The Deccan is a large plateau, about 200,000 square miles in size, straddling the central part of southern India. It is over 2,000 feet above sea level on average and is bounded by mountain ranges on three sides: the Western and Eastern Ghats on either side, and the Vindhya range to the north. The name “Deccan” is an anglicization of the Sanskrit word dakshin meaning south. The Deccan’s early history is not well-known, but low rainfall must have made it hard to inhabit until humans developed rudimentary irrigation techniques. Since about the 4th century BCE, though, it has been fought over by many lowland rulers in India for its abundance of mineral resources.
Till recently I’ve been generally oblivious of the Deccan and its role in Indian history. Somewhere between the story of Prithivraj Chauhan (1177 CE) and the First Battle of Panipat (1526 CE), my formal history curriculum in school took a huge leap from late 14th century Delhi to tales of the 17th Century Mughal Empire. Between Muhammad Bin Tughlak’s push towards Daulatabad and the British taking over all of India, vast swathes of Indian history between the 14th and 17th century set in the Deccan were completely absent from my formal education. You’d have thought nothing significant happened south of the Narmada between the time Alauddin Khilji hankered after Padmini of Chittor and the British took on Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan. Of course I might have merely slept through it. Neelakanta Sastri with his History of South India filled this gap — though it did not make it to my high school curriculum.
Later historians, notably Romila Thapar and recently Salma Ahmed Farooqui, have covered Deccan History from the 12th to 18th centuries nicely. The challenge in reading history is that it could easily become a mind-numbing series of who blinded, deposed, imprisoned, or married whom, with names, places and dates running into one another. Making history both accessible and a ripping good tale is a tall order in general. Doing it in a way that allows readers to make sense of all the available facts while informing them of the many contrasting views is neither easy nor common, certainly in India.
Richard Eaton’s A Social History Of The Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives does a great job of this difficult task. First and foremost, it tells a good tale, with eight historical figures in the foreground and history narrated around their – at times sparse – personal stories. The methodology of telling a historical figure’s story – or social history – around which the events of history flow, makes it easier to follow, as well as want to stay with it. The nitpickers among us can always argue whether these were the best eight characters to pick – others may wonder if the author was being politically correct in picking an Andhra warrior (or two), a Sufi saint, an Ethiopian slave, an Iranian nobleman, a Maratha queen and a non-brahmin saint – almost one for every demographic. Yet this choice of characters itself says more about the melting pot that was the Deccan of the 14th-17th century than all the other books we’ve read.
While history is often written by the victors, social history of the kind Eaton and others have pursued reveals history to be far more textured and nuanced. For instance, the common view, when we’ve actually read any history of the Deccan, that the “Hindu kingdom” of Vijayanagar was the bulwark against the onslaught of Islam, quickly falls apart. The influence of Persia and Central Asia on the Deccan, the role that trade and politics (even more than religion) played in shaping history, and how deeply embedded in history are the linguistic roots of South Indian society — these were all eye-opening, and challenged so many assumptions for me. I not only read it in one sitting the first time I borrowed it, but bought myself a copy and re-read it afterwards.