In 1683, a little before the Mughals completed their final conquest of the Deccan, a Brahmin subordinate of the Qutb Shah of Golconda made a fascinating remark to a friendly Dutchman. Akkanna, whose brother was minister to the sultan, was talking to Michiel Janszoon of the Dutch East India Company. And in the course of their discussion, the Brahmin said to the European: “You yourself can imagine which government serves the king best, ours or that of the Moors (i.e. Muslims)". He and his associates were “not people who have or seek other countries" and, in consequence, were “fullheartedly devoted to the welfare of (this) country". The “Moors", on the other hand, came to the Deccan with the chief intention of “becoming rich and then to leave for those places which they consider to be either their fatherland or holy". In other words, their sole interest was self-aggrandizement, all at the cost of the country that enriched them in the first place.

It is a remarkable statement for its time, almost Savarkaresque with its talk of fatherlands, holy lands, and the alleged illegitimacy of some groups on account of their foreignness or lack of religious commitment to India. Equally interesting is that this statement appears soon after the celebrated Maratha warrior, Shivaji, articulated his own dharmic vision of power and kingship. Was this, then, the beginning of the crystallization of religious identities, if not in India as a whole, at least in the Deccan? Was it the start of the creation of a modern sense of being Hindu, defined against “the Moors" and their faith? And what does it say of scholarship that suggests that Hindu-Muslim relations in India were largely syncretic, poisoned by communal acrimony only as a consequence of colonial divide and rule? The answers, as it happens, are about as complex as the questions.

Notions of “us" and “them" among elites did exist but these sat alongside everyday syncretism—Akkanna’s brother was a sponsor of elaborate Muharram observations in Hyderabad, just as he fed numerous Brahmins during Hindu festivals. The Qutb Shahs were patrons of the Telugu language, admirers of the Sanskrit epics, husbands to Hindu women, and well integrated into the land where their forbears were immigrants. But when it came to articulating their power, it was Islamic ideals they upheld, imitating Persian customs and seeking approval from the Shah of Iran. In other words, where formal definitions of power were concerned, it was Islamicate ideas that held primacy, even if actual, lived politics was a different matter. In Hindu royal houses, too, things were not different: the kings of Vijayanagar formally expressed their identity in Sanskritic terms even as they employed Muslims, respected the Quran, adopted Persian sartorial tastes and called themselves “Hindu Sultans". One emperor evidently even suggested a marital alliance with Catholic Portugal. But despite multiple exchanges on the ground, the formal self-image of Hindu and Muslim houses could be different.

Bigotry existed too: temples were demolished during war, usually to flatten the legitimacy of enemy kings. But sometimes wanton acts of violence were also possible on account of individual fanaticism—Afzal Khan’s desecration of the great shrine in Pandharpur on his way to battle Shivaji is a case in point, an incident that deeply offended even those Marathas loyal to the Muslim general. For the most part, however, just as religion lent itself as a gloss to power, it was also deployed for purposes that had less to do with the gods than claimed. As the Mughals made gains in the Deccan, for example, restrictions were placed by its Sunni emperors on Shia practices at the Qutb Shah’s court—and this despite the fact that Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb were married to Shia women, and many of their own generals were also “heretics". It did not matter so long as they were loyal to the Mughals: but when Shiism was the enemy’s religion, it supplied a “legitimate" excuse to mask the age-old impulses that governed politics—avarice, a quest for power, and more—and commence conquest in the name of a formal ideology.

So Shivaji was described as an “infidel" even as Aurangzeb despatched precisely another “infidel", the famous Rajput general Jai Singh, to fight him; a man addressed in one firman (imperial edict) as “faithful and obedient to Islam". Bukka Raya, who founded Vijayanagar, might call himself Krishna-incarnate to rid the world of mlechhas even as he sought an alliance with Delhi’s mlechha (foreigner) sultan. Signs of religious sympathy exist too: Aurangzeb’s final siege of Golconda in 1687 saw his Shia nobles betray concern for the Shia enemy, just as Jai Singh looked away during Shivaji’s famous escape from Agra. All this being the case, what exactly was Akkanna talking about in 1683 when he expressed hostility towards the “Moors" in the name of his homeland?

The Qutb Shahi court was a balance of factions: there was a Persian Shia faction, a Sunni party of Indian Muslims, groups of Hindu warlords, and eventually a powerful Brahmin bureaucratic establishment. Different groups held disproportionate influence at different times, and in Akkanna’s day the Brahmin network acquired more power than ever before. Akkanna, for instance, was even granted a senior military rank—and this when he never went near a single battle. When he referred to “the Moors", the idea was to stand up to the Persian immigrants and not all Muslims as a blanket category, and to increase the power of the Brahmin faction, under whom the state was run with a certain vision—one where the wealth of the kingdom stayed in the kingdom. In the end, in 1685, Akkanna and his brother were murdered at the behest of two begums by their African slave (yes, there was an African faction too). But when they were gone, did Brahmin influence end? No—for the two years of Mughal-free independence the state had left, the Qutb Shah granted his favour to other Brahmins, including Vessanna, another brother of the dead Akkanna.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai