Medieval monarch

Print edition : October 09, 2020
A compelling and compact biography of Krishnadevaraya, widely recognised as the greatest ruler of the Vijayanagara empire.

THE doyen of medieval Deccan history, Richard Eaton, while discussing his recent book India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 (2019) in a recent podcast mentioned the “extraordinary power of biography as a rhetorical tool in narrating history”. Eaton has used this method of historical writing in his Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives (2005), a compendium of eight biographies of personalities who lived in medieval Deccan. Pointing to the popular appeal of biographies, Eaton said in the podcast: “People are inherently fascinated with other people’s lives. ‘Biography’ as a historical method has been shunned by academic establishments. University presses publish relatively few biographies whereas commercial presses thrive on them.”

These comments are salient in the context of Srinivas Reddy’s biography of Krishnadevaraya because of the validity of biography as a method of narrating history as well as the popular appeal of this genre. In a podcast, he acknowledged that Eaton’s work was a “great influence” on his own choice of writing a biography of Krishnadevaraya.

There are surprisingly few biographies of Krishnadevaraya, who ruled for 20 years between 1509 and 1529, considering that his reign is often identified as the golden age of Vijayanagara. In his extensive bibliography, Reddy lists only two biographies of Krishnadevaraya, both from the 1970s. (We can add Dr K.G. Gopala Krishna Rao’s brief account, Sri Krishnadevaraya, Monarch of Vijayanagara: Glimpses of a Glorious Era, published in 2010 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of that ruler’s coronation, to this short list). The lack of extensively researched biographies seems more the result of a systemic problem of modern historical research, as researchers are encouraged to develop a “hypothesis”, which does not easily lend itself to telling life-stories except as vignettes framing a larger argument.

In his Social History of the Deccan, Eaton did not profile Krishnadevaraya but instead dwelled on the life of Aliya Ramaraya, the son-in-law and de facto ruler of Vijayanagara who succeeded Krishnadevaraya. For Eaton, Ramaraya, who epitomised the elite mobility of the Persianised cosmopolis and whose hubris led to the battle of Talikota, was a far more compelling character. Srinivas Reddy’s book fills the lacuna in the need for a modern biography of Krishnadevaraya, who is recognised both in academic writing and in popular culture as the greatest ruler of Vijayanagara.

This lack of serious biographies of Vijayanagara rulers has, however, not prevented extensive research on various aspects of this south Indian empire which also include substantial sections on the reign of Krishnadevaraya. Following Robert Sewell’s pioneering history of Vijayanagara published in 1900 (The Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagara; A Contribution to the History of India), a spate of other studies were published, including works by S. Krishnaswami Ayyangar (Sources of Vijayanagar History, 1919), Henry Heras (The Aravidu Dynasty of Vijayanagar, 1927), B.A. Saletore (Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire, 1934) and K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and N. Venkata Ramanayya (Further Sources of Vijayanagara History, 1946). While these early historians did tremendous work in furthering our knowledge of the Vijayanagara era, later historians have accused them of extending the religious bias of Sewell who described Vijayanagara as a “Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests”.

Further research on Vijayanagara was published by historians such as Vasundhara Filliozat (Vijayanagar: As Seen by Domingo Paes and Fernao Nuniz, 1977), Burton Stein (Vijayanagara, 1993), Anila Verghese (Hampi: A Monumental Legacy, 2002) and, more recently, by scholars such as Richard Eaton and Philip Wagoner (Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 2014). Scholars associated with the multidisciplinary Vijayanagara Research Project (https://www.penn.museum/sites/VRP/default.html), too, have considerably added to the research corpus of Vijayanagara. Srinivas Reddy’s biography of Krishnadevaraya must be located in this large historiography of Vijayanagara. Many of the themes that Reddy chooses to focus on in his taut biography have been discussed in the past, but the author’s strength lies in bringing together these varied facets in a compelling, disciplined and compact biography. His use of primary sources in telling the story of Krishnadevaraya is extremely valuable as the sources for Vijayanagara are fragmentary and disparate, some of which are only available as poems and inscriptions. Srinivas Reddy writes that he was first “enchanted by Krishnadevaraya” when he “read the remarkable poetry of his Amuktamalyada”.

