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In January 2015, the National Museum in New Delhi opened its doors to an exhibition titled “Nauras,” the first of its kind anywhere in the world celebrating the artistic traditions of the Deccan. Visitors wandered through the galleries, looking at illustrated manuscripts, calligraphic art, textiles, paintings, and metal ware.
Many objects were on display for the first time, and others had only ever been cursorily analysed before. All of these items, around 120 in total, came from royal courts based in the Deccan plateau of peninsular India, primarily the mediaeval Sultanates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They came from towns unfamiliar to most visitors, with names that they’d last seen in school history textbooks, if at all: Ahmednagar, Bidar, Daulatabad.
Many of the most impressive pieces came from a town few outside Karnataka would be able to pinpoint on a map. Bijapur is in the north of the state, closer to Pune than the state’s corridors of power in Bengaluru. It is now small and provincial, but Bijapur was one of India’s most politically important and prosperous cities for over two centuries beginning in the late 1400s, until its eventual sacking by the Mughals. The Sultanate of the Adil Shahi dynasty ruled from here between 1490 to 1686.
In 2014, the town was officially renamed Vijayapura, to restore the version of the name it was first given by the Kannada-speaking Kalyani Chalukyas, who ruled large parts of the western Deccan between the tenth and twelfth centuries. This renaming, as with most in India, had a sharp political edge. It was meant to bring the city in line with a more Kannada-centric interpretation of history, a view of Karnataka that centres Bijapur’s dynastic namesake: Vijayanagara. (Vijayanagara is a more Sanskritised name, meaning the same thing: ‘city of victory.’) In reality, the defeat of that empire, which at its height has come to represent the apogee of Hindu triumphalism in the Deccan, marked a new era in Muslim-ruled Bijapur.
For more than a century now, this sort of symbolism has been contested both in the academy and in popular arenas. Shrill rhetoric has often preceded archival work, myth has been conflated with history, and the polarity of religious and linguistic groupings have been forwarded as simplistic explanations for complex processes of statecraft. Last month, I spent a few days in the town, talking to residents and experts to sift through fact and fiction in Bijapur.
To reckon with Bijapur’s past, I found, is to step on the fault lines of the present.
he first impression of Bijapur can be a confusing one of grandeur and decay. From the railway station, the Gol Gumbaz rises above a sea of ramshackle storefronts clustered around the gate. The area around the Gumbaz, a colossal domed mausoleum built in 1656, brings to mind the sight of Hyderabad’s Old City—much more familiar to many Indians—with its stately heritage buildings surrounded by humbler commercial establishments.
In Bijapur’s inner citadel, its historical core, this pattern repeats over and over. We see expansive courtyards, stout heavy arches, and dense stonework. What’s most conspicuous is the idea of vertical layering: stacked storeys reaching into the sky. Arranged around the rest of the town in a two-kilometre radius from the citadel’s primary public space, the Gagan Mahal, are a number of monuments, including the gates and bastions of its fortified walls, and intricately built mosques.
Bijapur has the most Monuments of National Importance of any urban area in Karnataka. But none of them except the Gol Gumbaz and the Ibrahim Rauza offer any information or context as to who built them, when, or why. Legends proliferate in the absence of concrete information. One auto driver, for instance, told me that halfway through the construction of the Ibrahim Rauza, sometimes called the ‘Black Taj,’ the Sultan wished to have his tomb constructed in white marble instead, but it was too late to change his mind. (There’s no evidence that Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II desired this, and marble is not native to the Deccan.)
The sheer number and grandeur of Bijapur’s monuments is remarkable, and their neglect baffling. This is no ordinary historical town—the high concentration of monuments is reminiscent of the old cities of Delhi, but while the original form of Delhi’s walled cities has been disrupted and reshaped by newer patterns of life, much of Bijapur’s historical urban layout is still apparent, demarcated by its gates and walls.
t began—or ended, depending on your persuasion—in the village of Rakkasagi, on the north bank of the Krishna River and about 100km from Bijapur. This was the site of the Battle of Talikota, where the Vijayanagara Empire faced an alliance of the Sultanates of Bijapur, Golkonda, Bidar and Ahmednagar.
