Indian History Part 65 The Bahmani Kingdom Section I: Origins

Canberra, 10 March 2018 Saturday



While the Madurai Sultanate was being decimated by the regional kingdoms of South India, two brothers Harihara and Bukka, established the Vijayanagar Kingdom raising it on the broken foundations of the failing dynasties of the region. The early kings of this kingdom, which was to later attain exalted status, realised that if the insidious spread of Islam was to be combated in South India, they needed to combine and consolidate the power of the various Hindu states that were almost always at war with each other. There was an urgent need to end the prevalent and perpetual state of mutual hostility. The Vijayanagar kings took on this task. (The Vijayanagar Kingdom will be examined in detail in the chapters of the next section of this book.)

In 1347, another independent kingdom rose in the Deccan, the Muslim Sultanate that came to be called the Bahmani Kingdom. The coming to power of a Muslim dynasty in the Peninsula reemphasised the threat to Hindu religion and its associated culture and more immediate. It demonstrated the almost constant danger to the socio-political and religious status quo of the region. The story of Vijayanagar is the story of a medieval Hindu revival and domination of South India that kept Muslim influence away from the region for the next three centuries and more.

Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, reigning in Delhi, witnessed the self-destruction of his empire in front of his eyes. In the Deccan, the influential group of Muslim nobles, called Amiran-i-Sada by Muslim chroniclers, rebelled against the rule from Delhi. They set up their own independent kingdom with Daulatabad, erstwhile Devagiri, as the capital and Ismail Makh as the sultan in 1347. The story of how this development took place goes that when Muhammad Tughluq decided to shift the capital of the Delhi Sultanate to Daulatabad, he appointed Kuttulugh Khan as the governor. In turn Kuttulugh appointed a number of military officers as captains of the army. Within them was an adventurer named Hasan Gangu. Suspecting the loyalty of the nobles of the Deccan, Muhammad Tughluq asked Kuttulugh to send them to Broach, where he was camped at the time. In Broach, Muhammad had subdued a revolt by some nobles and thereafter executed them for their rebellion. During their journey to Broach, the Deccan nobles came to know of the treatment meted out to the nobles of Gujarat and suspected that the Delhi Sultan intended to murder them also.

The nobles turned back halfway through their journey, returned to Daulatabad and declared their independence under the rule of Ismail Makh, who was given the title Nasir ud-Din Ismail Shah. Muhammad Tughluq now attacked Daulatabad and imprisoned most of the nobles. Some nobles under the leadership of Hasan Gangu escaped to Gulbarga. Three months later Muhammad Tughluq had to go back to Gujarat to quell yet another rebellion. In the meantime, Hasan had been gathering an army with the aid of Kapaya Nayaka of Warrangal, and biding his time to initiate action. He considered the departure of Muhammad Tughluq from Daulatabad an opportune moment to make his move. Hasan attacked and defeated the Delhi army stationed in Daulatabad. The Delhi commander was slain, following which the Sultanate army dispersed and fled to Malwa.

Nasir ud-Din Ismail Shah, the title that Ismail Makh had assumed, who had been placed on the throne by the rebel nobles before they were defeated by Muhammad Tughluq, was a peace-loving person and completely unfit to be the sultan of a newly formed kingdom. He willingly abdicated the throne in favour of Hasan who was a brave and warlike soldier. Hasan was unanimously elected by his confederates to be the sultan and crowned on 13 August 1347.

Thus was created the Bahmani Kingdom, which lasted in a unified state for nearly a century and a half. Thereafter it gradually declined in power and broke up into five independent kingdoms. Nominally however, the kingdom existed for 180 years with titular Bahmani kings ruling a small territory till 1527.

Ala ud-Din Bahman Shah

Hasan Gangu assumed the elaborate title of Ab’ul Muzaffar Ala ud-Din Bahman Shah on being crowned. There are two contradictory stories regarding Hasan’s origins.

One. A Fascinating but Improbable Story

Hasan is said to have been born in 1290 in very humble circumstances. For the first 30 years of his life he worked as a simple farm labourer in the fields belonging to a Brahmin named Gangu. Since Hasan was an industrious and honest person, the Brahmin gave him a small piece of land and two oxen as a gift in appreciation of his hard work. One day while ploughing his land, Hasan struck a pot containing antique gold coins. He immediately took it to the Brahmin, who was greatly impressed with the poor labourer’s honesty. Gangu, the Brahmin, was also one of the royal astrologers and therefore was able to inform the sultan of Hasan’s probity.

