Indian History Part 68 The Qutb Shahis of Golconda-Hyderabad Section IV Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah

Canberra, 1 December 2018


Ibrahim left behind six surviving sons and was succeeded by his third son, Muhammad Quli. Obviously some palace intrigue took place, as the eldest did not automatically ascend the throne. It is highly likely that Muhammad was elevated to the throne by ambitious nobles since he was pliable and could be manipulated to their will. He was therefore ‘elected’ by the nobles and placed on the throne in 1580 as Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah. There is a report that Muhammad had been chosen by Ibrahim to be his successor, although there is no evidence to support this conjecture. It is highly probable that this report was generated as an embellishment at a later date to improve the legitimacy of Muhammad’s accession.

First Foray

Muhammad inherited the on-going conflict with Bijapur—the Qutb Shahi forces were besieging the fort at Naldurg even as he was being crowned. The commander of the forces in Naldurg, a foreign (phirangi) noble called Mir Shah Mir invited the new king to the frontlines in Naldurg, to bolster the morale of the forces and also to establish his credentials with the army. Muhammad proceeded to Naldurg and while he was there, it became clear that the siege would not be successful. Muhammad was disgusted with this failure and returned to Golconda after removing Mir Shah Mir from command and also exiling him back to Persia.

Mughal Interlude

From the very beginning of their rule, the Qutb Shahi rulers had been in contact with the Mughal rulers in Agra. Qutb-ul-Mulk, the founder of the dynasty, had send envoys to the Mughal court and although a flattering response had been received in return, the Qutb Shahis had kept their own counsel and not accepted any orders or followed any suggestions from Agra. In fact, the Deccan kingdoms had maintained sporadic contact with the Mughals from the time of Babur establishing his rule in North India. By 1579-80 the Mughal incursions into northern Deccan had become regular and frequent. Khandesh had become a vassal state of the Mughals and they had also overrun and annexed Gujarat. It was impossible not to feel the virtual Mughal presence in Golconda.

The die was cast for serious Mughal intervention in the Deccan in 1595, when one party in the Ahmadnagar civil war invited the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s son, Prince Murad, to intervene on their side. It took only a few months for the Mughal forces to invest Ahmadnagar. Both Bijapur and Golconda responded to the Nizam Shahi appeal for assistance by sending strong forces, which joined together at the fort of Naldurg, while the indomitable Chand Sultana was entrenched in the fort at Ahmadnagar. However, the city per se had already fallen to the Mughals. Since the combined Bijapur-Golconda forces were formidable and they occupied some strategic forts which were considered impregnable and were stoutly defended, the Mughal prince thought it prudent to accept a treaty of peace and withdrew to the northern extremity of the Deccan.

This episode should have been a signal lesson for the Deccan Shahi kingdoms on the necessity to remain united, especially since it had been demonstrated that their combined armies could stand up to the might of the Mughal power. However, not surprisingly, considering the inherent character traits of the rulers and their dynasties, the lesson was not heeded. Factional disagreements, mutual distrust and self-centred ambition clouded their individual and collective judgement. The result—Ahmadnagar and the Nizam Shahi dynasty were eliminated after a heroic struggle that was also tainted by internal betrayal.

Ahmadnagar’s final struggle and death throes do not form a direct part of the narrative of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. Muhammad Qutb Shah studiously kept away from the Ahmadnagar war for survival in the face of the final Mughal onslaught. The further story of Malik Ambar’s exploits and attempts to keep the Nizam Shahi dynasty alive is covered in another chapter and is not a direct part of the Qutb Shahi history. However, it is important to note that the Mughals—nemesis of the Deccan Shahis—had physically moved much closer to Golconda.

Military Actions – Political Challenges

The Adil Shahis invaded Golconda territory and were beaten off with the assistance of Murtaza Nizam Shah. The Golconda-Ahmadnagar army conducted guerrilla warfare against the invaders, compelling the Bijapur forces to withdraw to their own territory. However, this three-cornered fight resulted in making the existing matrimonial alliance between Bijapur and Ahmadnagar a more considered relationship—Ali Adil Shah was married to the famous Chand Bibi, who was Murtaza’s aunt.

