Elite Identities in the Deccan Sultanates


A review of Society, Space, and the State in the Deccan Sultanates, 1565-1636, by Roy S. Fischel.

Roy Fischel defines the main goal of his study to be an examination of the role of various elite groups in the shaping of the socio-political system in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Deccan (1565-1636). He identifies three such elite groups who were aware of their distinct identities and acted quite independently within the political landscape of the Deccan: “local Muslims, known as Deccanis; the local non-Muslim population of various linguistic, social, and political affiliations; and Muslims who arrived from countries outside of the Deccan, known as Foreigners” (pp. 2-3). The analytical framework for this study involves looking at the Deccan not only as a physical space but one to which individuals and groups inhabiting that space imported meaning and with which they identified. One key example in which various groups manifested their identities spatially was through their association with separate (yet at times multiple and overlapping) vernaculars (primarily Kannada, Marathi and Telugu) that had gained prominence in different parts of the Deccan by the sixteenth century. To this pool of vernacular spaces Fischel adds Persian and Dakhani to argue that like other vernacular, primarily non-Muslim groups in the region, Muslim elites were equally aware of their linguistic and cultural identities tied in complex ways to the idea of the Deccan as a space. The dissertation is an exploration of how different elite groups imagined the nature and boundaries of their Deccani space and the implications it had for the state and society in early modern Deccan.

Fischel sets the scene for his study in Chapter 1, “Introduction: Trajectories of the Deccan,” where he provides a very useful orientation to the region and its political history. The chapter gives an overview of the political reorganization that marked the early modern period in the Deccan following the disintegration of the Bahmani sultanate. The sultanates of Niẓām Shāhīs, ‘Imād Shāhīs, ‘Ādil Shāhīs and Quṭb Shāhīs, collectively known as the “Deccan sultanates,” emerged in the erstwhile territories of the Bahamani sultanate, and around the middle of the sixteenth century, successfully unsettled the Vijayanagara kingdom further south (pp. 3-5). Fischel highlights the fact that the gradual fragmentation of the Bahmani and Vijayanagara kingdoms in the south followed by an equilibrium of power maintained by multiple smaller polities was in contrast to the processes of consolidation of centralized political rule in the north by the early Mughal rulers. Looking at Deccan as a whole instead of separate sultanates, the author aptly underscores the linguistic, social, political and cultural complexity and diversity that defined (or rather makes it difficult to define) the region in the early modern period. Drawing upon the scholarship of geographers like Edward Soja (1989) and Yi-Fu Tuan (1977), this chapter also discusses the key idea of space and its usefulness in the study of regions and identities. Within the South Asian context and the recent work on vernacular literature (e.g. Sheldon Pollock, 2006), Fischel introduces (and later expands in Chapter 3) the link between vernacular spaces and the Deccan sultanates. We further learn about the relatively meager primary sources available for the time period and the largely outdated historiographical literature produced on the region in the last century or so.

In Chapter 2, “The Deccan and the Deccanis”, Fischel develops the idea of “cognitive space” (p. 38) by paying close attention to how the early modern authors understood and defined the boundaries of the Deccan. Despite the difficulty of defining the Deccan precisely, the author contends that by 1600 the political boundaries of the Ahmadnagar and Golconda sultanates corresponded to the vernacular spaces of Marathi and Telegu respectively, and that of the Bijapur sultanate to mostly the Kannada and to some extent the Marathi linguistic region. This relation between the political and the vernacular, however, was much more complex as each of the vernacular spaces, apart from their unity, presented divisions that were of a geographical, historical, political, social and cultural nature. Thus instead of looking at the Deccan as a unit where Kannada, Marathi and Telugu was spoken, Fischel proposes that we look at the Deccan as a fluid space comprising “core” territories formed by the plateau region of the three vernaculars and the rest of each of the vernacular spaces (for example, the Konkan coast of the Marathi linguistic region or coastal Andhra and Rayalsima of the Telegu linguistic region) that were peripheral yet internal to the Deccan system (pp. 39, 118-19). From a discussion on defining the Deccan, the chapter moves on to a study of the Deccanis, the local Muslims who inhabited and identified with the core region of the Deccan. The Deccanis, irrespective of which sultanate they were active in, were also part of an evolving local culture centered on the Dakhani language and distinctive artistic and architectural styles.

