Our history of the Madurai Sultanate began with the disintegration of the Pandyan empire for a reason. The death of Maravarman Kulashekara Pandya I in 1308 marks the beginning of the end of any semblance of stability or sustained rule by one mighty empire in South India. To be sure, this lack of stability had begun at least two centuries prior to Kulashekara Pandya’s death. The original mighty empires of Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Cholas, Pandyas, and Pallavas were not just militarily powerful: their real significance was the fact that they stood as solid bulwarks against external threats by the sheer extent of territory they had conquered, by the way they had secured allies, by the manner in which they had swiftly put down any uprising, and the unquestioned obedience their word commanded.
Estimation of the Hindu Rule
Once these mighty empires broke up, political disintegration in South India occurred rapidly: every two-bit chieftain and vassal declared independence, and scores of “empires” sprung up overnight like mushrooms. Although the Cholas and Pandyas made a revival of sorts, the revival didn’t sustain—a powerful ruler went on a conquering marathon, but after he died the empire fell apart just as quickly. This was the fate of Kulashekara Pandya I, too. His own sons provide yet another instance of the phenomenon of empires mushrooming overnight: they fought each other and while one son occupied Madurai, the other was installed at Vira Dhavalapuram with outside help.
Meanwhile, the Hoysalas were making a grand resurgence under Vira Ballala III. Almost immediately after coronation in 1292, he had wrested territory in Tamil Nadu at Tiruvannamalai. When he saw the battle for succession to the Pandya throne, he decided to make hay while the brothers fought. Earlier, Ravi Varma Kulasekhara, the Chera king of Venadu, who had been reduced to a petty vassal of Kulashekara Pandya, quickly usurped parts of the Pandya territory after Kulashekara died. Meanwhile to the north of the Pandya and Hoysala countries, Pratapa Rudra II had risen in might with astonishing speed, and by 1292, had conquered almost the entire region between Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers and was eyeing greater conquest.
Pratapa Rudra’s case is almost a textbook illustration: he failed to learn his lessons despite four attacks from the Delhi Sultanate—twice under Khilji, then under Khusrav Khan, and twice under Muhammad Bin Tughluq. Warangal succumbed to the second attack of Muhammad Bin Tughluq and was annexed to the Delhi Sultanate. Pratapa Rudra was himself taken prisoner and died en route to Delhi.
On their part, both Ma’bar and Hoysala countries seemed to remain unalarmed by these repeated invasions from the north. While the Pandya brothers were busy settling scores with each other, Vira Ballala III was working overtime to recover lost territory and gain new ones. Small wonder that Dwarasamudra was sacked twice while Madura was sacked thrice.
After Khusrav Khan’s plunder, Madurai was quickly metamorphosing into a mini Muhammadan state surrounded by capable but warring Hindu states. Later, Muhammad Bin Tughluq incorporated it into his kingdom and ruled it by installing a governor there.
The story is nauseatingly, depressingly familiar: perpetually-fighting, unthinking, and foolish but strong Hindu kings who were blind to the danger that was smiling at their doorstep. If this sounds like a pretty harsh judgement, it’s only because it’s true. Which brings us back to the point about mighty empires: a single powerful and overarching empire leaves no scope for petty battles. A Madura Sultanate would have never taken root had the warring Pandyas, Pratapa Rudra and Hoysalas unified themselves and faced the Delhi Sultanate. Khilji and others who came after him wouldn’t have had it so easy had Pratapa Rudra aided the Yadavas at Devagiri. However, here’s what Pratapa Rudra did: he assumed there was no danger from the Delhi Sultanate and sent his forces to help out Sundara Pandya against his brother, Vira Pandya.
Illustration after sickening illustration in a span of just 20 years shows how these kings even after being bitten more than twice continued their petty quarrels and opportunistic interferences, heedless of their own interest, of the interest of their people, of their country, culture, and tradition.
Which brings us to yet another failing: the self-destructive nature of the statecraft these Hindu rulers practised. Vira Ballala III for instance, offered a fortnight for the checkmated army of Ghiyath-ud-din, which only resulted in his own ghastly death at the hands of an enemy he had already overwhelmed. Two possibilities occur immediately: a foolish overconfidence in what he thought was his certain victory, or a misplaced sense of being kind to an enemy whom you had overpowered. The other case is Kampiladeva who gave refuge to the rebel, Baha-ud-din, and took on the might of Muhammad Bin Tughluq. Baha-ud-din was none of his business, and giving him refuge is against all known norms of pragmatic statecraft. But Kampiladeva didn’t stop just at that. He sent Baha-ud-din away to safety and misguidedly invited death upon himself and his entire kingdom. A needless sacrifice, which ended as it must: in vain.
Harihara and Bukkaraya learnt precisely these lessons at the feet of Vidyaranya. If we trace the history of the Vijayanagar Empire, the founders spent the better part of their lives subduing stubborn and egoistic Hindu chieftains, and trying to convince other rulers of the urgent need to unite under a single, strong umbrella to face, and defend themselves against the barbaric onslaught of Islamic imperialism. It is the lesson North India forgot several centuries ago and paid a heavy price.
Assessment of the Madurai Sultanate
My research leads me to conclude that it is ridiculous to describe a short-lived and highly-unstable Muhammadan rule in Madurai as a Sultanate. Even at the height of their power, their rule didn’t cover the entire Pandya country whereas Vira Ballala III still held sway over major parts of Tamil Nadu from Thiruvannamalai in the north to Kannanur-Koppam in the south (where he met his end thanks to his own folly). The other parts of South India witnessed the unstoppable march of the Sangama brothers. At various points, the Madurai “Sultanate” had captured a few important ports on the South-eastern coast, and had friendly relations with the Muhammadan king of Maldives. Apart from this, there’s nothing in the history of this rule that qualifies it for the title of a Sultanate. They didn’t conquer new territory, didn’t win back Tughluq’s lost Ma’bar territory, effected no lasting reforms, were culture-illiterates, and were not known for effective and stable governance. If anything, the Madurai “Sultanate” is simply a record of ceaseless palace intrigue, murder for power, plunder, succession battles, fight for survival, and eventual annihilation.
However, their importance—so to say—lies in the destructive way they altered the character of Madurai and surrounding regions for the brief period they ruled. The most famous of these “Sultans”—Ghiyath-ud-din and Nasir-ud-din—were also the most savage Islamic fanatics. They had perfected deceit, cruelty, and mindless religious zealotry, a sample of which is provided in Madhuravijayam.
The Madura “Sultanate” that lasted for 43 years between 1335-78 was essentially a swift succession of nine murderous plunderers who styled themselves as Sultans.
Postscript: The Chola-era temples of Vishnu and Shiva that propelled me on a quest to know about the Madurai “Sultanate” are located in today’s Muslim-majority Ilaiyangudi taluk, Sivaganga district, Tamil Nadu.
1. South India and Her Muhammadan Invaders
|Dr. S. Krishnaswamy Aiyangar|
2. The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol VI
|General Editor, R.C. Majumdar, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan|
|3. A History of South India||Nilakanta Sastri|
|4. Foundation of Vijayanagar||Dr. S. Krishnaswamy Aiyangar|
|5. Madhuravijayam or Kampanaraya Charitam||Ganga Devi|
|6. The New Cambridge History of India, Volume 1 Part 8||Richard Eaton|