A blood and guts retelling of the Chalukyas, Anirudh Kanisetti’s Lords of the Deccan vividly recreates an era from medieval South India. Kanisetti, who also runs the military history podcast Yuddha, answered novelist and writer Vikram Chandra’s questions over email about his new book, the insistence on setting up kings as flawless figures, the historical use of violence, and more.

Thanks for this brilliant book. It’s erudite and knowledgeable but has the pace and suspense of a novel. The people one encounters in it are complex and multi-faceted, prone to both brilliance and dismal failure. I devoured it in a couple of days. First, could you tell us something about yourself? What’s your educational and professional background, and how did you come to the writing of this book?
May I just thank you first, Vikram, for your kind and thoroughly encouraging comments! I’m delighted that you enjoyed Lords of the Deccan.

To answer your question: it has been a rather unlikely journey, all things considered. Like so many young South Indian men, I studied engineering – I hold a first class honours degree from BITS Pilani. I also completed a minor in philosophy, economics, and politics; in hindsight, I think that the ideas that I was exposed to through that had a profound impact on the way I saw the world.

I’d already developed a curiosity for history by that time, partially as a result of gaming; I was very interested in the histories of Greece and Rome, and gradually began to read about ancient India as well. But I was quite struck by the gulf between how much accessible, critical work there is out there about, say, ancient Rome as compared to ancient India.

After graduating, I worked as a data analyst for a little while and then as a public policy and geopolitics researcher at The Takshashila Institution in Bengaluru, where I started my Echoes of India podcast. That’s how I began to experiment with using critical scholarship to tell the histories of the Indian subcontinent in engaging new ways, and the public response was very encouraging; that’s what really got me started with the discipline of public history.

Soon after, Manu S Pillai generously asked for my comments on a late draft of Rebel Sultans in early 2018, and subsequently introduced me to the good people at Juggernaut; while chatting with my editor Parth Mehrotra, we both happened to figure out that the early medieval Deccan was long overdue a new history.

It was an area I had some curiosity about, given that I’m Deccani myself. I’d always yearned for a book that did justice to this challenging and astonishing time and region, and it was more than a little intimidating to think that I could be the one to write it. And so I set out to study the period and write Lords of the Deccan.

One thing that has always puzzled me is the relative neglect of military sea-power in the Indian subcontinent, despite the length of our coastline and how important seaborne trade has been over the centuries. Am I mistaken in this impression? How did the rulers of the Deccan exploit the oceans, and when and why?
That’s a very interesting question, and one that I’ve wrangled with a fair bit myself. After all, it seems very strange that when European powers were taking over the Indian Ocean trade, no Indian ruler seems to have seriously bothered with building a navy that could fight them and seize the profits for themselves. Or even earlier, when we know of so many Arab merchants who made fortunes in the Indian Ocean trade, we think Indian merchants weren’t doing the same thing.

I think that there are a few reasons which lead to this confusion today. There’s a little Eurocentrism coupled with hindsight bias in the way we think sea power should work: if this is what was so successful in the 18th century, why were Indian powers not doing that in the 16th century? Frankly, how could they have known? There is also, I think confirmation bias due to a lack of sufficient research and writing about how premodern Indians saw this, but we can make some guesses.

Sea power is useful to states insofar as it helps them achieve geopolitical objectives profitably; states will often tend to invest in what is profitable short term rather than long-term, especially when there are much more obvious benefits to other forms of power. They don’t always need to have massive navies and seek to dominate distant seas: it was only a very particular set of political, cultural, and economic circumstances in early modern Europe that led European sea power to develop that way.

To most premodern Indian states, especially the great inland riverine empires, what was much more reliably profitable was territorial conquest and expansion overland. This is very obvious from the detailed inscriptions that survive describing how cities and enemy camps were looted, usually tying such conquests to the power and prestige of the king.

This is not to say, however, that all premodern Indian states thought about sea power the same way. There’s a growing body of evidence showing that coastal polities certainly did maintain navies capable of running down passing merchant ships and forcing them to come to port, and we can see from hero stones and inscriptions that these polities fought wars between each other and sought to expand and concentrate trade in their own emporia. That’s applied sea power by any definition of the term. The Shilaharas and Kadambas of Goa are excellent examples of polities that used it.

