Indian History Part 77 The Aravidu Dynasty Section V: A Civil War and Succession: Decay Sets In

Canberra, 11 January 2019 

Sri Ranga, the younger son of Rama Raja, the viceroy of Srirangapatana and elder brother of Venkata Deva Raya II, had moved to the court in Penukonda even before his father’s death. He had been brought up by his uncle, the king, and was considered by all to be the future heir apparent, or Chikka Raya. When he assumed the throne on his uncle’s demise, he already had an 18-year old son and was middle-aged. His coming to power was more the result of favouritism than any undisputed claim to the throne, especially since his elder brother Tirumala (Timma Raja) was still alive, although in a kind of exile within the kingdom. Venkata Deva Raya II had displayed distinctive animosity towards his elder nephew during his reign. (See previous chapter for details).

A Precarious Situation

Even though two Aravidu kings had already ruled the kingdom, Vijayanagara was still not free of foreign threats. However, during the internal turmoil that was taking place in the kingdom, the Deccan Shahi kingdoms were pre-occupied with the Mughal invasion and subsequent fall of Ahmadnagar. It is highly possible that Vijayanagara would have been obliterated by the Muslim kingdoms of Deccan, had not the Mughal invasion diverted their resources and attention. Even so, the loss of territory following the Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi had been catastrophic for Vijayanagara.

In the Eastern region, Kondavidu and surroundings had been lost in 1579. This had made the Qutb Shahis of Golconda encroach south of the natural boundary made up of River Krishna and become an immediate threat to Karnool, Nellore and the other districts in the region. In the centre Bijapur had already annexed Adoni and Rayadurga, while the present-day Bellary and Anantpur had already been lost. In the Western region, by 1573, Bankapur along with Dharwar had been lost. The Adil Shah of Bijapur had established overlordship over most of the western ‘Nayaka’ feudatories, taking their vassalage away from Vijayanagara. The Portuguese in Goa, who had been friendly during Venkata Deva’s reign, now broke the relationship and started to plunder the coastal towns. The Portuguese instigated minor chieftains to rebel and also enter into petty conflicts with each other so that they could then take sides and increase their influence in local politics.

Central power of the king of Vijayanagara was constrained within a narrow, limited stretch of territory and even there was ineffectual. The kingdom was paralysed by administrative inefficiency and continued to decay through complacency at the court and open defiance of sub-ordinate chiefs across the kingdom. It was also being debilitated by external encroachments. The need of the hour, to save the kingdom from the path of gradual descend into oblivion, was for the rise of an altruistic and strong leader. Such a leader unfortunately was not destined to rise in the Vijayanagara firmament and the kingdom continued on the path towards the brink of collapse and eventual extinction.

Succession Struggle

Sri Ranga coming to the throne was opposed by the Queen’s brother Jagga Raya, a powerful noble who refused to swear allegiance to the newly appointed king. Two other nobles with sizeable armies of their own—Timma Nayaka and Mall Raja—also refused to align with Sri Ranga. This difficult situation at the beginning of his rule was aggravated by Sri Ranga not being diplomatic with the nobles and alienating them through his acts of commission and omission, through injudicious appointments, and unreasonable demands for money and wealth. Many nobles deserted the hapless king.

A group of nobles, led by Jagga Raya, plotted to dethrone Sri Ranga and raise the pseudo-son of Venkata Deva II to the throne. The conspirators managed to enter the palace where Sri Ranga surrendered with his family and were imprisoned. Jagga Raya crowned his nephew, the putative son of Venkata II who was still an infant, as the king and declared himself the Regent. All the nobles, with the exception of Yachamma Nayaka, pledged allegiance to the infant-king and Jagga Raya. Yachamma retreated to his own fortress and started to assemble an army. He also made contact with the imprisoned Sri Ranga and managed to smuggle out his second son, the 12-year old Prince Rama, who joined him in the fortress. The news of the prince’s escape and arrival at his fort made some nobles join forces with Yachamma.

