Three years ago, Manu Pillai wrote one of India’s quirkiest and most charming contemporary history books. The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore is an absorbing deep dive into court intrigues of what is now Kerala “from the era of Martanda Varma, the masterful warrior king, down to India’s liberation from colonial rule two centuries after his passing. It is the story of those intervening years when the region became a smouldering cauldron of social, political and cultural contestations, which would leave in their wake a new land so different from its incredible ancestor in the era of the Zamorins and the Portuguese.” Driven compulsively over nearly 700 exhaustive pages by the author’s evidently limitless passion and commitment, there is an intriguing wrinkle. Pillai started his research when still a teenager, and was only just 25 when his book was published (it deservedly won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puruskar).

Still conspicuously short of his 29th birthday, this rather remarkable young author is back with Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji, which promises – as per the prominent front cover blurb by Sunil Khilnani – to reposition “the Deccan to the centre of our attention – where it belongs”.

Summarising his case, Pillai writes in his positively racy Introduction that “often the Deccan has been reduced to a mere battlefield in that titanic clash between Aurangzeb and Shivaji, everything else languishing in the shadow of their sensational vendetta…But the Deccan was remarkable even before the advent of the Marathas, witness to a saga launched long in advance of the first Mughal conquests in India.” And with that, he introduces a cast of wildly colourful “Rebel Sultans” who “birthed a whole new universe, a horizon of breathtaking achievements and startling contradictions. And in the end they shaped a land that became the envy of the early modern world and the object of many an emperor’s doomed desire.”

The author’s presence

These are, to be sure, already heavily trafficked annals of history. Pillai’s bibliography lists 147 books alongside some 50 journal articles, and the author takes pains to acknowledge that his contribution “stands on the shoulders of many generations of scholars. From HK Sherwani and PM Joshi to Ricjard Eaton and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, it is to the depth of their scholarship and the painstaking detail of their research that I owe my chief debt as the writer of this volume.” But here again, there is a curious twist. In terms of conception and pace (and somewhat uncannily, even the narrative style), this avowedly “short, readable account” more closely channels the Persia-born 16th century historian Ferishta, whose monumental Gulshan-i Ibrahim chronicles the rise of Muslim power in India with particular emphasis on the Deccan (his chief patron was Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur).

Thus, Rebel Sultans features an old-fashioned (or “classic”) authorial voice, while limiting its ambit to the exercise of great power, and the recounting of exploits by the the ruling classes. This is what Thomas Carlyle famously described in the 19th century when he wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” There’s no doubt a good part of the reason for Pillai’s choice is simple expedience. He says, “To know India, then, we must know the Deccan. But to tell all its tales together is a daunting proposition – the land is rich, and a thousand pages would not suffice.” Instead, we get a fast-paced greatest hits of the region’s medieval roller-coaster ride, overflowing with “remarkable men and women who all claimed for themselves the esteem of posterity.”

The Deccan and the rest of India

Less than a page into Rebel Sultans, a crucial insight, “The Deccan, to the world, was uniquely Indian: to India, however, it was a mirror of the world.” This vast, heavily populated triangular plateau situated between the Eastern and Western Ghats, and extending north as far as the Satpura and Vindhya mountain ranges (extending across eight states of today’s India), has a complicated cosmopolitan history that isn’t particularly meaningfully congruent with the back-and-forth existential struggles between invasion and resistance that define the identity and character of much of North India. Pillai aptly highlights one crucial contrast, “Islam, tradition claims, had arrived on the Malabar coast during the lifetime of the Prophet himself, touching the Deccan, at any rate by the tenth century thereafter. The process was peaceful, with traders serving as worthy ambassadors for the faith, while some came seeking sanctuary from persecution in their own homelands…Islam in the north, however, launched an age of conquest and violence.”

That might seem an ultimately inconsequential detail in what did indeed eventually evolve into yet another “age of conquest and violence.” But as David Shulman usefully summarises in his Foreword to Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s brilliant Three Ways to be Alien: Travails and Encounters in the Early Modern World, “Connected history envisions a world so densely textured, so profoundly interlocking in its causal processes, that even a slight shift at one point will produce change at many other points – a version of the so-called Butterfly Effect (if a butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing in the spring, by late summer hurricane patterns in the Atlantic will be affected).”

