Indian History Part 76 Collapse of an Empire Section II: The Aftermath

Canberra, 27 November 2019

The four Shahi kings moved from the battlefield towards Vijayanagara and halted at Anegundi. They send out advance parties of soldiers to prepare the capital for a great triumphal entry of the victors. After a few days they entered the capital in a state procession with the four kings at the end, preceded by the head of Rama Raya at the end of a long spear. It is certain that they must have crossed the bridge that Rama Raya had built to enter the capital proper. They took up residence in the now abandoned royal palace and stayed in Vijayanagara for the next six months. At the same time they let the soldiers loose to plunder, loot, vandalise and destroy the greatest capital city in South India.

The Sack of Vijayanagara

The Shahi army arrived at the capital determined to give no quarter and show no pity—opening the gates of pent up hate and bursting open their lust for wealth and debauchery. For endless days on end the population of Vijayanagara was put to the sword; blood ran in rivulets, unstopped, across the wide streets of the opulent city for many days; the slaughter stopping only when there were no more Hindus to kill. Having satiated their urge to kill ‘infidels’ or perhaps having none left to torture, rape and kill, the Shahi Army turned to the palaces and temples. The greed for gold combined with the hatred and blood lust against the Hindu unbeliever made the rampaging army unstoppable—and the Shahi kings permitted them to run riot. For six long months the city was plundered and ransacked, no nook or corner went undisturbed at the hands of the decidedly avaricious but ‘religious’ army of the Muslims.

It is reported that at the end, Vijayanagara—the city of victory, plenty and prosperity—lay in complete ruins, not one single building standing, not one stone left atop another.

‘With hammer and hatchet, they [Muslim soldiers] went from place to place, knocking, breaking and smashing all works of art and all objects of worship. The house of victory, the pillars of the Vithala Temple, the limbs of Ugra Narasimha and the belly of the elephant god Ganesha—all suffered from their pitiless hands. Carvings and sculptures over which workmen had spent decades and kings their wealth were reduced to bits at the vandal’s choice and his pleasure.’

H. Rama Sharma,

The History of the Vijayanagara Empire, Vol I, p. 222

The accounts of the destruction and vandalism of the city and its surroundings vary. The Muslim chroniclers are unanimous in declaring that the entire city was razed to the ground. Taking his cue from these records and almost completely ignoring other sources, Robert Sewell concurs with their assessment. Therefore, the general belief and acceptance is that Vijayanagara the capital was destroyed to an extent wherein it became uninhabitable and was abandoned. The truth seems to be somewhat different as brought out by Father Henry Heras in his monumental work that focuses on the fourth dynasty of Vijayanagara, the Aravidu family of monarchs.

Father Heras’s Account

Writing in the early 1900s, Father Henry Heras, Professor of History at St Xavier’s College in Bombay (Mumbai) states that the destruction brought to the city by the Shahi forces may not have been as great as suggested by the Muslim chroniclers of the time. Heras states that the main buildings of the city were still partially visible in the late-19th century when he personally visited the site and therefore he contends that they could not have been razed to the ground as reported in Muslim records. However, he is in agreement with the older narratives that give graphic descriptions of the desecration and destruction of the great temples of the city. He states that all idols from the temples, some of them priceless in their antiquity and pure monetary value, were broken up and carried away or cast away. It is also certain that several major commemorative edifices of the city were destroyed completely.

The destruction was effected either while searching for hidden treasures or at the explicit orders of Hussein Nizam Shah, who is reported to have personally set fire to several royal buildings. Signs of these conflagrations were still visible when Heras visited the site. Father Heras puts forward a theory that the Shahis may have wanted to retain the glorious city for themselves. He argues that this was the reason for only the Hindu temples and some iconic buildings of the defeated Hindu regime to have been destroyed, while most of the royal quarters were retained in their original state.

The Shahis also constructed new buildings in the city, giving further veracity to Heras’s claims that they intended to annex the city for themselves. In the ruins of Vijayanagara, even today, these buildings can be seen—they do not belong to the typical Vijayanagara architectural style, but combine Hindu and Muslim styles of construction, favouring the Islamic architecture norms. Yet, in a short span of six months, the Shahi kings departed for their own kingdoms. Disagreements of such proportions had cropped up between them that wars erupted almost immediately on their reaching their respective kingdoms in the Deccan.