Jagga Raya was acutely aware of the volatile situation and took precautions to ensure that Sri Ranga would not escape or be rescued. Several attempts by loyalist nobles to free the king failed. Alarmed at the consequences of one of these attempts succeeding, Jagga Raya decided that the royal family in captivity must be put to death. Accordingly, Sri Ranga was given the option of being beheaded or dying by his own hand. It is reported that he took the honourable way out—personally killing all members of his family, before falling on his sword.

Civil War 1615-17

The forced massacre of the royal family turned public opinion against Jagga Raya and his coterie. The incident also increased the sympathy and support for the only survivor of the family, Prince Rama. In an obtuse manner, he was also the legitimate king of Vijayanagara on the death of his father in captivity. However, he was a fugitive on the move with Yachamma Nayaka and a small band of trusted soldiers. On the other hand, Jagga Raya was the de facto Regent, in possession of the capital and with the allegiance of the majority of the nobility, even though the death of Sri Ranga in shocking circumstances had made some of them to defect to the Yachamma camp.

By this time, Yachamma was personally furious at the treatment and death meted out to Sri Ranga and decided to take bold action. He removed Prince Rama to a safe location under the protection of 10,000 trusted soldiers, himself selected 10,000 brave soldiers to accompany him and marched to the capital where he openly challenged Jagga Raya to defend his infant nephew’s claim to the throne. Jagga Raya came out of the capital to give battle accompanied by a huge army of 60,000 soldiers, mixed with cavalry and elephants. Yachamma led the attack personally and isolated Jagga Raya and his nephew in a fierce charge, managing to seize the royal insignia. The royal insignia was presented ceremoniously to Prince Rama who was then proclaimed king. This initial victory brought more nobles to Yachamma and Rama’s camp, while Jagga Raya fled to the jungle with a small band of followers.

The civil war did not end there. Jagga Raya was a resourceful leader and rallied his scattered forces, while also attempting to bribe, tempt and cajole other nobles to join him. Minor skirmishes between the rival camps continued unabated with neither side emerging as the clear winner in an overall sense.

Battle of Topur 1617

Muthu Virappa Nayaka, the powerful Madura Nayaka and Krishnappa Nayaka ruling Jingi, were both manoeuvred into joining the Jagga Raya alliance. With this development, the balance of power shifted decidedly in favour of Jagga Raya. Yachamma, caught by surprise with these unexpected turn of events, was forced on the back foot. He in turn appealed to the Thanjavur Nayaka, Raghunatha, whose sense of justice and loyalty to the legitimate sovereign were well known. He informed Raghunatha that the adversary forces were gathering near Tiruchirapalli. Raghunatha hurried with his forces to the area and camped at Palavaneru, where he was joined by Yachamma. A number of chiefs who were loyal to Venkata Deva II also joined the camp. A decisive battle took place at Topur, close to the Grand Anicut.

The Grand Anicut

The Grand Anicut, also known as the Kallanai dam, is an ancient dam, built in running water across the River Kaveri, about 15 kilometres from Tiruchirapalli (in modern Tamil Nadu State). The dam was originally constructed by the Chola king Karikala Chola, around 100 B.C. It is the fourth oldest water-diversion/regulatory structure in the world and the oldest functioning dam in India.

The battle opened with an artillery duel, followed by intense fighting with Prince Rama himself taking part in the melee. Raghunatha’s soldiers were fierce fighters and attacked the enemy with desperate resolve, making their attacks irresistible. Jagga Raya was killed battle, following which his followers and allies retreated from the battlefield. The putative son of Venkata II was also captured along with the Madura Nayaka. Krishnappa lost all his forts except for Jingi itself. His attempt to recoup his losses resulted in failure, with him being captured.

Vijayanagara 1617-23

Raghunatha now had Prince Rama crowned king as Rama Deva Raya at Kumbhakonam, from where the entourage made its way to the capital at Penukonda. Raghunatha Nayaka of Thanjavur, officiated at the coronation and then left the young boy-king, Rama Deva was only 14 years old at the time, to fend for himself and returned to his province. Rama Deva’s mentor, Yachamma, had by this time become less prominent and influential in imperial affairs for a number of reasons. Even though Jagga Raya was dead, his younger brother, Etiraja, continued the dispute by fighting sporadically against the royal army.

