Indian History Part 66 The Adil Shahis of Bijapur, Section VI: A Concluding Evaluation

Canberra, 7 July 2018


The Adil Shahi kingdom of Bijapur was centred on modern Bijapur district in Karnataka, in the western region of the Deccan Plateau. Earlier it had been a province of the more extensive Bahmani kingdom. The Bijapur kingdom was established in 1489 and ceased to exist as an independent entity on its annexation by the Mughal Empire on 12 September 1686. The founder of the Adil Shahi dynasty, Yusuf Adil Shah, started his career as a Bahmani sultan-appointed governor of the province. In fact even though he declared independence during his governorship, he and his son continued to title themselves as ‘Adil Khan’. Khan, meaning Chief in Mongolian and later adapted to Persian, conferred a lesser status than Shah which indicated royal rank and title. It was only Yusuf Khan’s grandson who first used the title Shah after which the term Adil Shah started to be used commonly to indicate the ruling monarch of the Bijapur kingdom.

The kingdom’s borders varied throughout its two centuries of existence, although the northern boundary remained relatively stable. After the initial stabilisation, the kingdom expanded southwards into the Carnatic, and also encompassed the Raichur Doab after the defeat of the Vijayanagar Empire in the Battle of Telikotta in 1564. Later campaigns by kings of the 17th century extended the formal borders of the kingdom and at its greatest extend, Bijapur exercised control over the region as far south as Bangalore. The kingdom was bound in the west by the Portuguese colony of Ga and in the east by the kingdom of Golconda.

From its inception, Bijapur was immersed in the instability and chaos of regional politics resulting from the collapse of the Bahmani dynasty. Being constantly in conflict with the other successor kingdoms to the Bahmani kingdom curtailed its ability to develop to its full potential, even during times of relative peace. However, the greatest threat to the Adil Shahi kingdom’s security started in late 16th century, from the Mughal encroachment into the Deccan. As the most powerful of the Deccan Muslim kingdoms, Bijapur was specially targeted by the Mughal emperors and their generals. Even though it was Mughal power that finally eclipsed the Adil Shahi dynasty, the decline actually started and was accelerated by the continual rebellion by the Marathas who occupied the hilly tracts to the north-west of the kingdom. The Marathas were responsible for weakening the kingdom, which made it relatively easy for the Mughals to impose various treaties that subsequently forced the Adil Shahi’s to initially accept Mughal suzerainty, and fifty years later to its outright annexation as a Mughal province.

The Arrival of the Marathas

From the inception of the kingdom, the Adil Shahis occupied vast tracts of land in the Konkan, which were inhabited by Marathi-speaking peoples. Historically, the first Maratha chief to be gifted a ‘jagir’ by the Adil Shahi king of Bijapur was Shahaji. According to the prevalent medieval custom, a jagir was to be controlled and used by the person it was granted to, while the king continued to own the land that was gifted. Even though control rested with the ‘jagirdar’, the person who obtained the jagir, the forts in the region remained under the direct control of the king, who garrisoned it with his own forces. This system ensured that a jagirdar did not become too powerful or usurp the land. Shivaji, Shahji’s son and successor, declared independence from the Adil Shahi suzerainty by taking over the forts in his area of influence—much larger than the jagir given to his father—and also by capturing some forts even outside his territorial control. During this period of conquest, Shivaji captured the forts at Rohida, Sinhgad, Purandar and Torana. He also defeated the Mores clan who were loyal to the Adil Shahis and were in possession of Javali.

The Marathas and the ruling Muslim nobility traditionally shared cordial relations. Ibrahim Adil Shah was partial to the Marathas, giving them important positions in the military as well as in civil administration. During his reign and for some time thereafter, official documents were written in both Arabic/Persian and Marathi. Many official documents of Bijapur that survive to this day starts with an invocation to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. Muhammad Adil Shah changed this policy of tolerance and cordiality with the Marathas and attempted to drive a wedge between the Maratha chief and other minor chieftains who were courtiers in his court and therefore, loyal to him. However, he seems to have overestimated the loyalty of the minor Maratha chieftains in his court, because the attempt to divide the Marathas did not achieve any success.

