Indian History Part 74 The Saluva Dynasty Section I: Antecedents

Canberra, 3 July 2019

Saluva is not the name of a family, clan or tribe. It is a title meaning ‘Hawk’, very similar to the Persian title ‘Bahri’. There is a vague trace that is discernible in bits and pieces which could be considered to link the Saluvas as having descended from the Yadavas and also to Kalyani as the place of their origin. However, there is no conclusive proof of these connections and the claims to the exalted ancestry are made by the Saluvas themselves. The first Saluva to be named is one Gunda I, whose son Mangappa Dandanatha was dispossessed of the ancestral family estates in the Deccan, where they were in the service of some minor chieftain.

Since the immediate future looked bleak, Mangappa migrated south and found employment under Bukka I around the time that Vijayanagara was being established. He came to prominence serving under Kumara Kampana during the latter’s South Indian campaign as the crown prince. It is reported that Mangappa killed the Sultan of Madurai in combat thus earning the respect of the army and coming to the personal attention of the prince, who gave him the title ‘Saluva’. He was thus the first in the family to earn the title ‘Saluva’ by sheer dint of brave deeds, a title that continued to be cherished very proudly by his descendants.

In return for focused services to the State, Mangappa was granted estates in the eastern borders of Mysore. There is a report of a Mangappa Dannayaka ruling Bagepalli in 1391; it is highly possible that this person was the same Saluva. Mangappa’s son Gunda II was an even greater warrior than his father and served with distinction under Harihara II. The family continued to be reputed warriors for few generations, serving under the Sangamas, and growing in stature, power and influence. Even though the title was earned by their ancestor, the Saluvas constantly proved their worth in battle and thus, over a period of time, earned the right to appropriate this title for the family.

The Bahmani Break-up

At the same time as the Sangama dynasty was being replaced in Vijayanagara, the Bahmani dynasty to the north was also going through internal turmoil. However, unlike in Vijayanagara the dynasty was being replaced for the betterment of the kingdom, events took a different turn in the Muslim Sultanate. By 1482, with a boy-king Mahmud Shah II on the throne of the Bahmani kingdom, central control was only nominal. Similar to the situation in Vijayanagara, powerful nobles were in control of the various provinces and regions. However, in the case of Vijayanagara there was no tendency for the nobles to break away, whereas the Bahmani nobles were inclined to carve out independent ‘kingdoms’ for themselves instead of trying to hold the kingdom together. Each one of them were attempting to establish their own independence through calculated rebellions and other disruptive activities. A civil war raged in the capital Bidar.

The stronger nobles, chiefs in their own right, declared independence and divided the old kingdom between them. Five separate kingdoms sprang up in the Deccan—Adil Shahi in Bijapur; Barid Shahi in Bidar; Imad Shahi in Berar; Nizam Shahi in Ahmadnagar; and Qutb Shahi in Golkonda. [The Bahmani Sultanate and these successor kingdoms have been analysed in detail in the previous volume in this series, Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms.]

Vijayanagara mostly interacted with the Adil Shahis of Bijapur with whose territory it shared a long and porous border, which also contained many pockets of contested territories. It is a rare coincidence in history that two dynasties establish and develop two fairly powerful kingdoms during the same timeframe and then both the dynasties collapse almost simultaneously. The Sangama and Bahmani dynasties were antagonistic to each other throughout their rule, sniping at each other on a constant and continuous basis, with neither being able to get the better of the other in any decisive manner.

Saluva Narasimha Raya I

As described in the previous chapter, Praudha Deva Raya, who was placed on the throne by his elder brother, repaid the favour by murdering him. Praudha was already an adult and an experienced prince, having assisted his father in administering the truncated kingdom since 1471. However, he proved to be a feeble and dissolute ruler, given to worldly pleasures and prone to ignoring the affairs of state.

The weak character and inept behaviour of Praudha Deva Raya gave catalysing reason for Saluva Narasimha to seize the throne, in the greater interest of the kingdom. He chose the time to take over very carefully. All the important and more powerful vassals of Vijayanagara, who could have rebelled, had been subdued. Both the Bahmani and Orissa kingdoms were in domestic turmoil and therefore would not be able to effectively interfere in the slight instability that was certain to accompany any and every forced change in dynastic rule. It was also ensured that Praudha would not be able to reach out to any neighbour for assistance. Narasimha also won over most of the powerful local nobles by offering presents to them and explaining the reasons for his proposed action.

