Indian History Part 65 The Bahmani Kingdom Section III The Bidar Sultans

Canberra, 2 April 2018 


Ahmad Shah Bahmani

After Firuz abdicated, Ahmad Shah ascended the throne without any opposition. His minister and other supporters advised him to kill Hasan Khan, Firuz’s son, since they felt that he would be a threat to the new Sultan; even if not immediately but definitely in later times. This was wisdom founded on experience since an aspirant to the throne who had been set aside invariably formed a coterie of his own and rebelled to reclaim the throne, often leading the kingdom to civil war and associated chaos. Wholesale fratricidal killings when there was a change of sultans were therefore common in the medieval Indian context. However, in this case Ahmad refused to put to death his nephew or even blind him, as was the usual practice. Instead, he bestowed the jagir of Firuzabad on Hasan. The prince was completely devoid of any political ambition and accepted the jagir with gratitude. He then went on to fritter away his time in an almost single-minded pursuit of earthly pleasure.

Ahmad was very unlike his suave and worldly brother. He was crude in his outlook and behaviour, and revelled at being considered a ‘saint’. The common people referred to him with the title Vali, meaning saint. It is obvious that Ahmad took the title rather seriously since he was prone to displaying his saintly powers to his subjects.

Ahmad Shah ‘the Saint’

It is reported that when the kingdom was in the grip of a long and terrible draught he took it on himself to appeal for divine intervention. In full view of a large number of people, he reverentially climbed to the top of a significant hill. There in front of his subjects who had gathered to see their Sultan work a miracle, he began to pray for rain. Rain clouds are supposed to have gathered soon, as if on call, leading to heavy rains and an end to the draught.

The story is not corroborated with any certainty or verifiable evidence, and is probably a tale indicative of the belief that people had regarding the piety of the Sultan.

After ruling the kingdom from Gulbarga for a few years, Ahmad shifted the capital to Bidar. The rest of the narrative of the Bahmani kingdom is usually referred to as the Bidar Period. From a strategic point of view, Bidar was better suited to be the capital, considering that the kingdom had by now expanded substantially to the east. Further, the three linguistic regions of the kingdom converged on Bidar making it an obvious choice as the administrative headquarters. The crowning characteristic that made the Sultan decide on the shift may have been the more salubrious climate of Bidar.

Vijayanagar Campaign

Although outwardly saintly in his normal disposition, Ahmad Shah was an aggressive and brutal army commander. He was able to wage successful campaigns against all his neighbours. He fought Gujarat, Malwa and obviously Vijayanagar. Ahmad’s first campaign was mounted against Vijayanagar almost immediately after he came to the throne. The only reason was the obvious need to avenge the inglorious defeat that his brother had suffered, which had led to Ahmad becoming the Sultan of the Bahmani kingdom. Vijayanagar was ruled by Devaraya II who, on coming to know of the Bahmani intention to invade his kingdom, appealed to the Warangal king for help. Although help was promised and a contingent was send to Vijayanagar, the Telangana forces deserted on the eve of battle much to the discomfiture of Devaraya.

The opposing armies were arraigned on the north and south banks of River Tungabhadra and battle ensued on the banks of this dividing river. The Bahmani forces numbered around 40,000 and some estimates put the Vijayanagar forces at more than a million. While this estimate is obviously an exaggeration, it is certain that the Vijayanagar army was numerically superior to the Bahmani forces, even though they were reduced in number by the withdrawal of the Telangana contingent.

Faced with a numerically superior force, Ahmad made a detachment cross the river to the south bank at night, some distance upstream from the main camp. This small force attacked the Vijayanagar camp from the rear, achieving complete surprise and throwing the Hindu army into confusion. While Vijayanagar was in disarray, the main Bahmani force managed to cross the river. In the ensuing battle, Vijayanagar forces were routed. Devaraya was forced to withdraw to his fort in Vijayanagar and take up a defensive position. Ahmad Shah now displayed his ruthless streak by mercilessly laying waste the countryside; indiscriminate slaughter and enslavement of the civilian population; and wholesale and arbitrary destruction of temples.

The Sultan’s Lucky Escape

The Vijayanagar expedition was long-drawn and Ahmad Shah was in the habit of going out hunting for recreation. During one such outing, the Sultan was separated from his bodyguards but spotted by a foraging Vijayanagar cavalry contingent. They launched an attack on the Sultan who took refuge in a mud enclosure, where he was surrounded by his pursuers.

