Indian History Part 76 Collapse of an Empire Section III Rama Raya – A Retrospective Analysis

Canberra, 30 November 2019

In a purely factual analysis of the decline of the Vijayanagara Empire, Rama Raya’s name stands out either as a hero or a villain depending on the bias of the author or researcher. It is an indisputable fact that Rama Raya was the de facto king of the Empire at the time of the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi (or Talikota); it is certain that the singular act of his being beheaded by Hussein Nizam Shah put the great Vijayanagara army to flight thereby establishing the fact that Rama Raya was personally considered to be the embodiment of the kingdom whose death the Empire could not withstand; and it is also possible to consider him to have been the greatest Vijayanagara ruler had he not lost everything, including his life, in a battle fought while he was a septuagenarian Regent because of his own contemptuous assessment of Muslim military commanders and their soldiers.

In order to place Rama Raya in the correct perspective vis-à-vis the unfolding history of Vijayanagara, it is necessary to analyse not only his actions at the Battle but also to examine Rama Raya as a person.

Contemporary Context

The first mention of Rama Raya in chronicles is in 1512, as a Telugu warrior enrolled by Quli Qutb ul-Mulk (later Shah) as a military commander in the newly formed kingdom of Golconda, which went on to become the Qutb Shahi kingdom. Brief details of other events of regional importance that was taking place at this time will provide a broader historical context to the arrival of Rama Raya into recorded history. In the early 1500s, far away from the Deccan in Central Asia, Babur the scion of the Timurid clan was being driven out of Samarkhand after he had made a futile attempt to capture the illustrious capital of Timur. Babur had then marched through the frozen passes of Central Afghanistan and established his clan at Kabul in early 1512. The ignominious defeat at Samarkhand and the subsequent hasty retreat forced Babur to look east to North India, kindling his ambition once again. A little more than a decade later Babur’s unquenchable ambition culminated in his military victory on the plains of Panipat, launching the great Mughal dynasty in North India.

While the prince who would become the first Mughal was fleeing in defeat from Samarkhand, the Viceroy of Portugal in India, Alfonso de Albuquerque, had already seized the port of Goa from the Bahmani kingdom in 1510. The Portuguese had started to control the lucrative trade in war horses between Arabia and Central Asia with the kingdoms of the South Indian Peninsula. They gradually established a monopoly on the trade and also established a targeted proselytising religious mission. Their religious fervour primarily focused its energies on being anti-Muslim, in keeping with the prevalent counter-revolution in Europe.

1510 was also the year of the final fall of the Bahmani kingdom in the Deccan. The official date of Bahmani obliteration is normally given as 1518, which coincides with the death of the last Bahmani king nominally ruling a truncated territory, although by 1510, there was no identifiable entity that could be considered to be the Bahmani kingdom. 1510 is also the first full year of rule of the great Krishna Deva Raya, illustrious king of Vijayanagara. Krishna Deva Raya is of critical importance in Rama Raya’s rise to power since he was the king who employed Rama Raya in Vijayanagara and subsequently made him his son-in-law, giving his daughter in marriage to the young military commander. This relationship played a crucial role in Rama Raya’s rise to prominence and was celebrated by the common people of the time by adding the title ‘Aliya’, meaning son-in-law, to Rama Raya’s name—this is a relationship that is remembered even today in the retelling of Vijayanagara history, legend and mythology.

It is also important to remember that Rama Raya comes into prominence at a critical moment in the broader history of the sub-continent. This was the time when Indian isolation was being broken down; by the Timurids by their relentless attack by land from the north-west and by Europeans with their arrival by sea on the eastern coast of South India. At this time India was about to become globally connected and change forever.

Early Years

Rama Raya was born in 1484, in the Aravidu village in modern district of Kurnool, which was a part of the Vijayanagara kingdom at that time. His father was a prominent general in the Vijayanagara army. By the time he was 21, Rama Raya had already witnessed two dynastic changes in Vijayanagara—the Sangamas being displaced by the Saluvas who were then ejected by the Tuluva dynasty. In 1512, the Qutb Shahi ruler of Golconda captured several districts of Vijayanagara and recruited Rama Raya to be the administrator of the captured districts. [This one event, authenticated by separately by independent and unconnected sources, alone testifies to the fact that as late as the early 16th century, Peninsular India was not divided into the Muslim Deccan of the north and the Hindu South India. The installation of Rama Raya as the administrator by a Muslim king is also indicative of the prevailing political environment of the time where loyalty to family or paymaster was considered more important than being loyal to the land, religion or ethnic group.]

