Indian History Part 68 The Qutb Shahis of Golconda Section I: A Kingdom is established

Canberra, 3 November 2018

In medieval times, the tribe of Qara Quyunla held sway over some territory that was spread between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Timur defeated the tribe during his devastating conquest of Central Asia and the Quyunla were forced to flee to Egypt. On Timur’s death and the subsequent disintegration of his empire, the tribe returned and re-founded the kingdom, establishing its capital at Tabriz. However, the tribe was riven with internal dissensions as opposing groups vied with each other for the position of chief. More importantly, the tribe was not overtly warlike, instead being content to lead a life of comparative peace. Very soon after their return from exile in Egypt, the Quyunla was defeated by a rival tribe and the leadership put to the sword. Of the chieftain’s family, only one branch headed by Pir Quli was spared, mainly because the Pir and his immediate family were peace-loving and did not claim any patrimony for the leadership of the tribe. Pir Quli had a grandson called Sultan Quli. Here the term Sultan was used purely as a proper name and did not indicate any positional title or royal dignity that flowed from it.

Since Sultan Quli was a descendent of the ruling elite of a Turkman tribe, from an early age he was instructed in the many arts that was considered required learning for a future ruler. He was also taught theology to a very high standard. Even though Pir Quli had willingly surrendered his patrimony on the tribe being defeated, when a new chief succeeded to the throne, the conquering tribe resorted to renewed persecution of the Quyunla. Fearing for his son’s life, Sultan Quli’s father send him to India under the protection of his brother and Sultan’s uncle, Allah Quli, to seek his fortune. The uncle-nephew Quli team came to India as traders in horses, but also brought with them rich and valuable presents as well as money to ease their way and gain favour when necessary.

Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk

Early Days in the Deccan

Although the Quli duo came to India through the land route in the north-west, they did not tarry long in North India, where the Lodis were ruling from Delhi. They proceeded south and reached the Deccan. These were the fading days of the Bahmani kingdom and they were reasonably well-received in the capital Bidar, ensured no doubt with the help of the ‘presents’ that would have passed hands. The balkanisation of the Bahmani kingdom was already underway and it was not difficult for a foreign aristocrat to find gainful employment in the court. Sultan Quli rose gradually in the service of the Bahmanis—the rise in status being a gradual process rather than a spectacular one. Sometime during this period, the Bahmani king conferred the title Khawas Khan on Sultan Quli and also granted him the jagir of Kurangal, in small holding in today’s Mahbubnagar district.

A Romantic Twist

In some of the narratives regarding the rise of Sultan Quli, a romantic twist has been given. In these accounts, Sultan Quli is mentioned as a slave of the Bahmani king, an inherently wrong assumption. The story continues that since he was well-versed in mathematics, Sultan Quli was a favourite with the ladies of the harem who entrusted him with keeping accounts and looking after their personal financial matters. At this time, The Bahmani dynasty was faltering and the kingdom was in turmoil. It was definitely on a downward spiral with law and order deteriorating on a daily basis. Dacoity and highway robbery had become commonplace occurrences and a direct rebellion was brewing in Telangana. The king therefore decided to send a military contingent to put down the nascent rebellion.

Sultan Quli was at this time romantically involved with one of the ladies of the royal household. Through her influence in the court, Sultan managed to get appointed as the commander of the military forces being dispatched to Telangana. The campaign was successfully completed and brought Sultan Quli accolades from the Bahmani king, accompanied by royal favour and the title of Khawas Khan.

This account cannot be corroborated with any reputed source and therefore must be dismissed as embellishments in a later day account, after Sultan Quli had become more powerful and an independent ruler. Even so, the narrative is not completely improbable and there could be some grain of truth in it.

In December 1487, the Bahmani king was ambushed by some rebel Deccani nobles and Sultan Quli is mentioned by name in all accounts as being personally responsible for saving the king’s life. Two facts become apparent from this mention of Sultan Quli. First, it becomes obvious that he was not any longer a non-entity or a hanger-on in the Bahmani court, but a noble with sufficient individual stature and recognition to have been mentioned individually. Second, he had risen in the hierarchy of nobles to a position to have been moving around within the small entourage that accompanied the king on his personal outings. In effect, he had become part of the inner circle of courtiers. It is obvious that a grateful king bestowed further favours on the brave noble who had saved his life.

