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The origin of Vijayanagara Empire

Let’s test our knowledge of history: name 10 Hindu kings of India, quick!

If you’re able to do so, you’ve have my admiration. But if you find yourself unequal to this task, don’t curse yourself, for this was the way our ‘eminent historians’ (Arun Shourie’s term for left-leaning historians who force-fitted history into their ideological template) designed the system. That Indians have no sense of their rich historical heritage, except when it can be used to shame them into disowning it as with caste system, sati, etc.

In school curriculum, we (I speak of CBSE syllabus) had one chapter each for Moghul emperors with detailed description of the social, cultural and political scenario; we barely had equivalent treatment of the pre-Islamic India. While medieval history is detail-rich on the exploits of Delhi Sultanate and Moghul Empire, many southern empires are reduced to a footnote.  But nothing explains the shoddy portrayal of the one the most important empires of South India whose legacy is a living force even today in parts of South India – the Vijayanagara Empire.

Vijayanagara Empire was a force to reckon for 250 years, same as with Moghul Empire. And considering the rich cultural legacy it left behind, it deserves much detailed treatment than it presently is accorded in textbooks. 

Background

Vijayanagara's Emblem featuring Lord Varaha Swami
Most of Northern India fell under the Islamic sword. What started as periodic raids in 10th century (Mehmood of Ghazni) for loot and temple-destruction (eg. Somnath Mandir) soon amplified into territory-seeking quests by Mohammad Ghori in 12th century. Against the norms of statecraft, Prithviraj Chauhan’s grievous mistake of allowing  defeated Ghori to get away soon proved costly - to him and to India. Soon, the Sultans of Delhi became the predominant force, able to inflict punishing defeats to many kingdoms.

Let this not be mistaken as an abject surrender: indeed, the stubborn Hindu resistance to these attacks is a stuff of legends. But, their blind-spot lay in not recognizing the new form of warfare that these invaders brought. Hindu kings never attempted to understand the ideological fountainhead that motivated such monstrous acts of inhumanity against hapless citizens. The idea of total war - where deception and killing of innocent citizens was a religiously-approved, nay encouraged act - was alien to them.

Many sultans, notably AlauddinKhilji and Mohammed Bin Tughlaq, routed South Indian empires of Kakatiyas, Hoysala, Yadava, Pandya, Reddy and also a small principality of Anegondi. While each kingdom offered a stiff resistance, it clearly wasn’t enough to stop the juggernaut.

Pushed to the brink of extinction, many Hindus – from various walks of life – became intensely alarmed and decided to do their bit to halt the decline. A young sanyasi who decided that service to revival of Hindu dharma must take precedence over his varna-mandated duty to tread the path of renunciation. Two brother-warriors who realized the need for an age-acclimated, strong kingdom that would brave the changed situation. Chieftains from defeated kingdoms who realized that unless they re-group and present a unified front to the invaders from north their end is near. And the circumstances that brought the spectacular confluence of the mind and arms!

Robert Sewell's "A Forgotten Empire" notes

Suddenly, about the year 1344 A.D., there was a check to this wave of foreign invasion -- a stop -- a halt -- then a solid wall of opposition; and for 250 years Southern India was saved.
The check was caused by a combination of small Hindu states -- two of them already defeated, Warangal and Dvarasamudra -- defeated, and therefore in all probability not over-confident; the third, the tiny principality of Anegundi. The solid wall consisted of Anegundi grown into the great empire of the Vijayanagar. To the kings of this house all the nations of the south submitted.”

Thus was born a federation of nations united by a shared devotion towards protecting Hindu dharma.

The beginning

The story of the origin of Vijayanagara empire is so mired in myths that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Yet, fiction is also an instructive allegory as it can have some resonance with the reality.

