Indian History Part 69 The Deccan Shahis – Other Aspects Section II: The Cultural Front

Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand 6 January 2019

The Deccan Shahi kings were generally great patrons of art and literature and some of the kings were poets and litterateurs of some repute. This patronage was particularly demonstrated in Golconda under the Qutb Shahis who assiduously cultivated the arts.


Medieval Deccan saw the development of a hybrid language, much like Urdu in North India, which was named Dakhani. The development of the Dakhani language started with the Bahmanis. It became an independently spoken and literary language during the period of rule by the successor dynasties—the Deccan Shahis. Dakhani sourced its repertoire of words from Arabic-Persian, Marathi, Kannada and Telugu, in later years being referred to as Dakhani Urdu in order to distinguish it from the more widespread and prevalent North Indian Urdu. The enormous patronage of Dakhini provided by the Qutb Shahi kings encouraged learned persons from overseas to come to Golconda with some of them settling their permanently if they found sufficient support from the royal house. In a climate of royal patronage for literature, with a number of languages burgeoning simultaneously and competing for patronage, it was not surprising that a hybrid language would develop and then flourish. Through the Qutb Shahi rule, Dakhani rapidly matured into a literary language of merit.

The kingdom of Golconda also actively supported the development of Telugu language and literature. Ibrahim Qutb Shah, who had lived in the Vijayanagar court for seven years of self-imposed exile, spoke the language and is reported to have been passionate about it. He also married an Andhra woman named Bhagirati. On becoming the Golconda king, Ibrahim invited a number of Telugu poets to his court and also appointed a Telugu poet laureate, Gangadhara Kavi, for the kingdom. Ibrahim, in turn, was also given a Telugu title by the poets—Malkibharam. The Qutb Shahi reign made an enormous contribution to the development of Telugu, gradually bringing it up to the same level as Persian and Dakhini or proto-Urdu as it is sometimes referred.

Dance – The Kuchipudi Story

The Deccan Shahis, particularly the Qutb Shahis, extended their patronage to almost all aspects of cultural endeavours and development. Of particular note in this respect is Abul Hasan Qutb Shah’s grant, in perpetuity, of a village to the Brahmin troupe performing a dance form that came to be called Kuchipudi—named so since it originated in and centred on a small town called Kuchipudi, situated between Vijayawada and Masulipatam. This grant was of enormous import since the support it provided to the impoverished troupe was the only reason for the continued presence of the Kuchipudi dance form in the Indian classical dance repertoire. The origin, development and refinement of the Kuchipudi dance-drama tradition is an interesting story. The earliest mention of the Kuchipudi dance-drama is seen in the records of a village called Machupalli on the Coromandal coast.

The Origins of Kuchipudi Dance-Drama

If the prevalent story regarding its origins are to be believed, then without doubt, Kuchipudi as a dance form goes back at least seven centuries. The story goes:

An orphan, Siddappa, who lived sometime between 1350 and 1450, had been married as a child of six months to another child, a tradition that was normal during that period. He lived on one bank of the great river that flowed through the kingdom (probably River Krishna) and his prospective wife’s family on the other bank. When Siddappa came of age, his father-in-law asked him to come and get proper nuptial ceremonies completed. Accordingly, Siddappa set course to his bride’s place. While he was swimming across the river, he was caught up in a storm and he was sure that he would drown. He prayed for survival and vowed that if he was saved he would devote his entire life to the service of Lord Sri Krishna and remain a ‘sanyasi’—a celibate—for the rest of his life. He was miraculously saved from the storm.

On reaching his father-in-law’s house on the other bank, Siddappa was honour bound to remain a sanyasi. However he also had to honour the marriage vows that had been taken on his behalf when he was an infant. As a via media, he and his bride saw themselves as the embodiment of Satyabhama and Sri Krishna and enacted the celestial love between them. Siddappa is credited with having founded the Bhama cult. He went on to compose a large number of songs in praise of Lord Sri Krishna and himself danced to the songs. The ensemble that he founded began to be called Bhama-Kalapam or Parijatam and was the beginning of a distinctive dance form based in and around the village of Kuchipudi in the Telugu country.

