Talikote and the Vijayanagara apocalypse

Lately, war history has become a bit of a pet subject.

Specifically so, Talikote. This war is about an empire that is very close to my heart and culture. Backed with some assorted readings of Robert Sewell, Krishnaswamy Iyengar and Jadunath Sarkar, I present some thoughts, questions and answers of my own on the battle that changed the history of the south.

** Ramaraya, culpable to all.

Traditional lore and history has always taken to blaming this man, the son-in-law of Krishnadevaraya and the ruler incumbent of Vijayanagara after the death of Krisnadevaraya (or more specifically, after the demise of Achyutadevaraya) as the prime cause of the downfall.

His charges?

That he meddled more than necessary in the internal affairs of the Deccan Sultanates thus causing them to unify and destroy Vijayanagara.

That’s a sweeping allegation at best and a hopeless judgment at worst.

Factually speaking, Ramaraya was probably the same age as Krishnadevaraya. It may be assumed that he had fought many a war on the side of Krishnadevaraya himself as well as proved himself to be a strong ally in multiple ways to solicit a marital relationship with him.

Beyond Krishnadevaraya’s passing, it is true that Ramaraya made no pretences about his eye for the throne of Vijayanagara, but that does not discount the political tactfulness that he displayed throughout his reign. He was by no means, a tyrant.

As far as his interference in the Deccan Sultanates and their internal affairs goes, it was absolutely necessary to be political in the midst of so much potential hostility. His predecessor Krishnadevaraya had shown the same traits of diplomacy to a preference over war whenever possible. It suffices to say that Ramaraya had the best interests of Vijayanagara in mind and that when all else failed, he didn’t shy away from the prospect of a decisive war.

Ramaraya has also been accused for favoritism when it came to important positions in the government and the army. This might be true to some extent, but this was the inevitable course that royal families had to take to in order to assure loyalty.

For what it is worth, Ramaraya governed a mostly stable state that he built with and had inherited from Krishnadevaraya, quite well. This does not discount him from the obvious mistakes in diplomacy and strategy that occurred preceding the war.

** The war was lost even before it began

Jadunath Sarkar quotes that during Krishnadevaraya’s reign, Vijayanagar would annually buy a stock of 13,000 well-bred horses from the Portuguese. This good practice, had however been abandoned during the relatively less ambitious times that followed, perhaps due to Ramaraya’s conquests with the Portuguese themselves. It may be remembered that this was also the time when the infamous Inquisition of Goa was taking place.

By the time of Talikote, the Vijayanagaran cavalry was in such an abysmal state that Ramaraya had conscripted nearly every person in possession of a horse to come join his ranks. These poor ponies were no match to the well-mounted and well-bred Arab horses which were on the fighting stocks of the Irani and Turani forces on the Sultanates’ side.

Although numerically superior, the Vijayanagara infantry (like any in a medieval battle) would prove to be little more than cannon and cavalry fodder.

** Defensive war and rout

Ramaraya was defensive from the onset. The only ploy to survive lay in strategic defense and he would promptly encamp on the southern bank of the Krishna, with the stock of artillery and defensive trenches.

The plan would have been to wait and watch (or perpetrate) for a break in the enemy alliances. This would have been on the cards, since the Adil Shah had been in a dilemma about his loyalties. Unfortunately for Ramaraya, this didn’t happen.

The only option that remained then was to keep the enemy at bay north of the Krishna and deny them a crossing. The enemy wouldn’t dare a crossing in the face of fire at the risk of severe casualties (Adil Shah would’ve known a thing or two about the rout his ancestor had suffered from Krishnadevaraya in the Battle of Raichur a few decades back).

In a fit of brilliant military strategy however, the enemy staged a decoy march eastward along the river prompting Ramaraya to lift camp and follow. This was followed up with a lightning fast march-back to the ferry at Tangadgi where they would secure a crossing easily.

Ramaraya could’ve chosen to give siege immediately to the tired Mussalman forces, but he chose otherwise. This would prove critical as the Vijayanagara forces were routed the following day by the superior and well-rested enemy forces.

Jadunath Sarkar mistakenly mentions that Tirumala and his son Raghunatha died in battle whilst Venkatadri deserted the battle to rescue the treasury of Hampe and carry it to Penukonda, while it was actually the other way around.

Other contentions for failure he points out are:

* Antique guns, in comparison to the more modern Persian artillery possessed by the Mussalmans. The Vijayanagar army also possessed a stock of rockets, which Sarkar says were merely “playthings”.

* Superior leadership at levels: The Mussalman army was led by seasoned veterans of war who led their troops with far more valor and independence. In contrast, the Vijayanagar army had but three leaders in the Aravidu brothers, two of who perished in the battle causing large-scale retreat of their troops in confusion.

* Rama Raya was too old to lead a battle. In his age, he lacked mobility and his death which came as a result of a committed charge by the enemy to kill or take him prisoner, proved to be the last nail in the coffin as the Hindu forces were routed mercilessly.

** Hampe and the aftermath

While Firrishta estimates the Hindu toll of losses at absurdly high figures, Jadunath Sarkar records that 16,000 slain and thrice as many injured would be a more sober estimate. It seems like a hopeless and humiliating lack of will and wit that the Vijayanagar forces made not even the attempt to defend Hampi.

Tirumala would arrive two days ahead of the victorious armies to carry away the treasury to the safer fortifications of Penukonda by road. Hampe would be left astray to hordes of pillages and plunderers for the next six months.