Although the situation soon became very precarious, the Sultan was saved by the last-minute arrival of a detachment of his own bodyguards under the command of a faithful officer, Abdul Qadir. This contingent consisted of foreign mounted archers, who subsequently went on to become a prominent part of the Bahmani army in later years.

After his providential escape, Ahmad continued his advance on Vijayanagar, stepping up the carnage and leaving a trail of wanton destruction in his wake. In order to alleviate the suffering of his subjects who could not be protected from the wrath of the Bahmani Sultan, Devaraya II purchased peace by paying a substantial tribute. Since the Bahmani forces were already deep inside Vijayanagar territory, Ahmad insisted on being escorted out of the kingdom by the crown prince. This action was intended to humiliate the dynasty, an objective that seems to have been achieved. Ahmad Shah did not wage war against Vijayanagar for the remainder of his term.

Other Campaigns

In 1424, Ahmad Shah marched into Warangal, defeated the Raja fairly easily and annexed the entire kingdom to Bahmani holdings. Warangal was not a ‘small’ kingdom and therefore, the rapidity of the conquest is somewhat perplexing and difficult to understand. The annexation of Warangal resulted in a substantial eastward spread of Bahmani territory. With this defeat, Warangal finally ceased to exist as an independent entity.

The success of the first two expeditions—against Vijayanagar and then Telangana—spurred Ahmad to undertake more military expeditions. In 1425, he marched against the rebellious Raja of Mahur who was enticed to surrender and then put to death. Ahmad then raided Gondwana and spent more than a year at Ellichpur, rebuilding the forts at Gawligarh and Narnala. These forts thereafter defined the northern frontier of the Bahmani kingdom.

Earlier during Firuz’s reign, Timur had nominally granted the title of both Gujarat and Malwa to the Bahmani Sultan. [The only claim Timur had to make such a grant was that he had invaded the sub-continent and defeated the Delhi Sultan, after which he went on a marauding trip through North India before returning to his kingdom in Afghanistan.] Ahmad Shah decided to stake his claim and turned his attention to these two independent kingdoms. In order to foster trouble in the region, Ahmad entered into an alliance with the ruler of Khandesh, which was a small but independent kingdom claimed by both Gujarat and Malwa. Malwa was ruled by Hushang Shah. He had earlier compelled Narsingh of Kherla (today’s Kurla?) who was a vassal of the Bahmani kings, to change allegiance and swear fealty to Malwa. In 1428, when Hushang Shah laid siege to Kherla to collect the tribute due to him, Narsingh appealed to Ahmad Shah for help. Taking this opportunity to force a face-off with Malwa, Ahmad marched to Ellichpur.

Ahmad’s religious feelings now came in the way of following through with his promise of assistance to Narsingh. He was assailed by doubts regarding the ‘correctness’ of fighting a fellow Muslim ruler to assist and defend an infidel king. This made Ahmad initially hesitate to attack and subsequently he decided to withdraw from the area without giving battle. On the Bahmani forces withdrawing, Hushang made a strategic miscalculation. He surmised, wrongly as it turned out, that the withdrawal was a sign of weakness and cowardice and pursued Ahmad with a considerable force. At this affront, Ahmad set aside his religious misgivings and turned back. Hushang Shah was decisively defeated in a battle fought on the banks of River Tapti. Narsingh had also joined the fray on the Bahmani side and chased Hushang all the way into Malwa. He then returned and ceremoniously entertained Ahmad Shah in Kherla.

On his way back to his capital, Ahmad Shah made camp in Bidar. He was taken in by the climate and strategic position of the city and decided to shift his capital to Bidar. The actual shift took place in 1429, when the township was renamed Ahmadabad Bidar. In later years the name was once again changed to Muhammadabad Bidar, as it is known today.

Bidar of Antiquity

Bidar is an ancient Hindu city, possibly Vidarbha. It is considered the scene of the adventures of King Nala and his Queen Damayanti of antiquity, mentioned in the broader story narrated in the Mahabharata and also immortalised as an epic poem by the great Kalidasa. Irrespective of the veracity of the story of Nala and his consort Damayanti having lived in the city, it is certain that Bidar was a metropolis of a great and ancient Hindu kingdom in its early days.

During Ahmad’s sojourn in Bidar, his eldest son Ala ud-Din Ahmad was married to the daughter of Nasir Khan of Khandesh as part of an emerging alliance. Ahmad now divided the governance of his empire between his four sons and a favourite noble. Ala ud-Din, the heir apparent and eldest son was kept in Bidar, with the youngest son Muhammad as his companion; Muhammad Khan was made the governor of Berar; Daulat Khan was given the Telangana region; and the noble Malik-ul-Tijar was awarded Daulatabad. The last appointment is questionable since Daulatabad was a bone of contention with the Delhi Sultanate as well as the Maratha rebels in the region. That province had never been fully under Bahmani control, which was tenuous at the best of times.

