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Landscapes of Conquest: Patrons and Narratives in the seventeenth-century Deccan c. 1636 - 1687

  • Author(s): Dayal, Subah
  • Advisor(s): Subrahmanyam, Sanjay
  • et al.

From 1636 to 1687, a paradoxical conquest unfolded in the Deccan region (south central India). The Mughal empire sought to annex peninsular India while its independent, regional Indo-Islamic courts – the sultanates of Bijapur and Golkonda - expanded towards the Karnatak frontier. This dissertation investigates the slow, extended, and contradictory processes of a nested, matrioshka of conquest, beyond and below well-known political narratives of the Deccan sultanates and the Mughal empire. It focuses on a stratigraphy of cultural encounters and negotiations between imperial and regional courts, which shared a common frontier and had a long history of cohabitation and borrowing. It investigates fractures and fissures in patronage networks during and literary representations of conquest within southern India’s layered political and polyphonic linguistic landscapes.

This study culls together materials produced in very different philosophical and linguistic traditions - Persian, Dakkani, and Dutch - to arrive at a stereoscopic view of the Karnatak conquest. In particular, it draws on two largely unexamined bodies of materials from the early modern Deccan. First, to explore new experiments in writing the history of conquest, it draws on the genre of razmīyah masnawī or battle poems in Dakkani, a form of ‘early’ Urdu from southern India. Through the practice of conquest ethnography, poet-historians articulated volatile affective and material ties between allies, friends, and rivals in the Deccan frontier. Second, this study incorporates provincial-level Mughal documents from the Deccan, to build an empire’s portrait from the frontier’s vantage point. Regional sultanates mitigated the Mughal empire’s precarious presence in an attrite frontier, fueling a protracted and uncertain conquest. Lastly, through the Dutch East India Company’s records from southern India’s coasts, this study investigates conflicts and negotiations within households of Indo-Muslim patron-commanders who controlled critical routes across the eastern and western Indian Ocean that fed into the frontier’s consolidation.

The process of conquest was never one of absolute political opposition between polities of different scales, but a much deeper phenomenon that entailed cultural shifts and constant negotiations between courtly elites, literati, and military personnel. Non-imperial regional polities tamed and constrained imperial ambitions in frontier zones. Together, the social operations and representations of conquest reveal self-similarity and co-constitution across regional and imperial courts of early modern South Asia and the Indian Ocean world.

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