In the early twentieth century, several orientalist and nationalist historians portrayed this battle as a clash of civilisations—the Muslim sultans, divided by personal ambition but united by faith, joining forces to fight the heathen Hindu empire, riven by internal intrigue. One incident unites many of these accounts: the betrayal of two Muslim generals in the Vijayanagara army. Until then, that narrative emphatically declares, the Vijayanagara army had the upper hand.
It began—or ended, depending on your persuasion—in the village of Rakkasagi, on the north bank of the Krishna River and about 100km from Bijapur.
Later scholars have challenged the “betrayal” thesis, which runs through reams of often contrasting source materials, many of them generated by court historians writing with distinct political aims in mind. These later historians have suggested that the fallout from a set of torturous political manoeuvres led to Talikota, and a key reason for Vijayanagara’s military defeat was its failure to deploy gunpowder technology.
Everyone agreed on one thing, though: Talikota altered the balance of power in the Deccan decisively. The Adil Shah, as the dominant player in the Sultanate alliance, gained prominence and prestige in the region. After Hampi, the seat of power in Vijayanagara, was ransacked by the victors, Bijapur grew to become the most important urban centre in what is now the state of Karnataka.
The exodus of musicians, artists, architects and poets from the defeated kingdom heralded a renaissance in Bijapur. Local traditions merged with those popular in Vijayanagara and beyond. News of this new cultural fecundity travelled far, attracting poets from North India, Iran, Central Asia and artists from Europe. Viewed from this perspective, the claim of early nationalist historians and present-day ideologues seems out of place. The glory of Karnataka did not come to an end with Talikota. It found a new home in the Deccan itself.
ne of the works that popularised a binary view of the Battle of Talikota was authored by a British collector of Bellary district in the Madras Presidency. Robert Sewell’s A Forgotten Empire was first published in London in 1900. It brought together descriptions of Vijayanagara by Portuguese travellers; documentation and research by archaeologists and antiquarians from 1785 onwards; and epigraphical records in Indian languages.
Meant for a general audience, the book portrayed Vijayanagara as a shining example of mediaeval India, “a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare.” Sewell’s descriptions offered South Indian intellectuals a grand historical lineage that they could identify with, and a clear contrast from the humiliation of colonial subjugation that they were living through. In Sewell’s telling, “the fighting kings of Vijayanagar” ruled “a Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquest,” and Vijayanagara’s rise and fall tracked the fortunes of Hinduism in South India. This interpretation was in line with the tendency of colonial historians, especially those reading Persian-language chronicles, to reduce Indian history to Hindu-Muslim conflict.
A Forgotten Empire was widely read by local intellectuals. One of these was Aluru Venkata Rao, from a growing generation of thinkers based in Dharwad, who envisioned a unified Kannada nation, or Karnataka. Rao, like many young men from Dharwad and Belgaum, major cultural and intellectual centres at the time, was educated at Fergusson College in Pune, where he attended around the same time as another student with a particular interest in history, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. As was common in Dharwad’s educated circles, Rao read in Marathi. He was particularly influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s nationalist writings in his newspaper, Kesari.
In 1917, Rao wrote a book that became an early manifesto for Kannada nationalism. Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava, translating to “The Glory That Was Karnataka,” made an impassioned case for Karnatakatva or “Karnataka-ness” by tracing the literary history of the language and the shared identity of its speakers.
Language was also the link between generations that had lived and flourished under several dynasties, from the Chalukyas of Badami in the sixth century onwards. A Kannada nation had always existed, Rao argued, and was now waiting to be reunited. The temples built by different kingdoms, that shared a continuous architectural lineage, were the jewels of this Kannada-speaking nation, alongside its classical literature. Rao drew heavily from Sewell, particularly to identify Vijayanagara as the last major Kannada kingdom. His account of Talikota is conspicuous by the use of dramatic language: “It was on that day that Karnataka’s glory came to an end, the kumkum from Karnataka Devi’s forehead wiped off!”