The key argument in the chapter is that the spatial association of the Deccanis manifested itself in who was considered an outsider, both politically and socially. It is evident in the way the elites in the Deccan sultanates dealt with the threat posed by polities like the Mughals, the Vijayanagara kingdom and the Portuguese, considered (with the partial exception of the Vijayanagara kingdom) external to the Deccan political system. Similar perceptions of ‘insiders’ versus ‘outsiders’ based on their territorial attachment to the Deccan can be seen in the political and social relations between the Deccanis and the Foreigners (mostly migrants from Iran), which were often marked by hostility, violence and competition over resources. The main points of this chapter, particularly the unity and divisions within the Deccan socio-political system, are illustrated through a study of the life of Chānd Bībī, a sixteenth-century royal woman in the Deccan sultanates, who rose to considerable prominence in the politics of the region.

The manner in which the Deccanis associated with their space, the Deccan, was different from other groups who “identified themselves with only part of the region” (p. 121). With this premise, the dissertation proceeds to Chapter 3, “The Impact of the Vernacular,” where Fischel examines the role of local non-Muslim landed elites who identified with the spatial representation of the vernacular they spoke in the Deccan. Fischel underlines the many ways in which the Deccan sultanates were each connected to their vernacular zones of Marathi, Kannada and Telegu—for instance, through the official patronage of the vernacular languages and incorporation of “vernacular elites” (p. 126) into the political system of the sultanates (the higher echelons of which were otherwise dominated by the Persian- and Dakhani-speaking Deccanis). This relationship to the vernacular, however, also had its limits as reflected in the difficulties faced by the Deccan sultanates in securing their rule over the periphery of their respective vernacular zones, outside the core vernacular region of the Deccan plateau.

The final chapter before the Conclusion, “Foreigners, International Networks, and the Sultanates,” extends the analysis of spatial associations with the Deccan to Foreigners, who, as their name suggests, did not identify with the territory of the Deccan and maintained closer affiliations with the lands they had migrated from, particularly Iran. The Foreigners thus lay on the other end of the spectrum from the Deccanis and remained active in the networks of kinship, marriage, language and culture that extended beyond the Deccan and the Indian subcontinent. Such connections become apparent in the multiple examples that Fischel cites of shifting political loyalties and allegiances by several Foreigners in the Deccan sultanates. Fischel further shows that while the Foreigners acted as a distinct group within the political environment of the Deccan, especially in opposition to the Deccanis, there were several internal divisions among them based, for instance, on their sedentary or nomadic-tribal origins and ethnicities.

The Conclusion summarizes the main findings of the dissertation and places them within the larger historiography on the early modern period which is dominated by the study of empires and imperial ideologies. While the Deccan sultanates lacked the main characteristics that define an empire, including extensive geographical cover, ethnic diversity and hierarchy, Fischel argues that it would be unfair to look at the Deccan polities either as a failed attempt at empire-building or simply a predeccesor to later Mughal imperial expansion in the region. Instead, the Deccan sultanates, as independent stable polities, presented a conscious vision of “non-imperial sovereignty” (p.  265), marked by “localization, vernacularization, involvement of transnational networks in politics, and the overall endurance of horizontal identities” (p. 267).

Despite the constraints of limited primary source material and challenges posed by a largely dated scholarship on the Deccan, Fischel’s dissertation weaves together a nuanced and illuminating perspective on the region. Most importantly, with its detailed analysis of the distinctiveness of the state and society in the Deccan, this study broadens our understanding of the multiplicity of successful political formations that often existed at the margins of the early modern empires.

Jyoti Gulati Balachandran
Department of History
Colgate University

Primary Sources

Persian court-chronicles (printed editions and manuscripts from the British Library, London, and Andhra Pradesh Oriental Manuscript Library and Salar Jang Museum, Hyderabad)

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 280 pp. Primary Advisor: Muzaffar Alam.


Image: “Seven-Storied Palace, Bejapore,” engraving by William Miller after S. Prout, published in Robert Elliot, Views In The East comprising India, Canton and the Shores of the Red Sea with Historical and Descriptive Illustrations, R. N. H. Fisher, Son & Co., Newgate Street, London 1833. Wikimedia Commons.

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