Stray Notes on Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The ubiquitous presence of the peacock in Indian art and religious iconography is seen across the last two millennia and dates back to the Mauryan period. Peacock motifs are even seen on Indus vases and pots. From temples carvings, bronzes, sacramental and cosmetic adornment, to thrones and miniatures, the peacock has a quite a prominent place in the subcontinent. (See Christine Jackson’s Peacock for further reading). It is fabled that St. Thomas the Apostle visited India and was accidentally killed by the arrow of a peacock hunter outside his hermitage in Mylapore, the ‘land of the peacock scream’. PeacockNightMayil in Tamil or Mayura in Sanskrit is the mythological vehicle (vahana) of the god Karthikeya or Muruga – the son of Shiva. San Thome Basilica is popularly believed to be the original burial site of the saint.

Peacock In A Rainstorm At Night forms part of a Ragamala manuscript of Deccani miniatures of the 16th century. Some confusion persists as to a precise provenance, but both the medieval Bahmani sultanates of Ahmadnagar (see Taarif-i Hussain Shahi) and Bijapur are suggested, Mark Zebrowski writes in Deccani Painting (1983). In particular, the Bijapur sultan Ibrabim Adil Shah II was known not just as a connoisseur of the arts, but as an accomplished musician, poet, calligraphist and painter himself, besides being well versed with Islamic and Hindu mystical traditions. His book of poems, Kitab-i Nauras, (read here) Zebrowski writes, “is strongly Sanskritic in vocabulary and contains numerous descriptions of ragas and raginis, with accounts of their moods, activities, and attributes”. Zebrowski further suggests that since the nine remaining Ragamala paintings (it is speculated that there are more) bear ‘crude Sanskrit inscriptions’ and a few equally ‘crude’ translated Persian words, it is difficult to ascribe them entirely to either one of these sophisticated schools but they seem instead to indicate ‘a provincial milieu’ and perhaps are linked to a larger Persianate style across Northern Deccan, western Gujarat and southern Malwa, with some regional variations.

The fragmentary Peacock In A Rainstorm At Night, remains a fine example of this era of Deccani miniatures and is evocative of monsoons, for it is the onset of the rains that signals the peacock’s mating season and as depicted in this particular work, Zebrowski writes, “…a male flies from tree to tree shrieking his mating cry, startling tiny birds roosting in delicate new foliage. Long, white raindrops coldly fill the black sky. As rains and peacocks are poetic symbols of unrequited love, the missing portion of the page may have contained a lovesick lady, waiting for her lover who has not come”.


Nineteenth century Hyderabad was by all accounts, a greatly cosmopolitan principality, drawing all manner of people – from mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, to antiquarians, traders, philosophers and travellers alike. It was, as described by Barton in his historical survey Princes of India (1934), and quoted by Benjamin Cohen in Kingship And Colonialism In India’s Deccan (2007), a country “overrun by disbanded mercenaries, Arabs, Pathans, Rohillas. The Hindu feudatories, of whom there were several of importance, were everywhere in revolt”. The princely state’s multiethnic groups, including Africans and Sikhs apart from the aforementioned, and the existing Hindu and Muslim nobility, formed “alliances of expediency”. Amongst the prominent Hindu feudatories, or Samasthans as they were known, was Gadwal, whose allegiance was eventually secured by the first Nizam – the Mughal governor of the region. Gadwal’s military and economic relationships with other groups and the ruling princely elite had historical precedents, Cohen points out. Interestingly, he writes of the first decade of rule of the first Nizam, Nizam ul Mulk Asaf Jah I, who during this period sought to consolidate the uncertain ground that he had only just occupied through imperial legitimacy in 1724 CE (after the death of Mubariz Khan). In this early venture, the Nizam entered into communications with two women, Rani Ammakka and Rani Lingamma of Gadwal, seeking their military support, over the course of a year. The ‘urgent’ request, ‘an earnest requisition’ by the Nizam on 3 September 1727 to the two women was ignored by them, but upon a series of firmer ‘diplomatic entreaties’, they eventually acquiesced in early 1729 CE. Cohen comments that this may seem ‘remarkable’ today but is “less shocking in a more fluid eighteenth century”. INDIA - Nawab Nizam-ul-Mulk Bahadur on an elephant, escorted by retainers. Painting. Deccan, India, c.1765.

These entreaties find no mention in Yunus Khan’s The First Nizam (1963). During this period of time, the author writes of the new governor’s tactical alliance with the Mahrattas. Peshwa Baji Rao had managed to surround the Nizam’s troops in Palkhed and, avoiding a pitched battle, he instead harassed Nizam ul Mulk’s cornered troops. On March 6 1728 the two adversaries entered into an agreement known as the Convention of Mungi-Shevgaon, which was in effect, a tactical victory for Baji Rao. Eventually, the first Asaf Jah ruler of the Deccan, Nizam ul Mulk, dug his feet in. It was only in 1948 that his dynastic legacy came to an end, when Hyderabad was integrated into the newly formed Indian Union through a military invasion known as Operation Polo deposing the autocracy headed by the Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur Asaf Jah VII. (See my piece on the fall of the princely state).