In 1619, the putative son of Venkata Deva II died and thereafter a reconciliation was enacted between Rama Deva and Etiraja. The Civil War came to a close with Rama Deva marrying the daughter of Etiraja and the latter being permitted to keep all his land holdings as well as the estates of his brother Jagga Raya. Rama Deva Raya was now established as the ruler of Karnataka and nominally the king of Vijayanagara. As part of the reconciliation, Madura Nayaka was released and permitted to return to his province, having been reinstated.

Yachamma was disgruntled with this turn of events since he had long harboured an ambition to confiscate Jagga Raya’s estates for himself. Since this did not come to pass, he started to have minor skirmishes with the royal forces and was finally defeated. Yachamma fades into oblivion after this brief rebellion. Having rendered yeoman service to the Aravidu dynasty, he was blinded by his own ambition to be more than a minor general and wanted to become the Regent to the boy-king whom he had protected. While his initial actions were definitely altruistic in nature, the fundamental character flaw of human beings, ambition, turned Yachamma also into a power-hungry person. This was again a moment in Vijayanagara history that the kingdom could have done with the assistance of a noble and selfless leader, true of heart, to hold the country steady. However, this was not to be, and Vijayanagara continued its slide down a declining path to decay and oblivion.

Although Rama Deva did establish a modicum of control, the Civil War had destroyed the amicability within the kingdom. It had generated hatred and jealous rivalries between the nobles and the divisions were visible even in the royal court. Trust between senior courtiers was almost non-existent and there was no powerful central authority to bring everyone under control. Intrigue and partisan activities became the order of the day.

Rise of Mysore

With the conditions becoming chaotic, internal dissentions and external interferences bred anarchy, aggression and rebellion across the kingdom. Adventurous chiefs came out to profit from the confusion and Raja Odeyar of Mysore was prominent in perpetuating these anti-kingdom activities. Raja Odeyar had always been a rebellious vassal, opportunistic to the core, and had never willingly accepted his vassal status. There had always been a streak of independence within him, even under stronger Vijayanagara kings. He was somewhat of a bully, with a proclivity to attack neighbours and annex forts and territory whenever possible. Starting from 1610, in the next four years he managed to capture large tracts of land from his neighbours. He had even managed, with the tacit approval of Venkata Deva II, to usurp the viceroyalty of Srirangapatana from the hapless Tirupati. (Details given in the previous chapter.)

On Sri Ranga’s death and the ensuing Civil War, Raja Odeyar renewed his aggressive behaviour and conducted a series of incursions against smaller chieftains, always triumphing and moving on to the next conquest. In a short span of two years, 1616-17, Odeyar controlled the entire Mysore region with all neighbouring chiefs being made vassals and tributaries. Raja Odeyar died in June 1617. His successors continued to harbour the spirit of rebellion and defiance to central authority.

Chamaraja Odeyar, grandson of Raja Odeyar carried the flame of rebellion even as the ‘crown prince’. He set out to annex a neighbouring province that was also coveted by the Vijayanagara Regent Jagga Raya. In the ensuing battle, Mysore forces were beaten and withdrew to Srirangapatana. Further skirmishes ensued and finally a peace agreement was arrived at between Vijayanagara and the Odeyars of Mysore. This one episode, where the king had to agree to a peace treaty with a defeated vassal of his, is indicative of the declining state of the Vijayanagara central leadership.

A Contextual Narrative of Other Events

Although contributing only indirectly to the evolution of events in Vijayanagara, and incidentally influencing the chaotic situation prevailing there, there were some interesting developments taking place in the Deccan. First was the progress of the war between the Mughals and the Shahi kingdoms. By 1599, Nizam Shahis in Ahmadnagar had become extinct and Mughal rule had been established there, although minor revolts continued sporadically. Malik Amber shifted the capital to Kirkee, near Pune, and continued a desultory fight against the Mughals till his death. The Adil Shah in Bijapur send assistance to Malik Amber, purely because he wanted to protect his kingdom, which was the next in the annexation line of the Mughals, and not for any altruistic notion of support and cooperation between the two Shahi kingdoms. (For details of the Shahi-Mughal Wars, read From Indus to Independence Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms)

This Mughal diversion was fortuitous for Vijayanagara. If they had been free of the preoccupation with the Mughlas, the Adil and Qutb Shahs would definitely have intervened in the Civil War and dismembered the Empire with a well-dealt death blow.