Muhammad faced a serious rebellion towards the end of his reign. Earlier, he had appointed a noble Ali Khan Lur as the commander of the important fort at Kondavidu in the south. Ali Khan however defected to Vijayanagar and joined the ruling Raya, Venkata II. Subsequently, he broke away from Venkata because of some disagreements and became a free-lancing independent commander with a sizeable force under his command. He captured a number of forts from both Golconda and Vijayanagar territory, but was killed in a battle against Bijapur forces. Even after his death, Ali Khan’s earlier activities continued to create instability in the region.

Muhammad Qutb Shah believed that Venkata II had been instrumental in turning Ali Khan Lur against him and that the Vijayanagar ruler had egged the rebel on against Golconda. He also wanted to recapture the forts that Ali Khan had captured earlier and were now within the territorial control of Vijayanagar. Muhammad himself led the military campaign to the south, which was a great success. Golconda forces recaptured the fort at Musalimadugu, south of the River Krishna, which in turn resulted in a number of chieftains surrendering other forts to the Qutb Shahis. Buoyed by the easy success of this campaign, Muhammad decided to directly attack the truncated Vijayanagar kingdom. The Golconda army marched to the new Vijayanagar capital Penukonda and laid siege to the fort there.

Venkata pretended to be giving in and requested a three-day truce as a prelude to accepting a longer term peace treaty and also in order to prepare for receiving the Golconda king. Muhammad was naively taken-in by what he believed was considerate behaviour and not only agreed to the temporary truce, but also lifted the siege in anticipation of Venkata’s surrender. Venkata used the reprieve to rapidly stock the fort with food and other provision, arms and ammunition, and a large contingent of soldiers—enough to withstand a long siege. Realising that he had been tricked, Muhammad renewed the siege. However, the fort and its defences proved to be formidable and the Golconda forces were unable to break-in. As the monsoons were about to start and the Qutb Shahi forces were south of the River Krishna, Muhammad had to hurriedly lift the siege and withdraw to the north bank, which was Golconda territory before the river flooded and became unfordable. It is reported that the withdrawing Golconda army was repeatedly harassed and defeated in skirmishes by the Vijayanagar forces. The retreat must have been a harrowing experience for the Golconda forces and their king.

On the departure of the Golconda forces, Venkata consolidated his position and recaptured all the lost territory south of the River Krishna with the exception of Kondavidu. Muhammad Qutb Shah lost all his territories south of the river. This debacle was a great blow to Muhammad’s prestige in the Deccan. The Golconda army had proved its mettle in the battlefield, but their king had failed as a diplomat and statesman. Through his leniency, the king had forfeited all the gains that the military campaign had accrued—he had permitted the enemy to become entrenched in their own stronghold.

The disastrous end to a somewhat easy and successful military campaign demonstrates the immaturity, impetuousness and the indecisive soft nature of Muhammad Qutb Shah. These were the same character traits for which the nobles had elected Muhammad to the throne—he was simplistic by nature and pliable since he was straight forward and trusting in his dealings. From this display of characteristics it becomes obvious that the nobles of the kingdom had harboured ulterior motives in selecting Muhammad to ascend the throne. It is apparent that their loyalty to the Qutb Shahi kingdom and concern for its well-being were questionable, at best.

Rebellions in the East

In the early 1590s, three chiefs controlling the south-eastern provinces of the Golconda territories bordering Vijayanagar, jointly rebelled against Qutb Shahi control. No doubt the debacle in the campaign against Venkata II must have been a contributory factor, along with their ambition, for them to have initiated this action. The rebels also requested Venkata for assistance, which was given in the form of a 10,000-strong cavalry force. Muhammad send a force under a seasoned military commander, who put down the rebellion and returned to Golconda. Almost simultaneous to this rebellion, the north-eastern province, southern Orissa, also revolted. This province had been a Qutb Shahi protectorate from the time that Ibrahim Qutb Shah had overrun the region.

Muhammad wanted to lead the counter-campaign into the rebelling provinces, but was dissuaded by the council of nobles from doing so. Perhaps, they feared a repeat of the Vijayanagar campaign if the king himself went out to battle. The Golconda force met the rebels led by Mukundaraj at Rajamundry. The rebel forces were defeated and Mukundaraj fled to Qasimkota pursued by the Qutb Shahi commander, Amin-ul-Mulk. Mukundaraj appealed for help from the chiefs of the region, but no one ventured to assist the rebel. He was then driven out of the region and took refuge in Bijapur.

