Anirudh Kanisetti on Why Understanding Medieval Deccan Is Necessary to Comprehend Modern India

Recent Features

Interviews | Society | South Asia

Anirudh Kanisetti on Why Understanding Medieval Deccan Is Necessary to Comprehend Modern India

“Medieval Indian kings understood the benefits of what we would call openness and tolerance.”

Anirudh Kanisetti on Why Understanding Medieval Deccan Is Necessary to Comprehend Modern India

A Chalukya-style temple at Aihole, Karnataka.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Pankaj Somkuwar22

In his book, “Lords of the Deccan: Southern India from the Chalukyas to the Cholas” (Juggernaut, 2022), Anirudh Kanisetti provides a riveting account of the political rivalries, bloody battles, and economic and cultural achievements of the dynasties that ruled the Deccan region — the plateau of peninsular or southern India — between the 6th and the 12th centuries CE. Contrary to the (mis)perception of the medieval period as an era of darkness, stagnation, and intolerance, Kanisetti describes it as a period of magnificence and innovation. The Deccan kingdoms, he says, wielded influence far beyond Indian shores.

In a conversation with Sudha Ramachandran, The Diplomat’s South Asia editor, Kanisetti said that it is impossible to understand modern India, its polity, economic engagements with the world, and temple-based Hinduism as it is practiced today without understanding what happened in the Deccan during the medieval period. He argued that the Deccan rulers “spread their patronage very strategically among different religious groups,” not so much because they were tolerant but in order to advance the interests of the state. There are lessons that modern India’s rulers can draw from how the Deccan kings governed their kingdoms.

In your book, you observe that in medieval South India, “the lords of the Deccan really made India.” Could you explain?

The way that India is thought about in geopolitical terms today is either by putting too much focus on Delhi and the Northwest or more recently, focusing on the southeast coast and its interactions with Southeast Asia. Missing from all this is what was happening in the Deccan Plateau throughout Indian history and especially during the early medieval period from 600 to 1100 CE, which is the focus of the book, Lords of the Deccan.

The Deccan is India’s dominant geopolitical region. It is really the Deccan that was the epicenter of the Indian subcontinent during the medieval period. It is impossible to understand the later course of Indian history if you don’t understand what was happening in Deccan, including the many important innovations in the field of polity, religion, art, and architecture that happened in this region in medieval times. Medieval Deccan developed forms of polity that allowed the integration of very large areas of land. It innovated in the patronage of Shaivism and Shaivite temples. It played a great role in making Hinduism, especially temple-based Puranic Hinduism, which is very much the dominant religion both in Southern India and of India at large, what it is today.

Additionally, the Deccan also acted as a massive market, a center of gravity in global markets, which attracted goods and innovations, especially from West Asia. So a lot of the connections that India’s west coast built with the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and Iraq happened because of the importance and dominance of medieval Deccan.

Some of these things are recognized in later Indian history, but there isn’t a sense of how these things came to be when we look at India in the early modern period. In order to understand that, to understand how it became what it is, it is crucial that we study the medieval Deccan.

Contrary to the popular understanding of India as “an eternally or unchangingly Hindu country” your book explores the “staggering plurality and contestation that marks medieval Deccan religion.”

Many geopolitical analysts today have pretty much bought into the narrative of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party that India was and is Hindu and that the Mughals [16th to 19th century CE] served as some kind of interruption into what was otherwise an undisputed continuity of Hindu kingdoms following Hindu kingdoms. Some analysts have taken a more nuanced approach. They depict India as a Buddhist-Hindu country, subsequently a Hindu country that was later conquered by “invading Islamic armies.”

Such arguments are far too simplistic as they keep the focus of our understanding of India on courts and how courts thought about religion. In reality, when you look at the countryside or examine diverse sources of evidence we see an India that is marked by an extraordinary profusion and churn of religions and innovations.

When we think of religion today we think of it from the perspective of the European nation-state. We think of countries that have a “civilizational identity” based primarily on religion, language, ethnicity, and certain geographical boundaries. But we have to keep in mind that’s really not how the pre-modern world saw religion. Religion was very much intertwined with the way they saw the world. It was intertwined with ideas of science, society, culture, art, polity, etc. We see this in the medieval Deccan.

In the medieval world, we see striking theological innovations and competitions made by different religious groups to make themselves more useful to royalty, arguably that’s a trend that Indian religions still have today in terms of how they tweak or modify certain aspects of themselves in order to accommodate themselves to political power.

The separation of church and state is something that Eurocentric history takes as inevitable. But that has not happened in the Indian subcontinent, even though the church and state had this close alliance this didn’t necessarily get in the way of politics, of economic interactions. Thus, while the lords of the Deccan were devout Shaivas or Jains, they were able to develop fruitful interactions with Arab merchants. The Deccan polities spread their patronage very strategically among different religious groups in order to advance the interests of the state and of specific dynasties. This is something that adds a lot of nuance to the way we think of power and religion and geopolitics in Medieval India.

If medieval Deccan rulers used religion in politics, how did they also display tolerance and openness?