Krishnadevaraya belonged to the Tuluva dynasty, the third dynasty to rule Vijayanagara, which was founded sometime between 1336 and 1346. There is some conventional scholarship that argues that the founders of Vijayanagara—the Sangama brothers of Harihara and Bukka—were forcibly converted to Islam. Srinivas Reddy interprets this slightly differently and sees in this story a source of legitimacy for the establishment of the kingdom. He writes: “Thus, the tale tells us more about political authority than religious conviction, and affirms that Vijayanagara was influenced by Islamic culture from its very origin.” The fact that most of the Indian subcontinent was suffused with a sense of Persian cosmopolitanism for several centuries during the medieval and early modern period of Indian history is also the basis of Eaton’s India in the Persianate Age and is, by now, a well-established thesis.

The end of the 15th century was a turbulent time in the Deccan. To the north of Vijayanagara, the Bahmani empire, which was born almost at the same time as Vijayanagara, had imploded spectacularly into five legatee Sultanates, while Vijayanagara itself was in turmoil as power transited between three dynasties who ruled those closing decades.

In 1485, power had passed from the founding dynasty of Sangamas to the Saluva dynasty. The Saluva interregnum was brief, acting as a precursor to the rise of the Tuluva dynasty, of which Krishnadevaraya was the second formal ruler. However, if we include the period when his father—who was the first non-Kshatriya ruler of Vijayanagara and was most probably from a shudra background—ruled as the de facto head of Vijayanagara, then Krishnadevaraya would be the third ruler.

Considering that this third dynasty to rule Vijayanagara was called the Tuluva, some scholars trace their provenance to coastal Karnataka. The strong leadership of the Tuluva dynasty ensured that Vijayanagara would go on to consolidate its territory during the reign of Krishnadevaraya. On the other hand, the Bahmani empire would unravel in a centrifugal melee.

Shrewd statesman

Krishnadevaraya ascended the Lion Throne of Vijayanagara in 1509, when he was in his early twenties. While his ascension was a smooth affair, the affairs of the empire were not. The borders of his empire were threatened. Srinivas Reddy writes that when Krishnadevaraya was coronated, “support from his southern base was weak, the Gajapati lord of Orissa was quickly eating up the empire’s eastern realms and the prickly sultans to the north, particularly the Adil Shah of Bijapur, was ever hostile”. Another problem Krishnadevaraya faced was that “the Vijayanagara state system of oath-bound lords and vassals had grown precariously weak”.

The shrewd statesman that he was, Krishnadevaraya went to work on these aspects. Early in his reign, he stabilised his government by stationing a salaried army in his capital and regaining the loyalty and goodwill of lords. By relying on his clever minister Timmarasu, he fulfilled another requirement of medieval kingship.

During this period, there were avenues for social mobility and diversification of occupations, which was evident in the ruling elite of Vijayanagara. Srinivas Reddy writes: “Traditionally exclusive kshatriya positions such as lord, vassal and officer were quickly being taken up by local shudras like the king himself, while enterprising brahmans increasingly became ministers, strategists and fort commanders.”

Krishnadevaraya’s reign also coincided with the entry of the Portuguese as a major player in the politics of the Deccan. With their mastery over the oceans, the Portuguese were important because they controlled the supply of war horses, a crucial component of warfare in the medieval Deccan. Srinivas Reddy writes: “…the ascendancy of the Portuguese in India was tightly linked to war and the supply of horses; it was nothing short of a medieval arms race.” We learn that the Portuguese would become fast allies of Vijayanagara. Early in his reign, Krishnadevaraya also quelled a rebellion in the southern borders of his kingdom.

