Indian History Part 67 The Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar Section I: The Founding of a Kingdom

Canberra, 29 July 2018

During one of his frequent wars, Ahmad Shah Bahmani took a Brahmin boy captive and converted him to Islam, renaming him Malik Hussein. The boy proved to be extremely intelligent and endowed with considerable all-round ability. The Sultan had him educated along with his eldest son and heir apparent, Muhammad. Hussein therefore became well-versed in Persian and Arabic. Muhammad became Sultan in 1462 and almost immediately promoted his ‘studying-companion’ to the rank of ‘One-Thousand’, placing him in-charge of a thousand soldiers. Hussein was subsequently made the royal falconer, from which appointment he assumed the surname of Bahri (falcon was called beher in Persian, Arabic and Urdu). Since he was a capable and loyal officer, he was subsequently conferred with the governorship of the Telangana province.

In the internecine conflict between the Phirangi and Deccani nobles that wracked the Bahmani kingdom in its declining years, Hussein played an important part in getting the king to slay Mahmud Gawan on trumped up charges. The killing of Mahmud Gawan by the conspiracy of the Deccani nobles was one of the last nails in the coffin of the Bahmani kingdom, although it may not have been apparent at that time to the perpetrators. Hussein became the Prime Minister after the removal of Mahmud Gawan and started to wield unlimited powers across the kingdom. The Sultan honoured him with the title Nizam-ul-Mulk. Hussein now despatched his son, Malik Ahmad who was a chip of the old block, as capable and intelligent as his father, to the Konkan coast where some minor chiefs were concocting a rebellion.

Malik Ahmad conducted an extremely successful campaign in the Konkan, subduing a number of hill-country chieftains, reducing a number of forts and collecting a great deal of wealth in the bargain. He was able to gain effective control of the entire coastal region. In acknowledgement of this achievement, Hussein appointed Ahmad as the governor of Junair.

Mahmud Gawan’s Warning

Malik Ahmad was married to a princess of the Bahmani dynasty. While totally believable and a number of contemporary chronicles mention this fact, there is no proof available to confirm this fact. Mahmud Gawan had observed the extraordinary ability of Malik Hussein and also seen that Hussein’s son, Malik Ahmad, had grown up to not only be a competent military commander but also an able administrator. Gawan, ever the faithful minister of the Bahmani rulers, had felt that the father-son duo would become a threat to the declining Bahmani dynasty. Further Mahmud Gawan was suspicious of the loyalty of Malik Hussein towards the Bahmani Sultan, knowing that he supported the Deccani faction of the nobles. Therefore, Mahmud Gawan had advised the Sultan to keep the father and son separated at all times. However, Gawan’s murder by the Sultan himself was proof that his advice was obviously not heeded.

After placing his son as the governor, Hussein now felt that he was powerful enough to depose the Bahmani Sultan and claim the throne. Accordingly, around 1486, he rebelled and seized control of Bidar after declaring independence from the Bahmani dynasty. He also asked his son to come to Bidar and join forces to strengthen their position. However, the best laid plans go awry even at the best of times and the country was at best turbulent. The rebellion went awfully wrong. Muhammad Shah, Hussein’s old friend and the nominal Bahmani Sultan, could not countenance his rebellion and had Hussein strangled to death. There were sufficient number of nobles who were willing to commit this act since jealousy of Malik Hussein’s power was rife in the court. In committing the murder, Muhammad was assisted by Pasand Khan, one noble opposed to the meteoric rise of Hussein.

When Hussein was murdered in Bidar, his son Malik Ahmad was half-way through his trip to join his father. On hearing of the assassination, he turned around and retired to his governorship, making camp at the township of Khiber. He assumed the titles of his father and called himself Ahmad Nizam-ul-Mulk Bahri. He established Khiber as the seat of his government and commenced to rule independent of the Bahmani Sultan. Although he started his rule as Ahmad Nizam-ul-Mulk, a few years later he assumed the royal title of Ahmad Nizam Shah. However, his rebellion was not going to be accepted without any action by the Bahmani ruler, although it was already the twilight of the dynasty.

