Indian History Part 69 Deccan Shahis – Other Aspects Sect I: Administration, Military and Foreign Affairs

Singapore, 29 December 2019

The Deccan was ruled for more than three centuries by Muslim kings, starting with the Bahmanis in early to mid-1300s during their highly centralised independent rule and continuing even after the splintering of the Bahmani kingdom into the five successor states—of these, Bijapur, Ahmadnagar and Golconda were the more prominent. Even though Islamic tradition and practice permitted, and at times even encouraged, succession to the leadership position by the most capable contender with the right credentials and if he had sufficient support, like elsewhere in the medieval world the throne had gradually become a hereditary position. In the Deccan this development took only the span of about two generations to become entrenched as being customary.


The details of the administration—the methodology used for actually controlling the kingdom—has not been elaborated in any of the available Bahmani or Deccan Shahi chronicles. However, there are snippets that can be gathered from the historical narrative of the major kingdoms, which can be strung together in a collective fashion to obtain a picture of the administrative ethos of the kingdoms in a generic manner. This effort is made easier by the fact that all the administrative initiatives originated centrally at the king’s court and all the kingdoms followed similar principles in administering their territories. Further, the Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar left behind a large number of petitions from the provincial councils to the king at the royal court that provides an insight into the working of the administrative machine. The picture that emerges is not extraordinary in any manner and broadly adheres to the common practices of the time.

The Deccan Village

As had been the practice even in earlier times, in medieval Deccan also the village formed the basic unit for administration as well as the nucleus of the local economy. The administration was conducted by the village head, in the Deccan normally a Reddy, assisted by an account keeper. The professions that were fundamental to the well-being of the village in terms of the quality of life—such as the washerman, cobbler, blacksmith, potter, barber, carpenter and waterman—were given free land to practice their trade. An interesting fact that emerges, more by omission than direct mention, is that the village priest did not have a distinct role in the administration. A collection of villages was called a Pargana.

A council of learned Brahmins, called the Brahmasabha, arbitrated all religious cases within the village and the Pargana; while the age-old tradition of the Panchayat continued to function to enforce all other local laws and customs. Both the Brahmasabha and the Panchayat were feudal in character and there are no indications of any sort of elections being held for membership to the councils. It is notable that the Muslim kings of the Deccan did not interfere in the personal law of the Hindus, leaving it to the Brahmasabha to pronounce judgement in all cases of dispute. However, the Muslim rulers instituted the system of the Mirasidar tenure for controlling the land, which was very similar to the earlier practice of the Sthalakari tenure. Mirasi was a term derived from the Persian that meant ‘hereditary rights’, and a Mirasidar was a traditional land lord who held the land hereditarily, passing it on to his successor within the same family. In the case of the Deccan, the system was predominated by the Reddys. The Mirasidars formed a deliberative and consultative body to take care of the affairs of the village called Gotsabha, the term presumably derived from the word gotra, meaning family.

Central Administration

The Muslim rulers instituted a new council called the Pargana Majlis alongside the Gotsabha in the villages. These were the only two councils permitted to approach the king’s royal court with petitions. Mahmud Gawan, the great administrator and an extremely religious person, is credited with establishing the Majlis to provide judgement and arbitration to the people in accordance with Islamic Law. The decision of the Majlis, called Mahzar, was normally a sort of recommendation to higher authorities to enact or perform some local action, which was beyond the capacity of the Pargana administration to achieve. The Majlise was an Islamic introduction and was headed by an appointed Qazi or judge. The Majlis and Gotsabha often met in joint sessions to govern the Pargana, indicating the mixed religious composition of the Deccan Parganas.

The chain of administrative unit(s) that connected a Deccan Pargana, at the lower end of the totem pole, to the central administration of the king is not clear, a sort of vacuum exists in the information spread. The Bahmanis had very vaguely defined provinces, called tarafs, for example the Taraf of Telangana. Later the Taraf seems to have been renamed and is seen to be referred to as Wilayat, most likely a term acquired through the increased interaction with the Persian Empire. However, both the terms are absent in the available literature on the Qutb Shahis of Golconda. This situation creates a sort of ambiguity. That the kingdoms of the Deccan were sub-divided into administrative units—provinces and smaller holdings—consisting of several Parganas cannot be doubted, especially considering the available information on the Bahmani administration. The Deccan Shahi kingdoms also must have been sub-divided into ‘provinces’ but there is no information available regarding the exact nature of these divisions, their probable boundaries, and the manner in which they were administered.