Here are two verses from Canto III of the orientalist E.B. Eastwick’s Kaiser Nama i Hind, titled The Nizam of the Dakhan:

Of those names I sing but one,

One the Dakhan knows full well, –

Long shall Southern India tell

Good deeds by Sir Salar done:

Monks may hope in gloomy cell

Heaven by prayer and fasts is won,

By the men who mankind shun,

But better they who can their passions quell,

Live in, not of, the word, heaven-gazing

vanquish Hell.

Other marvels might I sing,

Dakhan, of thy glorious land:

Thine the beautiful and grand,

Forest dense, and sparkling spring,

Rivers over rock and sand

Rushing headlong down to bring

Tribute to their Ocean king,

All that is fairest in fair Nature’s hand

Is present and, young prince, awaits thy

high command.


Tombs-of-the-Kings-GolcondaIbrahim Quli Qutb Shah, the third sultan of Golkonda, of the Qutb Shahs who ruled a significant swathe of the Deccan prior to the Mughal Asaf Jahs mentioned above, was steeped in regional customs and language. It is widely recognized that he not only spoke the language, was a keen patron of Telugu arts, promoted temples and as Richard Eaton writes in A Social History of the Deccan 1300 – 1761: Eight Indian Lives (2005): “engaged in large-scale irrigation works in the style of a Kakatiya raja”. Recognizing the existing claims of regional rulers and chieftains, the sultan presented himself, in John Richard’s words whom the author quotes, “as an indigenous king, ruling insofar as possible in the idiom and style of a Kakatiya, a Valama, or a Reddi monarch”. It was his successor Muhammad Qutb Shah who was responsible for the planned city of Hyderabad, its iconic Charminar, and for famously beseeching god to fill his brand new city full of people, much like he has the river with fish, through these oft-quoted lines of Dakhani:

Mera shehar logan soon mamoon kar,

rakya joon tu dariya mein min Ya Sami

Eventually though, the influence of the Qutb Shahs began to wane as the Mughal presence began to bear down upon them. Aurangzeb spent over four decades in the Deccan, obsessed with wresting control of it. The Golkonda Sultanate eventually capitulated in 1687 CE, and its last ruler Abu’l Hasan (known as Tana Shah – see this on his commander Miyan Mishk’s mahal), was imprisoned in Daulatabad. The significant shift in engagement, Eaton writes here, was expressed both in the stance and administrative practices of the Mughals, particularly in that “they reversed the Qutb Shahs’ policy of respecting the employment of Telugu nayakas. Whereas the erstwhile sultans had integrated these chiefs into their central political system, the Mughals classified them as Zamindars, which in the imperial lexicon denoted untrustworthy chiefs inherently hostile to Mughal interests”.

It is against this decline that Eaton writes of the notorious bandit and highwayman of Telangana immortalized in folklore – Papadu or Sardar Sarvayi Pappana Goud. From a community of toddy-tappers, his life and exploits are found detailed by the chronicler Khafi Khan (author of Muntakhab ul Lubab) based on imperial reports, Eaton informs us. Papadu had become such a menace in the later half of the 17th century that suffering merchants and other ‘respectable people’ approached Aurangzeb himself to rid them of him. Despite the local governor Rustam Dil Khan’s siege of Shahpur, where the bandit was based, Papadu remained resolute and was instead able to fend off several campaigns against him, well on his way to becoming a ‘regional war lord’. Eaton writes in great detail here of Papadu’s bold attack on the city of Warangal on March 31 1708. The next day was Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and his clan at the battle of Karbala. As Eaton points out, Muslims and non-Muslims alike participated in the events of the day, and neighbourhoods competed in putting up displays as the city witnessed ‘parades of horses, elephants’. Growing from strength to strength, the bandit eventually found his way to the imperial darbar, received by the emperor Bahadur Shah himself, to whom he presented an ‘extraordinary gift’ of 1,400,000 rupees. Eaton invokes Eric Hobswam’s ‘social bandit’ thesis here, while discussing Papadu’s remarkable rise from a mere toddy-tapper to that of a widely respected warlord, eulogized in ballads, against the backdrop of “the breakdown of Mughal Telangana’s economic and internal security”. Efforts to characterize Papadu as a ‘Hindu warrior’ is false, Eaton suggests, since folk ballads and Khafi Khan’s account clearly indicate his non-sectarian approach to banditry. Sultanates-of-deccan