Bidar Retaliates

By this time, Kasim Barid was in control of Bidar as well as the Bahmani Sultan and the broken remnants of the erstwhile kingdom. He knew that Ahmad had to be brought under control if the Bahmani kingdom was not to implode fully. Therefore, he send a large army under the command of Nadir-ul-Human to subdue Ahmad Nizam-ul-Mulk. Ahmad was an able soldier and a brave commander. He adopted the Maratha tactic of conducting guerrilla warfare against the numerically superior adversary to great effect. After whittling down the Bidar army through asymmetric means, Ahmad conclusively defeated them with the commander Human being killed in the battle.

Kasim Barid now send an even larger force under the combined command of 18 Bahmani nobles to destroy Ahmad Nizam-ul-Mulk. The army is reported to have been over 18,000 in strength. Fully aware of the superiority of the invading force, Ahmad eluded the main force and did not fight any pitched battles. Through astute manoeuvring, he managed to arrive at the rear of the main Bidar force with a small force of about 3,000 elite cavalry, attacked and entered Bidar. After entering Bidar, Ahmad displayed his superior tact. First he freed all the relations of his father who had been imprisoned after Hussein was murdered. Thereafter he imprisoned the families of the nobles who were leading the army against him and carried them away as hostages. However, he treated them honourably at all times.

Bidar retaliated by changing the commanders of their forces, removing the 18 nobles and placing Jahangir Khan, the governor of Telangana at the head of the army. Jahangir had a considered and well-deserved reputation as an able commander. Ahmad, outnumbered and aware of Jahangir Khan’s capabilities, retreated to the hills of the Konkan. He moved from Junair to Paithan where he received further reinforcements from his own minister. Jahangir Khan besieged the town. When monsoon broke out, Jahangir let down his guard presuming that Ahmad’s forces would also stand down. Grabbing this opportunity, Ahmad Shah carried out a surprise attack at night on the Bidar forces. He found most of the force to be intoxicated and was able to put a majority, including Jahangir Khan, to the sword. The Bidar army was conclusively defeated and fled in confusion. Ahmad laid out a grand garden and built a palace where this victory was achieved and called it Bagh-i-Nizam. This battle conducted in 1489 itself came to be referred to as the Battle of the Bagh in later days.

After this victory, Ahmad Nizam-ul-Mulk declared complete independence, and on the advice of the Adil Shah of Bijapur, took the title of Shah and assumed other trappings of royalty, including the white umbrella, normally reserved for ruling monarchs. There were some objections from the nobles to Ahmad assuming the white umbrella, which were duly pacified.

The White Umbrella in the Deccan

When Ahmad Shah assumed the white umbrella, signifying his royal status as a king, most of his nobles took exception. Till this time, Ahmad had been content with the title Nizam-ul-Mulk and was considered equal to all of them although he was the leader of the group—a sort of chief among equals. In order to placate this embryonic rebellion, Ahmad explained that he had taken the umbrella to shield himself from the sun and not as a sign of royalty. The nobles reluctantly accepted this explanation with the caveat that they were also permitted to carry white umbrellas, as could all subjects of his territory. Ahmad, having adopted the title of Shah, had no choice but to accept this condition.

From this time forward, in Ahmad Shah’s kingdom, the king and the beggar carried the same umbrella. In order to recognise the king, a red cloth was attached to his umbrella, while all others carried purely white umbrellas. Gradually the custom spread across all the kingdoms of the Deccan. This custom, smacking of egalitarianism, was completely contrary to the custom of the Mughals where only the emperor was permitted to carry any kind of umbrella. [The Indian concept of ‘Chatrapati’, the ruler under whose umbrella the kingdom prospered, may have been the origin of the concept of carrying an ornate umbrella amongst the kings of the sub-continent. This term indicated the security, peace and stability that was prevalent under the virtual umbrella of the ruling king, indicating the spread of his control.]

With the declaration of independence by Ahmad Nizam Shah and the unsuccessful attempts by Kasim Barid, now the de facto ruler of Bidar, to bring him under control, the dismemberment of the Bahmani kingdom was complete. Different parts of the kingdom were held by powerful nobles, who were busy consolidating their positions. Out of this chaos emerged five independent kingdoms—generically referred to as the Shahi kingdoms—that are being discussed in this narrative. The five rulers believed that by establishing independent kingdoms they would bring about peace and prosperity to the Deccan and contain the debilitating situation that prevailed towards the end of the Bahmani rule. However, this belief turned out to be a pipe dream. For the next two centuries, these five kingdoms were constantly at war with one another, forming and breaking alliances against each other, at times for nothing other than pure jealousy. Two centuries of contests for supremacy and inability to cooperate against external aggression drove all of them in the path to oblivion.