Soon after the defeat of the Malwa forces, Ahmad Shah ordered a wanton attack on Mahim—which stood on the site that is today the island of Mumbai—that was within the territory of the Gujarat Sultan, Ahmad I. This action obviously precipitated a drawn-out conflict. Unlike the religious scruples that he displayed at the initial stages of the conflict with Malwa, Ahmad this time supported a Hindu chief who was rebelling against the Gujarat Sultan. Obviously piety and scruples were thrown to the wind and sacrificed at the altar of pragmatism and opportunism. The Bahmani army led by its general was conclusively defeated by the Gujarat forces – not once, but twice – suffering great losses in the bargain. At this stage Ahmad Shah personally took over the reins of the expedition and obstinately persisted with attacks on the southern borders of the Gujarat kingdom. Other than substantial losses to the Bahmani forces, these attempts did not achieve anything.

The last few years of Ahmad Shah’s rule was replete with conflicts, battles and skirmishes. He behaved like a dervish, whirling around and fighting with all he came into contact with, and anyone who came in his way. From a Bahmani point of view, none of these conflicts or encounters were particularly successful and some were even humiliating defeats. The defeats invariably led to Ahmad Shah accepting one-sided terms for peace, which others foisted on him. The Gujarat war and its follow-on conflicts exhausted the Bahmani Sultan personally and also the kingdom’s treasury. Hushang Shah smarting under the defeat he had suffered watched from a distance the draining of both the physical and resource power of the Bahmani Sultan. At an opportune moment he attacked and captured Kherla, putting the ruler Narsingh to death. Ahmad, in his depleted condition, attempted to march to Kherla but was dissuaded from doing so by Nasir Khan. Nasir Khan organised a peace with Malwa, the conditions of which were unfavourable to Ahmad and the Bahmani kingdom. Kherla was permanently annexed to Malwa.

Before his death in 1435, Ahmad Shah attempted to mount an unsuccessful expedition against a rebellion in the Telangana region. This was the last of the military adventures of the Bahmani Sultan who considered himself a saint. At his death, he was aged around 64 and had retired from public life after placing his eldest son on the throne. The Bahmani kingdom was at this stage bounded by Malwa in the north; Gujarat in the north-west; extended all the way to Goa in the south; and reached Masulipatnam on the Coromandal coast to the east. The northern hill country was still held by minor Maratha chieftains.

Ahmad Shah’s Rule – Entrenchment of a Schism

As an individual, Ahmad Shah was a brutal bigot and a cruel tyrant. He was a superstitious and fanatical Muslim who used the veneer of religion for conveniently pursuing his purposes as seen in the opportunistic manner in which religion was twisted to facilitate his military campaigns. This aspect of his character is in sharp contrast to that of his brother Firuz, who was educated enough to have been sceptical about religion and life itself in general. It is also possible that Ahmad displayed some superficial soft corner for the poets and other learned people to create an impression of being somewhat like his more sophisticated brother and predecessor and to be following his footsteps. He commissioned the writing of the Bahman-nama, a versified history of the infant Bahmani dynasty by the poet Azari or Isfarayin of Khurasan. This was a poor imitation of the Shah-nama. The Bahman-nama has been lost to history, but since it would have been laudatory in nature, is unlikely to have provided any more actual details about the dynasty than what is available now.

The most important development that took place during Ahmad Shah’s reign was the divisions that got entrenched in the Muslim community of the Deccan, which played a major part in the subsequent demise of the dynasty. Ahmad Shah regularly employed Turks, Arabs, Mongols and Persians, who were mainly Shias, in both the military and civil administration in various levels of the hierarchy. This incursion by foreigners into the officialdom of the kingdom was resented by the local Deccani Muslims who were supported by the African Negroes as well as the off springs of the African officials and Indian mothers. The majority of this group were Sunni Muslims and a surreptitious rivalry started.

This rivalry came out in the open when the foreign military officers blamed the local Deccani Muslims for the defeat suffered during the Gujarat campaign, accusing them of cowardice. [This deprecating opinion about the local (Indian) Muslims, held by the ‘foreign’ Muslims gradually became entrenched and continued throughout the ‘Islamic period’ in the history of India. Sadly, the religion that touts equality of all before the Almighty, still practises this discrimination, clearly visible in the treatment meted out to the Muslims from the Indian sub-continent, who are considered as decidedly inferior, in the kingdoms of the Middle-East, where they form the bulk of the migrant work force.]

