Indian History Part 62 The Deccan – A Broad Overview

Canberra, 3 February 2018 


The Deccan Plateau forms part of the Indian Peninsula bounded by the Vindhya Mountain Ranges and the River Godavari to the north and the Rivers Tungabhadra and Krishna to the south. The Eastern and Western Ghats, mountain ranges that skirt the sea coast on both sides of the peninsula serve as the eastern and western limits to the high lying plateau with elevations between 1000 and 2000 feet above mean sea level.

The Deccan – Deriving the Name

There are different opinions regarding the origin of the name ‘Deccan’ for the plateau that emerges south from the Vindhya Ranges. One is that it is derived from the word Dandaka, meaning forest, into which Lord Ram proceeded on exile. However, more probable is the argument that it is derived from the word ‘Dakkin’, which is the Prakrit version of the Sanskrit ‘Dakshin’ meaning the left or south.

Muhammad Qasim Firishta (died 1611), who lived in Bijapur for a number of years and is considered one of medieval India’s foremost chroniclers, mapped the Peninsula in terms of the prevalent vernacular languages. He used a metaphor of kinship to explain the concept of such a division. He wrote that one of the four sons of India, ‘Hind’, was ‘Dakan’ who in turn had three sons called ‘Marhar, Kanhar and Tiling’. This meant the native speakers of Marathi, Kannada and Telugu and Firishta said that the combined territories populated by these three communities form the Deccan. Even today, in the 21st century, the Deccan consists of the linguistically defined states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and the un-divided Andhra Pradesh.

The Deccan was home to many rich and flourishing kingdoms, a fact that is confirmed through inscriptions, architectural remains, numismatics and the few records that have become available in the past few decades, which show the distribution of land grants. In the early days of the Delhi Sultanate, the new rulers did not have any knowledge of the country of Deccan and dismissed the region as being inhabited by ‘pagan idolaters’. Consequently, till the end of the 13th century, the Muslims from North India did not venture south of the Vindhya Ranges. When the Islamic army finally marched south into the Peninsula, they did not face any serious or effective opposition and managed to reach almost to the southernmost point in the Peninsula without much ado. However, the Muslim armies were bent on plunder, not conquest and occupation. There was no permanent or lasting impact from the early incursions. The kingdoms of South India bent to the stormy arrival of the Northern Muslim army, but they did not break. As soon as the invaders had gathered their plunder and left, the Hindu kingdoms sprang back to independence.

The story in the Deccan was somewhat different. The Delhi Sultanate’s army commander left a Muslim governor to rule at Devagiri (also spelt Deogiri in some books), which was renamed Daulatabad. However, the governor was not loyal to the Sultanate and did not maintain strong connections to the Delhi administration. In mid-14th century, when the oppression from Muhammad Tughluq started to become increasingly unbearable, the Devagiri governor along with his generals revolted. The Delhi sultan was immersed in controlling internal dissentions and was far too distant from Devagiri to mount any meaningful interference in order to subdue the nascent rebellion. This inability led to the establishment of an independent Muslim Kingdom in the Deccan, which was to last for more than 300 years.

The three centuries of the Delhi Sultanate’s existence was a period of incessant wars, rebellions and civil strife. This is not surprising considering that an alien invading force was attempting to establish a kingdom in a land that had for centuries culturally and religiously absorbed the foreign invaders. The foreigners had always been gathered into the fold rather than being permitted to maintain a separate identity and/or create an independent kingdom. Even after three centuries of turbulence the final phase of the Sultanate was cataclysmic. It was akin to the death throes of a giant, wherein wars, revolts and dissention were ceaseless activities that led to the fragmentation of the northern part of the sub-continent into numerous kingdoms of varying size strength and stature; all of them at war with each other.

The stories of these fragmented states—many of them small, insignificant and even transient—are dreary tales of conflict, rebellion, and personal ambitions gone astray. The historical narrative is only a long list of kings and the battles they fought. Even the narratives vary in their accounts depending on the chronicler and his biases. Therefore, most of the accounts have to be discarded as being unreliable. No doubt, the self-perpetuating cycle of wars leading to fragmentation and then to further wars are important historic events. They mark a trend and a pattern that needs to be studied and analysed to draw tangible lessons from them. However, the actual events and descriptions of minor wars fought between small-time chieftains do not contribute in any meaningful manner to the understanding of the broader narrative. The events are common-place but the trends and evolving patterns and their impact on the socio-political and religious environments are critical factors to be noted.