In 1511, Krishnadevaraya was involved in a battle with his northern neighbour Yusuf Adil Shah, the founder of the Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur. The author makes some interesting points about the factors that led to this battle. First, the schismatic factionalism between the foreigners and the natives that prevailed in the courts of the Deccan Sultanates showed that it was wrong to view Muslims and Hindus as monolithic entities.

Second, Srinivas Reddy writes: “Hindus and Muslims fought among themselves just as much as against each other, and however the battle lines were drawn, they often fought side by side, for each other and against one another. Religion was not the dividing line, simply one of the many markers of identity and belongingness that fuelled loyalties, animosities, allegiances and betrayals.”

Battles

This second point that the author makes becomes relevant when we see that Krishnadevaraya’s longest campaign in his reign, begun in 1512, was against a fellow Hindu king called Prataparudra Deva, the Gajapati king of Orissa. Apart from contesting territorial claims, there was deep personal enmity between the two kings as Prataparudra was a “high-born kshatriya” while Krishnadevaraya was a “low-caste shudra”. During his campaign to conquer Udayagiri in 1514, Krishnadevaraya “removed the local Balakrishna idol from the Udayagiri temple of Venugopala with a plan to carry it back to Vijayanagara as a trophy of war”.

By the end of 1515, Krishnadevaraya reclaimed the forts of Udayagiri, Kondavidu and Kondapalli from the Gajapati ruler, which meant that “Prataparudra Deva had lost all his territory south of the river Krishna, the traditional dividing line between the two great empires.” But Krishnadevaraya forayed further into the heartland of the Gajapatis, reaching Cuttack sometime in 1518. After the sacking of Cuttack, the Gajapati king was forced to sue for peace in 1519, and Krishnadevaraya returned to Vijayanagara while making his intentions clear: “I want you (Prataparudra) to realise that I have come solely for the sake of increasing my glory, with no desire of annexing your kingdom. The Gajapati kingdom I leave for the Gajapati.”

One would imagine that after this long campaign of many years, Krishnadevaraya would rest for a few years, but he was intent on reclaiming all the land that had historically belonged to Vijayanagara. In 1520, Krishnadevaraya went to war with Ismail Adil Shah of Bijapur over the Raichur doab, a contested tract of fertile land between the Tungabhadra and Krishna rivers that had fuzzily demarcated the boundary between the Bahmanis and Vijayanagara in the past, and which now was in the possession of the Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur.

As Krishnadevaraya’s army tried to breach the bastions of the Raichur fort, he “engaged a regiment of his Muslim soldiers under the command of Kama Nayaka to lead the vanguard in dismantling the outer wall, stone by stone”. Krishnadevaraya justified the legitimacy of his battle with Ismail Adil Shah to the four remaining Deccan Sultanates.

This was an important battle in the medieval period of Indian history because “it was the first major conflict in the Indian interior in which European mercenaries participated, and the first documented usage of firearms in the Deccan”. After Krishnadevaraya’s rout of Ismail Adil Shah in this battle in 1520, he was the greatest lord of the Deccan as “from east to west, everything south of the Krishna river was the undisputed sovereign realm of Vijayanagara”.

Interestingly, Srinivas Reddy relies on Portuguese sources and the Bijapur historian Ferishta to narrate the events of this battle, which ended in a comprehensive victory for Vijayanagara, as there are no “significant Telugu, Kannada or Tamil sources that document this pivotal battle, and no Hindu memory of this spectacular victory anywhere.” The surprising lack of contemporary Vijayanagara sources on this landmark battle shows the challenge that historians face in reconstructing events of the Vijayanagara era.