Narasimha then send an army under his favoured general Narasa Nayaka, the son of his old loyal general Iswara Nayaka, to Vijayanagara to expel Praudha Deva Raya and claim the throne for his master, the Saluva noble. Narasa did not meet any opposition and on his entering the capital Praudha fled and took refuge abroad, bring the final curtain down on Sangama rule.

Saluva Narasimha joined Narasa in Vijayanagara and celebrated his coronation in 1485. The year of his coronation has been fixed as 1487 and also 1490 by some European historians without any corroborative evidence or inscriptions. This author endorses 1485 as the most likely year of the coronation and thus the beginning of formal Saluva rule. Even the year 1485 cannot be established through any inscriptions or other records—the year of Saluva Narasimha’s coronation and the beginning of Saluva rule is not clear. The year has been established by calculating backwards from a clearly known and undisputed date. In this case, the accession to the throne of the great Krishna Deva Raya is one such date, fixed at 1509 by different sources without any ambiguity. When the length of rule of all the interim rulers between Narasimha and Krishna Deva Raya is taken into account, the date of Narasimha’s coronation can be accurately calculated and is seen to be 1485. Some other records show the start of Saluva rule as 1454. However, this is the year in which Narasimha had started to rule by proxy, while officially continuing as the governor of the eastern provinces. This anomaly is more visible in Hindu records, since the people had already accepted the Saluva noble as the actual ruler.

Nuniz’s Account

Nuniz wrote about the usurpation of the throne from the Sangamas about 60 years after the event, collecting information from unverifiable sources, mostly through word-of-mouth that is particularly prone to exaggerations and embellishments. The narrative starts with Virupaksha Raya (mentioned as Verupacarao) during whose rule the Empire lost large tracts of lands including Goa, Chaul, and Dabhol to the Bahmanis. This assumption is historically fairly accurate.

Virupaksha was a despotic ruler given to the pleasures of the harem and a debauched drunkard. His elder son murdered him out of sheer disgust at his atrocious behaviour, and then placed Praudha Deva Raya, a younger brother, on the throne. This king also proved to be of a similar nature to his father, the previous king, and in some aspects even worse. Therefore, the nobles deposed him and elevated a noble called Narasimha to the throne. Nuniz goes on to state that the kingdom was then called the Kingdom of Narasimha.

It is believed that Narasimha was in some way connected to the Sangama dynasty. However, this connection of the Saluva family to the old royal line of the Sangamas, if it did indeed exist, has never been clearly established.

Initial Difficulties

Most usurpers face the same challenge—it is easy enough to depose an incompetent and debauched king and claim the throne if one has an efficient army at one’s disposal; but it is very difficult to enforce authority and establish control over the kingdom that has been taken over. Narasimha was confronted with the same test. A large number of chiefs and nobles had supported him in overthrowing the last Sangama ruler. However, after the event, they were reluctant to accept Narasimha as their king and did not want to submit to his control. They felt that Narasimha was one of them and therefore only as important as themselves. The nobles felt that he was not their leader to be placed on the throne. Narasimha was now forced to fight his erstwhile supporters in order to establish control and consolidate the central administration over the kingdom.

Narasimha faced two main opponents, who in their own right were powerful chiefs. First was the Sambeta chief of Peranipadu in the Gandikota region. Narasimha took his army to the Sambeta stronghold at Maddigundala. The chief, Sambeta Sivaraja, fought the imperial army till his fortress was reduced by concentrated artillery fire. Thereafter Sivaraja was killed in battle along with most of his followers. The second opponent was the Palayagars (Palaigars) clan who were the minor rulers of Ummattur and Talakadu in the Hoysala-Mysore region and Sangitapura in Tulu-nadu, the land of the Tulus. After subduing the Sambetas, Narasimha turned his attention to the Palayagars and defeated the clan in Tulu-nadu. However, he was unable to subdue the other two branches in Mysore region, who remained independent throughout Narasimha’s reign.

Although Narasimha was unsuccessful in subduing some of the revolts that continued to simmer throughout his rule, the fact remains that he single-handedly ensured that the integrity of Vijayanagara kingdom was not in doubt at any time. He held it together without permitting it to break up, which had become a distinct possibility towards the end of the Sangama rule. However, the rebellions and revolts by minor chieftains and nobles greatly weakened the overall strength of the Empire. While Narasimha was consolidating his hold over the kingdom, the Bahmanis were preoccupied by the balkanisation of their kingdom, which was being carved into five independent entities by some of the powerful warlords of the Bahmani Sultanate.