The more notable successor kingdoms to the Delhi Sultanate were: Sind, Multan, the Rajput Principalities, Gujarat, Malwa, Khandesh, Jaunpur, Kashmir, Bengal, Orissa and Telangana. In the Deccan and South India the Bahmani Kingdom and the Vijayanagar Empire stood out as the most important states.

South India – 10th to 13th Century

The arrival of Islam as a military force to the Deccan and South India is a different tale. In order to understand the ease with which the Muslim forces raced through the Peninsula at the end of the 13th century, it is necessary to know the geo-political situation that was prevalent at the time in the Indian Peninsula.

After the fall of the Pallava dynasty in the early 10th century, the Cholas established themselves at Kanchi and exercised imperial sway and primacy over most of South India for the following 300 years and more. The glory of the Chola dynasty is recounted in the colonial empire that they built in Malaya and the 100-year naval war that they conducted against the Sailendra kings of Sumatra. [Both these events have been covered in an earlier volume of this series of books and is not germane to the narrative in this book.] The Cholas were inherently an expansionist dynasty. After he came to the throne, the illustrious king Rajaraja Chola expanded his territorial holdings by annexing Orissa and the territories to the River Tungabhadra. He has been given the sobriquet ‘the Great’ by many historians. Rajaraja’s son, Rajendra Chola, annexed Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), crossed the seas and after occupying Nicobar Island established Kadaram in the Malaya peninsula as indisputable Chola territory. Rajendra was also an innovative king. While continuing the expansionist pattern of his dynasty, Rajendra created a magnificent irrigation system, which ensured that the agricultural produce of his kingdom was surplus to requirements. The irrigation system that was built continued to function efficiently till the mid-19th century, proving the solidity and technical soundness of its construction.

In his effort to expand his kingdom further north in the Peninsula in pursuance of his continuous quest to annex new territories, Rajendra came into conflict with the Chalukya rulers of Maharashtra. The Cholas at this stage was strong and confident enough to involve themselves in two wars simultaneously—one a naval war overseas against the Sailendra kings and the other a land-centric conflict against the powerful Chalukyas. The might of the Cholas was displayed when they were victorious in both these wars. Kulothunga, one of the greatest among Chola monarchs, was able to bring peace and stability to the extended kingdom after the battlefield victories. Till mid-13th century the Cholas ruled in relative peace. All successful dynasties that create and nurture great empires finally come to a standstill and then decline through the rule of incompetent rulers who merely inherit the kingdom, without having had to fight to win it. The Cholas were no exception. They also suffered in the long-term from the incompetence of successive kings who weakened central authority. The Cholas vanished from the scene between 1250 and 1300, squeezed out by a belligerent Pandya dynasty in the south and an equally aggressive Hoysala kingdom in the north.

The Cholas reigned supreme with full authority over the entire South India for nearly four centuries. They were the first Indian dynasty to appreciate the importance of naval power in a peninsular context and instituted what could only be termed a cohesive maritime strategy. They controlled the entire Bay of Bengal and for nearly a century enforced imperial authority over Malaya; a century during which the Bay of Bengal could have been considered a ‘Chola Lake’. The Chola reign was an extraordinary period of political, artistic and literary achievement. They were also builders of great temples that stand out even today for their artistic purity. The irrigation system that they put in place originated a new style that was ‘widely adopted’ by the British, with some modifications, successfully throughout their empire. In this context, it was the Cholas who conceived the idea of ‘controlling a river at the head of its delta and thus securing the regular watering of lands’.

Malik Kafur’s Incursion

By the end of the 13th century, the great Chola Empire had fully disintegrated and this was the time when Malik Kafur made his famous raid into South India. Since the power of the Cholas had been extinguished and there was yet to be a replacement power to step into the void, there was no real opposition to Malik Kafur’s military prowess. He was able to move with impunity anywhere in the Peninsula that he preferred.

Earlier, at the demise of the once powerful Rashtrakuta empire, their territorial holdings had been carved into three independent kingdoms—the Yadavas ruling from Devagiri, the Kakatiyas from Warrangal in Middle Deccan, and the Hoysalas with their capital of Dwarasamudra in Karnataka. All three were rich and flourishing kingdoms ruled by renowned and generous monarchs. The kings were wise and just, known for their patronage of learning and art. By the time of Malik Kafur’s invasion or raid, the Yadavas had already been conquered by the Delhi Sultanate and the Kakatiyas had been reduced to vassal status. The fact was that individually the three kingdoms were not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of Islam from the north. Malik Kafur’s army was an irresistible force.

