Indian History Part 77 The Aravidu Dynasty Section VII Sri Ranga Deva Raya III: The Curtain Falls

Canberra, 2 February 2020 

Venkata Deva III left no male heirs although he had an illegitimate son who was debarred from succeeding him to the throne by the laws of the land. The senior chiefs, the Nayakas, of the kingdom disputed and debated the claim of possible successors and finally chose Sri Ranga, Venkata’s nephew, to be king. He was crowned Sri Ranga Deva Raya III, on 29 October 1642. Sri Ranga’s claim to the throne was based on his descent, which represented both the main branches of the Aravidu dynasty. At the time of his coronation, he was at the prime of his life, already a battle-hardened general and an experienced administrator. His declared ambition was to arrest the decay that had set in and to resuscitate the dying kingdom. However, even to start with, he had trouble in making some of the nobles acknowledge him as the king. This was not an auspicious start to his rule.

Early Troubles

Venkata Deva III has installed his brother-in-law, Damarla Venkattappa Nayaka, as his senior minister and also given him a free rein to rule the country as he saw fit. On Sri Ranga becoming the king, Damarla correctly perceived that he would lose power, influence and prestige. These circumstances were custom-built for antagonism and conflict, and as will be seen, the clash that followed raised a conflagration of such intensity that it burned the kingdom to ashes. Similarly, the powerful Nayakas of Madura, Jingi and Thanjavur had been recalcitrant vassals during Venkata’s rule. Their growing power and influence had made them completely arrogant and they now decided not to accept subordination to the new king, even if it was nominal in nature.

These three southern Nayakas had generally ignored the existence of the king of Vijayanagara during Venkata III’s rule. For them no kingdom existed other than their own. Venkata on his part was careful to avoid any confrontation with these Nayakas in order to avoid war, which he was sure to lose, and the defeat in turn would lead to embarrassment and loss of status. Tirumala Nayaka, ruling Madura, was the de facto leader of the three provinces and he created a league with Jingi and Thanjavur against their legal overlord, the king of Vijayanagara. He also aligned himself with the Qutb Shahi king of Golconda, who was only waiting for an opportunity to strike against Vijayanagara, the hereditary enemy of the Golconda kings.

Containing Uprisings

Less than two months after Sri Ranga came to power, Damarla Venkattappa started to create disturbances across the country, which increased in intensity and continued unabated over the next one year. The chiefs of the country were busy fighting each other and the king, disrupting trade and destabilising the administration, or what was left of the central rule. Sri Ranga initiated decisive action. Since the primary cause of the disturbances was Damarla Venkattappa, he dismissed the disloyal minister, confiscated all his lands and imprisoned him.

Earlier, Damarla had been imposing extra taxes on the European traders and attempting to control them during his days as the senior minister of Venkata III. Therefore, the Dutch and the Portuguese welcomed Sri Ranga’s move. They were quick to take advantage of Damarla’s fall from grace and sided with the king, even sending him military assistance to subdue Damarla’s strongholds. They also managed to get a person friendly with them appointed to the position of senior minister, at least as an interim measure. However, Damarla had been entrenched as the power behind the throne for far too long to be uprooted that easily. His brother gathered forces and with the assistance of Golconda, forced Sri Ranga to compromise and release Damarla from captivity. Although a quid pro quo had been promised, the disturbances around the country were not stopped and continued to undermine the king’s authority.

Sri Ranga was still in difficulties and unable to contain the rebellions. He approached Muhammad Adil Shah for assistance and signed a treaty with him. The terms of the treaty were strange, to say the least. The treaty agreed to the following: the Adil Shah would conquer all territories that had earlier been subordinate to Vijayanagara and had now rebelled; all movable property in the conquered areas were to be considered plunder and would belong to the Adil Shah, to be taken to Bijapur; and the bare conquered territories would be handed over to Sri Ranga. In addition, Vijayanagara would also pay 15,00,000 gold pagodas and 24 elephants to the Adil Shah for the trouble he had to go to in assisting Sri Ranga.