For tolerance, openness, etc. to emerge, bigotry, intolerance, and exclusivity need to exist in the first place. Religious contestation, religious competition to attract royal patronage and supporters, which often turned quite acrimonious, did exist in the medieval Deccan. We have some suggestions of outright persecution, including the killing of Jains from Tamil kingdoms in the 11th century, for instance.

Rather than tolerance, I would say that it was realpolitik that motivated the openness of kings. The Deccan kings understood very well that the more open they were to religious contestation and to multiple religions spreading, the more options they would have with regard to building alliances with powerful religious institutions. Quite early in the state formation process, when kings needed human capital it behooved them to build Brahmin agraharams (neighborhoods) from which they could pull administrators. They patronized Jain and Shaiva muttas (monasteries) which wielded influence in the countryside when they needed the support of these communities. Similarly, when they were trying to expand global trade, they arranged for Arab merchants to settle down in the coastal areas, bestowing them with titles and privileges, including being allowed to govern themselves according to their own laws.

Now is this merely a question of religious tolerance? Or is it more about a calculated understanding of what would lead to better outcomes for the state? It is up to us to interpret that and there can be multiple interpretations from the modern perspective.

My perspective is that medieval Indian kings understood the benefits of what we would call openness and tolerance, and centuries upon centuries of that decision being taken by India’s rulers and elites is what has led to the staggering diversity that we see today.

Also, for many pre-modern states, it was simply not an option to enforce religious bigotry. It was simply not possible for kings to reach deep into the countryside to determine what villagers were worshipping. Very often local traditions would perforce trickle into orthodox traditions or orthodox traditions would make these accommodations in order to attract more followers. As you can see there is a lot we can understand about modern Indian politics and especially religious politics from the medieval period.

Our traditional understanding of the medieval period is that it was an era of darkness, stagnation, and intolerance. Lords of the Deccan demolishes that perception.

Lords of the Deccan is very much in the tradition of the new wave of scholarship about the medieval world that sees the period not as the “dark ages” they were once called but rather, as an era of profound economic growth, which led to considerable cultural flourishing and laid the foundations for the institutions that became early modern, later on in history.

The single biggest trend that we see in the medieval Deccan is that as states were spreading across swathes of territory in the Indian subcontinent, they were unleashing very powerful forces in terms of how economies were organized, in terms of how tax is collected. These, in turn, impacted how society is organized. It impacted all kinds of politico-economic arrangements, especially the remaking of landscapes to center around temples or royal palaces and forts. And, of course, it led to the emergence of new great centers of urban consumption, which pulled in goods, Indian sciences and innovations from across the medieval world.

So it was not an era of darkness. It was an era of light and innovations, and profound socio-politico-religious change. I would argue that the term “intolerance” absolutely has no place in discussions about medieval India. It was an exciting world that puts a lot about modern India into context.

We often talk as though India’s globalization began in the early 1990s. Your book argues that medieval India was quite globalized.

Claims that India’s globalization is merely 30 years old is based on fairly outdated histories, on the historiography of the 1920s and ’30s. Medieval India’s centers of consumption and connections with the world are a big part of the text of the Lords of the Deccan.

Deccan coins with a pseudo-Arabic script have been found. They were definitely designed for trade with West Asia. Chinese ceramics intended for global export have been found on Indian coasts.

In my book, I have shown in some detail how South and Southeast Asia participated in a cosmopolitan world of Sanskrit literature and the transmission of religious texts and ideas. It was much more than a simple process of Southeast Asia being Indianized. It was really a case of Southeast Asia and South Asia both participating in a globalized world. It is tremendously exciting that in a world that had such limitations in terms of how much travel had to happen physically – travel was a very difficult and laborious process requiring harnessing of wind, construction of fleets of ships and creation of various socio-political arrangements along the coast – globalization happened.

Despite limitations, there was an extraordinary degree of imports and exports, intermingling, consumption, awareness of vast worlds, luxury goods moving across these huge land masses, and of merchandise and monks moving across such vast distances. It is clear that modern globalization is really just an expanded form of ancient dynamic. To understand the concept of India’s sphere of influence or how India interacts with the Indian Ocean periphery, one must understand medieval south India.

Modern India set in motion a “Look East” policy in the 1990s but medieval India had strong relations with Southeast Asia. What was the relationship like?

According to colonial historiography, India had colonies in Southeast Asia at some point. But that is a very simplistic understanding of India’s interaction with Southeast Asia.

Centers in South Asia and Southeast Asia wouldn’t have recognized the very clear ethnic and national differences between themselves that we see between these regions today. They saw themselves as participating in a globalized world on equal terms.

India’s engagement with Southeast Asia in the medieval period was not just early “Look East” policy but a “Look to the World” policy, where these regions understood well the benefits of global trade and interactions. Rather than see the Chola raids into Sri Vijaya in 1025 CE, which I describe in some detail in my book, as an “Indian power” attacking and trying to subjugate or colonize a Southeast Asian power, its best to see them as two Indian Ocean powers clashing and see this as a culmination of many centuries of exchange that was happening.