(Published in Mint Lounge, May 30 2020)
In 16th century India there was an emperor of great magnificence and charisma. It is said that he sometimes dressed in a commoner’s garb to wander the streets of his capital, while in court he sat enthroned in fine robes, always resplendent. In conquest, he was formidable, even as he engaged with men of spiritual leanings and diverse philosophical persuasions. Panegyrists sang praises of the man and a cloak of mythology wove itself around his reputation for he was, without doubt, one of the great rulers of his age. But if reading these lines conjures up an image of the more familiar Akbar, you would be mistaken—we speak here of Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara, who preceded the padshah by two generations. Indeed, the Raya in the south was perhaps one up on the great Mughal, for where the latter was illiterate, the former was a poet.
In some respects, it is surprising that it has taken so long for an impeccably researched and yet accessible book (which is not a hagiography) to emerge in English on such a fascinating man. But that is what Srinivas Reddy delivers in Raya: Krishnadevaraya Of Vijayanagara. Some years ago, I was struck when reading his doctoral thesis on the emperor’s epic Amuktamalyada (a composition where we find “a king of Karnataka writing about a Tamil saint in Telugu”), for it was full of rich analysis and detail, making clear also the writer’s command of his subject. In this biography of Krishnadevaraya now, Reddy draws on his previous expertise with literary sources, marrying it to folk memory, Persian chronicles, the physical evidence left in architecture, art and inscriptions, and existing scholarship. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent, altogether edifying biography that combines academic sophistication with good writing.
For a text of 232 pages, inclusive of notes, there are many threads the author draws in. The first half, as far as telling Krishnadevaraya’s story goes, is almost entirely a succession of battles and conquests, which correspond with the early phase of the emperor’s career. It might feel like a tedious sequence but happily, there are discussions on attendant subjects punctuating the process. We read about the conundrum of sources, for example, and the questions these present: Islamic writings are quiet on the death of one of the Raya’s chief Muslim antagonists while a Telugu work offers a graphic account of how the sultan met his end. If this is not entirely surprising, since defeated parties have little incentive to memorialize humiliation, what is puzzling is how one of the Raya’s most sensational victories appears in a Persian chronicle but not in any Vijayanagara source.
Similarly, there is a fascinating tension that features repeatedly in the book. It speaks not only of the political dynamics of the time but also about Hindu kingship, caste and methods of legitimization. Reddy brings to the fore a highly interesting (and perhaps to some, provocative) line when he puts forth the argument that far from viewing the Deccan’s Muslim sultans with a visceral hatred, what seems to have affected Krishnadevaraya more personally was his enmity with the Gajapati king of Odisha. The reasons revolved around identity and status: The latter claimed Kshatriya rank, and even in defeat, sneered at the mighty Vijayanagara ruler as a dasi putra (son of a servant) and sudra. The feud, reflecting wider trends, continued also in how the Gajapati wrote in Sanskrit, while Krishnadevaraya preferred Telugu. In the end, the Raya defeated the Gajapati and took his daughter (a union that was, predictably, a disaster) but the episode on the whole is hugely instructive of the past and its complexities.
Reddy’s approach possesses a confidence that eschews the unnecessary quarrels animating noisy public discussions on history today, while separating the wheat from the chaff with a quiet directness. Yes, Vijayanagara legitimized itself through the Sanskritic ideals it upheld, even as it was, from the start, “influenced by Islamic political culture”. Religion was not the motivating factor in the empire’s dealings with Muslim states but it was one of many important elements that helped shape kingly policy. Reddy does not sermonize or try to “settle” today’s feuds on these themes but he does touch on them enough to remind us not to get lost in present-day concerns at the cost of the big picture and what it reveals to unclouded minds.
In the second half of the book, we read more about Krishnadevaraya’s cultural contributions. This included temple patronage, especially in Tirupati, the development of statecraft and structures of governance, and intellectual exploration. The Raya collected poets and thinkers, presiding over “not only a vast earthly empire but a vibrant literary one as well”. Equally, Reddy suggests, signs of arrogance began to afflict the man: An episode where he agreed to make peace with a sultan if the latter came and kissed his feet, is a case in point. Meanwhile, one eye was also turned to the wider world overseas, as is clear in the Raya’s dealings with the Portuguese. In the end, there is treachery and intrigue, along with a growing vulnerability about succession and the future of his line. As a proverb from one of the Raya’s poems put it: “Hell surely awaits at the end of empire.”
In sum, what Reddy achieves in Raya is a book both delightful and original. There are a few minor errors (where Devaraya I and II are conflated, for example, and where the name of a Qutb Shah of Golconda, Sultan-Quli, appears as Quli, with sultan printed as a title) and I was surprised not to see Valerie Stoker’s fine volume on 16th century Vijayanagara in the bibliography. Still, Reddy’s is without doubt a book that deserves to be widely read, not least to know better a king who, like peninsular Indian history in general, is often overshadowed by northern peers and subjects. Indeed, it is such a satisfying experience that on turning the final page, I had only one major grievance—that the book could, perhaps, have been longer.