In all cases, the king was the pivotal personage in the administrative set-up. He was assisted by an advisory council, normally called Majlis-i-Kingash, consisting of the senior nobles of the kingdom who held positions of power and authority, essentially the ‘wazirs and amirs’. The Majlis assembled when called by the king to settle matters of importance to the kingdom, including foreign affairs. The power of the Majlis waxed and waned dependent on the king’s personality and his inherent hold over the administration—in certain cases the Majlis was strong enough even to decide who would succeed to the throne on the death of an incumbent. In the beginning, the membership of the Majlis was decided by the king who nominated nobles to the council. Gradually the system was altered and the ad-hoc character of the council disappeared with nobles holding designated appointments being automatically inducted. Along with the appointments themselves becoming hereditary, as the administrative system became moribund, the Majlis also became a council whose membership was itself hereditary. In Golconda under the Qutb Shahi dynasty, the council evolved into the Majlis-i-Diwandari, the equivalent of a Privy Council.

There was an accepted hierarchy within the appointments in the court with the Mir Jumla being considered the senior-most appointment, a position that could be equated to the traditional role of the prime minister. In some accounts the Mir Jumla is reported as being the oldest recognised appointment within the Deccan kingdoms, although this assertion could be disputed. The Bahmanis had a position titled the Peshwa which was at times considered to be next to the king himself. In later days, the Peshwa was relegated to being the second in the hierarchy. Even so, there is some confusion regarding the precedence of the Mir Jumla and the Peshwa and it is evident that the relative seniority was determined by the king. It can be accepted that in the hierarchy of the court generally the Mir Jumla was considered the senior-most followed by the Peshwa.

In the medieval Deccan kingdoms and the Peninsula, the religious divide between the Hindus and the Muslims had not yet become clearly apparent, although North India had already been visibly divided on religious lines by the policies of the Mughal emperors who followed Akbar—the last, and perhaps only, secular Mughal monarch. In the Deccan, a partnership between the Hindu and Muslim population existed—a secular approach that transcended social status and percolated upwards from the village all the way to the nobles in court. In most cases, no religious bias to appointments, high or low, can be discerned. In fact the division in the Deccan was between the Phirangi nobles of foreign origin, and the nobles of local extraction, the Deccanis, and not normally on religious grounds between Hindus and Muslims. Even in the Majlis, Hindus were equally represented. However, it is not to be thought that there was no religious persecution or that religious bias was not displayed, especially when wars were fought. The joint campaign that the Deccan Shahis mounted against Vijayanagar, which was instrumental in the eventual destruction of that great kingdom, is a prime example of a religious war. The co-existence of Hindus and Muslims in the Deccan was a product of pragmatism—the Hindu population was far too large to be ‘controlled’ by a minority Muslim population. It was evident to the Muslim ‘conquerors’ that a kingdom could not function without the assistance of the majority population who performed most of the minion roles critical to administering large swaths of territory.

Judicial Administration

The delivery of justice to the common people in the Deccan kingdoms emanated from a highly centralised system, flowing from the king who personally judged cases that were considered important. In theory, no one was considered above the law, a tenet that was practiced by all powerful kings. Also, in theory, all illegality within the kingdom was punished. The king was assisted by the Chief Sadr and the Chief Qazi in judging cases, by actually delivering judgments or by advising the king regarding the law in designated cases. All cases relating to Muslims were decided according to the Sharia, the Muslim religious law, and non-Muslims were judged according to the prevalent secular law, unless a Muslim was involved in the case in which case the Sharia was applied. In the villages, justice was dispensed by the Panchayat. A secular law applied to trade, sale, contract and other matters of a generic nature normally associated with commerce and was made equally Sadr, applicable to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Punishment for misdemeanour was usually very severe in the medieval Deccan kingdoms. Even very ordinary crimes could be punished with the death sentence that was carried out almost immediately after the pronouncement of the judgement and without any appeal. Heavy fines that would bankrupt the offender was another way of punishment. This attitude of extreme punishment was perhaps meant as a deterrent to would-be offenders. The fundamental principle of delivering justice that was followed was oriented towards curtailment of crime through coercive deterrence. No attempt at reformation of the offender is visible in the nearly four centuries of Deccan Shahi rule in the Peninsula.

The source of law was primarily Qur’anic injunctions, interpreted and applied by the Sadr and the Qazi, the severity of the sentence being almost completely dependent on the common sense of the individual delivering the judgement. Muslim law for a long period of time was almost fully the ‘will of the king’ tinged with actual or imagined royal traditions. The Deccan did not have any lawyers until the arrival of the Westerners, particularly the British, in positions of power and influence. Therefore, the roles of the judge, defence and the traditional jury were all carried out by the officials of the court. Litigations were short, judgements delivered concisely, and justice dispensed swiftly.