The second event was that the Portuguese took advantage of the debilitating Civil War and internal strife in Vijayanagara and reneged on the treaty that they had signed with Venkata Deva II. They captured and plundered the towns on the West Coast, from Honavar to Jaffna. Although not always successfully, the Portuguese now started to interfere in local political squabbles and to gain influence from domestic dissentions.

The third event of significance was closer to home. The chief of Keladi, Venkatappa Nayaka, annexed South Kanara and then fought off a Portuguese force at Mangalore. In this battle he annihilated a force of nearly 12,000 led by a Portuguese commander, Luizde Brittoe Mella. Subsequently, Venkatappa managed to stem the southward movement of Bijapur forces and subjugated the entire West Coast from Honavar to Canannore. On his own, this intrepid chief managed to secure one corner of the Empire, with no assistance—physical or moral—from the Vijayanagara royal house.

Rival Claims to the Throne

Jagga Raya’s death and the capture of his nephew removed the claim of Venkata’s putative son to the throne. However, the young king still had to deal with two other claimants to the throne. One was Pedda Venkata, the grandson of Rama Raya, and the other Timma Raja, the brother of the murdered Sri Ranga and therefore the paternal uncle of Rama Deva.

There is some confusion regarding the claims of these pretenders, with one group of historians claiming that only Timma Raja made a counter claim to the throne and that Pedda Venkata was nominated by Rama Deva himself as the heir apparent, since he did not have any brothers or offspring to succeed him. This group therefore place Pedda Venkata as the natural successor to Rama Deva after his demise, as Venkata Deva Raya III. The years of rule of different sovereigns have to be accordingly viewed, even in the genealogy tables that have been provided. This narrative contents that Pedda Venkata was also a rival claimant to the throne even during Rama Deva’s rule.

Both the rival claimants to the throne had stronger entitlement to the throne than Rama Deva’s claim—the first, Pedda Venkata represented the senior branch in the line of succession starting from Rama Raya and the second, should have been appointed the king on Venkata Deva II’s demise, being the elder brother, instead of Sri Ranga. Rama Deva was merely the son of the younger brother descended from the junior line of the Aravidu dynasty. It is obvious from the contentious situation that Rama Raya’s progeny, sidelined by their uncle Tirumala the first declared king of the dynasty, were eager to claim their ‘rightful’ place in the broader scheme of things. Pedda Venkata was ambitious by nature and taking the opportunity of Rama Deva being away from the capital fighting off Jagga Raya, had declared himself ‘Rajadhiraja’ and started to ‘rule’ the kingdom from 1615. He was supported by some self-serving nobles who were established around Penukonda. Similarly, although Timma Raja was not supported by any conspicuous group of nobles he was able to muddy the waters till his death in 1635 by claiming to be ruling the kingdom at various different times.

The fundamental issue was that Rama Deva was never able to gain full control over the kingdom or even the capital and there are inscriptions, which provide dates that clash and cannot be corroborated, each claiming one or the other of the three claimants as ruling from Penukonda. According to these inscriptions Penukonda seems to have changed hands a number of times. The end result, irrespective of who was actually ruling or in-charge, was that the central authority was divided—anarchy crept in; feudatory chiefs took sides with whoever they felt would serve their own purpose best; and most of the vassals acted independently.

