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Published on: 09/5/18 5:41 AM

Book review: Rebel Sultans by Manu S Pillai

Rebel Sultans by Manu S Pillai. Juggernaut Books.


Manu Pillai, where were you when I was swotting for my History finals in high school, confusing the Bahmani rulers with the Qutb Shahi kings, the Bijapur rulers with the Gulbarga ones?! If I`d had your Rebel Sultans to hand, I`d have aced my paper!

Plaintive question aside, at just over 200 pages if you discount the end notes and bibliography, the book is an easy read, an interesting read.  It fixes specific focus on  the rulers of the Deccan,  their expansion strategies, their internecine clashes and their runs-in with the great rulers of Delhi, be it the Khiljis or the later Mughals.

To the world, the Deccan was uniquely Indian; to India, however, it was a mirror to the world. All too often, the Deccani main story has been the Aurangzeb-Shivaji confrontation; Pillai shifts the glance to the rebel band of Muslim kings who ruled these lands and shaped Dakshina destiny. And what a microcosm of the world Pillai`s work offers: there were clashes with the gaining- in- power Portuguese; there were African overlords; there was the distant but tangible influence of Persia; and all this was reflected in the art and customs of the period.

Humour here raises its head in the most subtle fashion: a dying Brahmin intones: `for this act thou wilt die ere thou reachest thy kingdom,` and Pillai dubs it  `the Brahmin`s Shakespearean cry.` Talking of the apocryphal tale behind the rise of Hampi where King Harihara saw a hare chased by hounds, actually turning around and biting the dogs, Pillai mentions that Kandy in Sri Lanka was also founded  after a prince encountered another hare of a `courageous dog-biting disposition.`

There is the account of a young Muslim princess who falls under the spell of her Christian friend and wishes to convert. `The girl`s mother and other female relatives with great outcries and shouts,  began pulling harshly on her…the Portuguese women from Goa grabbed hold of the girl from the other side, so that the struggle assumed such proportions that all their hair came undone.` Indeed, an early conversion ruckus! (The girl went ahead and eventually became Dona Maria de Alem-Mar!)

Drama, violence  there is aplenty: one Deccan king had his rebel brother thrown before tigers, his adherents cast into cauldrons full of boiling water and oil, and released mad elephants and other wild beasts to prey upon the unfortunate victims.

Vijayanagar is described by dazzled chroniclers as such that `the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it.` Built in a manner so that seven citadels and seven walls enclose each other, within were fields, parks, houses, bazaars. The jewels sold pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds openly in the bazaar; and there were roses everywhere since apparently the people could not live without roses. What a charming detail! Eventually, though one of the world`s greatest cities was reduced to rock and rubble. The shahs of the Deccan closed the story of Vijayanagar, razing everything to the ground.

Then there was Golconda…`a little less than Orleans, well- built and full of windows, while the bridge to cross into it was no less beautiful than the Pont-neuf at Paris.`

Hyderabad of that time is described as a `citie that for sweetness of ayre, conveniencie of water and fertility of soyle is the best situated in India.`

I wouldn’t be surprised if the book prompts a fresh tourist run on Gulbarga, Hampi, Bidar, Bijapur, Golconda, Hyderabad, etc.

We learn that Mohammad II who ascended Gulbarga`s Turquoise Throne invited Iran`s great poet Hafiz to emigrate to India…and what`s more, Hafiz was willing,   though the move did not eventually happen! We learn that Sancho Pires, wanted for murder in Goa, became Firanghi Khan and served the king of Ahmadnagar.

That an Ottoman engineer helped set up a fourteen-foot-long bronze gun based on technology sourced from Hungary. That a Jew, Garcia da Orta,  taught the Nizam Shah`s sons Portuguese and wrote a treatise on India’s medicinal plants. We learn of the complete syncretism in the reign of Ibrahim II where a painting of the goddess Saraswati that he commissioned, has her complete with all her traditional instruments and symbols like  the peacock, the conch, a veena, the lotus,  but dressed in white robes like a royal Deccan princess. Moreover, Ibrahim II is described as he `whose father is guru Ganapati and mother the pure Saraswati. `

Good read for history buffs.


BidarBijapurDeccan sultansGolcondaGulbargaHampihistorical non-fictionHyderabadManu S PillaiRebel Sultans

Sheila Kumar • September 5, 2018

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