Three years later, Bijapur invaded the districts being administered by Rama Raya. Instead of trying to defend the territory he was responsible for, Rama Raya fled to Golconda without offering even token resistance. The Qutb Shah was displeased by what he considered an act of cowardice and promptly dismissed Rama Raya from Golconda service. [Although the reason for Rama Raya’s meek behaviour in this episode cannot be fathomed, his behaviour in later years indicate that the charge of cowardice could have been laid on him prematurely or it is possible that he may have been made the scape goat by the Qutb Shah, for the loss of territory. It is highly possible that Rama Raya did not have the wherewithal to defend himself and his territories at that time.] In any case, Rama Raya moved to Vijayanagara and entered the service of the great Krishna Deva Raya.

The timing was propitious. Krishna Deva Raya had just won a string of stunning victories that had brought enormous wealth to Vijayanagara. The conquests of the Vijayanagara Raya started in 1509 and continued unabated for the next 14 years, with the great king not suffering even a single defeat. (Krishna Deva Raya’s conquering march has been detailed in an earlier chapter in this book.) Rama Raya bore witness to the rise of Krishna Deva Raya’s power to its zenith when the great king became the arbiter of power for the entire Peninsula, capable of ‘appointing’ kings, even in the Muslim Deccan. It is highly likely that the ambitious and shrewd Rama Raya studied this rise of the great king and that it affected his later behaviour.

Rama Raya had been accompanied to Vijayanagara by his brother Tirumala, who had also taken up service with Krishna Deva Raya. Rama Raya distinguished himself in the military campaigns, so much so that Krishna Deva Raya gave one of his daughters in marriage to the young and upcoming commander. Another daughter was married off to Tirumala—the brothers were in the king’s favour. This turn of events once and for all disproves the earlier accusation of cowardice laid against Rama Raya, for the Vijayanagara king would not have given his daughter in marriage to anyone but an extremely capable commander. These marriages established the connection between the Tuluva dynasty and Aravidu family. They also indicate the already high status of the Aravidu family.

Rise to Power

Rama Raya had always been ambitious and from the time that he became son-in-law to the king, he started to assiduously gather power for himself and the extended Aravidu family. Gradually and in stages he emerged as the most powerful noble in the kingdom. He took the first step towards ultimate power soon after the death of Krishna Deva Raya in 1529. Before his death, Krishna Deva had nominated his brother Achyuta to be his successor and Rama Raya as the Prime Minister. Rama Raya made an attempt to place Krishna Deva Raya’s infant son on the throne with himself as the Regent, which was checked by nobles loyal to Achyuta. Although his attempt to usurp power was unsuccessful, Rama Raya was not to be outdone. He reconciled to being the Prime Minister. However, he started to appoint his own kinsmen to key positions in the administration and also as commanders of the critical forts, establishing a process to secure his hold over the kingdom.

In another astute move, Rama Raya became the greatest patron of the Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, which was the cornerstone of religious power and spiritual authority in the kingdom of Vijayanagara. At the same time, a fortuitous socio-political event in the region played into Rama Raya’s schemes and helped him to further shore up his position. In Bijapur, Ibrahim Adil Shah came to power in 1535 after the death of his father and made some changes in the administration of the kingdom, aimed at ‘Indianising’ the social environment. He favoured the Deccani nobles and military commanders as opposed to the Firangi nobles (mostly Shia Muslims from Persian and Central Asia) who had so far held sway in the court, summarily dismissing the Firangis from positions of power. He also made Kannada and Marathi the official languages of the kingdom, instead of Persian that had so far been used in court. [The tension between the Firangi nobles and the Deccani faction, which led to several civil wars, was one of the primary reasons for the ultimate fall of the Shahi kingdoms. Refer: ‘From Indus to Independence: Volume VI Medieval Deccan Kingdoms’.] Rama Raya initiated the second step towards becoming the most powerful noble in Vijayanagara by hiring the Firangi nobles who were dismissed from Bijapur, who pledged personal loyalty to him. Thereby Rama Raya considerably improved his military power and increased the size of the nobles personally beholden to him.

On Achyuta’s death in 1542, his brother-in-law murdered most of the Tuluva family, including the boy-king who had been placed on the throne, and attempted to usurp power. While this power struggle was going on, Rama Raya had withdrawn to his own estates in the country to avoid being pulled into the intrigue in the capital. Once the debauchery of the new ‘king’ became common knowledge, Rama Raya became the rallying point for the nobles who wanted to save the kingdom from further decline. Rama Raya also had with him the teenaged Sadasiva Deva, Krishna Deva Raya’s nephew and the only direct descendant who had a claim to the throne after all the Tuluvas had been murdered. Sadasiva’s presence in his camp was a trump card and enabled Rama Raya to take the third step towards total power. When he was ready to make his move, the dowager Queens in the capital displayed covert power and had the capital handed over to Rama Raya without any bloodshed.