The Deccan Sultanates are excluded from Rao’s narrative despite three of them being based in Kannada-speaking regions. Rao’s list of Karnataka’s architectural marvels has no mention of the magnificent structures of his own native city of Bijapur. Since Kannada writing formed the foundation of Rao’s conceptualisation of Karnatakatva, Bijapur’s cultural achievements—represented by intellectual traditions in Persian, Dakhni and Marathi to a lesser extent but not Kannada—did not even get a passing mention.
The influence of Sewell and Rao’s works on the next generation of local historians was outsized. Kannada intellectuals often used the works as a starting point, and focussed their own writing and thinking on Kannada epigraphy and mediaeval Kannada literature. Even today, A Forgotten Empire is a popular title in Bengaluru’s many bookstores.
n April 2015, three months after the exhibition in Delhi, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City inaugurated an exhibition titled “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy.” The objects on display ranged from paintings to fish standards, and were collected from 60 private and public sources from around the globe.
The 368-page catalogue featured introductory essays by renowned historians like Richard M. Eaton and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. It was testament to the fact that the Deccan artistic tradition was finally being evaluated in its own right, and not as merely derivative of the celebrated Rajput and Mughal traditions. Before the exhibition, art from the Deccan received little attention from academics and curators outside India. In fact, these works were often misattributed as Rajasthani or Iranian.
One of the most incredible objects in the collection was Item Number 45: illustrated folios from a manuscript of the Kitab-e-Nauras, attributed to Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II. The Kitab, containing 59 devotional songs and 17 couplets, is written in Dakhni, a vernacular that developed in the Deccan after the Urdu speech of courtly Delhi was brought to Daulatabad—in present-day Maharashtra—during the doomed capital shift by Muhammad bin Tughlaq in the early fourteenth century. Gradually, Dakhni came to be shaped by the rich linguistic influences of the languages of the Deccan: Marathi, Kannada and Telugu.
In the decades following Talikota, Dakhni literature flourished in the courts of Bijapur and Golkonda, drawing from the literary traditions of Persian and, to a lesser extent, Sanskrit. (The name Dakhni—literally meaning “of the Deccan”—was coined by the Bijapuri poet San’ati in his Qissa-e-Benazir.) This tradition was long overlooked by scholars of Urdu, who preferred the ease and prestige of working with Persian-language chronicles. It is one of the main reasons that earlier interpretations of Deccan dynamics, including in Sewell and Rao, are considered incomplete.
“Dakhni literature offers rare insights into how the Sultans and local elites saw their city and the rest of the Deccan.”
“Classical Dakhni poetry is an invaluable source on Karnataka history,” M.N. Sayeed told me in 2019, when I’d just begun my research into Dakhni literature. Sayeed, a Dakhni expert, used to head the Urdu department at Bangalore University. “Dakhni literature offers rare insights into how the Sultans and local elites saw their city and the rest of the Deccan. After all, these works were commissioned and even written by them.”
The Bijapuri tradition of this literature was preoccupied with faith and the forms in which it manifested. It reflected the intellectual currents in the city at the time. Sayeed told me that the themes covered included Bhakti devotion, Sufism, and the aesthetics and poetics of Sanskrit texts. Descriptions of the temporal world, too, have allowed scholars to imagine what life in the Deccan was like. “Certain Bijapuri Dakhni texts, especially the Alinama and the Ibrahimnama, both composed in the early 1600s, stand out for their particularly rich local imagery and descriptions of local events and places,” Sayeed said. “Historians of Karnataka could learn so much from works of literature composed in Bijapur.”