Ala ud-Din II

On accession to the throne, Ala ud-Din promised the dawn of a glorious reign. Adhering to the promise that he had made to his father, he treated his youngest brother Muhammad, who had been left as his companion, with gracious fraternal generosity. This was unusual for the times, when any potential rival to the throne was either blinded or summarily executed on a prince assuming power in order to avoid future challenges. Muhammad however did not reciprocate the feelings.

He was misled by the anti-Ala ud-Din faction and contested the throne, demanding that the kingdom be divided between himself and Ala ud-Din. He collected a force, rebelled openly and seized the Raichur Doab, Bijapur and some other districts. He also appealed to Vijayanagar for assistance, despite that kingdom being the traditional foe of his own kingdom for generations. Ala ud-Din personally met the rebel forces on the battlefield and, although there was heavy slaughter on both sides, successfully put down the rebellion. The defeated rebel army scattered and Muhammad implored forgiveness, which was gladly granted by Ala ud-Din. This action was also an act of extraordinary magnanimity on the part of Ala ud-Din, who also assigned the Raichur Doab as a jagir for the young prince. Muhammad lived in peace in his jagir for the rest of his life, never once breaking his allegiance to his elder brother.

This episode is noteworthy since it is an exception to the normal flow of events during the medieval Muslim occupation of the Indian sub-continent. While the actions of Muhammad sticks to the script, Ala ud-Din’s treatment of his youngest brother is an aberration of kindness in an otherwise sordid, but popularly condoned set of actions that were normally practised. In an indirect and somewhat vitriolic manner, Muhammad’s rebellion legitimises the Islamic practice of kings killing or blinding all siblings and near relatives and imprisoning them so that there would be no royal leaders with pretentions to the throne available to start rebellions against the newly installed king. It can be observed that the splendour and power inherent in the Indian throne possessed a fatal attraction to those of whom the accident of birth placed near it. By sheer experience the incumbent kings had realised that the only way to consolidate their rule and avoid civil war was to get rid of any possible competition and pretenders to the throne, immediately on assuming power. Ala ud-Din’s behaviour is perhaps the only notable exception to this norm, at least in the history of a major dynasty.

Ahmad Shah Vali’s Tomb

Ala ud-Din built a magnificent dome over his father’s grave in the outskirts of Bidar. The ceiling and walls of the dome were decorated with calligraphy and floral designs and the colours of the designs, especially the ones towards the top of the dome, still remains fresh and bright today. The paintings are beautiful and elegant and is unique in the Indian sub-continent. An inscription on the dome provides the exact date of the death of Ahmad Shah as 17 April 1436.

There is an interesting practice connected to the tomb. Even today an annual fair is held by the Lingayat sect to honour the Vali at his tomb. Legend has it that this is a continuation of the celebrations that took place when the tomb was constructed and sanctified.

(The Lingayat sect emerged as reactionary force against Hinduism in the 12th century. While it rejected most of the broad Hindu traditions, it also assimilated aspects of it. The sect wanted to be considered a separate religion—this demand for status as an independent religion continues to percolate even today in modern India.)

Military Exploits

In 1436, Ala ud-Din conquered parts of the Konkan and the Raja of Sangamewar was forced to give his daughter in marriage to him. The princess was known as ‘pari-chehra’ or ‘fairy-face’ and immediately became the Sultan’s favourite, much to the annoyance and subsequent jealousy of the first queen. These feelings were further embittered by the fact that the new princess was an infidel. Nasir Khan, the first queen’s father, felt offended by Ala ud-Din’s change of preference and invaded Berar. At this juncture the division between the foreigners and the Deccanis in the royal court came out in the open. True to their style, the Deccanis advised caution in dealing with Nasir Khan, whereas the ever brash and adventurous foreign contingent went into battle under the command of Malik-ul-Tijar.

The Bahmani forces won a grand victory and therefore became the favourite faction of the Sultan. They were allowed to sit on the right side of the Sultan in court, the place of honour. Even so this was not the end of the rivalry between the two factions, which continued unabated. The rivalry bubbled along, degenerating into internecine conflict at times, with definitive detrimental effect to the efficiency of the military and general administration of the kingdom.