Muhammad’s son, Ali Adil Shah took a somewhat more conciliatory stance, perhaps because of the fact that Adil Shahi power was waning and there were continuous internal dissentions, some of which were already out of control. The dynasty’s power was further eroded when Shivaji killed Afzal Khan, one of the most powerful and effective military commanders of Bijapur. When a common enemy in the form of Shaistha Khan arrived on the horizon, the Marathas and the Adil Shahis were forced to reconcile and put up a combined front. Shaistha Khan was a Mughal general who had been send by the Delhi emperor with a large army to conquer the Adil Shahis and subdue the rebellious Marathas. Both the quarrelling groups understood the need to contain the Mughal ambition to establish roots in the Deccan. By this time, the Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar had been destroyed and their kingdom annexed to the Mughal Empire. Neither the Marathas, nor the Adil Shahis, wanted a re-enactment of the Mughal conquest of Ahmadnagar. The need to reconcile, led to a pact between the two antagonists.

This treaty of 1667 not only perpetuated the alliance between the Adil Shahis and the Marathas, but also gave Shivaji independent rule of all the territories that he controlled. Even though Shivaji was only nominally responsible to the Bijapur king for the past few years, this treaty made him independent and removed the ‘vassal’ status from him. His earlier proclamation of being a ‘king’ was now finally vindicated. His status as an independent ruler was further established by Shivaji sending a Maratha envoy, Babaji Naik Punde, to be stationed permanently in the court at Bijapur. Maratha power had finally arrived on the scene as an independent entity. Shivaji was formally anointed and crowned King of the Marathas in 1674, which not only enhanced his prestige and stature but also awarded him the prerogative to negotiate independently with other kings in a credible manner.

The fundamental principle on which Shivaji built his Deccan policy was the need to maintain internal unity in the Deccan in order to ensure that the Mughals were not permitted to gain a foothold in the region. Therefore, he strived continually to ensure the strength of the Deccan as a whole in facing the Mughal incursions. He made concerted attempts to contain the incessant in-fighting and mutual hostilities of the Deccan Shahi kingdoms, especially after the death of Ali Adil Shah. After being crowned King, Shivaji entered into an alliance with the Golconda king, Abu Hassan Qutb Shah. The Bijapur kingdom was at a very low ebb at this time and Shivaji and his ally the Qutb Shahi king felt that Bijapur needed to be ‘rescued’ from foreign invasion and occupation. Accordingly they hatched a plan to partition Bijapur territory between them, although it never came to fruition.

Shivaji – The Regionalist

In the proposed carving up of Bijapur, the coastal region between Rivers Tungabhadra and Kavery were to become Maratha territory. Gingi, later to play an important role in Maratha history, became the centre of Maratha power in the Peninsula. Even though Shivaji was the prominent leader of the Marathas, they were also riddled by internal rivalries. One of the major groups, the Gorpade clan, had been introduced to the Adil Shahi dynasty by Shahaji, during the reign of Ibrahim Adil Shah. They entered Adil Shahi service and remained loyal to the Adil Shahis, even playing a major role in the capture of Shahaji himself. There was an underlying animosity then onwards between the Gorpade and Bhonsle clans.

There was also division within the house of Shivaji itself. The relationship with his step-brother, Venkoji had not traversed a smooth path and had degenerated into battles and occasional conflicts. In battle, Hambirao Mohite the commander of Shivaji’s forces, defeated Venkoji. However, being the younger brother, Shivaji pardoned him and restored him to the control of the Maratha jagir in the Carnatic that had been granted to their father Shahaji. The correspondence between the brothers indicate that Shivaji had demanded half the territory of the jagir that their father had bestowed on Venkoji. This demand seems to have been amicably resolved.