Around the same time, an imposter declared himself as one of Muhammad’s elder brothers in Bidar and claimed the Golconda throne as legitimately being his. Although no conclusive proof of his involvement is available, since the claimant was resident in Bidar, it is certain that this person was supported by Ali Barid, who was a known destabilising influence in the region. The imposter crowned himself the king of Telangana on the banks of the River Krishna and managed to collect a large army in preparation for a march to Golconda. Qutb Shahi forces under the command of Itibar Khan defeated this large but fledgling army and nothing more is heard about the imposter, who was presumably killed in the battle or beheaded after defeat and capture. This episode was only a prelude to a continuous stream of rebellions, especially in the north-east of the kingdom. Rebellions and revolts erupted routinely and were put down, also in much the same routine manner, by the Qutb Shahi forces. It is obvious that the Golconda forces were better trained and led, as compared to the rag-tag armies that the rebels were able to put together. It is equally obvious that the Qutb Shahi control over their territories was not as strong as it would have been under a strong king. Muhammad was an ineffective ruler.

Last Days

When the rebellions in the east were somewhat contained, Muhammad appointed Muhammad Amin as Mir Jumla on the advice of the council of ministers and other nobles. Amin proved to be an efficient prime minister with a great sense of loyalty and high level of integrity. In a short period of time he managed to stabilise the turbulent kingdom. Around 1590, the capital of the kingdom had been shifted to the newly built city of Hyderabad. (The building of Hyderabad and the shift of the capital is covered in detail later in the chapter.) In 1603-04, Hyderabad was visited by Prince Aghuzlu Sultan as the envoy of Shah Abbas the Great, the Safawi king of Persia. The envoy brought a matrimonial proposal for the Qutb Shahi dynasty, suggesting that Muhammad Qutb Shah’s daughter be married to ‘one of the great Sultan’s sons’. Obviously Muhammad did not take kindly to this vague proposal and had this particular princess married off to a noble while the Persian envoy was still residing in Hyderabad.

Refusing a proposal of matrimonial alliance with the Shah of Persia was not a trivial action. However, it is probable that Muhammad’s decision was obviously influenced by the great distance between the two kingdoms that would in turn have acted as dampener for any action that the Persian king would have wanted to undertake in retaliation for the insulting refusal of his ‘magnanimous’ offer—that too by a minor king ruing a marginal kingdom at the extremity of the greater Islamic world.

The palpable rift between the Deccani and Phirangi nobles was a perennial challenge to the stability of each of the Shahi kingdoms, almost throughout their existence. In fact, the in-fighting between the two groups could be counted as one of the core reasons instrumental for the collapse of the Nizam Shahis in Ahmadnagar. The same challenge raised its head in Golconda during the last days of Muhammad Qutb Shah. Here the confrontation was aggravated by the presence of the Mughals who were in the process of infiltrating the Golconda court in order to weaken the administration. An internal attempt to bring these trouble-makers, from both sides of the equation, to book resulted in few desultory riots in Hyderabad that were quickly put down. The Deccani faction brought out yet another brother of Muhammad and attempted to place him on the throne. Even this rebellion was quickly contained and the brother imprisoned in Golconda.

Even though the minor rebellions were being regularly put down, they did not stop. Further, the Mughals were concentrating on advancing into the Deccan and were being held back only by the valiant efforts of Malik Ambar who was fighting to save the Ahmadnagar kingdom. (Malik Ambar’s efforts have been covered in detail earlier.) The Mughals continued to instigate rebellions in Qutb Shahi territories, all of which were quelled and contained by a strong military commander Changiz Khan. A notable rebellion was that of a Hindu naikwari chieftain in Bastar, which was also efficiently put down. While the rebellions were indeed being contained, their occurrence so regularly indicate a deeper malaise in the kingdom—one of a faltering and inefficient administration, gradually moving towards a final collapse.

In early January 1612, Muhammad Qutb Shah fell ill at the age of 47 and died after a few days, on 11 January. He had ruled for a long 33 years from the age of 14 and died without leaving a son to succeed him. He was followed by his nephew and son-in-law to the Qutb Shahi throne.

