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A Social History of the Deccan, 1300–1761
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Book description

In this fascinating account of one of the least known parts of South Asia, Eaton recounts the history of the Deccan plateau in southern India from the fourteenth century to the rise of European colonialism. He does so, vividly, through the lives of eight Indians who lived at different times during this period, and who each represented something particular about the Deccan. In the first chapter, for example, the author describes the demise of the regional kingdom through the life of a maharaja. In the second, a Sufi sheikh illustrates Muslim piety and state authority. Other characters include a merchant, a general, a slave, a poet, a bandit and a female pawnbroker. Their stories are woven together into a rich narrative tapestry, which illumines the most important social processes of the Deccan across four centuries. This is a much-needed book by the most highly regarded scholar in the field.


‘Richard Eaton has again magisterially pushed back the boundaries of history writing on pre-colonial South Asia. Eight Indian Lives, inspired in part by Vermeer's `finely crafted portraits with their distinctive play of light' (p. 2) follows the fortunes of eight key figures in the history of the Deccan, moving seamlessly from meticulously constructed accounts of their lives to the political, linguistic and physical landscapes they inhabited.’

Samira Sheikh Source: Indian Economic and Social History Review

‘Eaton elegantly vindicates his decision to chronicle social history through the lives of extraordinary people.’

Michael Neale Source: Asian Affairs

‘In Social History of the Deccan Eaton demonstrates once more that he is a great master of locale and epoch. Through the use of eight individuals’ lives from the 14th to the 18th centuries, Eaton magnificently articulates the main social, political, religious and economic issues of the time. He has an uncanny sense of why a development arises when it does, where it does and what its great importance is. Here he returns to the Deccan, where he had his first great insights into the function of Sufism and its relation to politics.’

Eugene F. Irschick - University of California, Berkeley

‘This book is a masterful achievement, as Richard Eaton focuses each chapter on the social history of Deccan on a single person, using that person's life to develop his themes and illustrate the times. His well-chosen subjects range widely; my favorite is the Maratha heroine Tarabai, who is brought vividly to life and demonstrates not only her own power but the dominance of Chitpavan Brahmans in the expanding Maratha empire, still Indo-Muslim in culture in the 18th century. Full biographies were seldom possible, given the sources for his time period, but Eaton's strategy succeeds in making the social history of the Deccan accessible and exciting.’

Karen Leonard - Anthropology, University of California, Irvine

'In this account of one of the least-known parts of South Asia, Eaton recounts the history of the Deccan plateau in southern India from the 14th century to the rise of European colonialism.'

Source: The Times Higher Education Supplement

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  • 1 - Pratapa Rudra (R. 1289–1323): the demise of the regional kingdom
    pp 9-32
  • View abstract


    The story of Pratapa Rudra, the last sovereign of the Kakatiya dynasty in the eastern Deccan, forms the larger story of the extension of this axis from Delhi to the Deccan plateau. Pratapa Rudra's new title and new clothes, given him as he solemnly bowed toward Delhi from atop his citadel's ramparts. Both were only two of many elements in this semantic transfer, as ever more quarters of the plateau would become ideologically integrated into the still larger world of Perso-Islamic civilization. The dynamic of a moving economic and social frontier is reflected in the different kinds of temples patronized in the Kakatiya period. Pratapa Rudra's capital, Warangal, is largely bypassed by the main communication arteries of modern India. The collapse of Pratapa Rudra's kingdom was only one in a series of upheavals that shook the Deccan at that time. It is true that for several decades after 1309, Pratapa Rudra was a tributary king in the Tughluq imperial system.
  • 2 - Muhammad Gisu Daraz (1321–1422): Muslim piety and state authority
    pp 33-58
  • View abstract


    In 1325 Ulugh Khan was crowned Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, ruler of a vast empire that under his reign would become India's largest until the British Raj. Two years later, in a bold move that brought about a major shift in the Delhi Sultanate's geo-political center, the new sovereign declared Daulatabad, though located some 600 miles south of Delhi, the co-capital of his sprawling domain. In 1400, in Gujarat, Gisu Daraz resolved to return to his childhood home of Daulatabad and pay respects at the tomb of his father, Saiyid Yusuf. In the northern Deccan, Sultan 'Ala al-Din Hasan Bahman Shah, soon after throwing off Tughluq authority in 1347, shifted the Bahmani capital from Daulatabad to the ancient fort-city of Gulbarga. It is against the backdrop of the complex relationship between Bahmani sultans and shaikhs, exhibiting both mutual attraction and mutual repulsion, narrative of Gisu Daraz is reviewed.
  • 3 - Mahmud Gawan (1411–1481): Deccanis and Westerners
    pp 59-77
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    Sometime in 1453, the same year that the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople carried Persian civilization to the frontiers of Europe, a high-born Iranian merchant named Mahmud Gawan stepped onto India's western shores. From the docks of Dabhol, Gawan oversaw the off-loading of the consignments he had brought with him from Iran to India. Gawan joined the stream of other Westerners who for decades had been migrating to the Deccan and had taken up service in Bidar, the Bahmani capital. Notwithstanding Bidar's cultural enrichment owing to the court's patronage of Westerners like Mahmud Gawan, that enrichment came at a heavy cost. Gawan's protracted expedition, which lasted from 1469 to 1472, thus aimed at subduing both the hill-forts and the sea forts from which local chieftains had been harassing strategic trade routes. Focused on its glittering Royal Chamber and Hall of Public Audience, Bidar in the fifteenth century came close to becoming what Delhi had long been, an imperial center.
  • 4 - Rama Raya (1484–1565): élite mobility in a Persianized world
    pp 78-104
  • View abstract