Further Deterioration

During the period 1620-27, the Deccan Shahi kingdoms were completely pre-occupied by internal divisions and the continuous Mughal pressure from the north. Therefore they did not, especially Bijapur that was the primary threat to Vijayanagara, have any spare resources to engage the southern Hindu kingdom in any manner. At this juncture, if the Aravidu or any of the other noble families of Vijayanagara had produced one capable leader to head the government; and if the body politic of the kingdom had not been so pitifully gutted into a hollow sphere of inconsequence; Vijayanagara could have not only re-established its old glory but also recovered the lost territories. The sad fact remained that, let alone unleash an offensive war, the leadership of the kingdom could not even contain internal dissentions and bring in lasting peace.

In 1623, there are declarations of Rama Deva ruling from Penukonda, which is followed side-by-side with similar declarations of Pedda Venkata and Timma Raja. Petty and unscrupulous chiefs took advantage of the confusion in Penukonda that brought about administrative paralysis, to maximise benefits for themselves. For example, Chamaraja Odeyar of Mysore had been loyal to Rama Deva till 1623, but after that started to move away in an effort to establish his own independent status. By 1627, he was permitting authors under his patronage to use the title of ‘Rajadhiraja’ to refer to himself, a title that had so far been exclusively reserved for use by the king of Vijayanagara. The fact that Chamaraja was not taken to task for this affront, indicates the lame duck status of the central leadership and the disunity brought about by the existence of three claimants to the throne, a situation that was not being resolved.

1623 remains a critical year in the annals of Vijayanagara history—as the year in which the cohesive nature of the kingdom started to unravel. First, the Nayaka of Tiruchirapally, newly come to power on the death of his father, moved his capital to Madura as a prelude to declaring independence. Second, the chief of Chennapatana, Jagadeva Raya, who was earlier the intrepid defender of Penukonda and a loyal vassal to the king, declared independence. Considering his earlier staunch support to Rama Deva, this move was perhaps initiated out of frustration at the tangled situation in Penukonda. Third, a number of middle-ranking chiefs stopped using the name of ‘Emperor’ in any of the inscriptions that they wrote to commemorate their giving of grants and gifts. The writing on the wall was clear—Vijayanagar was imploding.

Rama Deva Raya – Nominal Reign

Although officially placed on the throne as king-emperor, in actual fact Rama Deva wielded very limited power, even within the capital. The glow of prestige of the ruling dynasty was fast fading, even though he still had some nobles in court who were still loyal to him. It is obvious from the scanty records that are available regarding Rama Deva’s nominal rule that he was inconsequential as a ruler—in fact there are no records of his activities or movements for three years, 1623-26. In 1627, he is once again declared as ruling from Penukonda. However, increasing the confusion is another inscription that also mentions Pedda Venkata as ruling from Penukonda in both 1627 and 1628. In the meantime, Sri Ranga the son of Chenna Venkata, the younger brother of Pedda Venkata, had taken the field to oppose Timma Raja the third contender and defeated him in battle on behalf of his uncle.

The kingdom remained divided in support of the two prominent contenders—Rama Deva had control of the Karnool, Tumkur and Ananthapur regions; and Pedda Venkata was supported by Tiruchirapally, North Arcot and Mysore provinces. Some Nayakas also stood independent, acknowledging neither as their overlord. In late 1620s, there are reports of a gradual increase of Rama Deva’s influence, which is almost immediately repudiated by other reports that claim the ascendance of Pedda Venkata, and in one instance that of Timma Raja. The progression of events during this period cannot be recaptured with any authenticity. The confusion is further increased by the name of Rama Deva dropping out of contention once again for two full years towards 1630, by which time only Pedda Venkata is mentioned, as Venkata Deva Raya III, reported as ruling from Penukonda. Further, Chamaraja Odeyar is reported as accepting Venkata III’s overlordship. From here on, only Venkata Deva III is reported to be ruling.

Keladi Episode 1630

In 1629, the venerated chief of Keladi, Venkata Nayaka, died and a succession struggle ensued. The basic struggle was between the direct descendants of Venkata and another branch of the family. However, within the main branch itself there were dissentions with Venkata Nayaka’s grandson Veerabhadra Nayaka also claiming the throne. The imposter from the second branch of the family sought the assistance of the Chief of Sode, who was himself being aided by the Chief of Biligi. However, Veerabhadra defeated these chiefs and annexed their territories to Keladi.