In creating the alliance with the Qutb Shahi king, Shivaji persuaded other Maratha chiefs, including Maloji Gorpade the powerful head of the Gorpade clan to join the alliance. He also made Venkoji, controlling the southern Maratha territories from Tanjore, nominally as a vassal of Bijapur, join the alliance. At this stage, the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan was divided between the long-feuding Phirangi and Deccani factions of the nobility. In Bijapur, the successor to Ali Adil Shah was his minor son and therefore Bijapur was ruled by the Phirangi noble Bahlol Khan. The alliance was primarily directed against this Adil Shahi regent.

In Bijapur, Bahlol Khan ruling as supreme authority succumbed to selfish ambition, and sought an alliance with the Mughal commander in order to usurp power for himself to be declared king of the Adil Shahi kingdom. The Deccani noble faction, under the leadership of Sarja Khan, opposed this move and defeated Bahlol Khan and his supporters in 1677. Bahlol Khan died a few months after this defeat. Shivaji had been steadfast in supporting the minor king, Sikandar Adil Shah, assisting the Deccani faction with troops and money as well as himself harassing the Mughal forces that were encroaching the Bijapur kingdom. After Bahlol’s defeat the Mughal forces withdrew, prompting Shivaji to claim, in one of his letters, that he had averted the danger to Bijapur and protected the Adil Shahi dynasty from extinction.

In gratitude for the assistance, Sikandar Adil Shah granted Shivaji a large tract of land in the south. He also permitted Venkoji to stop paying the annual tribute due for the jagir, effectively giving away the Carnatic territory around Tanjore. In many authenticated documents, Shivaji reiterates his policy of opposition to rule by the Phirangi faction, steadfastly supporting the Deccani nobles as the true rulers. As mentioned earlier, Shivaji was totally focused on protecting the Deccan from Mughal invasion. He was consistent in attempting to get the Phirangi faction out of the Deccan, since these nobles instinctively sided with outsiders like the Mughals who invaded the Deccan.

At this stage in the development of Maratha political power, Shivaji was a focused regionalist rather than a religiously motivated clan leader. His priority was in maintaining the independence of the Deccan and not ensuring the continued ‘independence’ of Hinduism as a religion. This attitude is demonstrated by the fact that although he could have easily dethroned the Adil Shahi dynasty after the defeat of Bahlol Khan and the Mughal army, he chose not to, leaving the boy-king as the legitimate ruler. He did not consider the Shahi dynasties of the Deccan, especially the Adil and Qutb Shahis, as foreigners and maintained amicable relations with them. He definitely formed the concept of the Deccan being a separate entity from the territories north of the Vindhya ranges and also conceived of it being a single entity, not divided into different kingdoms. From this belief developed the Maratha concept of a pan-Indian kingdom.

Bijapur – The Metropolis of the Deccan

From mid-16th century, when the Adil Shahi dynasty made it their capital, Bijapur became a prominent city in India. It gradually became a celebrated centre of culture, trade, commerce, education and learning. At its zenith, Bijapur was the epicentre of a confluence of different communities, religions and races. In some records, Bijapur is depicted as surpassing the grandeur of Delhi and Agra, the great cities of the Mughal Empire.

Even before the Adil Shahis adopted Bijapur as their capital, the town was the Khilji governor’s seat. The Bahamani Prime Minster, Mahmud Gawan created a separate province with Bijapur as the capital and also had his own property in the city. A number of mausoleums and other edifices were built in Bijapur during the Bahamani rule. Thus Bijapur was already a fairly large and important town even before the Adil Shahi dynasty took it over and made it their capital. Since the battlefield victories of the Adil Shahis, especially the victory over the Vijayanagar kingdom, brought in enormous wealth, the kings spend lavishly in the beautification of the capital. Three consecutive kings—Ali, Ibrahim, and Muhammad Adil Shahs—created many monuments, palaces and other structures in the city. The rule of these three monarchs, lasting almost a century (approximately 1560 to 1650 or so) could well be considered the golden age of Bijapur.

