The Tangled Knots of History: A Trip Through Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Dargah2The relatively impoverished landscape of Zaheerabad, in rural Telangana in central India, transforms as we approach Humnabad town of northern Karnataka. Lush, verdant pastures straddle each side of the highway, and the pregnant monsoon air animated by a fey, impish wind, forces our brief stop into a leisurely meditation. This pleasing landscape remains a companion till the outskirts of Gulbarga, a prominent regional city. As we navigate the narrow lanes towards our destination, the dust and dirt of the city streets, the shrill horns of motor vehicles, jarringly forestall our approach. It has also begun drizzling faintly.

The “brooding basalt solemnity” of the medieval shrine of the influential Chisti saint Muhammad al-Hussayni Gesu Daraz (d. 1422), which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, stands a mute testament to a mobile, transformative 14th century Deccan. By all accounts, the saint's settlement in the region is a historical event of unmatched significance, linked in no uncertain terms to the broader settlement of Muslims in the region, progression of orthodox Sufism, matters of courts and kings, regional syncretism, not to mention, the curious, inevitable and fascinating birth of the proto-Urdu form, Dakhani. A prolific writer, Gesu Daraz, has an impressive number of literary works to his name (105 by some accounts), several of which are extant, and as KA Nizami informs us, “no other Indo-Muslim Cishti saint” had written that many. Syed Shah Khusro Hussaini, the current sajjada nashin, (‘those who sit on the prayer rug'), the living spiritual heir, ‘blessed descendent' of the famous saint, whom I met later that evening, speaks to me of his hallowed ancestor's love of the local tongue. A medieval mystical work, Miraj al Ashiqin, which he attributes to Gesu Daraz, is believed to have been the first literary work composed in Dakhani, and is dated to 1390 CE. He however, qualifies this by mentioning that the attribution is contentious and has been rigorously challenged by many. Khusro Hussaini has previously written that the saint's works can be generally classified into those that were composed before he came to the Deccan (he resided in Delhi & is believed to have been the chosen replacement to Shaykh Nasir al' Din), and those after his settlement down south. ‘Hindawi' verses (another contemporary proto-Urdu form) Gesu Daraz is believed to have said, writes the sajjada, a reputed scholar of Sufism, “‘ are usually soft, sweet and touching. The tunes are also soft and tender like the couplets, which induce humility and submission…”' However, the saint still asserted the primacy of Persian verse. Hindawi, one can assume, is what Gesu Daraz brought with him from Delhi (Amir Khusro also mentions his occasional propensity to compose in Hindawi) and the region, its flavours and tempers, did their bit. The spoken language (and the many dialects) carried down south by Sufis and soldiers alike mingled in curious ways and eventually, what was but spoken in an unpolished manner began to take sophisticated form. The spoken form began to be written, and eventually appeared in literary texts.


The Sufi settlements of the Deccan from the north took root in the first half of the 14th century, Suleman Siddiqi, historian and former Vice-Chancellor of Osmania University, informs me when I visit him in Hyderabad, prior to my road trip. The story actually begins earlier, around 1300 CE he indicates, before the ‘Daulatabad experiment' when Mohammed bin Tughluq sought to shift his imperial capital from Delhi to Deogiri/Daulatabad in current Maharashtra, north of Gulbarga, in what Richard Eaton describes “as a strategic vision for the imperial domination of the entire subcontinent.” Siddiqi speaks of the first wave of saints, in particular, Shah Muntajab al' Din Zarzari Zar Baksh sent by Shaykh Nizam al' Din Awliya to the Deccan in the company of 700 migrants and 700 palanquins. After Zar Baksh's death, the Delhi Sufi master deputed his brother Shaykh Burhan al' Din Gharib, who was initially reluctant to relocate, but eventually headed southward upon the death of Nizam al' Din, with 1400 followers. In a recent path-breaking work, citing a 17th century scroll which contains extracts of a 14th century manuscript, Siddiqi points to the settlement of saints of the Junaydi order, who travelled down to the Deccan during the same period alongside the Chistis. It was hitherto believed that apart from the prominent Chistis, it was only the Qadari and Naqshbandi Sufis who had made their home in the Deccan. At least 300 Junaydis moved to Gulbarga when the Bahmanis shifted capital to there from the city of Bidar. With the Qadari saints, a new era of Sufi migration to the Deccan began and the elite migrations of Iranian Sufis of the 15th century, included Mahmud Gawan, the famous Bahmani minister, and Shah Khaliullah Kermani. (See also the Shattari saints).