War with Vijayanagar

The conflict between the Bahmani and Vijayanagar kingdoms continued unabated with the usual savagery during the entire period of Ala ud-Din’s rule. Ferishta, always erring on the side of exaggeration, writes that Ala ud-Din cautioned Devaraya II, his contemporary ruler of Vijayanagar against executing two Muslim officers of the Bahmani army who had been captured, stating that it was the rule of his family, ‘…to slay a 100,000 Hindus in revenge for the death of a single Muslim’.

Around 1442-43, Devaraya II, an astute student of military history and tactics, constituted a council to discuss the reasons for repeated Bahmani victories in the battlefield, at times even against numerically superior forces. The council reported back that the two fundamental strengths of the Muslim army were—the Muslim expertise in employing and manoeuvring their cavalry; and the skilled archery contingents that were employed with devastating efficiency. Accordingly, Devaraya revised his policies of recruitment to the army and also the religious rules of the kingdom. He started to recruit Muslims to the army, in an effort to improve the cavalry regiments and permitted the building of mosques in the country for these soldiers to worship.

Once he felt confident about the competency of his army, Devaraya invaded the Raichur Doab, captured Mudgal and besieged Raichur and Bankapur. At the same time the Vijayanagar army laid waste to the countryside of Bijapur and Sagar. In response the Bahmani army took to the field. It is certain that three major battles were fought and a number of smaller clashes and skirmishes also took place. However, none of them were decisive. There is an uncorroborated report that in the third battle Devaraya’s son was killed, which is highly improbable since no other source confirms the fact. Mudgal, the captured fort was besieged for months by the Bahmani forces without any decisive outcome. Devaraya bought peace by agreeing to pay a stipulated tribute. This turn of events could indicate some amount of discomfiture on the Vijayanagar side, especially of the continuing siege. Essentially, status quo was maintained as far as territorial control was concerned.

The Battles of the Waning Years

The last years of Ala ud-Din’s reign was marked by a number of rebellions, one flowing from the other. It started with Ala ud-Din’s brother-in-law and governor of Telangana, Jalal Khan, proclaiming independence as the ruler of Telangana. Ala ud-Din personally marched to put down the revolt and punish the rebel. On hearing this, Jalal send his son Sikandar to Malwa seeking help of Mahmud still ruling there, although he had ben soundly defeated by the Bahmani forces earlier. After sending out the appeal for help, Jalal Khan shut himself up in the fort at Nalgonda. At this time Ala ud-Din had been confined to his palace because of an injury to his foot, which was misrepresented by Sikandar to Mahmud of Malwa as Ala ud-Din being dead and the Bahmani kingdom being in chaos. Buoyed by this news Mahmud joined the rebellion.

On realising that Bahmani army was being led personally by Ala ud-Din, Mahmud retreated to his kingdom, breaking away from the rebel group. Ala ud-Din left the siege of Nalgonda in the hands of one his ministers, Mahmud Gawan and pursued Mahmud into his kingdom. Jalal Khan and his son were defeated by the Bahmani forces, but were pardoned by Ala ud-Din on the recommendation of Mahmud Gawan. Incidentally, this is the first mention of Mahmud Gawan—who was to become one of the great personalities of medieval India—in the historical narrative of the Deccan.

Last days and Death

Ala ud-Din died around 1457-58 at the end of a bloody and strenuous career after having designated his son Humayun as his successor. Ala ud-Din had been mercurial in his policies and action and his personal character was an unholy and unpredictable mix of benevolence and tyranny. He was totally contemptuous of court formalities and ruled within his own whims and fancies. For example, it was a contemporary norm for the king to hold a public audience every day. He stopped this practice, and at one time held an audience only after a five-month break. The regularity of the king’s audiences became once every three or four months.

He spent inordinately long periods of time in his harem and drank wine to excess in private. However, he presented to the public a visage of a sternly orthodox Muslim, even punishing his subjects suspected of having consumed wine. Hypocrisy, that was to be the central character trait of Muslim rulers in India, was openly visible in the conduct of Ala ud-Din, both in his public and personal life. While exhibiting the persona of an orthodox Muslim to his subjects, Ala ud-Din was not overly religious in his personal observation of the faith. He followed this with the passing of edicts that made it compulsory, on pain of exacting punishment, for the common people to observe the religious norms in their strictest form. Within this complex character, he considered himself a just ruler, giving himself the title Al-adil, meaning ‘The Just’. He built a number of mosques with attached public schools. He is known to have built a large hospital in Bidar, which was thrown open for the treatment of the sick and poor.

© [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 Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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