Kuchipudi is one of the eleven major Indian classical dance forms and traces its roots to the ancient Indian text Natya Shastra.

The Natya Shastra

The Natya Shastra is an ancient Sanskrit text on performing arts, which is considered to have been written by the sage Bharat Muni. It has been dated to between 200 B.C and 200 A.D, although estimates vary between 500 B.C and 500 A.D. The book influenced all dance, music and literary traditions in India. Its most important contribution is the introduction of the ‘Rasa Theory’ into the Indian performing arts. The Rasa Theory postulates that even though entertainment is a desired outcome of the performing arts, it cannot be and is not the primary goal. The primary goal of performing arts is to transport the audience, individually, to a make-belief reality that in turn makes the individual experience the essence of his/her consciousness, forcing the individual to ask or reflect on spiritual and moral questions.

It is an exhaustive encyclopaedia, a dissertation on the performing arts, which acknowledges the divine origins of the arts and the central role of performing arts in achieving divine goals.

Like most Indian art forms, Kuchipudi also developed in connection with cultural activities that focused on the temple and religious beliefs. The Kuchipudi tradition credits the modernisation of the dance in terms of it being systemised, around the 17th century, to a Vedantic ‘sanyasi’, poet and musician named Tirtha Narayana Yati and his devoted disciple Siddendra Yogi (the Siddappa of the folklore given above). Siddendra Yogi composed the Bhama-Kalapam, also called Parijatam, which is the main or pivotal drama in the entire repertoire of the dance. The composition tells the story of Satyabhama, who considered herself the favourite consort of Lord Sri Krishna and induced him to transplant the heavenly tree Parijatam, of the never-fading flowers, into her private garden. The composition and its enactment in the dance form is exalted in the Bhama cult of Siddendra Yogi—the loving devotion of Lord Sri Krishna realised though the conjugal love of Satyabhama for her lord.

Support of the Raya of Vijayanagar

Records show that a small troupe of Kuchipudi dancers went to Vijayanagar to perform before the king. On their way they were harassed by the ruler of Siddhout, named Sambata Guruvarayu. Having reached Vijayanagar, the troupe introduced this episode into their performance before the king. The Raya—probably Vira Narasinha Raya—was enraged by his vassal’s behaviour in harassing his performers. The Raya is recorded as having summoned the erring vassal king and beheading him for his temerity. This episode would have happened around 1507.

When Vijayanagar fell and the patronage was abruptly cut off, the travelling troupes moved to Tanjavore in search of alternative royal support. Since the Bhama-Kalapam dance was very sensuous in nature, it was not considered proper for women to come on stage and enact the poems, especially the theme of Krishna-Bhama love. Gradually, women were completely excluded from the performance of the Kuchipudi dance form and men and boys enacted the female roles.

The name of the village, Kuchipudi, is probably derived from the word ‘Kusilava’, meaning travelling troupe of artistes, from there to Kusilavapur or Kuchilapuri, the village of the Kusilavas, which subsequently became Kuchipudi in the local language over a period of time. Much like Kathakali, all-night performances were normal in Kuchipudi recitals. Each of the performers were singers, dancers and actors with great emphasis being laid on pantomime or abhinaya. Kuchipudi enjoyed a privileged status and great patronage during the reign of Abdullah Qutb Shah. During this time some changes to the footwork of the dance was introduced which is prevalent even today. Towards the end of the Qutb Shahi rule, the then king Abul Hasan stayed overnight in Kuchipudi accompanied by his prime minister Madana Pandit, where the core troupe put on a show for him. Pleased with the performance, he granted an entire village for the sustenance of the people dedicated to this art form. Thus, it was the last scion of the Qutb Shahi dynasty who ensured the continuation of an age-old dance form that had originated in the Deccan. Without this royal support, it is conceivable that the art form may well have died out and gradually vanished.

