The Marathas Prelude: The Indian Sub-continent in the 16th Century – Politics & Religion

Canberra, 26 May 2021

Geographically, the 16th century Indian sub-continent was similar to modern India, with the inclusion of Afghanistan and Baluchistan within its borders. [In this series of books ‘From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History’ that narrate the history of the Indian sub-continent, the countries of Pakistan created in 1947 and Bangladesh created in 1971, are not considered separate geographic or political entities.] The north-west frontier of the sub-continent touched the Hindu Kush Mountain Ranges. It was separated from Central Asia by the impenetrable Himalaya Mountains, which extended from west to east covering the entire northern frontier of the sub-continent. The great Himalayas afforded physical protection for India from direct invasions from Tibet, China and other predatory northern countries. The south, south-west and south-east of the sub-continent were bounded by the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, respectively. The unique combination of these natural geographic frontiers provided protection to the sub-continent, but not immunity from foreign encroachment, as history demonstrates. However, it also permitted the development of its own unique culture and religion, which are in many ways different to the ones developed in other parts of the world.  

The sub-continent can be divided into three distinct regions—the Himalayan region with its foothills, the Gangetic Plains, and the Southern Peninsula. The Himalayan region has a number of picturesque and productive valleys, their remoteness making them almost unconquerable except to the most intrepid of warriors. The Himalayas are also the source of the three great river systems that irrigate the northern sub-continent—the Rivers Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra, which are perennial and inexhaustible sources of water. The Indo-Gangetic Plain is the most fertile region of the sub-continent, ranging from the Himalayan foothills in the north-west to Dacca at the mouth of the River Padma in the Bay of Bengal.

South-east of the vast alluvial plains of the Gangetic Plains lies a large belt of land, the rugged Gondwana region, which separates the Southern Peninsula from the great river plains and is a region which was isolated from the north for a long time. South-west of the plains lies the arid land of Rajasthan or Rajputana bounded on the southern end by the Vindhya and Satpura Mountain ranges, which remained relatively independent because of the peculiar geographic and physical conditions of the land. Rajputana also contained the great Thar Desert, inhospitable like all deserts. South of the Vindhya and Satpura Ranges lay the Deccan Plateau and further south, the fertile lands of the Deep South that finally ends at a cape called Kanyakumari, the confluence of the three seas that bounded the Peninsula. The Deccan remained immune to influence from the great kingdoms of the Gangetic Plains and developed its own civilisation. There were contacts between North India and the Peninsular South, but they were not sufficiently strong or continuous enough to create a common bond or civilisational approach.

Political Condition

By the end of the 16th century, territorially the bulk of the northern sub-continent was under Mughal rule. In 1605, at the time of his death, Akbar’s empire encompassed the whole of the Punjab, Kashmir, Sind, Multan, most of Baluchistan, most of what is today Afghanistan and stretched all the way to the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains in the north-west. In the east, it embraced the entire Bengal to the Sundarbans, while Chittagong (Chatagaon) and Cooch Bihar owed allegiance to the Mughal Emperor. The southern boundary of the Mughal Empire was a line that started at Bassein on the west coast, that followed a meandering path that passed south of Ahmednagar, touched the northern banks of the River Godavari and joined the southern extremity of Orissa in the east coast. Of the 15 Subas (provinces) of the empire only three—Khandesh, Ahmednagar and Berar—were in South India.

South of the Mughal border lay four independent Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan, ruled by the Shahi kings, a generic name used for the dynasties of the Deccan—southern Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golconda and Bidar. To the south of these somewhat smaller kingdoms lay the extensive territory of the great Vijayanagara Empire, although sadly the empire had entered the phase of its decline and extinction. Around this time the Portuguese had also started to claim supremacy over pockets on the west coast, being sovereign masters of Goa, Daman and Diu.

Politically the sub-continent was as stable as it would ever be. Although kingdoms always coveted neighbouring territories, and skirmishes and conflicts were common, the overall picture was one of stability and peace.


To the north-west of the Mughal Empire lay Persia (now Iran), a powerful kingdom which cultivated friendly relations with the Mughals. To the east of Persia lay north and north-west Afghanistan—the kingdom of Bokhara ruled by Abdullah Khan Uzbeg and later by his son, who were both unfriendly to Persia but remained neutral to the Mughal Empire. To the north was the mystical and reclusive kingdom of Tibet, which was always friendly with Indian kingdoms and maintained trade relations. The Mughals and the North Indian kingdoms before them had cultivated trade relations with China and the countries of North-West and Central Asia. To the north-east lay the unconquered kingdom of the Ahoms and further east, the kingdoms of the Arakan and Pegu that now constitute Myanmar. The kingdoms of South India had extensive and highly lucrative maritime trade with the South-East Asian kingdoms, while also engaging in commercial activities with China through sea-borne trade.