The Sultan at that time was Ghiyas ud-Din Tughluq who rewarded Hasan by making him a captain in the army and placing him in-charge of a 100 horses in the cavalry. Gangu being an astrologer, and seeing the completely altered circumstances of his one-time servant, cast his horoscope, which revealed that Hasan would one day be king. Not holding this information back, Gangu told him the prediction and made Hasan promise that once he became king, he would adopt Gangu’s name and also make him the finance minister of the kingdom that Hasan would rule in the future.

Hasan became Hasan Gangu, mentioned as ‘Kangoh’ by Muslim Chroniclers.

It is also mentioned in some chronicles that Shaikh Nizam ud-Din Aulia, the venerated saint of Delhi also predicted the good fortune awaiting Hasan. Some other sources provide a less romantic version regarding the origins of Hasan, which connect Hasan’s ancestry to the ancient Persian king Bahman. Ferishta discounts the reports regarding the Persian connection and endorses the ‘Brahmin’ story. He insists that the appellation Bahman was adopted by Hasan to honour the promise that he had made to his old master since ‘Brahmin’ was, and even today is, often pronounced as ‘Bahman’. Ferishta insists that Hasan was a low-born Afghan.

Two. The Persian Connection

According to Iswari Prasad, an acknowledged authority on medieval Indian history, modern research has undoubtedly established that Hasan was indeed one of the descendants of Bahman Shah, the king of Persia. The story about his connection to the Brahmin astrologer is purely a myth. The author of the authoritative chronicle, Burhan-i-Masir, is considered by historians to be a more reliable authority regarding the narrative of events in medieval Deccan than Ferishta. He states that Hasan traced his origins from Bahman bin Isfandiyar and does not mention the connection to a Brahmin master even once.

Hasan’s connection to the Persian ruling dynasty is supported by Nizam ud-Din Ahmed, the author of Tabkat-i-Akbari; Ahmad bin Razi, the author of Haft-Iqlim; and by Haji ud-Dabir who wrote the famous and authoritative history of Gujarat. These three authors are highly respected authorities regarding medieval Islamic history of India. Further, Hasan’s claims to royal Persian ancestry have also been corroborated by contemporary inscriptions.

Even so, there are few facts that do not find satisfactory explanations regarding Hasan’s early life. For example, Yahya, an earlier authority than the authors mentioned above, refers to Hasan as Sultan Hasan Kanku. The title ‘Kanku’ does not find any clear explanation and could be considered a version of ‘Gangu’. Considering this, Ferishta’s claim that Hasan was a low-born Afghan cannot be completely discounted off-hand. However, the story of Hasan’s servitude and the discovery of the pot of gold that changed his life will have to be considered embellishments to a success story.

It is safer to leave the origin of Hasan Gangu ‘Bahman Shah’ open to debate since no conclusive proof exists to either discount or accept one or the other version. Similarly, in the larger scheme of the history of the Deccan, the real reason for Hasan adopting the title ‘Bahman’ that led to the dynasty he founded being called ‘Bahmani’ does not merit greater examination and is only of superficial interest. The fact remains that for some unverifiable and obviously obscure reason, Hasan adopted the title Bahman Shah from which the dynasty derived its name. It is also certain that Hasan began life in humble circumstances and came to the throne on his own merit. It can be surmised with reasonable accuracy that Hasan’s thirst for adventure brought him to Daulatabad, since the Deccan was the ‘El Dorado’ in North Indian Muslim imagination.

Bahman Shah Reigns

Bahman Shah ruled for 11 years and the title is found in many inscriptions in the Gulbarga mosque as well as on coins of the dynasty. Soon after assuming the throne in Daulatabad, Bahman Shah shifted the capital of the kingdom to Gulbarga. This may have been a calculated move to put more distance between Delhi and the capital of the fledgling kingdom. It could also have been for sentimental reasons, since Hasan Gangu derived his strength from the army that he built at Gulbarga. Gulbarga continued to be the capital of the Bahmani kingdom till 1425, when the capital was shifted to Bidar.

