October 25th, 1999
© Akhilesh Mithal

Indian History and Foreign Authors


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A new book The New Cambridge History of India: Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates (Cambridge University Press, Rs 15,00) with the imprint of Cambridge and established authors like George Michell and Mark Zebrowski appears to hold promise of a standard or model work, which could become a text for those learning or teaching the subject.

This promise is however, betrayed in the very first chapter by the casual treatment of the political history of the country. The howlers offered as history are a disgrace and we reproduce them to encourage Cambridge to withdraw the publication.

"Unprepared for Alauddin’s onslaught, Ramachandra the Yadava Raja (of Deogir ) was compelled to pay an annual tribute. Returning directly to Delhi Alauddin was proclaimed Sultan in October of the same year, ––"

Alauddin Khilji, nephew and son-in-law of Sultan Jalaluddin Firoz Khilji was the iqtaadaar or governor and commander-in-chief of eastern areas with headquarters at Kara Manickpur which is close to Pratabgarh near Allahabad.

Without permission from his Sultan Jalaluddin Firoz and on his own initiative almost entirely for personal aggrandisement and gain, Alauddin took an army to Deogir and invested the fort. His victory won him the accumulated treasures of 25 generations of Yadava rulers. He took all the gold jewels elephants horses textiles etc, directly back to his iqta or fief of Kara Manikpur and there was no question of "returning to Delhi." In any case, he had not started from Delhi.

When the Sultan, his master and uncle asked Alauddin to present himself in Delhi and hand over the treasure Alauddin feigned the role of a very frightened but most loyal vassal. He pleaded that his enemies had poisoned the Sultan’s mind against him and he needed to be reassured and sympathised with to come near the majesty of the throne and the Sultan. He could not risk coming to Delhi but the Sultan could travel to Kara Manikpur and receive the homage, the submission and the treasure won from Deogir.

Jalaluddin was lured to Alauddin’s stronghold. As he came near Alauddin pretended that the entourage was too large and frightening. That he wanted to run away to the wilderness rather than risk meeting which could lead to injury. The Sultan, to reassure Alauddin, went forward to Kara Manikpur without his army. The personal bodyguard was next disposed off by having the Sultan cross a river.

It was while Sultan Jalaluddin Firoz was crossing the river alone in the boat that the assassin attacked. The head of the victim fell in the boat while the body floated off in the water. On hearing the news in Delhi the nobles and Jalaluddin’s widow proclaimed his son as the new Sultan. It was at this point that the Deccan gold came into play.

Alauddin had gold stars fashioned from the bullion. He then started to march for Delhi from Kara Manikpur. At each stage the march would commence at dawn with five maunds of golden stars being scattered in the area with the help of manjaaniks which were enormous catapults used to throw rocks at fort walls to demolish them. This helped make friends and influence people and Alauddin became the Sultan of Delhi.

If this was the only "howler" and there were no others it could be condoned and ignored. But our authors appear to be "fact proof" as the examples following will demonstrate. 

"Khusro Khan remained in the Deccan to plan further forays southwards but his influence came to an end when the Khiljis were overthrown by the Tughluqs." (Page 6) 

In fact it was not the Tughluqs who overthrew the Khiljis. It was Khusro Khan. He and his brother had both been made eunuchs and it was the wont of Qutbuddin Mubarak Shah Khilji to use them for assuaging his sexual desires. When the wealth and power of Khusro Khan became sizeable he rebelled against what he considered "abuse" by the Sultan. One night he held his tormentor immobile by seizing his kaakul (the tresses framing his face in arabesque lines) while an assassin plunged a dagger repeatedly into his back. The deed done the body was flung down from the height of the Bijoymandal palace to the ground many stories below.

In the morning Khusro Khan assumed rulership and struck coin in the name and title Sultan Naseeruddin Khusro.

The next step was to extinguish the lives of the members of the Khilji dynasty. As Khusro was a Parvenu the Turki nobles could not stomach his being Sultan. The Warden of the Marches, Ghazi Malik (Ghayasuddin Tughluq) who had defeated the Mongols in 24 pitched battles and prevented their overrunning the Sultanate and India rose in revolt. He was supported by the Hindu tribe of Ghakkars and succeeded in defeating Khusro in a hard fought battle. Khusro was deposed, tried for treason ad murder and killed at the site of Qutbuddin Mubarak Shah’s assassination as retribution for being a namakharaam or "betrayer of the salt."

The most odious mistake made by Michell and Zebrowsky relates to the great 16th century intellectual, Abul Fazl Allami. On page 11, we learn 

"Ahmadnagar was taken in 1600 by Akbar’s commander, Abul Fazl who had Chand Bibi murdered"

If the authors had taken the trouble to read the Akbarnama, the encyclopaedic biography of Akbar to which there is no equal in the genre in Europe, America or wherever they would have known that Abul Fazl held Chand Bibi in high regard and they had common objectives. Also that "taking" Ahmadnagar was an achievement reserved for a prince of the blood imperial and Abul Fazl was prevented from earning this glory. Chand Bibi fell to internal conspiracy and not to imperial machination.

Perhaps if our authors had included coins in "Art" they would have been saved from these bloomers. The padmatankas of Deogir and the coins of Nasiruddin Khusro would have made handsome illustrations and preempted error.

The architectural illustrations are of indifferent quality. The picture illustrations are competent and would have improved if a gold block had been used. An Indian painting whether Mughal, Rajput, Pahari or Deccan usually has a great deal of gold. The European mind appears to resent and reject this resplendent dimension. This makes the reproductions insipid. Fortunately, there are important dimensions other than gold and the reader cannot but be attracted by what little he can see.

The titling "Sufi receiving a visitor: attributed to the Bodleian painter" is quaint and misleading. To have "the Dublin painter" is indicative of an obsolete mindset.



© Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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