Friday, February 08, 2019

Black Sheep and Deccan History

I love the way history is being re-examined and re-written by a new band of writers. Until a few years ago I only knew of William Darlymple as a somebody who could tranform meticulous research into narratives that appealed to a wider audience. I often wished we had Indians writers who could go beyond the colonial period and breathe some life into it.

In this context I was glad to see Sanjeev Sanyal's "Land of Seven Rivers", and Manu Pillai's "Ivory Throne".

My first book this year was the much acclaimed second book by Manu Pillai -  "Rebel Sultans". This one chronicles the deep linkages South India once had with what is now called the Middle East - especially Iran, Iraq and Arabia.

Despite the fact that I grew up in Hyderabad, I knew practically nothing about Deccan history. I was aware of a few names and places,  of the fabulous collections at the Salar Jung Museum, vaguely remembered visiting the Golkonda Fort a couple of times, and often noticed the Falaknuma Palace from the school playgrounds.  But until I read this book I never knew that Nizams who built all this -  the Quli dynasty -  traced its origins to a family that once ruled the Levant - the House of Black Sheep, also known as the Black Sheep Turkmans.

Who were the Black Sheep Turkmans?  It was aparently a title - "Kara Koyunlu" - of a monarchy that ruled over vast areas of present-day Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1394 to 1498. After more than a century of rule this ruling family was ousted by a rival clan known as the House of the White Sheep. Ousting a royal family in the Middle Ages usually meant only two things - death or blinding of all the male heirs. A young boy from the House of Black Sheep ran away to India to escape this fate. He first enlisted as a mercenary in the Deccan Bahmani Sultanate, and then went on to set up his own feifdom at Golkonda in present-day Hyderabad.

The "Rebel Sultans" is also a window into the colorful history of the rest of the Deccan. It tells you how Aurangabad was originally the city of Khirki by an Ethiopian-born military leader named Malik Ambar. It tells you that contrary to popular narratives, the Battle of Talikota was not a war between a Hindu kingdom and a coalition of perfidious Muslim warlords. The kingdom of Vijayanagara which was utterly destroyed after this war had its own share of double-dealings, political miscalculations and hubris.

The book also has many tantalising threads that need to be knitted together. It leaves me with a wish to know more about Timur the Lame, the Turkman raider who later inspired his clansman Babur, to raid India for its riches after having been beaten out of Samarkand. I want to know more about the Kakathiyas who were perhaps the most egalitarian rulers in medieval India, and I need to  have a better understanding of philosophy and preachings of Eknath, who, like Kabir, bridged differences across castes and religions.


- Amazon - "Rebel Sultans"

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