Although two centuries could be considered a relatively small period in the broad spectrum of Indian history that spread across millennia, the Shahi kingdoms of the Deccan left behind a clearly noticeable legacy that influenced the religious development of the Peninsula. Further, they also had a long-lasting influence on the literary, art and architectural development of the region.

Complex Intrigues

Ahmad Shah was an enlightened ruler and did away with the concept of ruling through tyranny and oppression. He brought in values of justice and equality into hid domain, which in turn added to the loyalty of the nobles and thereby strengthened the fledgling kingdom. In addition, he reorganised the army on new lines. Since the strength of a country in medieval times was founded on the strength and efficacy of its army, this initiative also contributed directly to enhancing the status and stability of the new kingdom.

At the time of Ahmad Shah creating his new kingdom, Daulatabad was under the possession of two brothers, Maliks Wojah and Ashraf. They had formerly been in the service of Mahmud Gawan and later been given independent charge of the township by Malik Hussein. They were efficient administrators and in firm control of the town. Malik Wojah was married to Ahmad Shah’s sister. When a son was borne to Wojah, Ashraf felt vulnerable fearing that he would be dispossessed of his position as co-ruler. He therefore murdered both his brother and nephew. At this act, Ahmad Shah’s sister Bibi Zainab, sought her brother’s assistance in bringing the perpetrator of her husband’s murder to justice.

Ahmad Shah assembled his army and advanced towards Daulatabad. During the march, he provided assistance to Kasim Barid who was besieged in Bidar by Yusuf Adil Shah. Ahmad intervened and lifted the siege, although the Adil Shahi king had earlier been a mentor to him. The fundamental policy of all the Deccan Muslim kings was to ensure a balance of power that was palatable to all. Therefore, whenever one king or the alliance of two or more started to display a proclivity towards becoming more powerful than the others, instinctively the others joined forces to bring them down. While this attitude may have ensured that each kingdom maintained some semblance of sovereignty, it also ensured that each kingdom individually remained weak and open to intervention by external forces. This lack of unity was the Achilles’ heel that finally brought down the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan. The result of this informal policy was that the five main kingdoms made, broke and then reformed alliances of convenience, which lasted only to deal with a particular emergent situation. These alliances could be summed up as the ultimate expression of selfish motivation and lasted for the entire duration of the existence of the five Shahi kingdoms.

Having raised the siege of Bidar, pushing back the Adil Shahi forces and restoring Kasim Barid, Ahmad Shah proceeded towards Daulatabad, the city of his original intent. However, the fort proved far too strong to be subdued by direct assault, even by the superior Nizam Shahi forces. Ahmad Shah then resorted to surrounding the fort and prepared for a long drawn siege. Even the siege was initially not effective and Ahmad Shah started to enforce a scorched earth policy by laying waste the farmland around the fort at harvest time in order to deny the besieged population recourse to food and other resources. Further, he started to build a town near to Daulatabad, at a village called Bhingar, to act as the headquarters that controlled the siege activities. This was the township that stood near the River Sina, between Juna and Daultabad, which Ahmad Shah named after himself – Ahmadabad. The construction of the new town was completed rapidly in two years.

The siege of Daulatabad continued for seven years and the fort was only taken by Ahmad Shah around 1500, after the death of the indomitable Malik Ashraf. From that date onwards, Daulatabad remained in the possession of the Nizam Shahi kings, till such times as the extinction of the dynasty.

Other Minor Actions in a Complex Scenario

In 1495, the Bahmani governor of Telangana, Qutb-ul-Mulk Deccani died. The Bahmani Sultan took advantage of this unforeseen vacancy in the ruling hierarchy to attempt once again to re-establish some vestige of power for the dynasty and appointed Dastur Dinar as the governor. After a few months, Dastur was asked to vacate the position in favour of Qutb-ul-Mulk Hamdani, who was appointed as a reward for loyal service to the Bahmani kingdom. This unprovoked dismissal greatly offended Dastur Dinar, who was obviously rankled. He decided to rebel and seek autonomy by not handing over the province to the newly appointed governor. He also requested Ahmad Shah for assistance in maintaining his autonomy. Accordingly, Ahmad Shah send a contingent under one of his generals to Telangana. The forces of Dastur and the Nizam Shahi contingent together managed to capture some amount of territory to add to the existing holding.