Now while inland empires, such as those of the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas of the Deccan, might not have bothered developing sea power in the same sense, they certainly recognised that trade had enormous value, and they spent a lot of time making sure to subjugate and receive tribute from these coastal polities. Their geopolitical priorities thus met, there really wasn’t as much incentive to bother with maintaining their own navies.

I would also like to briefly say that while there is a tendency to associate this kind of power only with states today, it’s relatively recently that states have developed a monopoly over coercive violence. Much should be said about premodern Indian merchant guilds, especially, whom I extensively discuss in Lords of the Deccan.

You show the reader how Pulakeshin II invented “a legendary backstory for the Chalukyas, erasing their humble chalke-wielding [crowbar-wielding] past.” Why do rulers engage in this creative ancestry-making again and again over the centuries?
That is a question of incredible scope! I would need to dig into the anthropological and sociological scholarship to give a detailed reply, but for now I think it should suffice to say that societies need a reason to be okay with power being concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. The reason can’t just be that King So-and-So was stronger than everyone else. There must be a reason why King So-and-So was so favoured, it could not just have been the random forces of history coupled with his own initiative that led to him becoming so powerful. And so he needs something that sets them apart from everyone else. Purity and prestige of descent is a great way to ensure that, because people will then assume that the ruler embodies the characteristics of his imagined ancestors, and if his ancestors were favoured by divine forces, so is he – and so will his descendants be.

I would actually see this as part of a two-sided process, because kings never claim legitimacy only on the basis of their purported ancestry: they usually say that they are favoured due to descent and divine favour but also claim that they provide justice, respect the gods, and secure loot and prosperity. Power must be legitimised through both symbolic and material means. You see this fundamental dynamic all the way from the pharaohs of Egypt to the kings of Sumer, to Cyrus of Persia, to the medieval emperors of the Deccan. And there’s plenty of examples of how Deccan emperors legitimised their power this way in Lords of the Deccan.

You write, “it is difficult to imagine Hinduism without temples, or even to imagine temples as being more than places for worship.” Could you talk a bit about the history of temple-making and their various cultural functions?
Before I discuss temples, I’d like to briefly discuss something I find fascinating about modern Indian politics: the building of statues. Statues of political leaders or historical figures are everywhere; you’ll find them at tiny crossroads, under highways, near airports, near dams. They’re usually colossal, and many political parties compete to build the highest and most imposing statues of a particular leader. The statues are bathed with milk and water and garlanded on important political occasions, usually by young politically active people, who thus signify a connection to the statue in question and the values that it is believed to represent.

Now there’s a tendency, today, to assume that medieval Indians were somehow less complex than us, that they could only have one motivation (usually piety) and that kings wanted only to signify their devotion through building grand temples. I think that assumption doesn’t make sense, because when you read the primary sources and look at the art historical materials, you begin to unravel hints that medieval people had motivations just as complex as yours or mine. They had ambitions, dreams, flaws, rivalries. And they sought to use symbols to make political claims just as we do: it’s just that in the 21st century, we have been schooled by generations of Orientalist wisdom that our temples are purely sacred sites. They are much more than that, just as a statue of a movie star is more than purely a sign of appreciation for their acting.

With that said, we can truly begin to appreciate what an incredible and unique cultural phenomenon the Indian temple is. These are buildings that took tremendous resources to create: armies of miners, labourers, designers, sculptors, cooks, priests. Their iconography conceals fascinating messages of their royal patrons’ victories and how they tried to position themselves in relation to their chosen deity; their architects competed to make ever-more impressive, ornate, and innovative designs; inscriptions show that enormous financial resources were lavished on these sites.

They change enormously in scale and function over time and place: from the relatively small, probably exclusively royal shrines of the seventh century to the enormous, sprawling complexes of the seventeenth century, designed to handle hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims. There is really nothing like them anywhere in the medieval world.

The people who made them were rational, complex individuals; why is it that they were choosing to spend such resources on temples and not, say, sea power? Because it was tremendously valuable to them, culturally and symbolically as well as religiously. A temple is the greatest possible engine to convert material resources into symbolic power and prestige.