The Adil Shahis were secular in their outlook and liberal in their patronage of art and education. Therefore, Bijapur attracted scholars, poets, painters, dancers, Sufi saints and other men of art and literature from all parts of the world, belonging to all races and religions. In the 17th century, Bijapur was known by the epithet ‘Palmyra of the Deccan’. At the absolute height of its glory, the population of Bijapur is supposed to have been in excess of 980,000, a huge number for the times. Around 1604-05, the Mughal Emperor Akbar despatched a noble from his court, Mirza Asad Beg, to carry out a diplomatic mission in Bijapur. Asad Beg had seen both Agra and Delhi in their greatness and wrote an account of Bijapur in his travelogue, Wakiat-e-Asad Beg. The description of Bijapur compares it favourably with the two cities of the Mughal Empire. His graphic description of the city gives an authentic account of the prosperity and richness of this flourishing city.

On Education and Learning

Bijapur had been a centre of learning in South India, much before the advent of Muslim rule in the Deccan. This is confirmed by the bi-lingual, Marathi-Sanskrit, inscriptions that are visible under the Persian epigraph in the Karimuddin mosque (16th century vintage) in the city of Bijapur. It is reported that Karim ud-Din was the Khilji governor of Bijapur and found the educational and learning effort in the city to be at par with the efforts seen at Benares in North India. Hence he named Bijapur the ‘Benares of the South’. During the Bahamani rule, Bijapur continued its academic excellence.

One of the most learned Sufi master of India, Ain ud-Din Junnaidi who authored more than 120 books, lived in Bijapur from 1371 until his death in 1390. His disciples and other Sufis continued to keep the master’s work and traditions alive in Bijapur for a long time. The academic excellence that emanated from Bijapur was such that it was considered the ‘Second Baghdad’ in the output of scholarly works and activities, especially in the Islamic world. Most of the kings of the Adil Shahi dynasty were men of learning, being well-versed in religion, logic, grammar and the sciences. They also patronised teachers and scholars, encouraging and facilitating discussion and debate amongst them.

Bijapur boasted a Royal Library under the control of one Sesh Waman Pandit who had more than 60 calligraphers, gilders of books and illuminators working permanently under his supervision. Further, a noted scholar Shah Zayn Muqbil is reputed to have owned more than eight hundred manuscripts of which he had himself authored three hundred. As a result of royal patronage, a large amount of literature in Arabic, Persian and Deccani Urdu had been written during the Adil Shahi rule. In addition, local languages like Marathi, Kannada and Sanskrit also flourished. In fact Kannada was the official language in the southern part of the Bijapur kingdom with all official transactions being done in this language.


The Adil Shahis could be considered to have been the leading house amongst the five Deccan Shahi kingdoms for most of their existence. This is a dubious honour since they were also the instigators of rivalries and conflicts, although the kings of the regime cannot truthfully be added to the list of perennial trouble makers for all neighbours who allied with other kingdoms and changed sides without any scruples. To the contrary, some of the Adil Shahi kings were steadfast in their loyalty to their allies.

It is to the credit of the Adil Shahis, that they were instrumental in creating a composite and secular culture in Bijapur. Being immigrants from Iran, the Adil Shahis brought the culture and traditions of the Middle-East to Bijapur. After gaining power, they insisted on following the customs, rituals and court culture of Persia, thereby influencing the ceremonies, etiquette, art and even architectural developments of the Bijapur kingdom. Gradually this led to a synthesis of this foreign ‘culture’ with local sensibilities that in turn was heavily influenced by the majority Hindu culture. The splendour of Bijapur at the zenith of its glory demonstrates this secular mindset of the Adil Shahi dynasty.

© [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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