The Retreat of the Shahi Kings

It is clear that if the combined Muslim army had pushed further south they would have been able to break up the Vijayanagara Empire and parcel off its lands between themselves. However, their unity lasted only a mere four months before intrigue and infighting started between the three major Shahi kingdoms—Bijapur, Ahmadnagar and Golconda. The impossibility of maintaining some semblance of unity because of the inherent flawed character trait that made them jealous of each other was once again demonstrated. [The jealous nature perhaps stemmed from the origins of the Shahi kingdoms, which were all carved out of a faltering Bahmani kingdom. The warlords who individually established these dynasties were obviously jealous of the victories and territorial holdings of the others, wanting to be better than their neighbours. The tendency to covet the territory of the neighbours leading to mutual jealousy had obviously become a character trait of their descendants.] Their mutual jealousy knew no bounds.

In this instance, it was Ali Adil Shah’s selfishness that was the catalyst to breaking up the alliance or the Shahi Confederacy.

Alliance: n. a union or agreement to cooperate, especially of nations by treaty.

Confederacy: n. a league or alliance, especially of confederate states.

While Vijayanagara was being elaborately and deliberately sacked, a combined army of the three Shahi kingdoms under the joint command of the three Prime Ministers—Mustapha Khan of Golconda, Inayatullah Khan of Ahmadnagar, and Kishwar Khan of Bijapur—overran and captured the entire Doab and the forts and Raichur and Mudgal. After their capture, this territory including the two forts were handed over to Bijapur at the insistence of Mustapha Khan, the Golconda Prime Minister. He had earlier been the lynchpin and instrumental in creating an amicable atmosphere between the three Shahi kings to create the alliance. Therefore, it is likely that Mustapha Khan had made some informal commitment to Ali Adil Shah regarding the fate of the Doab after the war, in order to seal the alliance.

This act on the part of Mustapha Khan incensed Hussein Nizam Shah, although the Doab was not contiguous to his own kingdom. He immediately demanded that Ibrahim Qutb Shah put Mustapha Khan to death for his unilateral decision to hand over the Doab to Bijapur. Ibrahim demurred, but asked Mustapha Khan to proceed to Mecca with all his wealth. Mustapha Khan, powerful in his own right and confident of his position and stature, refused to go on the suggested pilgrimage and instead defected to Bijapur, where he was welcomed and given a high position in court. By this time all three Shahi kings had taken decisions that went against the wishes of their partners and also acted on them. They realised that staying united within the alliance was not possible. They had no incentive to stay united, such as a powerful common enemy in the person of a Hindu king, and moreover, their inherent personal avarice for territory had already come to the fore.

At the same time Tirumala had started to send out peace overtures, promising to re-set the situation to status quo ante by returning all territories captured by Rama Raya in the earlier war against Hussein Nizam Shah and the siege Ahmadnagar.

Venkatadri’s Fate

Although a majority of chroniclers accept that Venkatadri, the third brother, died in the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi, there are a number of scholars who believe otherwise. Even Ferishta, who was completely biased against the Hindus, state that Venkatadri escaped from the battlefield to a distant fortress, probably even south of Tirupati. A local book, Ramarajiyamu, confirms this assessment and also states that the combined Muslim army gave up trying to find and capture him. A plate at Krishnapuram, issued in 1567 by Sadasiva Raya, as the emperor, mentions Venkatadri being alive in that year.

It is possible that he retired to a distant fort and made people believe that he was dead by not appearing in public as such. Chandragiri, near Tirupati could have provided such a refuge, far away from the reach of the Muslim armies.

The reality of Venkatadri’s fate remains unresolved but all indicators point to the fact that he survived the battle and sort of ‘retired’ to the safety of the Tamil country in the Deep South. He is also reported to have been the person who initiated contact with the Shahi kings on behalf of Tirumala who was now the Regent.

Tirumala’s offer was a god send for the feuding Shahi kings, who agreed to the proposal. They also agreed between themselves that none of them would invade Vijayanagara without the consent of the other two, although the rationale for this decision cannot be understood. There are no explanations in the record for this decision, other than a mention of it being accepted by all three Shahi kings.

The Shahi kings returned to their respective kingdoms, richer than even their own wildest imaginations, to continue their own incessant jealous intrigues as if nothing of great import had just transpired.

Tirumala Returns

Soon after the Muslim forces and their kings withdrew, Tirumala returned to Vijayanagara. This is actually an outstanding event of the time but does not find mention in some narratives and is given scant importance in others. This one action of Tirumala indicates his determination to reinvigorate the Empire, wanting to make a beginning with re-building the partially destroyed capital. The fact that the capital was physically close to the border with the Shahi kingdoms that had only recently defeated the Vijayanagara forces gives further accolades to his motive. As the first initiative he started to attempt to repopulate the deserted city.