Fluid identities

Certainly, right up to and including Shivaji, the cultural identity of exalted power throughout the Deccan is endlessly fluid. Perfectly illustrative is Alauddin Shah, the very founder of the Bahmani Sultanate, said even then to be “half a Mussulman and half a Hindu.” As Pillai writes, he “became one of the earliest Muslim kings in India to declare that ‘no jiziah should be levied from non-Muslims in lieu of military service’, a policy most famously associated with the Mughal emperor Akbar who ruled many generations later…A number of prominent local Hindu princes were invited to the Bahmani court which was established at Gulbarga. In 1352, endearingly, the Sultan even opened his eyes to the glories of Buddhist and Jain traditions by visiting the Ellora caves, taking with him a scholar to interpret all that he saw there in its ancient frescoes and carvings.”

Much the same degree of open-mindedness prevailed on what was ostensibly the other side, amongst the Hindu Sultans who faced off against the Bahmanis for two centuries. As Pillai accurately points out:

“To view the clashes of this age as a collision of religious identities is to ignore the fragmented era in which these confrontations occurred. And while it is romantic to proclaim that in founding Vijayanagar ‘the Hindus of the south’ were making a ‘bid for freedom’, the actual careers of Vijayanagar’s founders, one of whom, Harihara, is even said to have served the Delhi Sultanate, shows that plain realpolitik, often couched in a vocabulary of faith was what actually motivated them. The first Rayas of Vijayanagar, in establishing a new kingdom, were not shielding Hinduism as much as taking ‘advantage of a period of public commotion’ to establish a state of their own and further their own dynastic interests, for reasons less poetic than many would prefer to believe.”

Enter the “Habshi”

In this atmosphere of opportunism and daring, with constant jousting for any advantage, the Deccan was a powerful magnet for foreign adventurers and fortune-seekers. One consequential contingent came from where Ferishta originated – the Persian territories headquartered in modern-day Iran. Pillai says these newcomers “brought about the emergence of two rival factions at [the Bahmani] court: the Dakhnis, descended from those early Muslim immigrants from northern India who were of Turkic or local (converted) origins, and the Afaqis, or ‘Westerners’, who had crossed the seas to win success under Bahmani patronage.” In their wake, another noteworthy cohort, “Africans who came primarily from the land we now call Ethiopia. And they too would thrive in the Deccan far beyond the stations where they began their lives.”

One of these was the fearsome Malik Ambar, about whom Pillai writes with great dramatic flair. “The hero of the Deccan had skin the colour of coal. Emperors snarled at him from afar, while enemies at home quaked in fear when he marched into their neighbourhoods. Many were those who despised him, but many more still were the masses who discerned in him a champion. His story was certainly unusual, though he was neither the first of his people to serve in the Deccan, nor extraordinary in his antecedents. And yet he emerged as the strongest of them all, reigning indeed as king in all but name.”

Born in Christian Abyssinia (thus the derivative “habshi”) and converted to Islam before being sold into slavery, Ambar emerges the pivotal “great man” in Pillai’s retelling of this historical period. This implacable defender of the Deccan created “a multiracial, multi-ethnic force that broadly shared a regional identity distinct from the northern Mughals” which “effectively [became] a joint Habshi-Maratha enterprise” and “the nursery in which Maratha power could grow, creating the political preconditions for the eventual emergence of an independent Maratha state.”

With visionary strategic intelligence, Ambar pioneered the quick strike-and-retreat guerrilla tactics which would later be used to devastating effect by the Marathas. One of the most adept generals in his camp was Maloji Bhonsle, whose son Shahji eventually fought in the “habshi” armies, but kept switching camps (at one time even serving the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan for a period). The third generation of this warrior dynasty produced Shivaji, who tormented the Mughals for decades, and then “died in 1680, confident and strong.

Aurangzeb, consumed by his fury, himself descended on the Deccan to destroy all resistance once and for all. As it happened, the man ended up shattering his own empire in the twenty-six years he spent in the south.” In this way, Pillai concludes, “the Deccan was witness to the making of India, and the tribute India must pay is to remember and recall.”

Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji, Manu S Pillai, Juggernaut.