I remember the first time I arrived in Lisbon. I had imagined that I would find the city unfamiliar, filled with strangers. This was true to a large extent, and yet, the city endeared itself to me by offering me encounters with persons from my childhood. It was an overwhelming experience to encounter the people like Afonso de Albuquerque, Vasco da Gama, persons whose names I had first encountered as a boy. Of course these men were long dead, but their memorialised presence still lurked in the city, making the city at once familiar.
I had a similar experience when visiting the ongoing exhibition titled “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy”, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. Dedicated to delineating the often ignored history, and material productions of the various sultanates of the Deccan, the exhibition brought me face-to face with persons whose histories are intertwined with those of the early modern Portuguese in South Asia. I jumped with particular delight at the portraits of various members of the Adil Shahi dynasty.
Just as the names of the great heroes of the Portuguese expansion are known to most Goans, so too, even the most cursory reading of Goan history will make one aware of at least one figure of Deccan history, Sultan Yusuf Adil Shah, the founder of the dynasty. Indeed, the old Secretariat of the Government of Goa, was housed in the building that was, and continues to be called the Palácio do Idalcão - the palace of Adil Shah.
Many assume that the significance of the Adil Shahis in Goa's history is concluded once the territory was conquered by the early modern Portuguese. As such, we often do not bother with this Deccan sultanate. Goa’s association with the Adil Shahis of Bijapur was more than a mere footnote, however. The Portuguese Estado da India would have substantial dealings with the Adil Shahi dynasty of Bijapur. It was with this Sultanate that treaties were signed that allowed Ilhas, Bardez and Salcete to form the core of the territory that would in later times become known as Goa. And for the longest time the Estado lived in the shadow of the Bijapuri sultanate. As the historian David Kowal, and the late José Pereira had indicated, so strong was the influence of the Bijapuris, that the architecture of Goa began to mimic aspects of Bijapuri architecture. This influence can especially be seen in the lamp towers of the older temples in Goa, as well as in the faceted bell towers of churches across Goa.
However, it was not just in the architecture of the Old Conquests of Ilhas, Bardez and Salcete that there was a Bijapuri influence. Portions of what would come to be called the New Conquests continued to be a part of the Bijapuri Sultanate until they were integrated into the Estado da Índia. It is to the Indo-Persian administrative organisation followed by the Bijapur sultanate that we owe the identity of such identities as that of Antruz Mahal. Further, the Christian history of the New Conquests owes as much to the Bijapuri Sultanate as it may to the Portuguese state. It was under leave from the Sultan, in about 1639, that Mateus de Castro, the ambitious native cleric who chafed under the Portuguese, received permission to build churches in Bicholim, Banda, and Vengurla.
Unfortunately for us, the exhibit at The Metropolitan museum does not contain an individual and contemporary portrait of the founder of the dynasty Yusuf Adil Shah. We are forced to satisfy ourselves with a reference to this man in a group portrait depicting the entire dynasty. Another portrait that might attract Goan interest was one which depicts two persons in attendance on the Sultan Ali Adil Shah II. The audio guide to the exhibit suggests that these two persons are said to be Shivaji and his father, Shahaji Bhonsle. It should not be forgotten that Shahaji held an official rank in the Adil Shahi army, and it was from the Adil Shahi sultanate that Shivaj forged the nucleus of his kingdom.
The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum was not limited to just the Bijapuri Sultanate. It focused on the huge amount of cultural production that emerged from the various other Sultanates, including that of Ahmadnagar, Bidar, and Golkonda. In doing so the exhibition suggests at the wide variety of influences that bore upon the medieval and early modern Deccan, and have come to bear on our own contemporary culture. Indeed, while browsing through the exhibit, I wondered if it would not be a good idea were an exhibition curated to look exclusively at the Bijapuri sultanate. The state of Goa is intimately linked to this sultanate and it would do us good to appreciate the intimate links that existed between the Sultanate and the Goa that was being formed. To that extent, Bijapuri history is as much Goan history, as is the history of the Portuguese state whether in South Asia or in Europe. It would also be a particularly moving homecoming were such an exhibition housed in the now vacant Palácio do Idalcão.
The discussion of Goa is often framed between two tropes: that of Goa Dourada, or Goa Indica. The first, seeks to emphasize Goa’s European, or Portuguese-ness. In response to this first form of representation, the second attempts to stress that Goa is, in fact, Indian. While there is no denying that Goa does constitute a certain form of Europe, this second form is also important. The trouble with Goa Indica, however, is that it often stresses a Sanskritic and brahmanical past for Goa. These assertions are then used to justify a return to that imagined state of affairs. The truth, as always, is perhaps somewhere in between. The areas that became Goa had a complex past with multiple influences. If these territories were influenced by the Vijayanagara polity, then the kings of Vijayanagara themselves adopted an Islamicate model of kingship calling themselves Sultans. If Bijapur was a significant centre through which Shia Islam permeated the lore of the indigenous deities of the Deccan like Yellamma and Parashurama, then the Sultans and their courts adopted Indic forms of asserting their kingship. We need more histories that assert to this complexity, and communicate this to a larger, increasingly misled, popular audience. It is towards these histories that exhibitions such as the Sultans of the Deccan could lead us.
(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 26 June 2015)