A Sufi's literary work is inextricably linked to the ‘saint-making process', argues Nile Green. While traditional textual scholarship “almost entirely divorces Sufis and their literary products from the world of shrines and saint veneration, the two were in practice closely linked, if not inseparable.” It is important to recognise “this constant interplay between the lived and written world”, Green writes further, since Sufism was as much a “transcendent ideal” as it was a “social reality.” As in the case of Gesu Daraz, and scores of other saints across South Asia, the investiture of a shrine and its continued maintenance inclusive of the shrine complex, mausoleum, khanqah, mosque and the living quarters of the sajjada nashin, are essential aspects of the dead holy man's transformation into a saint.

Gesu Daraz had moved to the Deccan at the young age of 7 with his father Yusuf al' Husayni (Raju Qattal), a disciple of Nizam al' Din Awliya, during Tughluq's Daulatabad move in 1328 CE, only to return to Delhi in 1335, by which time Nasir al' Din Mahmud had taken the place of the senior shaykh who had passed on. The ‘saiyid with the long locks', Gesu Daraz, spent the next 64 years in Delhi, only to remove to the Deccan in December 1398, as Timur's sacking of Delhi was imminent. By the time he reached Khuldabad, visiting his father's grave on the way, he was 80 years of age and the Deccan he had left as a young boy, had transformed.


The Jama Masjid of Gulbarga, which stands in the fort complex, is a remarkable architectural sight. It had been standing for over 23 years by the time Gesu Daraz arrived in the region. One of the earliest in South India, it was built in 1367 CE by Mohammad Shah I, the second Bahmani ruler. It is said to be have been designed in Moorish style – similar to the Great Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba, some believe. The mosque was built to commemorate the Bahmani capital at Gulbarga.


Zafar Khan/Hassan Gangu, Muhammad Shah's predecessor, had led rebellious uprisings against Tughluq, and subsequently established himself as the first Bahmani ruler in 1347. Crowned at Daulatabad's great mosque, the new ruler ascended his throne as Ala' al-Din Hassan Bahman Shah. The charismatic Sufis remained in favour, despite the changing fortunes in the region. The Bahmanis as well, writes Richard Eaton, sought the blessings of the same Chisti Shaykhs who had been associated with Tughluq. Eaton further writes,

According to a local tradition recorded in the late 1500s, Nizam al-

Din had just finished meeting with Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq at his hospice

when he found Zafar Khan, the future Sultan Ala al-Din Hasan Bahman

Shah, waiting outside. The shaikh remarked, “One sultan has left my door;

another is waiting there.

The theme underscored by this anecdote, Eaton argues, is that Sufi Shaykhs made predictions of future kings, and in some sense a prediction such as the one above actually served “as a veiled form of royal appointment”. Regal predictions aside, Sufis contributed in no small measure to the spiritual sanctity of a region by locating themselves there, and this is especially true of Gesu Daraz, whose prominence Firishta, the famed Persian traveller, chronicler and historian, writes about as well. Most importantly, Eaton indicates, Gesu Daraz, whose shrine became a focal point of Muslim devotion in the Deccan, “contributed to the stabilization and indigenization of Indo-Muslim society and polity in the Deccan, as earlier generations had already done in Tughluq north India.” What had earlier been “an infidel land available for plunder” had been transformed by his presence to “a legally inviolable abode of peace.”


Khusro Hussaini writes that the Chistis kept some distance from the region's ruling elite, and the state. Gesu Daraz had a tenuous relationship with Firuz Shah (and later his successor, Ahmad Shah), the Bahmani sultan who welcomed his return to the Deccan, but in general, the relationship was cordial. Pointing to KA Nizami, Hussaini writes that Gesu Daraz “expounded the Chishti mystic principles in the Deccan”. Establishing profound social linkages with the people of the region, the shrine welcomed all, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In fact, exchange of spiritual ideas with yogis was common, and he even intriguingly points to an instance of “competitive spirituality” regarding claims of “flying in the air.” Nile Green mentions Shah Kalimullah's descriptions of meditative practices linked to yoga techniques and also fascinatingly writes of an anthology of bhajans by the mid 18th century Hindu mystic Sadhu Manpuri Parshad “blending the vocabulary of Sufi and Sadhu and pointing to the close links forged at this time between Muslim and Hindu mystics in the Deccan.” One poem in particular that addresses the Qadiri saint Shah Nur with whom the sadhu was acquainted, as Green writes, is preserved in a compilation (tadhkira) by Inayat Allah Khan Awrangabadi.

Pointing also to Gesu Daraz's love of sama, or musical audition, Khusro Hussaini writes that despite the proscription by jurists and legists alongside the orthodox opinion of music's corrupting influence, “it is true that the Sufis may have been partially responsible for the people's interest in music, but it should be remembered that music was already one of the most developed arts among the Arabs themselves.” Sama then, was considered a profound form of devotion, bound of course by certain rules, “which stimulated an emotional approach and attachment to God.” It was a finely tuned device, a spiritual technique “which tended to attune the Sufi in totality to the infinite.”