Along with Dakhni, the Sultans of Bijapur also used Marathi. Asad Beg, a Mughal ambassador to Bijapur, wrote of an incident when Ibrahim Adil Shah II responded in Marathi to Beg’s queries in Persian. In recent times, a couple of Marathi works, commissioned by Maratha nobles in Bijapur, have come to light. While there is no evidence of Kannada literary production in Bijapur, we know that Kannada came to be used, alongside Marathi, in public accounts from 1535 onwards.
ost of Bijapur’s grand monuments were built in the years following Talikota, including the massive Jama Masjid with its intricate gilded mihrab, the Asar Mahal with its stunning painted interiors, and the stately, seven-storeyed Saat Manzil. I visited the Ibrahim Rauza one late morning in December last year. Built in 1627 as a mausoleum for Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the monument reflects the esoteric cultural vision he gave expression to in the Kitab-e-Nauras.
Massive pillars line the gallery of the tomb, meeting the roof in a line of chhajjas—decorative overhangs. On closer examination, the pillars, the chhajjas and ornamental motifs bear a striking resemblance to elements found at mediaeval temples in the Deccan. This is no accident. The artists who made a new home in Bijapur after the fall of Hampi incorporated elements innovated by sculptors working for earlier dynasties in the Deccan, especially the Chalukyas of Kalyana.
At the entrance to their citadel, the Sultans of Bijapur even installed Old Kannada inscriptions by Someshwara II and his brother Vikramaditya VI, the most powerful of the Kalyana Chalukya kings. Beyond the entrance, Ibrahim Adil Shah I also assembled a set of 24 Chalukyan columns to frame a courtyard which is today partially used as a parking space. Architectural fragments from Kalyana Chalukya temples—images of beasts and looping floral motifs—punctuate the formidable walls of Bijapur.
This sort of architectural repurposing was in contest with Vijayanagara, whose rayas—kings—had their minds set on claiming the legacy of the Kalyana Chalukyas for themselves. Their former capital of Kalyana, now Basavakalyana in Bidar district, fell within Adil Shahi territory, whose possession was coveted by the Vijayanagara ruler Rama Rao. One such Chalukya temple in Kalyana was incorporated into a Bijapuri-built palace, and perhaps used as an audience hall or gallery. These were the very kinds of temples that Aluru Venkata Rao described as masterpieces of Karnataka architecture in Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava.
Without a knowledge of Adil Shahi texts, we can’t expect to know our own history,” said Krishna Kolhar Kulkarni, director of the Dr. P.G. Halakatti Research Centre in Bijapur. Kulkarni is an expert on Kannada literature, particularly the Dasa poetic tradition. “Bijapur was one of Karnataka’s largest kingdoms, ruling most of Karnataka and Maharashtra at its peak, and its courtly literature has largely been ignored by local historians,” he lamented.
Kulkarni, a Bijapur native, has been on a mission to wipe the dust off mediaeval Adil Shahi literature, written primarily in Persian and Dakhni. He was a close friend and associate of the late M.M. Kalburgi, an uncompromising scholar of Karnataka folklore, literature, religion, and history. In 2015, Kalburgi was assassinated by two unidentified men, allegedly for his criticism of the views of Veerashaiva and orthodox Hindu religious leaders.
Kalburgi had carried out pioneering work as a Kannada epigraphist and researcher of vachana literature. But his keen interest in the histories of North Karnataka had led him to explore sources outside the Kannada canon. Along with Kulkarni, he began working on texts from the Dakhni and Persian traditions. In 2013, Kalburgi pressed the Government of Karnataka to sanction a project to translate Adil Shahi literature into Kannada. The Adil Shahi Literature Translation Project, with Kulkarni at its helm, was born with an initial funding of ₹75 lakh from the Ministry of Kannada and Culture.
“Bijapuri manuscripts are scattered in archives and libraries across the world, including the Salar Jung museum in Hyderabad, the Aurangabad Archives, the National Archives in Delhi, and the former Bombay Presidency archives in Mumbai. We had to collect and assemble them,” Kulkarni told me about the early days of the project. “We ended up with around 150 manuscripts, over 10,000 pages worth of text.”