Bahman Shah spent most of his reign waging war subduing refractory and recalcitrant chieftains in the immediate neighbourhood of the capital, expanding his territorial holdings, and exacting tribute from smaller principalities. In conducting negotiations to expand the territory of the kingdom, Hasan did not spare even his old ally Kapaya Nayaka. Nayaka was forced to cede control of the fort at Kaulas and also to pay an annual tribute to the Gulbarga ruler. The first major expedition of the newly anointed king was towards the Nasik region during which the remnants of the Delhi army was conclusively driven out of the Deccan. He then subjugated the Hindu principalities around Baglana. The chiefs who accepted Bahmani suzerainty were permitted to continue to rule their fiefdoms while those who opposed Hasan were summarily executed and their territories annexed.

Throughout its existence as a viable entity, the Bahmani kingdom was in perennial conflict with the Vijayanagar Empire that had been established a mere decade earlier in South India. This power struggle started in the second year of Bahman Shah’s reign, and the first conflict did not yield any decisive results for either of the kingdoms, although the Muslim records insist that Bahman Shah was able to capture and annex Karaichur. Five years later a second conflict followed in which the Bahmani kingdom was allied with the Madurai Sultanate. There are conflicting versions of the result of this conflict. The Muslim chronicles declare a Bahmani victory whereas the Hindu sources claim that Harihara I ruling Vijayanagar achieved a resounding and decisive victory. It can be surmised that the end-result of the conflict was once again indecisive.

Irrespective of the indecisiveness of both the conflicts with the rising power of the Vijayanagar kingdom, by the end of Bahman Shah’s reign, his kingdom was territorially extensive. It extended to the Arabian Sea in the west and included the ports of Goa and Dabhol; the eastern limit was marked by Bhongir; and the Rivers Penganga and Krishna bounded the northern and southern borders. It covered parts of the Marathi, Telugu and Kannada speaking linguistic regions. With the establishment of the Bahmani kingdom, the era of the trans-regional states had firmly arrived in Peninsular India.

Bahman Shah considered further conquest, very clearly indicated by the coinage of the time describing him as ‘A Second Alexander’. The assumption of such a title shows the vaulting ambition of the new king, fed by his having achieved minor military victories over the small-time Hindu chieftains. Unfortunately for him, the greater ambitions of military conquest were cut short by ill-health brought on by the extreme exertions that he had been undertaking for a number of years.

Hasan Gangu was not merely an adventurous soldier of fortune who happened to be at the ‘right place at the right time’. Once having achieved the throne, he proved to be a devoted king, fervently dedicated to the administration of his kingdom. Further, he was successful in extending the borders of his infant kingdom not only through military actions but also shrewd bargaining and coercion. These two points alone perhaps tends to tilt the argument regarding his origins towards accepting his ancestral connections to the royal house of Persia. In medieval times a mere labourer, if he was indeed born into such a low status, was highly unlikely to have the inherent acumen to carryout successful military campaigns and be able to negotiate with kings and chieftains of long standing.

Bahman Shah divided the kingdoms into tarafs, or provinces, and assigned each to amirs who had rendered good service to him during the military expeditions before and after he came to power. These amirs had to maintain a specified number of retainers who were to be send to the king, when required, for military service. In the case of Bahman Shah this meant that the provincial soldiers were almost continuously under his command since the king was almost always at war.

Further proof of the possibility of his royal pedigree and connections is given by the fact almost immediately on assuming the throne, Bahman Shah insisted and demanded on the courtiers maintaining the dignity of the court with decorum. He created a hierarchical aristocracy, grading each noble according to the power and influence that an individual wielded, a judgement that the king alone made. By doing so Bahman Shah kept the nobles, who had been instrumental in his gaining the throne but were also prone to rebellion, under check and loyal to him. He appointed several officials to the court and palace, clearly demarcating the duties and responsibilities of each, which facilitated in maintaining the decorum of the palace as well as the offices that were essential for a smooth administration.

Ala ud-Din Bahman Shah, the founder of the Bahmani kingdom in Western Deccan died in 1358 at the age of 67 after prolonged illness that had almost incapacitated him. He was succeeded by his son Muhammad Shah I.

© [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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