Some apologist historians assert with highlight that Hampi was looted continuously by hordes of Kurubas and Banjaras before the victorious armies arrived. While there may be some grain of truth in this, it doesn’t emphasize the carnage unleashed by the Mussalman armies for the next 6 months. The duration is completely believable for the magnitude of desecration that has been carried out in Hampi.

I’ve wondered a bit about the driving factor behind the wanton destruction. You could say it was politically and psychologically motivated as to raze to ground the bitter enemy of two centuries and suppress even the thought of a resurgence in their own bastion. You could say that some destruction occurred in revenge and some in frustration for the lack of sufficient returns (read loot) that was denied to them, although this is probably not so much the case (they could have set off on Tirumala’s tail right away if there really wasn’t anything on offer at Hampi).

Beyond all these factors, it is undeniable that the Islamic religious dictum for iconoclasm was definitely a key motivation. Or perhaps, the human tenet of jealousy awakens the ugliest senses. I can almost imagine one of the victorious generals surveying with bewilderment the pompous city of the losers, from atop the Matanga and saying to one of his sidekicks, “Hey, this city is giving me a burn in the guts. Let’s bring it down to ground!”.

Anybody who sees Hampe today (atleast from the ground) will not be able gauge the size or splendor of it’s times. It’s highly recommended to see it with some relief, from atop the Matanga or one of the surrounding hills, or even better - from atop the Anjanadri on the other side of the Tungabhadra.

Likewise, seeing the structures as in their form today gives no indication of the *actual* scale of desecration. For this, you must see some of the photographs in the Archaeological Survey of India’s museum in Kamalapura, or some of the photographs from older books about Hampi (The Digital Library of India is your friend).

For instance, the royal enclosure of which little remains today, actually lay in a heap of rubble and ruin for the last 5 centuries before the ASI “cleaned” it up. This is pretty much the story of every other monument around. There is a phenomenal density of temples in the area, quite understandable given the city’s capital status during it’s times, but it only leaves you wondering how much of the past reality has been lost in reconstruction and restoration.

The only temples that survived the post-ordeals of Talikote were the two hill temples of Anjanadri (on the Anegundi side of Tungabhadra) and Malyavanta Raghunatha which too is sufficiently far away from the epicenter. This ofcourse with the notable exception of the main deity of Hampe - Virupaksha.

It’s quite interesting how this solitary temple survived in the face of destruction everywhere else. While some of the older constructions of the Chalukya era in the hEmakUTa don’t seem to have taken too much of a hit, the Krishna temple where Krishnadevaraya setup a statue that he brought back from his Orissa campaign is damaged quite badly, and it’s just around the corner. There is also the other exception of uddAna vIrabhadra, but I suspect this was probably not from the same era, going by the construction.

Legend has it that varahas (boars) appeared in the temple complex and drove away the invading pillagers. This might be quite true since the Mussalmans could have perceived the pig as a bad omen for their deconstructionist pursuits. Or perhaps, it might have been ransomed for a price (by who and how?) but this doesn’t really seem like the brightest possibility in a city that must’ve been in the mercy of it’s captors.

Whatever it maybe, the Mussalmans managed to permanently destroy a city which was of incredible splendor and pomp, as desribed consistently by all foreign travelers to the country (Razak, Nuniz, Paes), the latter two’s accounts being available to us thanks to the translation by Robert Sewell, who can’t be credited enough for this truly great work.

To this day and despite all else, Hampi still appeals to the history enthusiast, or the other ordinary South Indian like me for it’s nostalgia that I’ve only heard cultural legends of. Hampi still has the charm of it’s old city, although the guDaseTTi street no longer has any courtesans, the markets in the vicinity of Achyutaraya and Vijaya Vitthala temple no longer have any vendors. The main market area however has little hamlets of “hotels” that now serve Thai food!

In some way, I guess history averages out. For Vijayanagara was an empire that grew beyond it’s bounds of time, space and commerce. I’m quite serious when I say I can imagine the markets of Hampi putting the malls of today’s tier-I city to shame by contrast. Perhaps, Hampe had come to lack the soul of a place that we see occurring in our cities today.

That was possibly why Hampe died a quick death and failed to live on, in comparison to many other cities that survived repeated destruction of invading armies. Maybe it was the loss of faith in the regime as well, that the people who built and ruled it to it’s pinnacle could run away without defending it as shamelessly and listlessly as they did. As history has it, the Aravidus now at Penukonda *do* capture Hampi again, briefly for a few years after Talikote, but fail to repopulate or restore it. Maybe they got as depressed as I did!

Gone glory was never to return.

But that’s not the right conclusion to be drawing. In it’s existence at Hampe and beyond, Vijayanagara despite imminent hostilities around it was enterprising enough to setup and rule a state well ahead of it’s time for a period two full centuries and more. That’s an achievement of phenomenal proportions.

Even in loss, they showed tact and grit to defend themselves against the unified Muslim invaders for another half century till Penugonda finally fell.

Whatever may have been their internal strifes, they would represent another pawn of Hindu resistance in the era after Malik kafur’s rampage in the south, culminating to the highs of Krishnadevaraya’s rule and finally in new resurgence by the marAThas less than a century later.

While Hampe remains close to my heart, a more dispassionate perspective actually leads to the conclusion that it lived and served it’s purpose even in it’s ruins.