Vijayanagar’s age of confidence (03 August 2019)

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 03 2019)

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In 1445, an envoy of the Shah of Iran showed up at the court of Devaraya II of Vijayanagar. Abdur Razzak was not an easy man to please, but his travels in the Indian peninsula till then had been fascinating. In Kerala, he was taken aback at seeing even princes in loincloths, preferring jewels to fabric, while near Mangaluru he visited a shrine within which the idol “had two red rubies for eyes, so cunningly made”, he exclaimed, “that you would say it could see”. And yet it was when he finally arrived in Vijayanagar that the man was truly pleased. The people there, he wrote, had “no equals in the world”, energized by the dynamics of an urban life marked by uncommon prosperity. The king too made an impression (not least because he unexpectedly presented Razzak a Chinese fan during his audience) and soon the Persian was singing praises of Devaraya II, anointing him the most powerful potentate in “the whole of Hindustan”.

But the sights Razzak saw were not destined to last, and, like all great empires, this one too would fall. Only a little over a century after his visit, Vijayanagar was defeated in battle by the Deccan’s sultans, and the city abandoned. Where gems were once sold in heaps in the market, what remained now were haunted ruins. Where dancing girls and saints were welcomed with equal zeal, now there was ghostly silence, punctuated by the howls of animals, and the whispers of treasure hunters. Indeed, only a few days ago, yet another group looking for gold vandalized the samadhi of the Madhva philosopher Vyasatirtha. The resultant anger is unsurprising—one enthusiastic young member of Parliament even compared it to that 1565 defeat inflicted by enemy sultans, adding that this was an effort to “insult and destroy” Indian heritage, especially one as extraordinary as Vijayanagar, which “showcased the Hindu civilization’s rich spiritual heritage & knowledge through its architecture”.

In the event, the vandals themselves turned out to be products of Hindu civilization rather than people connected to dead sultans, but equally interesting is the suggestion that Vijayanagar’s architecture represented a pure Hindu tradition. On the contrary, by Devaraya II’s time, the city was truly international in its influences and appearance, even if the self-image of its rulers was articulated in Sanskritic terms and through pious Hindu concepts. In its early phases, after the founding of the empire in the mid-14th century, the city’s architecture was inspired largely by local styles typical to Karnataka. But as Tamil provinces were annexed to the realm, features from the land of the Cholas and Pandyas also showed themselves in Vijayanagar. By Devaraya II’s day, even a Persian and Islamicate stamp manifested in the city’s buildings: “domes, vaulted arches, parapets of merlons, corner finials, fine plasterwork”, as one historian put it, and much else born in lands across the Arabian Sea.

None of this ought to be surprising. While Hindu in their identity, Vijayanagar’s emperors were hardly reactionaries desperate to “protect” a monolith. On the contrary, they possessed the confidence to not only contribute but also to absorb from the world, without fearing this would dilute in any way their sense of self. Devaraya II, for instance, posed many questions to Razzak, revealing his own interest in the wider world. He wanted to know how many warhorses the Shah of Iran possessed (for Vijayanagar was often at a disadvantage when it came to importing horses, unlike the sultanates). He sought information on cities like Herat and Shiraz—Hormuz he already knew enough about as “Hurumanji”. Moreover, the emperors of Vijayanagar had also adopted the custom of bestowing on distinguished visitors robes of honour (khilat), a practice brought to India by the subcontinent’s Muslim invaders.

The architecture of Vijayanagar, in fact, shows even in its ruins the remains of Persianate influence as much as it does patterns more conspicuously Hindu. Sculptures that date to the founding of the city show, for example, human figures dressed in typical south Indian dress—a piece of cloth wrapped around the waist, with the torso left bare. But by the 15th century, when Devaraya II was born, men appear in stone wearing “close fitting, high-necked, full-sleeved shirts or jackets that were usually buttoned down the front”—an imported innovation. Women and men both wore hats that closely resembled the Turkish fez, evinced also in the bronze of a later emperor, while carvings on major monuments show Arabs leading horses at court. In the Vitthala Temple, meanwhile, there is to this day a pillar featuring a “turbaned Muslim warrior”.

Indeed, even in the defeat that destroyed Vijayanagar in 1565, the division between Hindu and Muslim becomes complicated. Thousands of Marathas joined the battle but were fighting for the sultans; a celebrated Muslim general appears, but he was on the side of the Hindu emperor. The sultans themselves, even while their self-image was expressed in Islamic terms, were hardly a bloc whose purpose began and ended with being Muslim. One was descended from Brahmins, with Persian blood also in his veins, while another was of part-Maratha descent. Yet another with Iraqi blood was a great patron of Telugu, a passion shared with Vijayanagar. Indeed, Devaraya II’s own poet, Srinatha, recorded how the same merchants catered both to Vijayanagar and the sultanates. If the Hindu rulers of Vijayanagar absorbed Persian influences in dress, custom and architecture, so too had the sultans married Islamic practice to Hindu tradition.

This was the reality of the 16th century, though anxieties and prejudice in our own time seek, predictably, to misread the past to address current preoccupations. Vijayanagar’s Hindu identity was not reactionary: It was a keen cultural universe where the chant of Sanskrit did not sit in contradiction with the import of Persianate principles. It is to us that the world of the past was one of “either-or”—to them, confident in their power and lacking in the insecurity some have made a fetish of today, it was, for the most part, a story of joining together, absorbing all that was good and appealing without being threatened by religious tags.

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