The Bahmani Sultan, now at the end of his own resources, sought Yusuf Adil Shah’s assistance to suppress the rebellion and bring Dastur to heel. In response to the request, Yusuf Shah send a large army to Telangana. In the ensuing Battle at Mahendri, the combined Nizam Shahi-Dastur army was comprehensively defeated; Dastur himself was captured, produced before the Bahmani Sultan, and condemned to be beheaded. However, he was later pardoned, reinstated and his old jagir restored. The reinstatement was not liked by Yusuf Adil Shah who had coveted Dastur Dinar’s jagir and had hoped to annex it as ‘payment’ for the assistance delivered to the Bahmani Sultan. He therefore attacked the hapless Dastur, who fled to the protection of Ahmad Shah. Unable to come to a compromise and not individually powerful enough to defeat the other in battle, the Adil and Nizam Shahi kings appealed to the Bahmani Sultan to settle the dispute. This shows that even when the Bahmani kingdom was in a fairly powerless state, the Sultan held sufficient moral power for the breakaway kingdoms to appeal to him for arbitration regarding disputes between them. The Sultan ordered Yusuf Adil Shah to desist from proceeding against Dastur Dinar, an order that was reluctantly obeyed. Thereby the crisis was resolved.

The pursuit of self-interests was vividly demonstrated by the dealings between the Adil Shahis of Bijapur and the Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar. Ahmad Shah acted as a check against the growing power and stature of Yusuf Adil Shah. Yusuf Shah on his part was always attempting to annex the truncated parts of the floundering Bahmani kingdom, looking out to increase his territorial holdings. Ahmad Shah was shrewd enough to join the Adil Shah in this pursuit of partitioning the remnants of the decaying Bahmani kingdom. This opportunistic act had a dual purpose. First, it paved the way to ensuring that his own territorial holdings continued to increase; and second, that Yusuf Shah was not only monitored, but also kept under check. Such duplicitous behaviour was common amongst the successor kingdoms in the Deccan.

The League against Bijapur

In 1504, Yusuf Adil Shah proclaimed Shia Islam as the official religion of his kingdom. This declaration was followed by a certain amount of confusion within the Adil Shahi kingdom. More importantly, the proclamation was considered heretical by the other Muslim kingdom, who continued to adhere to Sunni Islam tenets. Ali Barid, controlling Bidar the erstwhile Bahmani capital and also ruling the remnants of the Bahmani kingdom on behalf of the puppet Sultan, took the initiative and created a League to oppose the ‘heretic’ Yusuf Shah. The League consisted of all the other Sunni kingdoms of the Deccan.

The League initiated action with Ali Barid capturing some territory from Bijapur around Gangawati and with Ahmad Nizam Shah demanding that Yusuf Shah surrender certain territory that the Nizam Shahi claimed as their own. Yusuf Shah retaliated by recapturing the territories from Ali Barid and ‘respectfully’ declining Ahmad Shah’s demand. The refusal of Ahmad Shah’s demand led to the Nizam Shahi forces, by some reports with as many as 10,000 cavalry, invading Bijapur territory. Once again Yusuf Adil Shah responded by overrunning Ahmadnagar territory and laying waste the countryside. Subsequently the Adil Shahi forces entered Berar, where the ruling Imad Shahi king Ala ud-Din joined them. Yusuf Shah thus re-established his primacy in the Deccan. At this turn of events Ahmad Nizam Shah prudently withdrew from the League and returned to his capital.

Other Setbacks

Ahmad Shah was ambitious and considered the actions against Bijapur to have damaged his standing and stature as an independent king. In fact, the fiasco of the League against Bijapur annoyed him. He was keen to reclaim and even enhance his prestige. An opportunity arose when there was a succession struggle in the minor kingdom of Khandesh and one of the claimants to the throne, took refuge in Ahmadnagar. Ahmad Shah decided to attack Khandesh and ensure that the claimant he supported was placed on the throne.

Khandesh

Khandesh was a small principality situated in the valley of the River Tapti. It was bounded on the north by the Vindhya and Satpura Ranges, in the south by the Deccan Plateau, west by Gujarat and in the east by Berar. It was part of the Tughluq Empire at the height of its territorial spread and thereafter continued as a feudatory of the Delhi Sultanate, but as a semi-autonomous territory. At some stage during this existence in a somewhat vague status, it had become embroiled in a conflict with Gujarat. However, peace had been established, which led to stability and relative prosperity.

