Islamic Studies Maḥmūd Gāvān
Meia Walravens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0293


Maḥmūd Gāvān (b. c. 1411–d. 1481) was the principal political figure in the Central Indian sultanate of the Bahmanis (1347–1527) in the second half of the 15th century. Born in Gilan into a family of rank, his early life is little documented, but Shams al-Dīn al-Sakhāwī’s (d. 1497) al-Ḍawʾ al-lāmiʿ places him in Cairo in 1439–1440, and later in Syria, for reasons of study. In the 1450s, Gāvān arrived in India and accepted a position in the Bahmani sultanate. He would serve four successive sultans—Aḥmad II, Humāyūn Shāh, Niẓām al-Dīn Aḥmad III, and Muḥammad III—rising through the ranks. His career was marked by successful conquests, administrative reforms, and a regency during the reigns of Aḥmad III and Muḥammad III. In addition to his position as de facto ruler, Gāvān’s significance lies in his activities in commerce, patronage of architecture, and literature. His widely used title malik al-tujjār (prince of merchants), granted by Humāyūn Shāh, and legal records in Bursa that mention him as the sponsor of several trading missions are evidence of Gāvān’s involvement in long-distance trade. Today, his madrasa in Bidar, the Bahmani capital after 1430, is still testimony to his cosmopolitan outlook. Probably constructed with the help of migrant craftsmen and imported building plans, it is strikingly Central Asian in its architecture and decoration. Similarly, Gāvān’s inshāʾ works, Riyāḍ al-inshāʾ and Manāẓir al-inshāʾ, communicate in their style and conception with literary traditions in the wider Islamic world, and were the product of concrete interactions with people from Cairo to Samarqand. Riyāḍ al-inshāʾ is a collection of correspondence that features letters to Gāvān’s family members, to scholars, and to rulers and their retinues in Indian, Mamluk, Ottoman, Timurid, Aq Quyunlu, and Gilani lands. Manāẓir al-inshāʾ is a treatise on the principles of inshāʾ that builds on centuries of ideas on letter writing in Arabic and Persian. Further demonstrating his attention to a variety of Islamicate texts, impressions of Gāvān’s seal on manuscripts give an idea of the kind of books that were in his possession and that he might have perused. In 1481, Gāvān’s rivals at the court conspired to accuse him of treachery and he was killed on orders of the sultan. The works by his secretary ʿAbd al-Karīm Nīmdihī (d. c. 1501), an inshāʾ collection entitled Kanz al-maʿānī and a chronicle known as Ṭabaqāt-i Maḥmūd Shāhī, are important first-hand sources on Gāvān’s life and death. In present-day scholarship, Gāvān is often discussed as a prime example of larger historical processes, such as transregional migration and the integration of South Asia in the Persianate world.

General Overviews

Haroon Khan Sherwani laid the foundations for research on Maḥmūd Gāvān between the 1930s and the 1950s. Sherwani 1942 and Sherwani 1985 (first edition published in 1953) are still the most widely used scholarly accounts of Maḥmūd Gāvān’s life and work. Huda 1967, another rather early publication, is given here for its conciseness and the references to the published edition of Riyāḍ al-inshāʾ, which was not yet available to Sherwani. Also concise, and at the same time wide-ranging, is Nayeem 2012. This book lacks citations, however, and might not be suitable as a starting point for academic research. Research that approaches Maḥmūd Gāvān in the light of more modern scientific interests, such as social history and courtly culture, has taken off since the turn of the 21st century with Eaton 2005 and Flatt 2019 respectively. Flatt 2015, the most up-to-date entry on Maḥmūd Gāvān in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, elegantly brings together old and new findings.

  • Eaton, Richard M. A Social History of the Deccan, 1300–1761: Eight Indian Lives. The New Cambridge History of India part 1, vol. 8. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521254847

    Contains a readable account of Maḥmūd Gāvān’s career on pages 59–77 and employs it as a window on larger social processes in the history of the Bahmani sultanate, most notably the factional rivalry between “Deccanis” and “Westerners.”

  • Flatt, Emma. “Maḥmūd Gāvān.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, Third Edition. Edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.

    Introduction to Maḥmūd Gāvān’s life, work, and broader historical significance. Available online by subscription.

  • Flatt, Emma J. The Courts of the Deccan Sultanates: Living Well in the Persian Cosmopolis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108680530

    Monograph on courtly culture in the Bahmani sultanate and its successor sultanates which features Maḥmūd Gāvān in relation to several topics, such as trade and epistolary networks (see Transregional Actor and Epistolography). One can also consult the author’s 2009 PhD thesis that formed the basis for the book, entitled Courtly Culture in the Indo-Persian States of the Medieval Deccan: 1450–1600 (SOAS University of London).

  • Huda, M. Z. “Maḥmūd Gāwān the Great Bahmani Wazīr (1411–1481 A.D.).” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan 7.2 (1967): 265–288.

    A concise biography of Maḥmūd Gāvān that treats his arrival in Bidar, his rise to power, and his death, followed by short thematic sections on, among others, his contacts with scholars and his two works, Manāẓir al-inshāʾ and Riyāḍ al-inshāʾ. The author is especially interested in Maḥmūd Gāvān’s poetry and quotes many of his verses, regretfully without translating.

  • Nayeem, M. A. The Heritage of the Bahmanis & the Baridis of the Deccan (1347-1538-1619 A.D.). Hyderabad, India: Hyderabad Publishers, 2012.

    In this general introduction to the Bahmani and the Barīd Shāhī dynasties, the author pays attention to Maḥmūd Gāvān in relation to the Bahmanis’ “history, political institutions and foreign relations” and their “archival and literary heritage.” The book has no source citations, except for a select bibliography at the end, which makes it difficult to check specific statements against primary sources and secondary literature.

  • Sherwani, Haroon Khan. Maḥmūd Gāwāṇ: The Great Bahmani Wazir. Allahabad, India: Kitabistan, 1942.

    First English-language monograph on Maḥmūd Gāvān’s life, with a focus on his role in Bahmani politics and military campaigns. It has a useful appendix on “authorities,” i.e. primary sources, for researchers new to the topic, but the references to manuscripts in Indian libraries can be difficult to trace. Several chapters were published separately in 1939 and 1940, before the book came out, in Islamic Culture and the Journal of Indian History.

  • Sherwani, Haroon Khan. The Bahmanis of the Deccan. 2d ed. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1985.

    Enlarged and revised edition of Sherwani’s 1953 monograph, which was published in Hyderabad by Krishnavas International Printers. It treats the political history of the Bahmani sultanate, with a chapter devoted to the “Age of Mahmud Gawan” (pp. 197–243). Large parts of the chapter are, however, directly copied from the author’s 1942 monograph.

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