Organisation of the Military Forces

The Deccan kingdoms were born out of the balkanisation of the Bahmani kingdom that took place because of the revolts of powerful military commanders. It is therefore obvious that the most important and powerful arm of the State was the military forces. Without a strong and viable military force at his command, no king could have considered ruling his kingdom with poise and composure. The common heritage from the Bahmanis and the fact that each of the Deccan kingdoms were carved out by sheer military power also became the root cause for the lack of trust between the successor kingdoms. The mutual distrust resulted in almost uninterrupted border skirmishes and constant wars between the Deccan Shahis, from their inception as independent entities to their final eclipse as the Mughals swallowed them piecemeal. The endless conflict was also the result of mutual jealousy and the imperative that each kingdom felt to keeping the balance of power between them, not permitting any one kingdom to become overwhelmingly powerful. The military forces were obviously the binding glue that maintained the kingdoms as independent holdings.

The Deccan Shahi military forces were spawned by the Bahmani military organisation because the founders of each of the successor dynasties had been successful military commanders of the Bahmani kings. Their success as military leaders had been the fundamental reason for their rising to positions of influence and power.

The Deccan armies were essentially feudal in nature. Initially the Bahmani kingdom had been divided into four provinces, tarafs, under a tarafdar who could be equated to a military governor. He had complete control of the administration and military forces of the province and was given separate jagirs to defray the cost of maintaining the necessary force levels. In return, he was fully responsible to the king for the recruitment, training and maintenance of the military forces in his province. This was a system that had been traditionally followed in the sub-continent for ages and continued to be open to being abused, as was seen in earlier times. The tarafdar could deplete the military forces and use the jagirs to financially benefit himself personally, thereby endangering the broad security of the kingdom or alternatively, he could build up a strong force and become powerful enough to threaten the king himself. The division of the kingdom into provinces under tarafdars left very little direct income for the king to create a centralised force making him vulnerable to the schemes of ambitious nobles. Further, the king’s lack of control of most of the military forces left him exposed to internal rebellions and revolts.

Mahmud Gawan, always loyal to the throne, attempted to reform the civil-military structure in favour of the king, and was murdered for his troubles. The Bahmanis attempted to de-feudalise the army, at a later date and on a smaller scale, but the effort was a case of ‘too little too late’ and could not save the failing and floundering dynasty. The kingdom had already descended into chaos and the more prominent tarafdars had already started to act independent of the central administration and few had even declared independence. History has repeatedly shown that feudal armies function well only when the central authority, the king, is strong and decisive. A weak or faltering king within a feudal military system invariably led to diminishing central control and the gradual but ultimate break-up of the kingdom.

All the Deccan Shahi kingdoms were founded by tarafdars who clearly understood the pitfalls of the feudal military system, after all they had all benefited from the inherent lacuna in the system. Therefore, they were careful to maintain direct control over the army and did not parcel out the military to secondary nobles to maintain and operate. Within a generation, the feudal character of the Deccan armies had been replaced by military forces that were centrally controlled by the king. At this stage, artillery made its appearance and forever changed the deployment tactics of the army. Artillery assumed a central role in military campaigns of the time since most conflicts invariably led to the siege of a fort at their culmination. Artillery was capable of breaking down fort walls that could otherwise withstand a siege of several months and they were useful in breaching battlements. In medieval Deccan, the artillery component was almost always commanded by Turk officers. This could have been because of the technical nature of the equipment and the complexity involved in calculating the azimuth and elevation required for the positioning of the guns to ensure accuracy. Being a new and imported form of warfare, the local soldiers may not have been proficient in this technical element. It can also be speculated that the kings were not comfortable leaving control of this new and powerful arm in the hands of local officers whose loyalty could be open to doubt.

Tactics in Battle

The Marathas introduced the concept of guerrilla warfare and its predatory nature into the Deccan. The basic concept is prevalent even today, in a much refined manner, although the core of the Deccan Shahi armies did not adopt this mode of warfighting. Medieval Deccan battles continued to be fought in the traditional manner with the army divided into three main sections—the main central section and the two flanks. The centre was normally commanded by the king himself and formed the nucleus of the army. When the king personally did not take to the battlefield, he appointed a Sipah-Salar, sort of commander-in-chief to command the forces. However, in the Deccan this appointment has been recorded in the chronicles infrequently, more exception than the rule. The Deccan kings however appointed Sarlashkars, commanders who were selected on an ad-hoc basis to lead a particular campaign, normally expeditionary in nature, so that the king would not have to be away from the capital for long periods.

The most important military appointment was the Quilahdar, the commander of the fort. In an indirect manner this commander decided the rise and fall of a kingdom’s power and prestige, especially when the kingdom was under attack. A beleaguered fort held its own or fell to the enemy depending on the fortitude and expertise of the Quilahdar and the fate of the kingdom often hung on the fate of a single critical fort. In addition there were the Nayakwaris, Hindu chieftains who exercised a great deal of local power, especially since they influenced the majority Hindu population.

