines in Vijayanagara were left as they were; those that were attacked were linked directly to the city’s mighty Tuluva dynasty, specifically the Tiruvengalanatha and Vijaya Vitthala temples constructed by Krishna and Achyuta Raya in the early 16th century. Major complexes linked to earlier ruling dynasties, such as the ‘Hazara’ Rama and Virupaksha temples, were untouched. Worship continues at the Virupaksha to this day. This carefully-targeted destruction suggests that the Sultans wished to discredit the city’s current rulers, whose authority was linked to the structures of the Tuluvas.
But even this, to some members of the Sultanate forces, was going too far. Among the witnesses to the events of 1565 was a young scholar named Rafi al’Din Shirazi, who worked for one of the leaders of the coalition forces — Ali Adil Shah I of Bijapur. Later in his career, Shirazi wrote a history of Bijapur known as the Tadhkirat al-Muluk. The text praises the rulers of Vijayanagara for their splendour, and describes the ardent loyalty they inspired in various Persian and Indian Muslim aristocrats in their employ. Shirazi was also greatly moved by the beauty of the city’s temples, and writes (referring to their eventual destruction): “May God the exalted and transcendent forgive the Sultan with the light of his compassion, for after the conquest of Vijayanagar, he with his own blessed hand … ruined many of the idol temples.”
How the Sultans became Indian
It might seem surprising, given the stereotypes that have become all too commonplace about pre-modern Indian Muslims, that they might appeal to God to forgive a Sultan for destroying Hindu temples. But this is hardly exceptional, either for Shirazi or for other South Indians and even Sultans. In other places in the Tadhkirat al-Muluk, Shirazi writes with wonder about the great Kailashanatha monolith at the Ellora caves in Aurangabad, providing an account of its construction by a legendary emperor known as ‘Parchand Rao’; significantly, this is mentioned as part of the political history of Bijapur itself.
Indeed, whatever their activities in Vijayanagara, the Adil Shahis of Bijapur were deeply inspired by earlier Deccan kingdoms. Various Chalukya inscriptions can be seen prominently positioned in Bijapur, some of them set up by Brahmin priests employed by the Sultans. Indeed, from as early as 1536 — at a time when Vijayanagara was aggressively recruiting Persians — Bijapur had declared Marathi its administrative language and hired Brahmins for most financial offices. Their contemporaries, the Qutb Shahis of Golconda, went even further, using Telugu as the language of the Sultan himself. In the 16th century, Ibrahim and Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah patronised and wrote in Telugu; in the 17th century, Abdullah Qutb Shah set up an office to produce Telugu documents and Abu’l Hasan Tana Shah even issued firmans (royal notices) exclusively in Telugu. The Qutb Shahis are also notable for including ideas from temple architecture — such as pillars and mandapas (halls or pavilions) — in their tombs. All of these suggest a profound ‘Indianisation’ among these descendants of immigrants, just as NRIs today are often as American as any other ethnic group. Indeed, one could argue that premodern India’s economic muscle derived from its ability to integrate and leverage people of many ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds, similar in some ways to the West today.
Learning from medieval violence
Political violence was universal in premodern India, just as instances of curiosity, pluralism and cultural accommodations were. Constant controversy about what premodern rulers did or did not do, and the question of extracting vengeance on their behalf, misses the point.
To demand that modern mosques be replaced with (often poorly-attested) pre-modern temples is absurd. Why should Indian Islam as a whole be responsible for the actions of a few individuals, when even their contemporaries decried their actions? Nobody is demanding that Tamilians pay reparations to Karnataka, though the Chola emperors burned down the city of Kalyana in 1047. We understand very well that modern Tamil life and culture is not defined by the actions of a few individuals who lived centuries ago, and Tamil Nadu’s healthy economic, social and political interactions with Karnataka have not at all been impacted by these distant events. Indian democracy has easily been able to grow beyond the regions’ occasionally-violent medieval past; indeed the past has hardly been relevant to forging a new relationship between them.
Similarly, claiming that Akbar or the Adil Shahis or Qutb Shahis give us a historical sanction for tolerance today is unnecessary. There is no need for some rulers to have been ‘better’ in the past for us to wish to create a present that is respectful, considerate and fulfilling for all Indians. Irrespective of history’s brutality or tolerance, we should want to create a kinder future simply because we respect the sanctity of human life, a lesson that we have paid many dear prices to learn, from World Wars to Partition and beyond. If that alone were not enough, it is certainly evident from our own past that diverse and pluralistic societies are often wealthier and more innovative than monolithic, intolerant ones
This is not Akbar’s India or Aurangzeb’s India; it is not Ali Adil Shah’s India or Shirazi’s India. This is our India, and what we choose to do with this fact, how we choose to treat our own, is what we will be remembered for.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.
This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)