Khandesh was now ruled by Daud Khan. The Nizam Shahi forces encountered not only the forces of Daud Khan, but an army that had been buttressed by the forces of Malwa. The combined army of Khandesh and Malwa, put Ahmad Nizam Shah’s forces to flight. Once again Ahmad Shah had to be content with a withdrawal to his capital without achieving his objective.

On the death of Daud Khan, succession struggle re-erupted in Khandesh. Ahmad Shah decided once again to intervene in the domestic affairs of Khandesh to support his protégé. However this time, he had cobbled an alliance with Ala ud-Din Imad Shah of Berar and together they proclaimed the Nizam Shahi proxy as the king of Khandesh. Ahmad Shah entered Khandesh and placed his proxy on the throne. However, Ahmad Shah had not contented with another claimant to the throne supported by the Sultan of Gujarat, Muhammad Shah. The Gujarat Sultan advanced into Khandesh and Ahmad Shah returned to his kingdom, leaving a small contingent as a token protection force for his proxy on the throne. Muhammad Shah easily removed this person from the throne and placed his own protégé as the ruler. Thereafter he returned to Gujarat, not having faced any serious opposition during this campaign. Before returning to his own kingdom, Muhammad Shah chastised Ahmad Shah in public, humiliating him by calling him the son of a slave, who should never have attempted to become a king. Ahmad Shah had no recourse to counter this humiliation and re-establish his credibility.

Ahmad Shah’s final days as king were despondent. In 1508, his trusted minister and valiant general, Nasir-ul-Mulk Gujarati, died, leaving the king with no loyal and reliable advisor. Gujarati had been the mainstay for the kingdom’s administration while the king pursued his ambitious activities. His death put an end to Ahmad’s ambition and his restless quest for glory, recognition and stature. Ahmad Nizam Shah never recovered from the sudden demise of his wise, faithful and trustworthy minister. He died in 1509-10, leaving behind a seven-year old son to succeed him. Before his death, Ahmad Shah made all the nobles take an oath of allegiance to the child-king.

Ahmad Shah’s Personality

Ahmad Shah had a well-deserved reputation for being a person with great ability. His father had ensured that he received a comprehensive and excellent education. As a minor, he was devoted to literary and cultural pursuits and as a teenager he had become proficient in the art of warfare. As a result, Ahmad Shah was renowned for being highly virtuous and for practising enormous self-control. Stories of the greatness of his virtues and his exemplary character abound in accounts by contemporary writers. He was generous and forgiving to a fault, encouraging less capable officers to strive harder to achieve better results, rather than meting out punishment for incompetence. This trait made the nobles devoted to him, assuring complete loyalty.

The Introduction of Duelling

Ahmad Shah was upset by the endless feuds that his nobles brought to him for arbitration and settlement. He therefore introduced the concept of duelling to settle differences between nobles, which were brought to his notice. The idea was for the contending persons to enter into a duel, with the first to inflict a wound on the opponent being declared the winner. The entire process was very tightly regulated, with Ahmad Shah himself monitoring the activities. Further, blood feuds emanating from duelling deaths were prohibited to ensure that the nobles did not form adversarial groups.

A strategic analysis of Ahmad Shah’s activities clearly indicate a flaw in his character that led to personal dissatisfaction for the king. All initiatives that he undertook was intended to improve his position as a newly established king. However, he was not a good judge of character and despite his extensive education, he was not adept at understanding the geo-political developments around his kingdom. The combination of these two factors almost always led to all his initiatives developing into setbacks and humiliations. Even the good counsel of his minister, Gujarati, could not hold back the debacles that Ahmad Shah created on his own.

He continually underestimated the power of the Gujarat Sultan and also the influence of the two factions of nobles at home—the Phirangis and the Deccanis—not being able to judge and select the group that he should support fully. The divisions between the nobles always interfered with the progress of any initiative that he wanted to advance. Even though driving ambition made him extremely restless, he was unable to realise any of his dreams, repeatedly being defeated by more powerful kings and/or alliances in the neighbourhood. His only achievement was to have been able to carve out an independent, but minor, kingdom to the south of Pune, stretching from the west coast of the Peninsula to the borders of the kingdom of Khandesh.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2018]
All Rights Reserved
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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) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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