Even as it became clear that Krishnadevaraya was the undisputed ruler of southern India, he set out to humiliate Ismail Adil Shah further with the demand that the Bijapur Sultan kiss his foot as a sign of his defeat. Srinivas Reddy writes: “Krishnadevaraya’s meteoric rise from ambitious upstart to haughty conqueror suggests signs of a growing megalomania.” Abandoning his policy of benevolent treatment of enemies that had been his hallmark, Krishnadevaraya ravaged the city of Bijapur and continued his “rabid pursuit” all the way to Gulbarga, which was the capital of the Bahmani empire for 70 years, “where his men pillaged the city and razed the fortress to the ground”. Srinivas Reddy interprets this behaviour of Krishnadevaraya as his “posturing to all the Sultans of the Deccan” and an indication that “his excessive pride was growing out of control”. After this final campaign, Krishnadevaraya returned to Vijayanagara in 1523 and spent the rest of his life in the capital. He abdicated in favour of his young son Tirumalaraya, who was six years old at the time and served as his chief minister, but this infant king died in suspicious circumstances. The last few years of Krishnadevaraya’s life are not well-documented but it is certain that he died in 1529.

While Srinivas Reddy’s biography chiefly discusses the main political events of Krishnadevaraya’s reign, it also looks at aspects of Krishnadevaraya’s personal faith and the splendour of his court that had poets such as Allasani Peddana, Nandi Timmana and Tenali Ramakrishna in its ranks. The author also discussed how Krishnadevaraya’s reign saw the ascendancy of Telugu as the pre-eminent language of the empire.

In the prologue Srinivas Reddy writes: “Most histories portray him (Krishnadevaraya) as a Hindu warrior who crushed Muslim invaders, some paint him as a peasant who rose to become an emperor, and yet others remember him as a shrewd statesman, a brilliant poet or a benevolent ruler. Each of these identities contributed to the king’s remarkable persona, but he was much more than any of these readings.” This mandate that the author sets for himself in the prologue to comprehensively look at Krishnadevaraya from many perspectives is fulfilled through the biography.

Srinivas Reddy’s effort is however marred by a few minor errors. He writes that Muhammad bin Tughlaq moved his capital back to Delhi from Devagiri (or Daulatabad) in 1347 (page 38), when in fact the capital was moved back in 1337. He also mistakenly attributes two separate events to the same Vijayanagara ruler: that “King Devaraya” enlisted Muslims in the Vijayanagara army and that his daughter, the princess, married the Bahmani ruler Feroze Shah (page 55). In fact, these two events happened during the reign of two different rulers of Vijayanagara: Devaraya I and Devaraya II.

In the last chapter, Srinivas Reddy interprets Krishnadevaraya’s savage devastation of Bijapur’s territory in 1520 as an event that would serve as a contributory factor for the battle of Talikota in 1565, when a confederation of Deccan Sultanates defeated the grand empire of Vijayanagara (See “Beyond the Hindu-Muslim Binary” Frontline, January 18, 2019). Srinivas Reddy writes: “In less than fifty years, the Deccan sultans would indeed unite as a single force against Vijayanagara. The seeds of animosity the king had sown in the ashes of this rampage would soon ripen, but not in his lifetime. It would be in 1565, during the turbulent reign of Krishnadevaraya’s son-in-law Ramaraya, when the sultans would finally exact their revenge.” This interpretation of the author is not borne out because between 1530 and 1565, there were several occasions when one or the other Sultanate allied with Vijayanagara against a single Sultanate or an alliance of Sultanates for petty wars waged over strategically located forts. Thus, his argument that the memory of Krishnadevaraya’s victory over Bijapur rankled for almost 50 years in the memory of the other Sultanates is a tenuous claim at best.

Srinivas Reddy also writes that while Krishnadevaraya was a staunch Vaishnavite, he was “inclusive and tolerant in supporting state patronage of various other deities, sects and religious movements.” This is perhaps a generous assessment of Krishnadevaraya’s religious policy as scholars such as Ajay K. Rao have argued that Srivaishnavas attained unprecedented influence at Vijayanagara during the Saluva and Tuluva dynasties and almost all new temples that came up belonged to this sect (Refiguring the Ramayana as Theology: A History of Reception in Premodern India, 2015, page 101). Thus, to give the impression that all sects in the kingdom were equally patronised by the state during Krishnadevaraya’s reign may not be entirely accurate.

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