The Hoysalas were the remaining power in the Deccan and they had been in intermittent war with the Cholas during the latter’s gradual and somewhat long-drawn decline. The eventual fall of the Cholas benefitted the Hoysalas the most. Under their most illustrious king Vira Ballala II (ruled for 47 years, 1173-1220), who was the son of a Pandyan princess, the Hoysalas became the preeminent power in South India, dominating the entire region. Their territory extended from the Madurai country to Mangalore in Malabar. The defeat of the Hoysalas by Malik Kafur is an important event in the history of South India. The fall of Dwarasamudra opened South India to Islamic invasion. At the time of Malik Kafur’s invasion of Hoysala country, the Pandyas to the south were involved in a contentious succession struggle and did not offer any assistance to the Hoysala king. Kafur was very easily able to sack Madurai and return to Delhi, leaving behind complete chaos and a Muslim garrison as a token of his conquest.

At this juncture, as often happens in history, the ruler of a small and somewhat insignificant principality, but who was ambitious, capable and looking for opportunities to better his prospects came into the picture. Vira Ravivarman Kulasekhara was the ruler of the region around Quilon (modern Kollam in the state of Kerala). He seized the opportunity and expelled the Muslim garrison before it could establish itself. The he crowned himself at Kanchi as the new ruler of the remnants of the erstwhile Hoysala kingdom. The Muslims were not given an opportunity to establish themselves. Ravivarman’s achievement should be counted as singularly critical to the further developments in South Indian history. It was the precursor to the vehement Hindu resistance to Islam in the Peninsula that lasted another three to four centuries. At this time South India north of Kanchi was in turmoil with the rapid withdrawal of the Islamic army of Delhi. There was no settled authority with the power to stabilise the region. The Yadavas of Devagiri were non-existent; and the Kakatiyas of Warrangal was in terminal decline after being repeatedly battered by Islamic invasions and already in a destroyed state.

River Tungabhadra became the rallying point for Hindu resistance, which very rapidly spread across the peninsula. Gradually it coalesced around the region with Warrangal as the centre. The initial rebellion was led by Prolaya Nayaka and Kapala Nayaka his cousin. Their strong movement of liberation led to the formation of the Reddi kingdoms of Addanki and Kondavidu. Simultaneously, Somadeva a scion of the imperial Chalukya dynasty, freed western Telugu country. The people of the Tungabhadra-Krishna Doab started a spontaneous and popular insurrection and threw off the Muslim yoke.

The unity of South India started to assert itself under two great leaders Harihara and Bukka. They started to organise a new state in 1336, known to history as the Vijayanagar Empire. The Vijayanagar rulers realised the necessity to consolidate control over South India at the River Tungabhadra line in order to defend it against foreign onslaught. Successors to Bukka expanded their holding south to Rameswaram and established control up to the River Krishna. Further northern expansion was checked by the rise of the Bahmani dynasty ruling in the Deccan.

The Bahmani Kingdom

Hasan alias Gangu Bahman Shah established a Muslim state between the Rivers Narmada and Krishna, in the heart of the Deccan in 1347, merely a decade after Vijayanagar was founded. He consolidated the territories north of the River Krishna. This kingdom became the embryo from which Muslim power in the Deccan was established and subsequently spread. This event was also fraught with great significance in South Indian history. The timing and context of its birth brought it almost immediately into conflict with Vijayanagar in the south and the Delhi Sultanate in the north. Boxed in by two powerful and warlike kingdoms on both sides, the rulers gradually became fully dependent on the majority Hindu population of the kingdom to function efficiently.


Peninsular India now entered state of unending struggle between Vijayanagar and the Bahmani kingdom that would last for centuries. Both the kingdoms, of necessity, were completely militarised states, never letting their guard down lest the other take advantage of the temporary weakness. The Vijayanagar emperors had added responsibility as the bulwark of Hindu religion. They were always reminded of their historic mission to defend Hinduism and South India from the depredations of a Muslim conquest. It is indeed true that if it had not been for a steadfast Vijayanagar, South India too would have easily fallen prey to the Islamic invasion in much the same fashion as the Gangetic Valley had succumbed. Vijayanagar denied the Islamic invaders any easy conquest for three long centuries.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2018]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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