Indian History Part 76 Collapse of an Empire Section IV Recouping the Kingdom after the Defeat

Canberra, 30 November 2019

Robert Sewell, the celebrated historian, states categorically that the history of Vijayanagara finishes with the defeat at the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi [Talikota] since the Empire disintegrated, rapidly decayed and became extinct soon after the battle. This assessment is based completely on the reports of Ferishta, written around 1612-14. Ferishta, one of the most biased chroniclers of medieval Deccan history, writes that Vijayanagara never regained its earlier splendour. It is clear now, with new information becoming available, that he meant the city and not the kingdom. The Empire continued to exist and even thrive in splendour and glory for another 60 years, before the decay actually started to set in, subsequently leading to oblivion.

Certainly, the pomp and grandeur of the Empire had diminished after the defeat and were nowhere equal to the brilliance seen under Krishna Deva Raya or even Rama Raya. However, the vitality of the Empire was preserved by the concerted efforts of Tirumala, Sri Ranga I and Venkata I, the first three rulers of the new Aravidu dynasty. The Aravidu rulers consciously shifted the capital, first to Penukonda and then to Chandragiri and lastly to Vellore in the Deep South. Thus the Tamil country became the critical element in the Empire. In fact, the final collapse of Vijayanagara as a kingdom was witnessed in the Tamil country. Even as Vijayanagara the city became defunct almost immediately after the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi, the Vijayanagara kingdom was saved from the same fate by two factors. First, the inherent character flaws of the Shahi kings ensured that they could not act in unison after reaching the capital of the vanquished enemy. Therefore, no attempt was made to capture, break up and annex the entire kingdom, which had strategic depth into the Tamil country and the Deep South. Second, Tirumala assiduously protected not only the outward displays of royal sovereignty such as the crown and the umbrellas, but had managed to move the majority of the wealth of the nation to Penukonda. In fact the plunder in Vijayanagara was not of so much of the royal treasury as that of the greater city and its temples.

Vijayanagara therefore continued to flourish as a kingdom even after this signal defeat. For the next one century its supremacy was recognised in South India, although this supremacy was sporadically questioned by some local chieftains who were becoming more powerful. The Aravidu dynasty exercised substantial power in South India at least till 1642, almost a century after the defeat at Rakshasa-Tangadi. There is reliable data and evidence to prove that Vijayanagara history, post the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi, was very similar to before the battle for at least the next 50 to 60 years. Even after relocating the capital to Penukonda, Tirumala as the Regent was strong enough to interfere in the domestic affairs of the Shahi kingdoms. Further, his hold over the Empire was never seriously challenged, despite minor revolts in the Tamil country.

For the next 60 years, the kings of Vijayanagara preserved the political and cultural independence of the Empire, refusing to let it slip from being an empire to the lesser stature of a kingdom. They continued as a potent force of anti-Muslim resistance, at all times protecting the Hindu religious and cultural traditions that were coming under regular and extreme pressures from the inroads being made by Islam into South India. Their actions prevented the southward spread of Islam in any meaningful manner for the century following the defeat at Rakshasa-Tangadi.

Permanent Changes

Even though Vijayanagara, both the kingdom and its kings, continued as powerful and credible entities, the emphatic defeat brought about some permanent geo-political changes to South India. First, the Raichur Doab was no longer the contested region between Vijayanagara and the Shahi kingdoms to its north. The Doab was permanently annexed by the Muslim kingdoms. Instead, the zone of Hindu-Muslim contest moved further south from the River Krishna, into territory unassailably held earlier by Vijayanagara. The dividing line between the Deccan Muslim kingdoms and the Hindu Vijayanagara, which had earlier been drawn at the River Krishna, imperceptibly moved further south. Territorially, the northern provinces of Vijayanagara were either lost or became regions of contest for control. Second, the city of Vijayanagara was fully abandoned and gradually fell to ruin, never to recover.

Third, the Nayakas of Tamil country, who had so far been fully autonomous vassals of Vijayanagara, started to be brought under more effective and direct imperial control—a development that was not particularly liked by the Nayakas and which would have repercussions in the long-term. At the same time, the loss of the Northern provinces and even some of the Western ones increased the importance of the Tamil country to the broader kingdom. In the course of time, the Tamil country of the ‘Deep South’ became to core of the Vijayanagara kingdom.

Fourth, Chandragiri, and later Vellore, became the capital of the kingdom and were named Vijayanagara by successive kings, alluding to the glory of the lost City of Victory in the north. Gradually, the Vijayanagara rulers started to be called and referred to as kings of Chandragiri and then later Vellore, irrespective of the rulers continuing to call their capitals Vijayanagara. The move of the capital to the Deep South was a tacit acceptance by the Aravidu kings that they had abandoned the first and second line of defence of the Empire and were shoring up the third and fourth lines of defence. To a large extent it was also acceptance that the kingdom as a whole was under long-term siege.

Tamil Country Nayakas

There were three major Tamil feudatories of Vijayanagara ruled by the Nayakas—Gingee (Senji or Jinjee), Thanjavur and Madura—and also a number of smaller principalities of minor importance. The common factor among these vassal states was that they were all fiercely independent with only token acceptance of the imperial power of the Vijayanagara kings. It is true that they paid tribute and also committed their forces to Vijayanagara battles when required, but in all other matters of rule, they were independent to a fault. The role played by these three powerful vassals in the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi is not fully clear, although it is certain that they would have contributed to the Vijayanagara army.

Gingee Nayakas. The origin of this Nayaka clan is uncertain, their antecedents have neither been researched fully nor confirmed. However, it has been established that by the time Krishna Deva Raya assumed the throne in Vijayanagara, there was full-fledged Nayaka rule in Gingee. There is also a report of a rebellion in Gingee in the early years to declare independence. Krishna Deva Raya subdued the rebellion and the Gingee Nayakas accepted Vijayanagara sovereignty, paying tribute thereafter on a regular basis. Even though the succession of the Gingee Nayakas and their rulership have been recorded, there is a great deal of confusion regarding the chronology and the flow of leadership of successive rulers.  The interaction and relationship between the different parts of the clan is also shrouded in ambiguity. However, from the time of the great Krishna Deva Raya, they seem to have maintained a balanced relationship with the Vijayanagara kings, remaining sufficiently loyal and accepting imperial overlordship.

Thanjavur Nayakas. The origin of the Thanjavur Nayakas can be traced to 1532, when Saluva Narasimha Sellapa, then the chief, was defeated by Achyuta Deva Raya and thereafter remained loyal to the Vijayanagara kings. The Thanjavur Nayakas also entered into a number of minor marital alliances with the royal family that helped to further strengthen the bonds between them. This Nayaka clan essentially controlled the erstwhile Chola country throughout their subsidiary reign. There are no epigraphical or literary evidence of their direct involvement in the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi. However, their intimate relationship with the royal family and Rama Raya during his regentship leaves no doubt that the Thanjavur army would have taken to the field in this fateful battle. Even after the battle and the defeat, Thanjavur Nayakas remained fiercely loyal to Vijayanagara royal family, rapidly transferring their loyalty to the new Regent, Tirumala.

Madura Nayakas. The origins of this faction of the Nayaka clan and the date of their coming to power in Madura is even today greatly disputed. The date of their assuming power in Madurai varies from the reign of Krishna Deva Raya to after the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi. It is certain that they were ruling Madura and environs much before Rama Raya assumed the regency and it is highly probable that they came to power during Krishna Deva Raya’s reign, being fully confirmed in their position by Achyuta Deva. Circumstantial evidence point to the fact that a contingent of the Madura army fought at the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi, not under the command of the ruling Nayaka, but under their commander-in-chief. There is also indirect evidence that indicates a rebellion in Madura during the same timeframe as the great Battle, which the ruling Nayaka was unable to contain since the army leftover in the province was insufficient to be effective. This information confirms the Madura army’s participation in the war far away to the north and could also have been the incentive for the rebels to take up arms against the Nayaka.

There is no doubt that all the three Tamil Nayakas send forces to fight at the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi, although there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that these forces made any tangible difference to the battle and its outcome. It is also certain that the three Nayakas were not personally present in the battlefield and therefore the decisive defeat did not affect their individual feudatories in any direct manner.

Vijayanagara and the Nayakas – A Tenuous Relationship

When the imperial capital was in Vijayanagara, far away from the Tamil country in the Deep South, contact between the Emperor and the Nayakas were infrequent and not intimate. This geographic distance facilitated the relationship staying at a cordial and formal level of acceptance. However, when the capital moved to Chandragiri and then to Vellore, the close geographical proximity led to increased interference by the Emperor, creating friction and gradual estrangement. The debate whether the Nayakas remained fully loyal to the imperial crown after the capital had been moved south is vexed and without a clear outcome.

There are two reasons that are provided for the estrangement that started to take place between the Tamil Nayakas and the Aravidu kings who started to rule Vijayanagara immediately after the defeat at the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi. The first is that the Nayakas of Gingee, Thanjavur and Madura were unhappy with the murder of Sadasiva Deva Raya. This unease was made more intense by the fact that his alleged murderer, then a prince, had gone on to become the Raya as Venkata Deva Raya I. The other reason put forward is that the Emperor-king had started to interfere in the internal administration of the feudatories since he took up residence in Chandragiri, which was disliked by the Nayakas. This second viewpoint also deemphasised the murder committed when the king was a young prince, which was not considered to be of much importance.

It is certain that the interference from the imperial crown was the real reason for the rebellions and attempts to severe the allegiances to Vijayanagara by the Gingee and Madura Nayakas, which in turn constrained the Aravidu dynasty throughout their rule. The Thanjavur Nayakas however remained steadfast in their loyalty to the crown. The shift of the capital to Chandragiri from Penukonda was a calculated move. It was meant to establish direct control over the Tamil country and its Nayakas, since that region had now become the core of the Empire. From their perspective, the Nayakas resented this overt move that led to direct interference in their internal affairs. The only path open to them was to craft overt rebellions and covert attempts to undermine the power and stature of the Emperor-king.

Many Empires, in India and elsewhere in the world, have succumbed to the centrifugal forces exercised by feudatories that had gradually become powerful enough to shake the foundations of the mother empire. It is not surprising that Vijayanagara also fell to this creeping menace.

© [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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