First Encounter with the Adil Shahis of Bijapur

Around the time that Narasimha was celebrating his coronation, the Bahmani Sultanate broke-up. Bijapur under the Adil Shahi kings was one of the more powerful of the successor kingdoms and also the one that shared the longest border with Vijayanagara. Kasim Barid, the Barid Shahi ruler in Bidar who only had a tenuous hold on power, requested Narasimha’s assistance in containing the rising power of the Adil Shahis of Bijapur. The five successor kingdoms of the Bahmani Sultanate expended most of their energies in fighting each other to ensure that no one kingdom/dynasty became more powerful than the other. This jealous attitude was also the undoing of these minor states when faced with the might of the Mughal Empire at a later stage. (The Bahmani and their successor kingdoms have been covered in detail in the previous volume in this series, Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms.)

Vijayanagara forces advanced up to Mudgal and Raichur, capturing and annexing territories in the Doab to their growing empire, while laying waste most of the countryside. Ferishta provides the usual biased account of this episode by reporting that the Adil Shah defeated and killed the Raya of Vijayanagar. This account is perhaps one of the most exaggerated one that Ferishta has produced in a long list of false reports. The fact remained that the Doab continued to be Vijayanagara territory for a long period of time, even after this encounter.

The Orissa Interlude

Orissa at this time was as powerful a kingdom as Vijayanagara itself, but had just recovered from a succession struggle. Since Vijayanagara was also facing domestic troubles, Purushottam Gajapati, who had established control over Orissa, decided that the internal troubles of Vijayanagara was an opportunity to improve his own situation. When Narasimha was turning his attention to internal rebellions after his coronation, Gajapati seized the eastern coastal Andhra, south of Orissa all the way to Guntur district. Soon after, the Orissa king successfully attacked and captured Udayagiri.

One account of the capture of Udayagiri states that Narasimha was himself present in the fort at the time of its capture and that he was also captured; being forced to cede Udayagiri in exchange for his own freedom. This particular detail cannot be confirmed by any other source and could perhaps be discounted as a fanciful story. However, the loss of Udayagiri to the Orissa king is confirmed in multiple sources.

Conclusion

Saluva Narasimha did not survive for long after the loss of Udayagiri and died in early 1490. There are different opinions regarding Narasimha’s relationship with the Sangama royal family. There is no doubt that he was a powerful noble, although whether of royal lineage or not is unclear. In many inscriptions he is referred to as ‘great lord’ and mentioned as ‘Maharaja’ for the first time only in 1495. Therefore, it is certain that he was crowned king after the removal of the last Sangama king, although whether or not he was related to the royal family cannot be ascertained with any finality. The other certainty is that the pervasive Muslim aggression into South India was stopped by him through the force of arms. He was also fundamentally responsible for consolidating the rapidly scattering Hindu empire.

Narsimha’s achievements and service to Vijayanagara cannot be overestimated. He inherited a kingdom, which had already lost its western ports, which in turn had disrupted the horse trade with the Arabs. The scarcity of fighting horses had adversely affected the efficiency of the Vijayanagara army. Narasimha managed to conquer the Tulu country and regained control of the ports at Honavar and Bhattakula. He then managed to revive the trade in horses and through concerted training, improved the efficacy of the army. These were uphill tasks and Narasimha struggled for some time to achieve them. However, he managed to restore a semblance of peace and order within the Empire.

There is no doubt that Narasimha usurped the throne. However, the power-grab must not be considered purely a leap of ambition. While there is no doubt that Narasimha was ambitious, his ambition was also tinged with a desire to protect the Hindu dharma that was under attack from multiple quarters, especially from the Muslim neighbours to the north. The desire to protect the territorial sovereignty of the kingdom and the spiritual integrity of the religion can be seen in Narasimha’s attempts to improve the status and capability of the army, which had been neglected under the rule of the past few kings. His initiatives made it easier for his successors to build the kingdom towards military glory and increased power.

Narasimha could also be credited with transforming the peaceful and habitually somewhat subdued Hindu farmers into warriors. He moulded them into part-time soldiers, capable of contending with the Muslim soldiers from the north and the Orissa forces from the east in the field of battle. This was no mean achievement. Essentially Narasimha, by sheer dint of his personality and vitality, infused fresh vigour into the body politic thereby ensuring that the kingdom was not destroyed or broken up.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2019]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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