Hinduism – Turning to Bhakti

A fundamental, if peculiar, characteristic of Hinduism is that it does not break completely with its original ancient beliefs, practices, and customs. At the same time, it imbibes and absorbs new ideas and forms of worship from time to time as a part of its evolution and rethinking, brought about by close contact with other religions—both foreign and indigenous. New ideas are evaluated and accepted, but they do not fully uproot ancient beliefs and practices, but only modify them. Hinduism, and the culture that emanates from its practice, the Hindu culture, is receptive to all concepts but does not permit its basics to undergo complete transformation. This peculiar, and perhaps unique, trait manifested in the Hindu religion as the worship of many, but complimentary deities. It will be noticed that all Hindu temples have one principal deity in the centre and several subsidiary deities on the side.

While both Buddhism and Jainism were hived off from mainstream Hinduism, the most important movement to originate from within the religion was the Bhakti cult. The Bhakti cult believed that the most effective means of salvation was passionate devotion to God and complete surrender to His will—a sort of distillation of the core teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. The cult became very popular during medieval times. The Hindu belief is that attaining Mukti (salvation)—the ultimate end to human life and the cessation of the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth—is achieved only when the soul is absorbed into that of God. Becoming one with God can be achieved through three different means—Gyan (knowledge), Karma (deeds, observing good ones) and Upasana or Bhakti (single-minded devotion to God).

In the early middle ages, a series of saints from South India emphasised Bhakti as the most important, with some going to the extent of saying that it was the only way to attain Mukti. This emphasis gave the concept of Bhakti prominence and started the Bhakti movement. Although the Bhakti movement can be traced back to the 7th century, its doctrine was clearly enunciated by Jnanadeva—a Marathi saint of the 10th century—who wrote a celebrated book of philosophy and poetry, loosely based on the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita. In its early form Bhakti originated as a counter to the Advaitavad, the philosophy on monism propagated by Adi Shankaracharya. Advaitavad was far too complicated and complex for the easy understanding of the common lay person. The Bhakti doctrine, therefore, was consciously kept simple and easy to practise, although it remained at the higher plane of philosophy. The Bhakti doctrine emphasised love that took into account an individual’s complex personality, including his or her ‘passional and volitional nature’. The most important fact was that the Bhakti movement did away with the need for a Guru, a sublime teacher, for an individual to attain Mukti. It was possible to achieve Mukti only through the direct grace of God.

By the 16th century, the Bhakti movement had reached its later phase, with great saints expounding its doctrine, evolving it further and even creating new schools of thought. Some of them, like the Pushtimarg, the doctrine of Divine Grace, created and popularised by the scholar-saint Vallabhacharya had many adherents. Emperor Akbar was indoctrinated into this philosophy, which in turn facilitated its spread to many parts of the sub-continent. Although not highly popular, the Bhakti movement survives to the present day, functioning within the broad bounds of its original doctrine.

Even a cursory analysis of the history of the Bhakti movement shows that it did not appear suddenly as a prominent religious movement. Bhakti has always been one of the three principles that have been laid down in Hinduism as the means to attain Mukti. Even so, there are two myths being circulated regarding the fundamentals of Hinduism. First is based on an on-going debate today regarding the concept of monotheism. Some modern historians even claim that the concept was borrowed by Hindu philosophers from Islam. This assertion is not true; nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the ages all Hindu philosophers, reformers, and higher thinkers—the intellectual core of ardent Hindu worshippers—have proclaimed the principle of monotheism and recognised the one Supreme Being, behind the countless deities of day-today worship of the common lay person. Therefore, monotheism is not a new concept for the age-old religious practice of Hinduism.

Second is an idea, gradually instated in the public arena as being a fact, that the Muslim rulers in Delhi starting with the early Delhi Sultanate, ‘permitted’ or tolerated the Bhakti movement, which was the real reason for the all-pervasive success of the movement in medieval times as well as its continued existence in modern times. This is also a falsehood that has been carefully perpetuated by vested interests over a period of time. The Bhakti cult had developed into a mass movement in the late-14th and early-15th centuries when the Delhi Sultanate was gasping for breath and well on its way to an inglorious grave. The Bhakti movement did not need anyone’s ‘permission’ for a large number of Hindus to investigate, accept, and practice its doctrine.