Of course there was considerable variation in how they must have been intended by their makers, and they can’t all have approached them with this sort of hard-nosed calculation. But that’s precisely my point, and something that I get into very extensively in Lords of the Deccan. Let’s try to be open to these challenging complexities, and acknowledge that it is anachronistic to attach our values and ideas to people living a thousand years ago in a totally different world.

There’s a popular trope that encourages us to imagine Indian rulers as perfectly virtuous people, incapable of destruction and cruelty. These “good Indian kings” are pretty much always imagined as “good Hindu kings,” as opposed to brutal invaders – especially in countless WhatsApp forwards. What’s the reality of how Indian rulers operated?
I’ve already hinted at this in my previous answer: the reality of these aristocrats is much more complicated and fascinating than the bland moralistic ideas we might attach to them today. I think what the evidence suggests is that medieval Indian rulers were men of war as well as men of sophistication, just like warlords from anywhere in the premodern world. Their literature, their architecture, their own words confirm this.

In Lords of the Deccan, I quote directly from dozens upon dozens of primary sources describing the looting of cities, the abduction of women, and even (controversially) the attacking of sacred sites. Even such scholars as KA Nilakantha Sastri, the grandfather of South Indian history writing, quite candidly admit this sort of thing happened (and I cite them as saying that). Yet today we seem to prefer a simplistic binary of “king of this religion good, king of that religion bad”, rather than acknowledging that power is complex, and that the powerful are always complex as well.

A king could have commanded the worst atrocities to be wreaked on his enemies and yet built the most awe-inspiring of temples. He could have been the greatest of scholars and yet been spoilt and selfish in his personal life. We know that the wealthy and the powerful today are like this; these are endlessly discussed in the news and on social media. And yet, when it comes to the wealthy and powerful of the premodern world, they must have all been saints.

Once we let go of that misconception, Indian rulers come across as utterly vivid, brilliant, and captivating figures. We witness some, like Amoghavarsha Rashtrakuta and Bhoja Paramara, using literature, grammar and linguistics to develop forms of political charisma that were as culturally influential as anything from medieval Baghdad, Constantinople, or Kaifeng. We see others, like Govinda III, Indra III, or Rajendra Chola presenting themselves as world-facing monarchs, luxuriating in their ability to command merchants of diverse ethnicities. We appreciate the utter audacity of their military and religious projects. The reality of who these men were, once we let go of our idea of who they should be, is much more brilliant than anything our limited 21st century imaginations can conjure up.

When I was reading the book, I was thinking your exposition about the excesses of these wars and conquests would get you blowback. Even in the few days since the publication of the book, I’ve seen some yelling on social media. How’s it going in this regard?
I don’t take it personally; I understand where it’s coming from. If one has always been told that kings were virtuous and peaceful, one will obviously be very shocked by an op-ed or a book description saying that there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. If one has always believed that history is meant to comfort us and confirm our biases, one will respond with shock and anger when a history book does the exact opposite. If I’d grown up in a slightly different media environment instead of stumbling into all this scholarship, I would react exactly the same way.

I would say, think of it like this. Our world is a challenging place. There are a lot of things that we don’t agree with, things that frustrate us and sadden us. Does it not seem a little strange that only some periods of Indian history as repeated online provoke such strongly negative emotions, while the rest of it all suits our need for a glorious, comforting past? That this is used to justify a one-size-fits-all solution to returning to this supposedly primordial state? Does it not seem as though this version of history might have biases that need investigation and discussion?

As 21st century Indians, we are the heirs to the history of one-sixth of humanity, and we must therefore try to understand it better as a society. If we cannot retain open, critical, evidence-based minds to discuss how we think about our past, if we reject everything we disagree with, are we not failing our ancestors, ourselves, and the rest of humanity?

Social media corporations and political elites prefer us to be polarised, I think, to respond to anger and frustration with anger and frustration, and become even more polarised. But we must have these difficult conversations today, and we need to challenge ourselves and think more freely and boldly and empathetically. One thing I made sure to do in Lords of the Deccan is to explain the primary sources from courtly literature to land grants to art history, discuss engagingly how I’ve interpreted secondary scholarship, and break down how I use the process of historical inference to reveal a history much more rich and complex than we are led to believe.