Architecture – The Legacy

The architectural legacy left behind by the Deccan Shahi kings is a growing field of study. Although there is a common thread of Indo-Islamic architectural development that can be noticed in the medieval Deccan architecture, the individual elaborations in the style that is unique to the three major Deccan Shahi kingdoms—Bijapur, Ahmadnagar and Golconda—confirm their support for architectural innovation. Running side-by-side with the Mughal initiatives in North India, the Deccan elicits less attention because of the magnificent splendour and spread of the Mughal architecture.

The importance of the Deccan architecture lies not only in appreciating the developments in their own right, but in the strong relationship that the Deccan Shahi kingdoms share with each other, yet manage to remain refreshingly distinct in their final creations. Perhaps more important is the connections, both political and economic, that the Deccan Shahis had with other parts of the world, especially the Middle-East and East Africa, which in turn greatly influenced the architectural developments. These connections, made through the Indian Ocean trade route and thriving ports like Chaul, was denied to the land-locked North Indian kingdoms.

The connections of Indo-Muslim architecture meanders across the developments in architecture through the entire period of the more than three centuries of the Deccan Shahi rule in the Peninsula. The study of the developments in architecture, within the confines of a particular period, also provides a clear indication of the thrust of social development and creates an understanding of the convulsions in society. They also elaborate on the economic process of the period and therefore cannot be ignored when examining the history of the period in question.

While all three of the major Deccan Shahis were attuned to support of architectural endeavour, the Qutb Shahis perhaps displayed a much more acute sense of societal requirements vis-à-vis buildings and architecture. Golconda was already a built-up town and fort when the founder of the dynasty, Qutb-ul-Mulk, took over its governorship. His realisation of the overcrowded nature of the city and attempt to expand it westwards, speaks volumes about his civic awareness. The later construction of Hyderabad as the Qutb Shahi capital flows from this fundamental awareness. Moreover, the Charminar, constructed by the Qutb Shahis, is still considered a masterpiece of architecture across the entire sub-continent. The Deccan Shahis left the region dotted with palaces, both large and small; tombs of kings and noblemen, elaborate and carefully planned; and a large number of mosques that are still seen spread across the landscape of the plateau.


The Deccan Shahis may have individually ‘arrived’ at their role of being kings through historic accidents and without any great personal merit per se. However, they managed to hold on to a majority part of the Deccan Plateau for close to three centuries—through incessant in-fighting, intrigue, betrayal and the ever-present danger of obliteration by the more powerful northern power, the Mughals. Measured by any yardstick, this is not a petty achievement. On the other hand, almost all the Deccan Shahi rulers were uniformly self-centred and a majority were pleasure-loving enough to forsake the kingdom for worldly pleasures. The overall picture that emerges is that of a group of self-indulgent people who had suddenly been given the opportunity to rule over a rich land with a multitude and diverse population. This remains the enduring image of the Deccan Shahis.

Any amount of retelling of history, done by later-day historians for a variety of reasons, cannot and will not erase this hard truth. Even by medieval Indian standards, the Deccan Shahis behaved abominably in pursuing their completely self-absorbed ways. The ‘religious tolerance’ that is at times pointed out as a virtue, especially by historians attempting to provide a ‘cleaner’ picture of the Deccan rulers, was a default attitude because the king could not be bothered to persecute someone, when he could use that time to fulfil some of his baser instincts. Persecutions were left for the nobility and lesser officials to perform and therefore not considered worthy of reportage by contemporary historians. The Deccan Shahi rule has no parallel in Indian history as a period when so much could have been achieved. However, a long list of rulers managed to squander every opportunity which pointed towards bettering the status of the dynasty and the kingdom that came their way. The land was rich and the people generally of a subdued nature—but nothing of importance or significance came of the Deccan Shahi rule, primarily because of the mediocrity of the rulers.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2019]
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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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