Muhammad Qutb Shah’s Personality

There is definitive evidence that Muhammad led a life of ease and luxury. His love and commitment to the ‘good life’, leading a life of sensuality and near-debauchery, has been attributed as the reason for his early demise. This assertion cannot be confirmed as true since there are no medical records available to confirm the actual illness that led to Muhammad’s death after a few days of being sick. However, it is true that he concentrated on his private life and forayed into real-politic and military campaigns only a couple of times during his long rule. He left the administration and security of the kingdom in the hands of capable ministers, without any interference, himself taking no active part. This attitude, which the nobles must have detected in the young 14-year old prince, could have been the fundamental reason for Muhammad being chosen, from a group of six princes, to become the king.

Muhammad was essentially an artist, with all the extreme sensibilities that go with being one. He must be credited with recognising the severe congestion and unhealthy living conditions faced by the common people in Golconda and making the decision to build a more open and larger capital. In creating an outlet for the new capital across the River Musi and laying out the new township Muhammad was intimately involved. He took personal interest in building the capital and was involved in supervising the construction as it progressed. He was also a great patron of literature—both prose and poetry—as well as dance and music. In encouraging literature, he made no differentiation between endeavours in Persian, Telugu or Dakhini, supporting each of them equally. In a time when Persian was considered the more sophisticated language and the local tongue was shunned as being coarse, the king’s patronage to Telugu gave it an impetus to develop into a refined language capable of expressing higher emotions in a sophisticated manner. With the king’s support, uninhibited poetry emanated from the court in all three languages. This body of work has in later, more puritanical, days been attributed to the ‘loose morals’ that is supposed to have prevailed in Muhammad’s court—a not so subtle attribution to the king’s commitment to sensual living.

Muhammad was inherently a gentle and forgiving person, character traits that sit at odds with the normal mean and blood-thirsty characteristics attributed to a medieval monarch. There is no doubt that the king’s mild manner and lack of understanding of the intricacies of court politics and external diplomacy created a great deal of trouble for the kingdom. The domestic rebellions that plagued his entire reign and undermined the strength of the kingdom can be attributed to his lenient nature. Further, almost all the reverses that the Golconda army suffered is believed to have been the result of Muhammad’s immature but humane character and inability to enforce his will. He lacked decisive leadership focused on battlefield victory and to ensuring the stability of the kingdom—at best being vacillating and weak in his decision-making and follow-on actions. Muhammad was lucky that he had a group of nobles loyal to him and the kingdom to clean up after him and run the state as a well-administered entity. Even though he was removed from the daily running of the court and the kingdom, he was astute enough to realise the threat that was posed by the proximity of the Mughals and there interference in the affairs of the Deccan. He therefore insisted on burying the hatchet with Bijapur and initiated a period of peace between the two countries. He also assisted Malik Ambar, to the extent possible without directly confronting the Mughals, when the latter was fighting the Mughal forces.

With all his faults, fads and foibles, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah must be given credit for achieving something that none of the other Shahi kings managed to do with as much success as he did. Although the Qutb Shahi kingdom was at war with the Hindu kingdoms of Vijayanagar and Orissa for the better part of Muhammad’s rule, within the Golconda kingdom there was no animosity between the two religious groups. On the contrary, there was a great deal of cooperation between the two communities in supporting the sovereignty of the kingdom. This completely non-communal approach to alliances was not restricted to the loyal subjects of the king, but also percolated into the formation of rebel groups that tormented the Qutb Shahis on a perpetual basis. The kingdom was almost completely free of religious and communal divisions, other than the perennial rivalry between the local and foreign nobles. The kingdom lived in a visible spirit of harmony. The gentle and tolerant attitude of Muhammad had a great deal to do with the religious harmony that prevailed. This should be considered a singular achievement of this ‘gentle’, if ineffective, monarch.

The Building of Hyderabad

Golconda was always a crowded city, situated at the cross roads on an important trading route that connected the Deccan hinterland with the port of Masulipatam. By the 1570s it had become unmanageably congested and Muhammad decided to expand the capital. His father Ibrahin Qutb Shah had already built a wide bridge over the River Musi that flowed south of Golconda and encouraged the people of the capital to settle on the south bank. In 1578, Muhammad followed up this initiative by deciding to build a new capital across the river. The building of this new capital—named Hyderabad—is covered later in this chapter.

