As the Delhi Sultanate’s political frontiers expanded eastward and southward from the 14th century, the institutions that the sultanate had implanted in North India, the court culture, scholarship, and aesthetics that they had displayed in architecture and through the circulation of Persian texts spread to different parts of India. Provincial centres of power, which replicated the practices of the Delhi Sultanate, emerged in various parts of India.
Some of these centres were politically and culturally very significant. Bengal was one of the earliest of such centres where provincial overlords tried to reproduce the cultural and political forms of the Delhi Sultanate. Before the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khalji, a chieftain under Muhammad Ghuri, Bengal or more precisely deltaic Bengal, had been ruled by the Pala dynasty (c 750-1161), the Chandras (c 825-1035), and the Senas (c 1097-1223). Bakhtiyar Khalji defeated and overthrew the last Sena king, Lakshmana Sena, and established his own capital in Lakhnauti. Coins and new monuments built in the Islamic style proclaimed the arrival of new rulers with different sensibilities which were at variance from those of the local population.
Even though Bakhtiyar Khalji had declared himself in his coinage as a client of Muhammad Ghuri, subsequent governors of Bengal, sent out from Delhi, repeatedly asserted their independence. Bengal’s distance from Delhi and the difficulties of overland communication in the delta facilitated such defiance. Successive Delhi sultans from the time of Iltutmish had to move against rebels in Bengal but the looming dangers of Mongol attacks did not allow them to stay in Bengal for long.
During the reign of Muhammad bin-Tughluq, Bengal was brought under Delhi’s control and was administered from three centres, all three in the delta: Lakhnauti (in the north-west), Satgaon (in the south-west), and Sonargaon (in the east). The establishment of this control was brief as in 1338 Shams al-din Ilyas Shah, who had served under the governor, seized power and declared himself independent. He defeated his rivals, called himself sultan, and ruled over the entire delta until his death in 1357. Ilyas Shah, in a symbolic gesture to cut his links with the Delhi sultans, made Pandua, 30 kilometres away from Lakhnauti, his capital.
In the 1350s, there were two unsuccessful attempts made by the Delhi sultan, Muhammad bin-Tughluq, to reconquer Bengal. The aftermath of these failures was that for two centuries, the Delhi sultans did not bother with Bengal. This long period of independence from Delhi enabled Bengal to fashion its own regional identity. Ilyas Shah’s son and successor, Sikandar Shah, built in Pandua the Adina Mosque, which was bigger than any building that the sultans of Delhi had erected in their capital. It was a monumental statement of Sikandar Shah’s imperial ambitions and also of Bengal’s regional identity since the mosque did not replicate Delhi’s architectural style.
In its ornamentation and motifs the mosque adapted the traditions of the Palas and the Senas but in its imperial grandeur it harked back to the style of pre-Islamic Persia. It is significant that in the mosque’s inscription, Sikandar Shah described himself as the most perfect among the kings of Arabia and Iran. The kings of South Asia, where he himself was located, did not merit a mention.
The Delhi Sultanate extended its political frontier into the Deccan and spread the influence of Persian culture. But this was followed by rebellions and the declaration of independence by groups and individuals leading to the establishment of two Deccani kingdoms. In the area south of the Krishna – territories that the Tughluqs ruled indirectly by collecting tributes from powerful chieftains – the five sons of the chieftain Sangama began to assert their independence by carving out principalities from the disintegrating Hoysala kingdom. Muhammad bin-Tughluq recognised these chieftains as amirs or commanders. But this form of governance began to end around 1336 when an obscure Telugu-speaking chieftain raised the flag of revolt in Warangal.
This successful rebellion brought the curtain down on the sway of the sultanate over the eastern Deccan and also provided a fillip to rebellions across the Deccan plateau. The spirit of rebellion was explicit when Harihara – one of the five sons of the Sangama chieftain – described himself in 1339 as the “Lord of East and West” in an obvious reference to his control over the large area lying between the Coromandel and Malabar. By the mid-1340s almost all of Karnataka had accepted the rule of the Sangamas.
In 1346, all the sons of Sangama gathered in Sringeri (an important Shaiva centre of worship) to celebrate Harihara’s dominance from east to west. This marked the inaugural moment for the formation of a new state – Vijayanagara. In 1347, it was declared that the principal deity of the dynasty would be Virupaksha, a form of Shiva. What is equally significant is that among the many titles the rulers adopted one was sultan. The kingdom of Vijayanagara would come to cover the entire southern half of the Deccan. The rule of the Vijayanagara sultans would pass through four dynasties – the Sangama being the first – and would last until the mid-1600s.
The power of the Vijayanagara rulers was manifest in the enormous temple complexes that they constructed. These complexes had chariot streets, tanks, pillared halls, and columns. The most prominent and important of these complexes was near the southern bank of the Tungabhadra and the principal deities were the goddess Pampa and Virupaksha. In the 20 years between 1350 and 1370, the armies of Vijayanagara conquered large tracts of the fertile Tamil country. One consequence of this was the assimilation of classical Tamil architecture into the temples of Vijayanagara. The armies of Vijayanagara also marched into the deep south, and conquered territories there.
The kingdom thus came to be influenced by the beliefs and practices of diverse groups of people. The rulers of Vijayanagara stopped seeing their realm as a regional kingdom. They patronised various religious traditions and institutions – Shaiva, Vaishnava, Jaina, and Islamic. Especially prominent from the 15th century was their increasing patronage of Vishnu even as the importance of Virupaksha continued.
This apparently contradictory situation articulated itself by the kings describing themselves as the ideal devotees of Shiva (Virupaksha), and an ideal king like Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu. But from the late 15th century, when the Sangama house was overthrown by Saluva Narasimha (r 1485–91), the worship of Vishnu acquired greater salience. The importance of Tirupati (in Andhra Pradesh), where Vishnu is worshipped as Venkatesvara, as a pilgrim centre can be dated from this period. Krishna Deva Raya, by far the most important of the Vijayanagara monarchs, made Venkatesvara at Tirupati his patron deity. Today this temple, one of most endowed religious centres in the world, owns land, and has built a university, several colleges, schools, and hospitals.
Excerpted with permission from A New History of India: From Its Origins to the Twenty-First Century, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Shobita Punja, and Toby Sinclair, Aleph Book Company.