Governor of Telangana

The Bahmani kingdom was fast descending into chaos. The governor of Goa and the provinces of the Konkan coast, Bahadur Gilani, grabbed this opportunity and revolted, declaring independence. Sultan Quli led a contingent of soldiers and was effective in putting down the rebellion. The king bestowed the title Qutb-ul-Mulk on him. Sultan Quli, continued the campaign in Goa even after the revolt was controlled and went on to defeat Bahadur Gilani who was killed in battle in November 1494. Even though the nominal Bahmani king was a virtual prisoner in Bidar and the kingdom was controlled by Qasim Barid, the king made Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk, the governor of Telangana and also granted the Golconda fort to him as his personal jagir.

At this time the entire Deccan Plateau was in the grip of a continuous wave of intrigue that led to regular skirmishes between the emerging successor kingdoms to the Bahmani Empire. Further, these newly forming entities were harried by the strong and powerful Vijayanagar Empire to the further south. The Vijayanagar king, Immadi Narasimha, was a minor and therefore the kingdom was ruled by an able minister Naraya Nayak. The weakness of the Bahmani kingdom and the on-going disunity of the emerging rulers provided the impetus for Vijayanagar to take over the Raichur Doab, a territory that had always been a point of contention between the two kingdoms. However, Yusuf Adil Shah, ruling Bijapur, recaptured the Doab. The Raichur Doab, between the Rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra, continued to change hands regularly. While the control of the Raichur Doab was being keenly contested, Qutb-ul-Mulk managed to free the Bahmani king from Qasim Barid’s control.

It is an interesting fact that even though the Bahmani kingdom, and more importantly the king, did not wield any power over the various provinces of the Deccan, Qutb-ul-Mulk continued to be loyal to the Bahmani throne. The Bahmani king ruled only in name and other governors had declared independence and forged new dynasties, but Sultan Quli did not declare independence. The Qutb-ul-Mulk was a completely autonomous ruler of Telangana but even after the death of the last Bahmani king, he did not declare independence or assume the title of ‘Shah’ indicating the establishment of a new kingdom and dynasty.

Qutb-ul-Mulk’s professed loyalty to the Bahmani king stands out as an aberration in the annals of the Deccan. It must be surmised, that Sultan Quli, now Qutb-ul-Mulk, was under-confident regarding his ability to chart an independent course and become a ‘king’ in his own right. This assessment is corroborated by the fact that even when the powerful Vijayanagar king, Krishnadeva Raya, conquered and annexed Telangana territories, Qutb-ul-Mulk did not take any action to either resist invasion or recapture the lost provinces. Krishnadeva Raya went on to capture Warangal and his conquering march reached as far north as Cuttack. Prataparudra, ruling in Warangal, was forced to sign a treaty that ceded Andhra country to the south of River Krishna to Vijayanagar. Qutb-ul-Mulk, ‘governing’ from Golconda did not take any action against the invaders.

The Telangana Campaigns

On the death of Krishnadeva Raya, a number of Vijayanagar’s vassal states rebelled and even declared independence. However, Qutb-ul-Mulk did not act in haste and bided his time. He waited till 1532, when the Vijayanagar kingdom was further weakened by internal strife before advancing to the eastern regions to recapture lost territory. Abundant caution and a certain amount of timidity were the watchwords for Qutb-ul-Mulk. However, the hesitation to take offensive action is belied by his tactical excellence and personal bravery in battle. If anything, Qutb-ul-Mulk was a complex person.

Before embarking on a recapturing march, Qutb-ul-Mulk strengthened the Golconda fort, once again an act of immense caution. He then captured the fort at Devarkonda. This annexation was contested by Achyuta Raya, now ruling Vijayanagar, who took umbrage to Qutb-ul-Mulk’s actions. The Vijayanagar and Golconda armies met for battle at Panagal. Achyuta Raya was defeated although he commanded a numerically larger force. Qutb-ul-Mulk proved to be a superior tactician and a master at the employment of reserves during the battle, accurately judging the timing to throw them into battle in order to swiftly change the tide of the fighting. He kept a large and manoeuvrable force of cavalry in reserve and brought them into battle at decisive points and critical times during the battle. The intervention of the reserves at critical junctures almost always turned the tide of the battle in his favour. However, the employment of this tactic needed astute observation of the battle and the inherent ability to make the decision to commit the reserves at the right time and place. Qutb-ul-Mulk repeatedly displayed these astute battlefield capabilities.