The defeated chiefs approached the Adil Shah in Bijapur to avail justice rather than the Vijayanagara king ruling in Penukonda who was the overlord of all the three chiefs involved. This move was a tacit acceptance of Vijayanagara’s inability to mete out justice and the fact that the king did not have any power to enforce his will. This seemingly innocuous move by two recalcitrant vassal chiefs had far-reaching consequences for the entire South Indian region. Muhammad Adil Shah send his army against Veerabhadra, who approached the Bijapur king separately and had the expedition called off. However, the Adil Shah persuaded Veerabhadra to return the captured lands to the two defeated chiefs. Thus Muhammad Adil Shah became the arbitrator between chiefs who were technically the vassals of Vijayanagara. The precedent was set for further diplomatic intervention by the Adil Shah in the internal matters of Vijayanagara—a move that was actually more intrusive and corrosive to Vijayanagara power than military invasions.

The Keladi episode, minor in its individual nature, is important as a milestone in the decline of Vijayanagara influence, proving to be yet another nail in the coffin of Empire that was gradually getting shut down.

Critical Years 1630-33

For the next few years the Deccan Shahi kingdoms lapsed again into internal dissentions and fighting off the constant and continuous Mughal intrusions. Ideally, Vijayanagara should have taken this golden opportunity to restore stability and reorganise its defences in preparation for the invasion that was definite to come in the future. In reality however, the internal conditions of the kingdom continued to deteriorate, with the struggle for the throne between rival claimants becoming acute and the overall balance of power becoming extremely skewed.

It is mentioned in a confused narrative that around this time a ‘Timma Raja, the Commander of the King of Karnataka’ rebelled against Rama Deva, captured and imprisoned him. However, Rama was released after a few months on the intervention of some senior nobles and he returns to the broader narrative as ruling from Penukonda. The narrative goes on to state that he pursued Timma Raja, the rebel claimant to the throne, and chased him out of the country. The veracity of this narrative cannot be established and how much longer Rama Deva Raya ruled and/or lived is unclear.

The last mention of Rama Deva Raya as ‘ruling’ is in May 1630, within a somewhat biased narrative that claim continuity of his nominally sovereign rule. Thereafter he disappears from public records, vanishing without a trace into the din and clash of arms that was reverberating in the troubled kingdom. There is no evidence to fix a definitive date of his demise, what has been mentioned above is mere conjuncture, based on various sources. He had two wives but no male offspring to claim the throne. There is no doubt that Rama Deva was a tragic figure in the history of Vijayanagara, destined to struggle throughout his life, but never to achieve acclaim or recognition. He came to the throne at a time of great anarchy and was unable to stabilise his kingdom and not even gain acceptance as the one and only king during his lifetime in the face of disputed claims to the throne.

Sri Ranga makes a brief appearance in the records, through an inscription, which places him as ruling from Penukonda in May 1631. However, other than for this single mention, Sri Ranga is not heard of anymore. From 1630, Pedda Venkata is only mentioned with all his official titles as Venkata Deva Raya III, and some records also mention him as having been the ruler for the past two years. The titles give the impression that he was anointed as king around this time and could be indirectly corroborated by the possible demise of Rama Deva at the same time. Venkata’s coming to the throne, even if nominally, is further corroborated by the statement of Chamaraja Odeyar who publicly announced his acknowledgement of Venkata Deva Raya III as his overlord in the same timeframe. There are also a number of inscriptions that proclaim the allegiance of many other chiefs to Venkata Deva III.

These proclamations of formal allegiance and acceptance of overlordship were only meant to formalise a technical issue. The reality on the ground was completely different. The feuding chiefs continued to fight each other for power, influence and territory, while also defying the king if he attempted to enforce his writ on them. Venkata Deva Raya III while ensconced on the once great throne of Vijayanagara kingdom (Empire) had no credibility and no wherewithal to even arbitrate in the quarrels of his vassals, let alone possess the power to enforce his will on his recalcitrant feudatories.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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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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