The unquestioned fact remains that behind all the reformatory movements and internal doctrinal debate, 16th century Hinduism remained the ‘gold-standard’ for religious tolerance and the inquisitive acceptance of different religious doctrines.

Islam in 16th century India

Islam is a rigid creed, and no change, alteration or adaptation is possible to its fundamental tenets—there is absolutely no flexibility permitted. Anyone who does not blindly believe in, and follow the five fundamentals of Islam, automatically ceases to be a Muslim. From its inception, Islam has been a religion of conquest and forced conversions, and it continued in the same mould when it was brought into the Indian sub-continent in the wake of military invasions. In some of the other lands that it had conquered, Islam had spread with spectacular success—in some cases completely blotting out and destroying local religions, cultures and even languages. In India, the situation was different; faced with an entrenched religion and its own culture, Islam could, at best be considered to have achieved a qualified success.

Hinduism—both the religion and the culture—was not only supremely resilient, but also flexible and versatile in its application. As had been previous practice, in its march into India through the Hindu Kush Mountain Ranges and the Khyber and Bolan Passes, Islam as a religion had depended on the establishment of political power as a prelude to its own spread and progress. In the sub-continent, this process of political power initiating the spread of religion was eventually checked and then brought to a halt. On the other hand, unlike in earlier cases of invasion by a different people into the sub-continent, Islam and its adherents successfully retained its separate identity. It did not succumb to the lure of Hinduism and become subsumed like most earlier religions, races and ethnicities had done. Scrupulously staying separate was partly achieved by the converted ‘Indian’ Muslims consciously identifying with other major Islamic nations of the day, especially Arabia and Egypt, rather than considering themselves ‘Indian’. This inner turmoil, an ethical struggle, regarding the level of Indianness that is acceptable vis-à-vis the religious injunctions has always affected Indian Muslims. From the earliest days of Islam in the sub-continent, the Indian Muslim has struggled to avoid being assimilated by the overwhelming and all-pervasive Hindu religion and culture. To do so, they have always tried to identify with the broader Muslim world and to connect to the ancient Islamic history under the first few Caliphs. Even so, the fact remains—although no noteworthy doctrinal changes were instituted, Islam underwent significant changes in the Indian environment.

Identifying with the Islamic World

All the Delhi Sultans, with perhaps two exceptions, nominally acknowledged or recognised the supremacy of the Caliphate of Baghdad or Cairo. They paid homage to the Caliph and received investiture in return. Even though this practice was a mere formality, it came to an end when the Mughals established their rule over North India after the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. However, the elite of all the Muslim ruling houses retained a foreigner’s attitude, bordering on disdain, towards India, even if they were born in the country. The nobles and the ulema, consciously considering themselves non-Indians, and made concerted attempts to ensure that the common Indian Muslims—meaning recent converts to Islam—did not accept, or bring with them, any Hindu practices or accretions.

Since the Indian Muslims were either first-generation converts or at best, the offspring of converts, they inherited and maintained a Hindu ‘way of life’ and continued to maintain some Hindu beliefs. Attempts by the ulema to make them drop these habits completely were not successful since they were difficult to enforce, and such moves were invariably obstructed by the very ‘Indianness’ of the people. These initiatives of the ulema therefore remained works-in-progress, seldom achieving their ultimate aim. Contemporary observers have recorded that the Indian Muslims were different from their co-religionists in Central Asia, the Middle East and other parts where Islam had made inroads and overshadowed local culture and customs. This ‘otherness’ was further emphasised by the internal divisions in Islam and its adherents. For example, in the Deccan the Persian and Afghan expatriates looked down upon the ‘Deccani Muslims’, local converts and their children, because they were considered tainted by Hinduism and treated as belonging to a lower class because they were ‘Indian’.