Kalapurnodayamu, an extraordinary prose poem, composed in the mid to late 16th century is believed by some to be the first Indian novel. The author Pingali Suranna, said to be from Nandyala of eastern Deccan, is counted amongst the eight poets or Ashtadiggajas of the court of the Vijayanagara king Krishnadevaraya, who was a great patron of the arts. As Nilakantha Sastri points out in A History of South India, the work, (translated and annotated by V Narayana Rao and David Schulman –The Sound Of The Kiss or The Story That Must Never Be Told), is less a Prabandha and more a novel in poetry, and “…the only one of its type. The plot is a veritable comedy of errors…” There is great literary inventiveness to the work by the ‘fertile poetic genius’ Rao and Schulman point out; it is “a thoroughly modern” work, and a “playful exploration of the limits of linguistic expressivity and of the ecology of available literary genres or forms”. The work features great musicality, alliteration in its prose, like complex lyrical poetry, the authors write further, but Suranna also deftly incorporates traditional metrical poetry within – a sort of free form, extrapolating from here and there, and thereby creating an entirely new form. Idiomatic speech, sexual innuendo, crude colloquialisms, and dense verse; they all commute freely: “One moves rapidly from dense lyrical description to street slang to high courtly language, as context demands”. The story itself, in a circular narrative form, with complex layering, is of a courtesan named Kalabhashini, in Dvaraka, who falls in love with Nalakubara, ‘the most handsome man in the universe’. At the outset, Suranna begins with atmospheric descriptions of the city:

Merchants in this city put Kubera, the gods’ banker,

to shame. Besides all the wealth that their fathers

had set aside, they earned vast riches

on their own account and saved it all

in secret caches underground, marked by

a cobra’s hood above.

Men walking in the street by the courtesans’ tall palaces

would stop to listen, thrilled, for the doves nesting in the eaves

had learned to imitate the soft moans of the women making love

with customers who came to them each night

from heaven.

Why say more? Krishna himself lived here with his 16,108 wives,

all madly in love with him. Imagine how happy he must have been.

Did he have anything as good in heaven?


Ibn-e-NishatiIbn Nishati’s Phoolban, is often cited as an idiosyncratic, ghair-mamooli, work in the Dakhani language, a proto Urdu form which began to develop in the 14th century. One of the earliest works in the language is thought to be by the sufi saint Khwaja Banda Nawaz Gesu Daraz of Gulbarga, who came to the region in 1390 CE. Miraj ul Ashiqin, a treatise on mysticism, is said to have “drawn profusely from the two linguistic and cultural traditions, namely, Persio-Arabic and Sanskritic”, as Sherwani and Joshi write in their History of Medieval Deccan (1973). Another extant work, which points to the development of the language was Bidar poet Fakruddin Nizami’s seminal masnavi, Kadam Rao, Padam Rao (see here), said to have been composed around 1460 CE and “a proof that by the middle of the fifteenth century the language had become sufficiently expressive and supple”. Persianate poetic traditions intermingled with local language, traditions and flavours, and this was to be found in the various Dakhani fables of Yusuf-Zulaikha, Laila-Majnoon, amongst several other works over three centuries. The poet is believed to have lived during the mid to late 17th century, and Phoolban is dated around then, by which time the language and its literary traditions had gathered a formidable richness. Ibn Nishati too leverages existing Indian literary traditions in his composition, and as Noor Jehan Begum points out in a study on Phoolban (Ibn Nishati krut Phoolban, Milind Prakashan, Hyderabad, 2003), it uses recurrent tropes, narrative devices and figures of speech commonly used in Sanskritic works, such as humans inhabiting animal form, speaking animals, dream prophecies, cool winds carrying lovers missives, magical rings, gender exchanges, etc. The description of the heartbroken state of the song bird from the flower (one of the stories in the work), is very much in the vein of virah, or grief of separation, in Indian literary traditions:

Mundi pankha mein apni ghaal lekar, lagya roney ku pankha daal lekar,

Tabey us phool ku kar yaad apney, lagya roney, bilakney or tapney.

(A loose translation – The lovelorn songbird atop the branch started to cry; remembering the flower, in grief it sobbed and wept.)

There was a great deal of activity in the Deccan then and by all accounts, it was the richness of intermingling and exchange that resulted in a wide variety of intriguing, and oftentimes, idiosyncratic works of literature and art. The Deccan, in many ways, was the crucible of interfaith transactions.


1604Writing of his travels from Goa to the kingdom of Narsymga (Vijayanagara) the Portuguese traveler Domingos Paes writes of the Serra “that runs along the whole of the coast of India; and has passes by which people enter the interior”. This account, along with Fernão Nuniz’s, is found in Robert Sewell’s A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagara (1900). Paes’ travelogue dates to around 1520-22 CE and he makes extensive observations on the practices and customs of the city of Bisnaga (Vijayanagara). Speaking of a ‘broad and beautiful street’ in the city, Paes writes of its cosmopolitan character:

On every Friday you have a fair there, with many pigs and fowls and dried fish from the sea, and other things the produce of the country, of which I do not know the name; and in like manner a fair is held every day in different parts of the city. At the end of this street is the Moorish quarter, which is at the very end of the city, and of these Moors there are many who are native of the country and who are paid by the king and belong to his guard. In this city you will find men belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade it has, and the many precious stones there, principally diamonds.

Of the many famous precious stones from the Deccan, a most prominent one is called The Hope Diamond.

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