The Golconda forces went on to annex a number of other forts. Qutb-ul-Mulk differed from other chiefs, governors and rulers in the Deccan in his treatment of defeated opponents. He almost always showed clemency, permitting the defeated opponents to depart with their personal property and at times even letting them continue to rule as vassals. This behaviour is in sharp contrast to the norms of the day when the defeated chief or king was invariably beheaded or at least imprisoned after being blinded. The origin of this sensibility in Qutb-ul-Mulk’s behaviour pattern is difficult to unearth and must be considered a personality quirk. The annexations made Golconda to have common borders with Bijapur and Vijayanagar.

Next, Qutb-ul-Mulk defeated the Berar army and occupied Haft Tappa and then came up against Shitab Khan then in control of Warangal and surrounding areas as an autonomous chieftain. Shitab Khan was defeated and fled to join forces with Ramachandra ruling an Orissa kingdom from Kondapalli, his territory flowing to the north and east. (This Ramachandra is not to be confused with the Ramachandra ruling Vijayanagar.) Qutb-ul-Mulk once again found himself in familiar circumstances, facing a large army with a small but well-led and better organised force. The Golconda forces prevailed against the combined Ramachandra-Shitab army and a peace treaty was enacted with Ramachandra, accepting the River Godavari as the border between the two kingdoms.

While Qutb-ul-Mulk was busy in the north-east of his territories, Vijayanagar forces under their king Achyuta Raya, invaded Golconda territory and occupied the areas near Kondavidu. Qutb-ul-Mulk retaliated almost immediately and was victorious against the Vijayanagar army. He then occupied the doab of the Rivers Godavari and Krishna as far as Ellore and Rajamundri. The Vijayanagar forces attempted to recapture lost territory, bur were once again defeated on the banks of the River Godavari. Throughout the Telangana campaign, Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk made tactically astute moves that made his forces victorious in all battles, prevailing over numerically superior forces. He also personally led the forces from the front on the battlefield, although by this time he was a septuagenarian.

Taking advantage of the incessant fighting that continued between the Bahmani Successor States in the Deccan, Achyuta Raya joined forces with Ismail Adil Shah of Bijapur and incited him to lay siege to the fort at Kovilkonda, a Golconda possession. The relentless and persistent quarrels, leading to bitter enmities between the three major Shahi kingdoms in the Deccan kept them divided and without sufficient strength to deter external invasions. This inherent disunity was the fundamental reason for their subsequent downfall, when they were unable to withstand the inexorable attacks from the north that started to blow into the Deccan. The Vijayanagar-Bijapur combine was not able to capture Kovilkonda and had to withdraw, Qutb-ul-Mulk being victorious by not having been defeated. During this skirmish, Ali Barid controlling Bidar, had assisted the Bijapur Adil Shahis and therefore Qutb-ul-Mulk now laid siege to the Barid stronghold in Bidar. However, the Golconda forces were unable to bring the siege to a successful conclusion and Qutb-ul-Mulk agreed to a treaty of peace that favoured him. Around this time Raja Harichand, a proclaimed vassal of Golconda exploited Qutb-ul-Mulk’s preoccupation and declared independence in Nalgonda. The rebellion was expeditiously put down.

Qutb-ul-Mulk’s Death

After the campaign against Bidar, Qutb-ul-Mulk managed a relatively peaceful rule for about nine years, during which period he attempted to bring about some administrative reforms to the ‘kingdom’. However, any changes that were made were minor in nature and one is left with the feeling that Qutb-ul-Mulk was a tired man wanting to rest and enjoy the fruits of his long labour of over fifty years. He wanted nothing but a tranquil dusk to his tumultuous life. However, this was not to be.

Mystery surrounds his death and there are many narratives regarding his last days. However, there are some irrefutable facts that can be listed—he ruled the de facto kingdom for 24 years; he was fairly old, probably in his early 80s at the time of his passing; and he did not die of natural causes, but was murdered. The accounts of his murder also vary between sources. One states that he was murdered by a slave on the orders of his son Jamshid and the other that Jamshid himself beheaded his father. The place where the dastardly act is supposed to have taken place also varies in different accounts—from a mosque during afternoon prayers to the palace garden where Qutb-ul-Mulk was relaxing.