Ibrahim Qutb Shah had experimented with extending the capital, Golconda, towards the west that had been unsuccessful because of the region being arid. However, the flat grounds on the southern banks of the River Musi on which Golconda stood promised to be a favourable region to move to and ease the congestion of the capital. In 1589-90, Muhammad made the decision to construct a new capital in this area. The nucleus was planned on the gridiron system in the form of a giant cross. Already a major road existed that passed west from Golconda, all the way to the port at Masulipatam. This road was intersected by a planned north-south road and the Charminar was built at the point of intersection to become the centre of the new planned city.

The region that was considered for the new capital was however not virgin territory. Archaeologists have unearthed an Iron Age site, dating to about 500 B.C. in the region, and also indications that the place was part of the great Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century B.C. When the Mauryan dynasty fell into decline, the Satavahanas, feudatories of the Mauryas declared independence and also took over their Deccan territories including the Golconda-Hyderabad region. The Satavahanas were based out of Kotilingala in Telangana and controlled the region up to Junnar (near modern day Pune) and Prathisthan (modern Paithan) in Maharashtra. Later the Hyderabad region came under the control of the Ikshvakus who were followers of Mahayana Buddhism. However, throughout the ancient times, no settlement of significance were built in the Golconda-Hyderabad region.

During medieval times, the region changed hands initially to the Chalukyas of Kalyani and then to the Kakatiyas. It was the Kakatiyas who built the fort at Golconda as a part of their western defences, in line with the Kondapalli fort. Successive rulers, particularly Rudramadevi and Prataparudra, strengthened the Golconda fort. Even though Warangal fell to the Tughluq army after a protracted fight, Golconda fort by itself was not taken over and retained a dubious status in terms of control for some time. During this time the fort was controlled by Musunuri Nayaks who had defeated the Tughluq force and controlled the region around Warangal-Golconda. In the 1350s, Golconda was overrun by the Bahmani forces, while it was under the control of Kapaya Nayak. From then on, Golconda increased in importance and became a district headquarters where governors started to reside. It is through this process of being governors that the Qutb Shahis established themselves as the rulers of the region, making Golconda their capital at the break-up of the Bahmani kingdom.

The Charminar as completed in 1592 and consists of four minarets and four arches that face the four cardinal directions, with four roads flowing outwards from the structure. It remains even today one of the grandest structures in India. Hyderabad became the official capital of the Qutb Shahis sometime after the construction of the Charminar. Construction of the royal palace commenced along with that of Charminar and the better part of it was completed around 1610, just before the death of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah.

The Bhagmati Story

The process by which the new capital was named has created no end of controversy, with no universally accepted solution being provided even now. There are a number of stories regarding the naming of the capital.

The most common is the one regarding a courtesan named Bhagmati. It appears that Muhammad Quli was besotted by a courtesan named Bhagmati who became his favourite. He is supposed to have named the new capital Bhagnagar after her. She is supposed to have subsequently converted to Islam and assumed the name Haidar Mahal, upon which the king changed the name of the capital to Haidar-abad. The story of the courtesan is most likely a flight of fantacy for the following reasons. First, not one contemporary chronicle provides even a passing reference to Bhagmati or mentions the king’s infatuation with a famous courtesan. Second, Muhammad has been acknowledged as a well-known and good poet. He has written odes to all his mistresses, numbering 17, and there is not one ode that is dedicated to Bhagmati. This would not have been the case, if he was as taken in by this courtesan as the stories mention. By a process of elimination, the story of the courtesan can be discounted. However, the legend of Bhagmati continues to percolate even today, with no real evidence to support it.

Irrespective of the story of the courtesan and the king, European travellers of the time who visited the city mention the name Bhagnagar. Thevenot (1633-1667), a French traveller in the East who wrote extensively about his travels, visited the capital in 1666 and mentions that, ‘…the capital city is called Bagnagar, while the Persians call it Aidar-Abad’. The explanation seems to be that the name Bhagnagar is an allusion to the fact that the entire city was just ‘one big garden’ and therefore Baghnagar—a city of gardens, which got perverted colloquially to Bhagnagar and subsequently became linked to Bhagmati the courtesan. What is certain is that in the initial formative years after the creation of the city, it was known by two names, of which only Hyderabad remained for posterity.

© [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) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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