A review of Local Idioms and Global Designs: Architecture of the Nizam Shahs, by Pushkar Sohoni.
The artistic and architectural legacy of the sultans who ruled the central region of Indian known as the Deccan is a rapidly growing field of study. There is much to be done in this field, from the basic surveying of the relevant monuments to their interpretation and contextualization in the historical and political framework of the period. Pushkar Sohoni’s dissertation performs these valuable services in relation to the architecture from the kingdom of Ahmadnagar (1490-1636).
Ruled by the Nizam Shahi dynasty, Ahmadnagar was one of the four provinces of the Bahmani sultanate (1347-1538) that assumed independence from the Bahmani capital at Bidar near the end of the fifteenth century. Other recent dissertations have explored the architecture and paintings of neighboring Bijapur and Golconda [Deborah Hutton’s The Elixir of Mirth and Pleasure: The Development of Bijapuri Art, 1565-1635 (University of Minnesota, 2000), Keelan Overton’s A Collector and His Portrait: Book Arts and Painting for Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II of Bijapur (r. 1580-1627) (UCLA, 2011), Marika Sardar’s Golconda Through Time: A Mirror of the Evolving Deccan (NYU, 2007), Robert Simpkins’ The Road to Golconda: European Travelers’ Routes, Political Organization and Archaeology in the Golconda Kingdom (1518-1687) (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2011), and Laura Weinstein’s Variations on a Persian Theme: Adaptation and Innovation in Early Manuscripts from Golconda (Columbia, 2011)]. Collections of essays have examined various aspects of the Deccan as a whole [e.g. Helen Philon, ed, Silent Splendour: Palaces of the Deccan, 14th-19th centuries (Mumbai: Marg, 2010) and Laura Parodi, ed., The Visual World of Muslim India: The Art, Culture and Society of the Deccan in the Early Modern Era (New York: Taurus Academic Studies, forthcoming)]. By and large, though, the region has seen much less attention than lands to the north that were under the control of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858). Interesting in their own right for their strongly related yet unique traditions, the Deccani sultanates also had important connections to other part of the world — Ahmadnagar, for instance, had political and economic relations with parts of the Middle East and eastern Africa, principally via the Indian Ocean trade and its port city of Chaul. As Sohoni points out, these strands all came together in the architecture produced during the reign of the Nizam Shahi sultans.
The dissertation comprises two volumes. The first has five chapters, two introducing the material, two presenting the architectural record, and one interpreting it. The second volume is a two hundred and fifty page catalogue that proceeds according to building type: palace, mosque, tomb, waterworks, military architecture, and assorted structures that do not fall into any of these categories.
Sohoni posits that the buildings constructed during the reign of the Nizam Shahi sultans are a “key document in recovering the social history of the polity” (p. 1), stating that “if carefully studied, the material record has the potential of providing a richer understanding of the artistic, artisanal, economic and social processes of the period” (p. 5). However, Sohoni’s strongest contributions come through in recording and observing individual monuments. Making valuable use of Sohoni’s own training in historic preservation, this dissertation identifies the key structural features and ornament of the buildings, and notes several diagnostic features that may help us to better understand the architecture of this period. In addition, Sohoni has drawn new plans for dozens of buildings within the Nizam Shahi realms. The scope of the field work and the range of sites covered are impressive.
The first chapter sets the parameter of the dissertation. The Nizam Shahi sultans ruled from 1490 until 1636, but the study focuses on the patronage of the four sultans who ruled between 1494 and 1595, and that of the powerful minister Malik Ambar (1607-26). Such a study is complicated by the fact that the capital city of Ahmadnagar, from which the kingdom takes its name, was sacked several times, and the remaining buildings are now under the care of several different governmental entities or belong to private owners.
The second chapter sets the historical scene, describing the political and cultural history of the Deccan in the sixteenth century. The key characteristic of this society was a rich ethnic mixture comprising Indians of various backgrounds, Persian and Arab emigrés, and slaves from Africa who were integrated into the local system of administration. Thus the founder of the dynasty came from Hindu Brahmin roots, but he converted to Islam and his descendants adopted a highly Persianate courtly culture. The political backdrop was a decentralization of power, which in turn “created a network of patronage in which court nobles and local fief holders had the resources and the privileges to patronize artists and craftsmen” (p. 21). Sohoni stresses that the Nizam Shahi sultans were not leaders in architectural patronage, and their preference for retreats outside the political centers of their kingdom negated any leading role they might have taken in this realm.
The third chapter, on palaces, focuses on four case studies of structures that have been little modified since their construction in the sixteenth century: the Farah Bakhsh Bagh, Hasht Behesht, Manzarsumbah Bagh, and a palace near Bhatavdi. These palaces all comprises pavilions, or sets of pavilions, laid out in expansive gardens. The discussion is mostly descriptive and is accompanied by drawings of each structure. Most salient are the notes on the structural features of these buildings: all use lots of timber, have roofs constructed of T-shaped tiles with large bricks overlaid with lime plaster to create a flat roof, and face north, which Sohoni suggests was to avoid direct exposure to the sun.
Looking at patterns in urban design, chapter four studies fives sites — four pre-existing and one established by the founder of the Nizam Shahi dynasty. These five also represent different types of settlements — a capital city, fortifications and a port. Here, Sohoni notes the surviving structures at each and remarks on the Nizam Shahi additions to the settlements that had already been occupied for centuries. In the case of the new capital of Ahmadnagar, established in the Nizam Shahi period, the site was built from the ground up. A bustling city today, it is hard to reconstruct its historical fabric, but it is notable that its most substantial features were the estates and monuments built by local notables, not the ruling sultans. At the other, pre-existing sites fortification walls were improved and waterworks extended; small mosques, baths and tombs were built by the local residents — again, the direct presence of the sultan is difficult to detect.
Summarizing observations from the previous chapters, Sohoni concludes in chapter five with some remarks about the diffuse role of the Nizam Shahi sultans in architectural patronage within their kingdom. Choosing to reside in garden estates outside of the major cities or fortified centers, they did not even construct congregational mosques or other major public institutions. However, the buildings constructed at this time are marked by features that do give them a coherent appearance: the combination of stone and wood, the use of eight-pillared shafts, and common appearance of a hanging-bud and spade-shaped motifs characterizes structures built for the sultans as well as those lower down in their administration. Many of these features seem to relate to pre-fifteenth century construction practices from the Deccan, and would continue to characterize the architecture of the region under the rule of subsequent dynasties such as the Marathas. In this way, Sohoni has demonstrated, as he states at the outset of the dissertation, “The colonialist and nationalist narrative of ‘Muslim invaders’ upsetting indigenous practices until the ‘Hindu revival’ under the Marathas in the eighteenth century is a simplistic and naïve model of regional history, and has been undermined through this research… A strong regional continuity is then seen as a reality, despite the stress on political and regime changes through the historiography of the medieval and early modern period” (p. 3).
Senior Research Associate
Department of Islamic Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Buildings at the sites of Ahmadnagar, Daulatabad, Junnar, Chaul, Parenda Sindkhed Raja, Manzarsumbah, Bhatavdi
Burhan e Maasir, 16th century historical text translated into English
Tarikh e Ferishta, 16th century historical text translated into English
University of Pennsylvania. 2010. 494pp. Primary Advisor: Michael W. Meister.
Image: Muqarna on dome ceiling, inside Kakh-e Hasht Behesht (“Eight Paradise”) Palace — in Esfahan (Isfahan). Wikimedia Commons.