Rama Raya acted as the Regent to the young Sadasiva Deva till 1550 and then imprisoned the king when he wanted to assume independent power. Rama Raya thereafter assumed autocratic power, ruling the kingdom as king in all but name.

The Road to Rakshasa-Tangadi (Talikota)

The early scholars and historians who studied Vijayanagara, always characterised the Empire as a Hindu kingdom that stood up as a bulwark against Muslim invasion and onslaught that threatened to overwhelm the entire South India. Within this pre-conceived concept, Rama Raya is painted as having been responsible for the defeat of Vijayanagara in the crucial battle, having brought it on because of his arrogant and humiliating behaviour towards the Shahi kings. Similarly the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi followed by the ransacking and destruction of Vijayanagara is explained in great detail as having been the ‘clash of civilisations’. In these descriptions, the Shahi kingdoms are given the ‘credit’ for having come together in religious solidarity to destroy the last bastion of Hinduism in South India. The analysis goes on to credit this definitely critical battle as having been ‘the’ decisive battle in the religious history of India, not merely in the southern Peninsula.

Later-day analysis that take into account information that was earlier not available, however, provide a much more nuanced explanation and view of the state of affairs in the Deccan and South India in the years leading up to the battle and of the battle itself. Two basic factors stand out in this analysis. One, the confederacy that managed to defeat and destroy Vijayanagara while at the height of its glory, although consisted of only the Shahi Muslim kingdoms, was not motivated by religion or religious zeal at the core of its foundation. The alliance was created in a pragmatic manner to reduce the supremacy that an extremely powerful neighbour enjoyed and had started taking for granted. None of the Shahi kingdoms could hope to equal, let alone defeat, Vijayanagara militarily. In addition, Rama Raya the de facto king, was actively involved in the internecine wars of the Shahis, becoming the ‘king-maker’ in the Deccan, a situation that rankled the Shahi kings.

Two, the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi was not a sudden and cataclysmic event as it has been made out to be in some of the earlier narratives. It was actually the last and culminating battle in a series of clashes and campaigns conducted over the years in which Vijayanagara and the Shahi kingdoms had been involved. The battle should be considered the final one that ended a long drawn war, which had started as skirmishes at least two centuries back. Rama Raya was neither the first nor would he be the last king of Vijayanagara who continuously interfered in the political affairs of the Deccan kingdoms. Of course it is a fact that from the beginning of his regency he had been active in the domestic affairs of the Shahi kingdoms, thereby exasperating the Muslim rulers to his north. Rama Raya should be considered nothing more than a catalyst to the formation of the confederacy. Almost all actions initiated by Rama Raya was aimed at astutely, and at times surreptitiously, building up his family’s reputation and strengthening its dynastic connections. There was no religious flavour to his actions, as witnessed by his welcoming the Firangi Muslim nobles who had been dismissed by the Adil Shah to his own court.

Rama Raya’s primary concern was ensuring that his family, the Aravidus, gained royal status and became a dynasty in their own right. All his actions were focused to achieve this aim. Towards this end, in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the general population, and particularly the nobles who had rejected Rama Raya’s earlier attempt at usurping the throne, he had aligned the narrative and associated his family with the Chalukyas—who had ruled the Deccan and South India between around 950 and 1200, for nearly three centuries. The court poets of Vijayanagara were roped into sanctify the tenuous claim of this relationship, which they did with their rhetoric and poems that lavished titles on Rama Raya and connected him to the illustrious Chalukya dynasty. This effort was continuous, so much so that the late-17th century poet, Andula Venga Kavi, even claimed that Rama Raya had descended genealogically from the Chalukya dynasty, without even a single thread of evidence to prove the claim.

There is of course no doubt that the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi changed the history of South India by creating a political and strategic rupture in the historical narrative of Vijayanagara. At the end of the battle, Sadasiva Deva was released from complete captivity and took on pretensions of being the king of a slightly truncated kingdom. However, the Tuluva dynasty that had virtually ended with the earlier imprisonment of Sadasiva Deva when he came of age, was physically extinguished with his death. In 1570, Rama Raya’s brother Tirumala, who should carry a majority of the blame for the abject defeat and subsequent sacking of Vijayanagara, was crowned as the first king of the last dynasty to rule Vijayanagara—the Aravidus. At the same time the political power of Vijayanagara, in decline, continued to move further into South India with the king losing hold of his ‘northern territories’ and control of even the South becoming somewhat tenuous and at times even untenable.