    Rama Raya appears in recorded history in 1512, when Sultan Quli Qutb al-Mulk enrolled this Telugu warrior as a military commander and holder of a land assignment in the newly emerged sultanate of Golkonda. By the early sixteenth century, royal patrons at Vijayanagara were building the monumental temples that have become today, in the popular imagination, iconic images of the state. In 1515 armies of Bijapur, one of Sultan Quli's rivals to the west and another Bahmani successor-state, invaded the districts under Rama Raya's charge. The view of Vijayanagara as the victim of Islamic aggression, and therefore of Talikota as some sort of titanic 'clash of civilizations', is informed by a highly reductionist view of the presumed essential character of both Vijayanagara and the northern sultanates. Most of the political culture of both Vijayanagara and its northern neighbors was Persian, whether elements of that culture had originated in Iran itself or had been transmitted through Iran en route to India.
  • 5 - Malik Ambar (1548–1626): the rise and fall of military slavery
    pp 105-128
  • View abstract


    An Ethiopian slave known to history as 'Malik Ambar' was already seventeen years old in 1565, the year of the Battle of Talikota. Born in 1548, Chapu as a youth had fallen into the hands of slave dealers operating between the Ethiopian highlands and the coasts of eastern Africa. Clearly, Indian textiles were reaching the Ethiopian highlands in exchange for Ethiopian exports, which included gold and ivory in addition to slaves. Although military slavery is often identified as an 'Islamic' institution, it never occurred throughout the Muslim world. Habshi ex-slaves generally allied themselves both culturally and politically with the Deccani class. The emergence of a distinct Deccani regional identity, already visible in the mid-fourteenth century as both cause and consequence of the Bahmanis' successful revolution against north Indian Tughluq rule, gained force in the sixteenth century. It was during the tumultuous period 1595-1600 that the Ethiopian slave born as 'Chapu', and later renowned as 'Malik Ambar', rose to prominence.
  • 6 - Tukaram (1608–1649): non-brahmin religious movements
    pp 129-154
  • View abstract


    Tukaram was born into a merchant family of modest wealth and social importance. He spent increasing amounts of time in prayer and devotion before the small shrine dedicated to Vithoba in his village of Dehu, chanting and singing the songs that earlier poets had composed in praise of the deity. The Indrayani River, which for thirteen days had claimed Tukaram's manuscripts, is one of several tributaries of the Bhima, the middle of three major river systems that flow in an east-south easterly direction across the upper Deccan plateau. Although a diachronic movement from tribal to pastoral to agrarian societies is found in many parts of South Asia, pastoralists of the Desh have played an especially prominent role in shaping Marathi society and culture. The courts of the Deccan did patronize the production of vernacular literature, though in varying degrees as one moves from west to east across the plateau.
  • 7 - Papadu (fl. 1695–1710): social banditry in Mughal Telangana
    pp 155-176
  • View abstract


    Captured and executed by Mughal authorities in 1710 as a highwayman and bandit, Papadu would become celebrated in local memory as a hero who boldly defied imperial authority, indeed, most any authority. When the Bahmani sultanate broke up into five regional kingdoms in the early sixteenth century, the kingdom whose borders most closely coincided with those of a pre-Bahmani state was the easternmost, the Qutb Shahi sultanate of Golkonda. By 1589, the Qutb Shahi house felt sufficiently secure in its position that Ibrahim's successor, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, planned and laid out a new, unwalled city, Hyderabad, which was built across the Musi River just several miles from Golkonda fort. The story of Papadu's exploits raises a number of questions about the meteoric career of this Telangana toddy-tapper and the society in which he lived. In his comparative studies of peasant rebellions, historian Eric Hobsbawm formulated the notion of the 'social bandit'.
  • 8 - Tarabai (1675–1761): the rise of Brahmins in politics
    pp 177-202
  • View abstract


    Between 1700 and 1710, just when Papadu was most active in Telangana, a powerful anti-Mughal resistance movement convulsed the Marathi-speaking western Deccan. The movement was led by Tarabai, one of the most remarkable women in Indian history. Born in 1675, just several months after Shivaji Bhosle had launched the new Maratha state, Tarabai was married to Shivaji's second son, Rajaram. Let us for a moment leave Tarabai in Panhala's prison, step back, and consider some of the broader trends taking place in Maharashtrian society during her lifetime, especially between 1714 and 1748 when she was in confinement. Tarabai's career divides into three distinct periods. In the first, comprising the twenty years between her flight to Jinji and her imprisonment in Panhala. The second period of Tarabai's career encompassed thirty-four years when, being either imprisoned or confined, she simply disappeared from public view. In the third period, she emerged for thirteen more years in the public spotlight as a powerful dowager.
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