It is estimated that Tirumala must have stayed in the capital for at least 18 months before finally giving up hope of re-establishing the capital. Informal records show that the city, while Tirumala was undertaking his rebuilding efforts, was under regular Muslim attacks, especially by Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur. His incursions became so insistent that Tirumala seems to have asked for Ahmadnagar assistance to ward them off, upon which the Bijapur forces desisted from further raids. These raids or invasions underlined the geographic insecurity of Vijayanagara as the capital of the Empire. Tirumala once again reverted to his timid self and decided to abandon the old capital, the City of Victory, for good and return to Penukonda. The same character trait, bordering on cowardice, had earlier doomed the capital to foreign occupation and loot without any resistance.

This second abandonment signalled the final acceptance of defeat by the ruler (de facto) of Vijayanagara and the retreat of the Empire, now perhaps only a kingdom, from the frontline to a line of defence much further back. The Northern provinces of the once great Empire were left to be picked and squabbled over by petty chieftains, both Hindu and Muslim.

Penukonda – The New Capital

Penukonda is located about 70 kilometres from modern Anantpur and is an old town that had existed even before Vijayanagara was established as a kingdom. There is an inscription of Bukka I dating to 1354 in the town. The fort was built during his reign when one of his sons, Vira Virupanna, was the governor of Penukonda. The fort may have been dedicated to the Hindu god, Lord Hanuman, since an 11-feet high status of Hanuman is still seen inside the fort.

The fort was further enlarged and fortified by successive governors, who were all from the royal family. The importance of the fort can be gathered from this. Ancient inscriptions about Penukonda describe it as ‘god-built’ since it was believed that no man could conquer it.

On making it his capital, Tirumala called it the second ‘City of Victory’—Penukonda–Vijayanagara.

Caesaro Federici’s Account

Caesaro Federici (1530-1603), also known as Caesar Fredrick in English and by which name is he is normally quoted, was an Italian trader and traveller who visited Vijayanagara city in 1566-67. He confirms that after the return of the Shahi kings to their own countries, Tirumala returned to Vijayanagara and unsuccessfully attempted to revive the city and repopulate it. In his account of his travels in India, The voyage and travaile into the East India, published in London in 1588 and reproduced by Da Capo, New York in 1971, he states, ‘The Citie of BEZNEGER is not altogether destroyed, yet the houses stand still, but emptie, and there is dwelling in them nothing, as is reported, but Tygres and other wild beasts’.

It is clear the Vijayanagara was not fully destroyed, giving credence to the belief that the Shahis wanted to appropriate it for themselves. However, it is equally clear that within a year of the great defeat at Rakshasa-Tangadi, nobody was living there. The great city never recovered. It remained, and continues to remains to this day, mute witness to the greatness of an Empire and the scene of defeat, desolation and destruction. Vijayanagara had disappeared as a city.


The Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi is not given sufficient importance in the modern narrative of Indian history. This is incorrect and is the result of a North Indian bias to the recounting of Indian history, a malaise from which it has suffered for long and needs to be put right. The results of this bias is there to see even today. This epic battle is a sign-post, a distinguishable marker, a stake in the ever moving sands of time, which separates the era of the splendour of Hindu kingdoms in South India and the age of inexorable Muslim expansion in the Peninsula.

The defeat of the great Vijayanagara Empire at the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi had far-reaching repercussions and influenced the course of events for the next few centuries not only in South India, but for the entire Indian sub-continent—it fostered the ambition of the Mughal Aurangzeb to conquer South India; it provided the impetus for the rise of the Maratha Confederacy, which altered Indian history for ever; and it also instigated Haidar Ali to overthrow the old and honoured Hindu dynasty of Mysore, again an event of momentous import in the broader history of the sub-continent.

On the other hand, the battle need not necessarily be considered to have been the death knell of Vijayanagara kingdom, but as an event that essentially brought the curtain down on the Tuluva dynasty. Although the defeat was suffered by the Regent Rama Raya of the Aravidu family, the formal emperor at that time was Sadasiva Deva Raya of the Tuluva dynasty. After the battle he continued to be a prisoner of the Aravidu clan, with Rama Raya’s younger brother Tirumala assuming the regentship. Tirumala, alternating between decisive action and abject cowardice, went on to establish the fourth, and last, dynasty to rule Vijayanagara, which lasted for more than a century.

Even though the imperial crown and most of the wealth and treasure of the glorious empire had been saved, there is no doubting the fact that Vijayanagara was in decline. The Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi had deeply shaken the very foundations of the Empire and the Aravidu clan could not produce a series of strong rulers who would have been necessary to guide the kingdom back to its strong moorings. The combination spelt the doom of the Hindu kingdom. The Vijayanagara star never again rose to the zenith in its sky. The ancient splendour of the Empire and its City of Victory remained an ever-distant dream—its glory embellished with repeated recounting, while in reality it was gradually losing its shine.

© [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 Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) 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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