Impact of Hinduism

The Indian Muslim in medieval times was a convert, either voluntary or forced, but continued to live among the majority Hindus. Inevitably, the Hindu influence percolated into the Islamic faith as practised by these new converts. Indian Muslims continued to observe many Hindu customs and traditions, like the reluctance to cross the River Indus, essentially holding on to the taboo against travelling abroad, outside the borders of the sub-continent. Similarly, they retained the Hindu notion of caste even after conversion to Islam and the gradation of the society into a pre-determined hierarchy. In the rural areas the newly converted Muslims continued to observe Hindu rites and customs. It was seen that some high-class Muslim converts imitated the distinctly Rajput custom of Jauhar at the eve of a death struggle against an adversary.

Akbar shaved his head, moustache, and beard on the death of his mother, a decidedly Hindu custom that denotes bereavement, which is a practice followed by devout Hindus to this day. As early as the late-13th century, Muslims had, totally contrary to their orthodox beliefs and injunctions, cultivated classical music in India. Even today, people of the Islamic faith make up a sizeable proportion—far in excess of their share of population—of the more famous classical musicians of India. Reverent worship at the tombs of the ‘Pirs’, the Gurus or scholarly teachers, is also a direct take-off from age-old Hindu practices. Akbar’s pilgrimage to Ajmer to pay his respect at the tomb of Moin ud-Din Chishti is a classic example of this custom being followed at the highest level of government. Only a few overlapping customs originating in Hinduism have been mentioned above, there are many more such practices in Indian Islam. All these activities were unacceptable to orthodox Islam and its enforcers, who equated it to ‘kufr’, idolatry and heresy. Many sultans also joined in the effort to ensure that the converts dropped all Hindu customs and did not ‘borrow’ or adopt any such heretical practices. They even instituted punishments, to enforce their decrees, but with varying levels of success.


Even as Islam was getting to be an established religion that was spreading across the Middle-East and Central Asia, a group of enlightened Muslims—adhering strictly to the Sharia—started a movement that propagated a more direct intellectual-cum-emotional communion between an individual and God. This movement that came to be called Sufism, was essentially Islamic in nature, but was influenced by several external inputs. The Mongol invasion of Central Asia in the 13th century made many Sufis to migrate to North India, moving along with their more virulent conquering brethren. In the sub-continent many of them found patronage with the Delhi Sultans and also with the senior nobles. Once established in India, they came under the influence of the Vedantic doctrine of Hinduism and the precepts of Buddhism.

By the 16th century there were 14 prominent Sufi orders in India. They could be divided into two major groups: one that believed in the monistic ideology of Ibn-ul-Arabi (1165–1240), which was greatly influenced by the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism; and the other, inclined towards Islamic orthodoxy and opposed to monism, while adhering strictly to the Sharia. The common ground between the two was their single-minded approach to propagating Islam within a relatively liberal umbrella. The Sufi liberalism was denigrated by the entrenched ulema and there was no love lost between the two. The fallout was that jealousies and conspiracies abounded within the house of Islam.

A Concluding Assessment

Assessed in a broad manner, it could be stated that Islam in India has always been reactive. From the time it arrived on Indian shores, the ulema have been the biggest hinderance to creating a deeper integration between the two religions and to moving the foreign religion into a more Indian mould. In an effort to enforce the ‘otherness’ of their own religion, the ulema have been extremely restraining of the normal Indian Muslim, preventing them from creating any kind of solidarity with non-Muslims. To ensure a fully separate religious identity the ulema have always opposed any move towards tolerance and integration, placing religion ahead of nationalism and patriotism. This unacceptable state of affairs continues to plague modern India—Islamic exclusivity poses insurmountable challenges to creating cohesion within the country.

By the end of the 16th century, the whole of North India and some parts of northern Deccan Plateau were integrated into a whole, politically and economically. Culturally, disparities and differences remained, while religiously the sub-continent was as divided as it had been from the time of the first incursions of Muslim invaders and conversions to Islam. While the common people did not have any political ‘freedom’, compared to the normal level of oppression in medieval times, in the 16th century it was perhaps at its lowest ebb in the sub-continent, in no small measure as a result of Akbar’s tolerant and visionary policies. The common people of the Indian sub-continent were far better off in terms of religious freedom than people in any other contemporary kingdom in the world.

The challenges to the cohesiveness of the sub-continent, brought about through a one-sided religious intolerance, would start to escalate after Akbar’s death, when Islam and the Mughal emperors would start to be consumed by an ambitious and religion-led socio-political ideology. This effort threatened the social solidarity of the kingdom and created a socio-religious cleavage—a cleavage that troubles modern India even today. The dream of a religiously united and integrated India remained interred with Akbar’s bones.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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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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