Was there a Cultural Divide?

Even though the nuances of the reasons for the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi have been amplified by modern historians, the older analysis that painted a vivid picture of the event having been a calamitous event that created a cultural and civilisational disruption in the Peninsula continues to be considered the ‘true’ fact. This belief is erroneous.

It is indeed true that two centuries before this celebrated battle, two disparate and incongruent cultural entities came into intimate contact in Peninsular India. It is also true that the interaction led to a certain amount of conflict of social ideas, societal norms and at times even religious ideology. Such conflicts were bound to take place, especially when the religions rubbing against each other were so completely dissimilar. However, the Deccan saw the gradual emergence of a consensus that could be summed up as a ‘live and let live’ attitude between the two cultures—the foreign arrival gradually inveigling its way into an older and equally pervasive culture, altering itself as well as the host in subtle ways not readily or immediately apparent. These cultural changes were the ones that seeped into common usage without anyone being able to identify the exact date, time or circumstances when the old customs were jettisoned in favour of new and altered traditions.

By the time of the crucial Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi, the interaction between the two cultures had created an osmosis between them. A hybrid solution to cultural idiosyncrasies had emerged leading to a mixed culture in the Deccan and parts of South India, which can be seen even today in the Peninsula. Even though not completely isolated, the least influence of this mixture was felt in the Tamil country in the Deep South. Conflicts and battles had long ceased to be fought over cultural or even religious issues.

Wars and conflicts, even before the time of Krishna Deva Raya, were normally about the usual rivalries between neighbouring kingdoms—emanating from territorial and border disputes and for the control of strategically and/or commercially important forts and ports. In fact, detailed analysis of the causes for wars indicate that almost none of them were fought over cultural or religious differences. It remains a verifiable fact that there is no mention of religion, or persecution based on it, in the accounts of both the sides—Vijayanagara and the Shahi kingdoms—uniformly. The account of the destruction of a temple in the Vijayanagara account is equalled and matched by the account of the destruction of a mosque in one of the Shahi narratives. However, the lure of wealth accumulated in Hindu temples seems to have been a powerful incentive for the Muslim armies to search out and destroy even small village temples. The corollary was not true, since mosques traditionally were austere places of worship with no claim to any inherent wealth.

By 1565, Vijayanagara was as ‘Persionised’ as any of the Muslim Shahi kingdoms to its north. The Persian influence was most visible in the royal court and in the architecture of royal structures. In the royal court, Persian customs were adapted to local conditions and practised with great attention to detail. In architecture the influence was visible in individual buildings and even the overall layout of towns—Vijayanagara had moved away from the classic Hindu ‘Mandala Pattern’ in building citadels, influenced by Persian traditions that were considered more robust. The new style could perhaps be termed the Indo-Persian citadel and was similar to the ones previously seen in Tugluqabad, which was part of the 14th century Delhi Sulatnate.

The simple answer to the question posed at the beginning of this subsection, ‘Was there a cultural divide in the Deccan and South India before the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi?’, would have to be an emphatic, ‘No’.


Rama Raya was revered by his own people as a ruler and perhaps more importantly as the saviour of the Empire and its prestige when it was going through a tough and indecisive period in its history. He was viewed as a powerful ally or a feared adversary by all the Shahi kings, depending on circumstances. From his personal viewpoint, it is certain that Rama Raya considered himself as the heir to the Chalukya imperial tradition and therefore the legitimate king of Vijayanagara, although there is no shred of evidence to connect his Aravidu family to the earlier Chalukyas. However, it is to Rama Raya’s credit that despite his incredibly high ambition, he did not attempt to usurp the throne after the one attempt at the death of Krishna Deva Raya. Even in that attempt, he had wanted to become only the Regent for an infant-king of royal lineage. Perhaps he was aware of his ‘unacceptability’ to be king because of his not being of royal lineage.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Deccan and South India were divided on a religious basis during the 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries. Robert Sewell who put forward the idea that Vijayanagara was the last independent Hindu centre of opposition and resistance to a concerted Muslim onslaught, unfortunately did so with no factual basis to underscore the assertion. On the other hand, Vijayanagara has passed into partial mythology as a symbol of Hindu aspirations and defiance against the storm of Islamic encroachment into Peninsular India. Rightly or wrongly it has come to symbolise the last Hindu bulwark against Islamic religious onslaught into South India. This perception seems to be hard to dismantle.

© [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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