There many stories about the origin of the warrior-brothers Harihara Raya and Bukka Raya. The common thread, however, is that while wandering in forests they come across a strange spectacle of a hare chasing wild dogs. They approached the saint Madhava Vidyaranya, the jagadguru of Sringeri Peetham, who encouraged them to establish their empire from that very spot. Vidyaranya, not coincidentally means “Forest of Knowledge”, for while he was not busy with guiding the brothers on various diplomatic & political activities, he wrote a compendium of different schools of Hindu philosophy (the major source of our understanding of Hindu philosophical past) and also several works on Advaita philosophy.

It is widely believed that Vidyaranya, using his astrological powers, decided upon an auspicious time to establish the empire by which way it would be destined to last 2000 years. He went up to a nearby hill to make his observations with the instruction that the foundation be laid at the exact time he blows his coach. All happened as planned, except that everyone was shocked when they heard the couch the second time minutes after the first! When informed of this upon his return, Vidyaranya ruefully noted that only the second couch sound was from him, and the first was probably by some passerby. Upon his renewed calculations, he deciphered that the empire was now fated to survive only 250 years. It is said that an angst-ridden Vidyaranya prayed to Goddess Sharadamba, who appeared before him and consoled him saying that the situation was not yet ripe for a Hindu Samrajya and his prayer would be granted 500 years after the demise of Vijayanagara Empire.

The empire at its peak extended across the entire South
So, for 250 years this empire stood as a bulwark against invasions from the north and prospered under the solid protection of the Rayas (the Telugu region Rayalaseema derives from “the land of Rayas”). The Hoysala kingdom was the last powerful kingdom to be overthrown by invasions and with the death of its king Veera Ballala III, it came under Vijayanagara wing. In sharp contrast to the in-fighting amongst the Sultans, the early rulers at once showed remarkable foresight by amicably resolving internal conflicts, though historians give much credit for this realpolitik to Vidyaranya’s guidance.

The kingdom saw powerful, erudite, art-loving & tolerant rulers under whom trade and literature sprung to new heights. It reached the zenith of its political power under Krishna Devaraya by inflicting crushing defeats to the neighboring Bahmani Sultanate-originated kingdoms.

Outlier to the leftist narrative

Leftist theory of unidirectional march of civilization implies that India under Islamic sword was a progress over classical India. However, not only did one such classical kingdom outlive the general decline of classical period by huge margin but also thrived well. This being an eyesore to their theory, it was pushed into insignificance by papering down its tremendous influence and impact on medieval India. The myths surrounding the empire are used to dent its credibility as if they weren’t a common feature of the accounts of medieval universe. Myths, it is commonly acknowledged, are sometimes exaggerated accounts of real incidents replete with introduction of magical, supernatural elements. However, the term 'exaggeration' implies that the original, in some form, existed too. The seats of learning like Nalanda University that were destroyed by the invaders in the north, were thankfully spared in the south which shouldered the responsibility of fostering Hindu spiritual-intellectual traditions.

Unfortunately, as Vidyaranya predicted, the empire experienced a catastrophic defeat in 1565 due to treachery by their own Muslim generals and the victorious invaders razed the “City of Victory” to ground, killing its inhabitants and burning it for six months (the ruins of Hampi, a silent witness to these atrocities, should serve as a grim reminder to those of us who wish to preserve Hinduism). Though the empire technically lasted nearly a century more, it was reduced to a mere shadow of its former glory. But by the time its last ruler was lost in oblivion, there was another star rising in the Western Ghats who was destined to keep the Hindu spirit alive and whose empire finally broke the back of invaders’ might. This glorious chapter of Shivaji and the rise of Marathas are for another blog.

Related: Read related material in my review of "Aavarana" by Bhyrappa.

PS: A new addition to our understanding of this great empire is Ratnakar Sadasyula's City of Victory: The Rise and Fall of Vijayanagara

Comments

  1. Wow! Never knew about these amazing aspects of Vijayanagara Kingdom... thanks a lot for sharing this valuable information! I was collating information about their coinage on websites like mintage world and your article was really helpful!

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