The customary Islamic military reliance on horses and cavalry permeated to the Deccan kingdoms also. In pitched battles, the Bahmani and its successor states relied heavily on out-flanking movements and rapid manoeuvres of the cavalry to succeed. It was from this initial use of the cavalry that the Marathas developed the concept of the irregular cavalry, adapting the use of horses to their own peculiar and favoured style of warfare that relied on hit and run tactics. In turn, the guerrilla warfare tactics that became the hallmark of the Maratha forces was developed—an astute combination of rapid cavalry manoeuvre and a stealthy approach to surprise the adversary. The Marathas became masters of the use of light, irregular cavalry in classic guerrilla fashion, throughout the middle-ages.

In analysing the development of battle tactics in medieval Deccan and South India it comes as a surprise to note that the Vijayanagar Empire continued to depend heavily on the traditional elephant corps, which had been the mainstay of the Hindu armies before the advent of the horse and cavalry, even as its neighbours moved on to focusing on the cavalry as the main element of the army. This static approach to battle tactics that should have been evolving is doubly surprising in Vijayanagar since the kingdom was renowned for its progressive approach to all aspects of nation-building, including the organisation of the military and national security strategy. (This aspect of the Vijayanagar Empire will be studied in greater detail in the next volume in this series that analyses the great kingdom.)

From the time of Alexander the Macedon’s victory over the legendary Indian king Porus, elephants have repeatedly proven themselves to be unreliable animals to be taken into battle. Mass in combination with unpredictable behaviour can very rapidly become a liability from being an asset and therefore the risk associated with employing elephants in critical battles must be considered a questionable strategy. The risk increases exponentially when the adversary is an unfamiliar quantity and their tactics unknown, as was the case when the invading forces were reliant on the cavalry and rapid movements to isolate and destroy crucial elements of the defending Indian armies. In the long history of invasions of the Indian sub-continent, the vaunted elephant corps of the Hindu kings played an important and often decisive role in deciding the outcome of critical battles.

Foreign Relations

The Deccan Shahi kings followed the traditions that were established by Mahmud Gawan in dealing with neighbouring kingdoms. However, there was one fundamental difference between the foreign policy initiatives pursued by the Bahmanis and the successor kingdoms. The Bahmanis controlled the entire Deccan and therefore had to deal only with Vijayanagar, Orissa and Malwa since the Mughals had not yet started to covet the Deccan. However, the Deccan Shahis had to initially content with each other and in later days with the Mughal Empire. It was Mahmud Gawan who first realised that the Shahi kingdoms must cooperate with each other in order to keep the northern invaders at bay. He was murdered before his concepts could be put into practice.

In medieval Deccan there was no tradition of permanent envoys being placed in courts of neighbouring kingdoms. Special envoys were send to represent their kings for special occasions such as coronations etc., and their stay in the host country was restricted to the time of the celebration. They did not conduct any diplomatic mission during their visit. Discussions regarding alliances, treaties or peace initiatives were conducted by special representatives and minutes of the discussions were made and mutually accepted. Permanent ambassadors were still not on the horizon.

During times of trouble in a kingdom, nobles of influence and holding high positions in the administration were appointed as special envoys and send out to seek assistance from friendly neighbours. This was a universal practice in medieval Deccan. It was also a universal practice for these envoys to also have personal dealings with the king and/or nobles of the host kingdom that may not have been authorised, and worse, may not have been in the best interest of the envoy’s own kingdom. The duplicitous nature of such diplomatic missions is displayed repeatedly in the dealings between the Deccan Shahi kingdoms.

After the successful combined Deccan Shahi attack on Vijayanagar, the major Shahi kingdoms adopted the practice of keeping an accredited permanent envoy in each other’s courts. They were more like military attachés and doubled as diplomats during times of relative peace. Even so, they were not guaranteed diplomatic immunity by the host kingdom with some even being beheaded for their involvement in local trouble-mongering. The successor kingdoms evolved a process of issuing an ultimatum to the would-be adversary before actually taking to the field and conducting a war. Over a period of time this developed into a tradition that was honoured most of the time. Essentially, the sending of a demand or ultimatum provided an opportunity for the adversarial kingdoms, and also other parties, to negotiate a settlement on mutually agreeable terms without unnecessary bloodshed. It also provided the prospect for a more powerful kingdom to interfere and enforce a peace without the two antagonists going to war, with the accompanying instability and chaos. The Deccan Shahi kingdoms conducted inter-state relations within a broad set of principles that did not have laid down stipulatory rules.

© [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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