I only hope that those who read it will be encouraged in their own efforts to understand the past better, and be equipped with the tools to have more nuanced conversations about it. Read the primary sources, and see what a warlike, colourful, and breathtaking world they actually reveal.

Talking about conquests – both in the book and in your military history podcast, Yuddha, you discuss the use of elephants in war. How were these beasts trained and used in battle?
This is another one of those totally unique premodern Indian things that doesn’t get enough attention, I think. No other culture on Earth developed such a deep set of systems to train and use these magnificent animals for war – and in my view, most of the evidence suggests that they were very useful in battle, though some European military historians have claimed otherwise.

I am not going to get into their training and use because I do want people to read the book, if I might be a little cheeky! But sources like the Arthashastra, Harshacharita and Manasollasa mention some rather shocking things: starving elephants, beating them, training them to jump, clear highways, wield weapons; plying them with drugs and alcohol, and extremely gory details of how they fought and killed on the battlefield, trampling enemies and being torn to shreds by sharp, barbed elephant-lances wielded by rival aristocrats. I would be really surprised if anyone who reads these primary sources comes away thinking that medieval India was a land of peaceful kings.

We meet some fascinating, formidable women as you tell us the stories of these dynasties. Who is the woman you’d most like to see a series about?
Without a doubt, Lokamahadevi, the queen of the Vatapi Chalukyas in the 8th century. This is a woman who, along with her sister, is married to the Chalukya prince Vikramaditya at a very young age; they come from a distant land to the Chalukya homeland in North Karnataka, a place of different languages, customs, and traditions. We know from various sources what a viper-pit a medieval Indian court was, and yet she and her sister rise to the very top; they even publicly dedicate their own temples.

Lokamahadevi herself governs territories in her own right and made land grants: a prerogative usually only of royal men. She builds a temple to a god named after her; she appears to have had a rivalry with her sister, who was mother of the heir and thus claimed higher status; she seems to have encouraged and profited from her husband’s military aggression against their rival Pallava dynasty. She must have been, as you said, absolutely fascinating and formidable, and she challenges so many of our notions of medieval Indian queens as hapless devout damsels.

TV series about ruthless, powerful, morally complex historical women are tremendously popular across the world – look at the Chinese obsession with Wu Zetian or the cultural phenomenon that was Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen. Where are India’s stories?

In the maps in our history books and in those aforementioned WhatsApp forwards, we always see empires as solid blocks of colours, suggesting a complete and deep control of those territories. Did pre-modern empires really work like this?
Not at all. This, I think, is connected once again to Eurocentric and hindsight bias in the way we think about premodern India; we assume that if modern states on the European model are depicted like this, then so should premodern states. And we like to think, of course, of these vast, impressive territorial empires. That is overly simplistic and a little unjust to our past, in my view: India shows us some remarkably unique ways in which states can operate, working with religious and mercantile power centres as well as local rulers and vassal lords.

In Lords of the Deccan, empires are depicted rather differently map-wise: the dynasty’s core territory is marked, and a sphere of influence depicted around it based on inscriptions of vassal dynasties. This is a crucial nuance I think, because very often – and I provide examples – “vassal” kings did things in their own right, things that were by no means beneficial to their sovereign. Rather than conjuring up gigantic unitary empires, it is quite interesting to imagine, given how strong local autonomy could be, how rulers went about incorporating other territories and winning them over through claims of descent, devotion, and warfare. These are all things that I’ve discussed briefly above, and they tie into the broader theme I’ve returned to: once we let go of how history should be, we can be amazed by the uniqueness and creativity of what was.

Finally, what are you working on now? Please feel free to be as vague as you want – I hate it when people ask me this question and do an obfuscatory song-and-dance. But I ask because I’m eager to read whatever you come up with next.
How kind! It’s still taking shape in my mind; I’ve been gathering materials and starting research. All I can say at this point is that it’s about medieval South India, a dynasty that is present in Lords of the Deccan; a dynasty that, despite its pervasive presence on social media, is long overdue for a critical, empathetic, accessible new history. I’m tremendously excited to work on it this year.