I visit Wahab Andaleeb, a prominent Urdu educationist and expert, who tells me that the revered saint spoke to the people in their language – awam ki boli mein kalam sunathey the. We see the promotion of the mixed form of language in his silsila, the septuagenarian tells me, and this form of speech, bol-chaal, was indeed, qadeem Urdu, a proto-Urdu form. As Parmanand Panchal mentions in Traditional Indian Forms of Deccani Poetry, Miranji Shams' al Ushaq (1496 – 1562) mentions this in his book Shah'adat al Haq'aiqat:

Vay Arbi bol na jamen, na farsi pichhane

Yeh unko bachan hit sunnat bhooje reet.

(They do not know Arabic, or Persian

This is for their spiritual guidance)

Dakhani poets used many forms he points out – from dohas, dohras, kavitts & geets. Several Sufis of that time composed geets, he indicates, including Gesu Daraz' Chakki Nama and Suhagan, Miranji Khudanuma's Chakki Nama and his disciple Shah Farooqui's poems, Shah Raju Qattal's Suhagan Nama, Husayn Chisti's Lagan Nama, Shah Qadri's Shadi Nama, Kamtar's Charka Nama, Mohammad Khus Dahan's Lori Nama, Shah Abdul Hasan Qadri's Phogri Pho amongst others.

The composite culture, the unique blending of various linguistic traditions is exemplary in Dakhani and as Andaleeb says to me, we find the “bu-baas” of Hindustan, its fragrance, in Dakhani poetry. Whether it be Ibrahim Adil Shah who penned the famous kitab-i-nauras, sahib-e-dewan Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, or even the ghair mamooli, the extraordinary, Ibn Nishati (see here), we find the love of the land, “watan sey mohabbat“, reflected alluring and dexterously in the language and the words of poets. Interestingly, Panchal points to a somewhat cryptic doha by Amanullah from his Ganjeen-e-Shoda:

Main hoon arbistan mein, Arab nahi mujh beech

Main nahi hindustan mein, Hindi mere beech.

(I am in Arbistan, but no Arabic around me

I am not in Hindustan, but am surrounded by Hindi).


My return from Gulbarga, with a day's stopover in Bidar, has been eventful and thought provoking. The knotty history of the Deccan seems to be somewhat in grasp, although still quite dauntingly complex. Naseemuddin Farees, a scholar at Maulana Azad Urdu University, and I, meet atop the sarai of Taramati Baradari in Ibrahim Bagh of old Hyderabad. It has been raining and the view in the diffused light is spectacular. The famed Golconda fort is nearby, as is the spectacular necropolis of the Qutb Shahi dynasts. The first officially accepted literary prose work, the pehla risala of Dakhani, he tells me, is considered to be Burhanuddin Janam's Qalaimat'al Haq'aiq in the mid 15th century, and the first poetic work is Kadam Rao, Padam Rao, a masnavi by Bidar poet Fakhr al' Din Nizami in 1460 CE. Intriguingly, Shamshur Rahman Farooqi points out here that Jamil Jalibi has indicated “traces of even Panjabi, Saraiki and Sindhi” in this early work. The sophistication of the latter work is such that it can safely be assumed that other works of varying levels of competency and allure would have certainly existed. None are extant and it is difficult to conclusively prove the case for earlier works. However, Dakhani was born, Farees continues on, in the years of the first wave of northern migrants – the troops of Alla' al Din Khalji. From the cooks, tailors, barbers, dhobis and officials, the imperative to find a means to communicate locally was indeed a very necessary, if fortuitous one, he adds, wherein the composite of tongues they carried down south mixed inextricably with Marathi, Kannada and Telugu, predominantly. Deccan is very fortunate, he says, to have embraced the northern languages and made poetry out of it. A fact amply attested by the famous Wali Dakhani who presented his poetry in the vernacular to the imperial court in Delhi. Thus began Urdu poetry.

I will conclude here by saying that Deccan is indeed very fortunate to have absorbed a great deal of things and to have, over several centuries, created a unique composite identity that remains intact in bits, but also tattered quite profoundly. As we approach the annual anniversary of Operation Polo, the military action against the independent Hyderabad state in 1948 to integrate it into the Indian Union, we must remember that though desirous for many, it was deeply traumatic for others. Particularly for those who were unjustly killed, incarcerated, and wronged. The lessons we learn from our history must also be commemorated lest we forget them, and if at all we can extrapolate a common thought, it perhaps could be that our shared traditions are a result of our diversity. It is the mixing of the proverbial two sides, the foreign and the native, the exoteric and the esoteric, and indeed of sobriety and ecstasy, as the learned Sufis say, that results in the richness of our shared lives and worlds.