Prince Jamshid had been imprisoned earlier by Qutb-ul-Mulk for some misdeeds and was considered an impetuous, violent and harsh person. Qutb-ul-Mulk’s eldest son and preferred heir apparent, Haidar Khan, had been killed in battle earlier. Jamshid was suspected of conspiring against his other elder brother Qutb ud-Din who had been elevated to crown prince by Qutb-ul-Mulk, which has been quoted as the reason for his earlier imprisonment. Considering the circumstances it is difficult to assign a reason for Jamshid’s desire to murder his father, especially since Qutb-ul-Mulk was already old and would not have lived for more than a few years more. Even in those times when degeneration of the succession struggle into murder, blinding and imprisonment of adversaries was accepted as normal, patricide still carried a stigma that was difficult to shake off. Therefore, only his impetuous nature points a finger at him; Jamshid’s complicity in his father’s murder cannot be confirmed with assurance.

Qutb-ul-Mulk died (was murdered) in September 1543, leaving behind a large territory for his successor to rule.

Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk – An Assessment

Qutb-ul-Mulk was the contemporary of perhaps the most powerful of the Deccan rulers from each dynasty in the region. During the time that he was carving out a kingdom and establishing a kingdom, Orissa was ruled by king Purushottam; the great Krishnadeva Raya ruled in Vijayanagar; and Burhan Nizam Shah reigned in Ahmadnagar. For a first time appointed and relatively minor governor to hold his own against these established rulers was a singularly great achievement. Further, Qutb-ul-Mulk proved to be an astute opportunist and managed to expand his borders eastwards till he reached the Bay of Bengal.

Qutb-ul-Mulk was a military genius at the operational level and a person who understood diplomacy and statesmanship as well as, if not better than, most of his contemporaries. It is noteworthy, that before he undertook any military campaign and before going into battle itself, Qutb-ul-Mulk provided a considered and definitive offer to the adversary to avoid actual combat. In doing so, he did not consider the religion of the opposing ruler, the peace offer being extended to both Muslim and Hindu alike. Throughout his career Qutb-ul-Mulk preferred to settle disputes through negotiations and other peaceful means, resorting to military action only as a last resort when it became inevitable. In medieval times and anywhere in the world, this was a novel approach to securing the kingdom. Across the world, recourse to the sword to put right any wrong, actual or perceived, and to ensure the prosperity of one’s own kingdom, was a natural and normal action of ruling chiefs, princes and kings. Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk once again proved the complexity of his personal character by his considered actions prior to going to war.

The other noteworthy feature of Qutb-ul-Mulk’s character is that he treated the defeated adversary with compassion and forgiveness, at times even re-instating the defeated ruler as a vassal. He took a measured approach to the command of the army, personally leading them into battle even when he was in his late 70s. He was an avid student of military tactics, repeatedly besting his opponents in battle after battle, most of the time fighting numerically superior forces. This statistic provides an insight into the fact that Qutb-ul-Mulk must have been blessed with a great power of perception regarding understanding the adversary commander’s intent at the beginning of the battle and being able to revise it as the battle progressed.

Religion was not an important cornerstone for Qutb-ul-Mulk, unlike a number of his contemporaries. Born in Central Asia, he was a Shia, but was loyal to the Sunni Bahmanis till his death. The official religion of Golconda was declared as being Shia only because by early to mid-1500s, Iran had come under the rule of a Shia monarch, Shah Ismail Safawi.

Qutb-ul-Mulk established a kingdom in the Deccan that would endure for slightly more than two centuries. He was first and foremost a tactical military leader and a shrewd strategist, more than anything else. He could not be counted as an accomplished ruler, even though he brought a large part of Andhra country under one rule, consolidating disparate regions and territories. There is some amount of uncertainty whether or not Qutb-ul-Mulk declared independence. All available information point to his not having declared independence, unlike the other three Shahi kings of the Deccan. At least formally, and nominally, he continued to profess his allegiance to the Bahmani king, who was himself a prisoner in his own capital. In fact, historians are still divided regarding the timing of the actual declaration of independence by the Adil and Nizam Shahis, the other two greater dynasties of the Deccan. The debate regarding the independence of the successor kingdoms continues to be contentious.

Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk outlived the last Bahmani king by at least five years, but did not declare independence even then, nor did he assume royal stature and regalia. The reason for this reluctance to declare his independence and to assume royal stature is unfathomable. Even lesser persons with smaller holdings and hardly any achievements to their credit attempted to become ‘king’ in the confusion that emanated from the decline and fall of the Bahmani dynasty. Only his inherent timidity outside the battlefield, perhaps inherited from his grandfather Pir Quli, can account for the decision not to crown himself king. Qutb-ul-Mulk died and is buried not as a king, but as the senior-most nobleman of the territory, denoted by the title ‘Bare Malik’; as Qutb-ul-Mulk, and not Qutb Shah as was the case with every other ruler from the dynasty that he founded.

© [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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