The Bijapuri manuscripts had followed the meandering trail of the conquering armies that came to rule the city after the Adil Shahs—from the Mughals to the British. Kulkarni told me that he often found these forgotten documents lying in plain sight: nobody had thought to look at them because they were incorrectly indexed and labelled, the way Bijapuri paintings had been.
After an intense process of collation, the team released its first volume in 2014. Over the next five years, they compiled and released 18 more volumes. The range of these documents is astonishing: from court-commissioned Persian histories to Dakhni romances and treatises like the Kitab-e-Nauras.
Kulkarni played a key role in translating the Ibrahimnama, written in praise of Ibrahim Adil Shah II, into Kannada for the first time. “The text was first translated from Persian and Dakhni into basic, non-literary Kannada,” he said. “I personally sat with another translator, cross-checking every line with the source text, before taking the basic Kannada translation and refining it into a literary, poetic Kannada, retaining the tone and voice of the original.”
The translations were well-received by scholars and readers, Kulkarni told me. “Through various publication networks, including the Kannada Sahitya Parishat, we ended up selling 50-60 percent of our books. Even now, I receive letters from people interested in ordering books from us.”
t took more than a century from the publication of Sewell’s book for there to be a major breakthrough in our understanding of the Deccan. In 2005, American historian Richard M. Eaton’s A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives was published as part of The New Cambridge History of India series.
Eaton’s approach was simple yet mostly unattempted before him: it centred the land of the Deccan and its people over a particular dynasty or event. This broad vision had ample room for the cultural and political developments of many centuries. Its genius lay in the fact that it acknowledged the Deccan as a region unto itself, and not as a periphery of the North. In a sense, this sentiment was what the Bijapuri poets had tried to capture in their own work.
Eaton’s interpretation of the Battle of Talikota expressly challenged Sewell’s religious reading of the event. In his chapter on the Vijayanagara ruler Rama Raya, Eaton examines the storm that was brewing before Talikota and demonstrates how failed political manoeuvres led to the military alliance of the Sultans against Vijayanagara.
“Without a knowledge of Adil Shahi texts, we can’t expect to know our own history.”
Eaton’s expert marshalling of new research and his fresh readings of older sources brought the Deccan into the viewfinder of the academy. The region could no longer be ignored by anyone interested in Indian history. In the last five to seven years, Eaton’s accessible book̦—still the best place to start for anyone interested in the mediaeval Deccan—has inspired a succession of works in the popular history space.
“Historians before Richard Eaton’s generation, especially Indian historians influenced by Sewell’s writings, traditionally interpreted Talikota within hard communal binaries,” Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed, a Bengaluru-based journalist, told me. Vikhar has written extensively about Talikota, the history of the Deccan Sultanates, and the Adil Shahi Literature Translation Project.
The late playwright Girish Karnad, too, acknowledged his debt to Eaton in the preface of his final work Crossing to Talikota. The play, titled Rakshasa Tangadi in Kannada and published posthumously, uses a dramatic retelling of the battle to make a strong point about contemporary India’s selective interpretation of history. Even as he declares that “the theatre is not a place to correct academic errors,” Karnad calls out Sewell’s account as “simplistic and reductionist.”
Eaton’s explorations of Deccan historỷ—the primary inspiration for my initial forays—came alive to me once again as I explored Bijapur in December, guided by auto drivers whose accounts blurred the lines between history, myth and memory. As we bumped about on poorly maintained roads, the drivers’ stories gave me a sense of how the city’s residents engaged with the built history they lived amidst. But their enthusiasm was tempered by the disillusionment with the general disrepair in what was once a nerve centre of the Deccan. “The government has let the sites collapse,” one of them pointed out. “Mysore’s history has been preserved, so why hasn’t ours?”
Karthik Malli is a Bengaluru-based independent researcher and writer. His work focuses on language, writing, history and identity in peninsular India.