The terms of a treaty between kings or countries indicate the relative strength and weakness of the bargaining parties. The above treaty was a completely one-sided one, favouring Bijapur. This treaty with a Muslim king, who was the traditional adversary of his kingdom, inviting the outsider to invade his kingdom and plunder it indicates the helpless nature of the Vijayanagara king and the desperation he must have felt. On hindsight, it would seem that letting the Nayakas take control of the kingdom may have been a better option—an action that may perhaps have delayed the Islamic invasion of the Deep South by a few more decades. However, the writing on the wall was clearly indicating the headlong rush towards the end of the Hindu citadel in the Deep South.

The Adil Shahi army captured and plundered some territories and the Qutb Shahis, who had made incursions into Vijayanagara, retreated. A tenuous peace was established for a brief period of time. The peace did not see Sri Ranga in any better shape than at the time that he had asked Adil Shahi assistance, although he had more territories under his control. It is possible that he may have improved his credibility in the domestic political arena. However, the desultory rebellions furthering instability continued unabated.

The Jingi Uprising 1644 – 45

The Nayaka rulers of Jingi were habitually rebellious and in earlier times had been subdued by Vijayanagara as many times as they had rebelled. Jingi was now instigated by the Qutb Shah to rebel, while at the same time Tirumala Nayaka of Madura evoked the league and asked Thanjavur also to join the fray with the ultimate aim of removing Sri Ranga. However, the Nayaka of Thanjavur informed Sri Ranga of the plot to overthrow him. Sri Ranga on his part, attempted initially to negotiate himself out of trouble, which was not successful. Then he send an army against Jingi. Considering these developments, Tirumala Nayaka asked the Qutb Shah to invade Vijayanagara, which was promptly done. A large Golconda army under Kasim Ali advanced deep into Vijayanagara territory. Sri Ranga planned and carried out a counter-attack, which was least expected and therefore took Kasim Ali by surprise. The Qutb Shahi forces were pushed back all the way to Arumugham.

Vellore 1645 – 46

Even though the invading forces advanced and retreated according to the changing conditions and treaties that were being enacted, both Bijapur and Golconda continued the spate of invasions, annexations and plunder, almost at will. A large Bijapur force was camped semi-permanently in Vijayanagara territory and a number of forts were garrisoned by the Adil Shahi army to ensure that their chiefs adhered to Bijapur instructions. Even during times of peace, Vijayanagara continually lost forts and other establishments to the Deccan Shahis. 1645 was a year of relative calm and it is reported that a number of chiefs acknowledged Sri Ranga as the king. There are inscriptions that prove this statement as well as records of Sri Ranga donating land and villages to nobles and temples. While these inscriptions do not confirm actual control of territory, it does show that there was a modicum of peace in the region.

The calm was disrupted towards the end of 1645, with the three southern Nayaka states coming together once again to remove Sri Ranga from the throne. The combined armies of Madura, Jingi and Thanjavur moved north, and with the assistance of Qutb Shahi forces defeated the imperial army at Vellore, which was by now the de facto capital of Vijayanagara. At the same time, the Bijapur army, commanded by Asad Khan and assisted by the Maratha chief Shahji, marching deep into the South also arrived at Vellore. Sri Ranga was forced to buy peace with the payment of a hefty indemnity and also the formal handing over of large tracts of territory. The Bijapur commander bestowed the territory thus gained to a Maratha chieftain Yashopant Barve with the injunction that he should function under the control of Shahji. Even after this truce, Vijayanagara continued to lose forts to both Bijapur and Golconda. In the short span of three years of his rule, Sri Ranga had witnessed the loss of territories, continuous invasions, plundering raids and the dynamic character of political intrigue in the Deccan and South India. By now he was not master of anything and was holed up within a small fort in the Deep South, at the mercy of his own vassal Nayakas and the two remaining Deccan Shahi kings.

Bijapur Ascendant

The defeat at Vellore made Sri Ranga a fugitive in his own country. He fled to the safety of the forests in the north of Thanjavur and established a makeshift court there. Two events took place thereafter, which changed the history of the Deep South. The first was that Sri Ranga, after hiding for four months in the Thanjavur jungles, requested the Odeyar ruling Mysore for help. The Odeyar was magnanimous and invited his king to come and stay in any of the provinces under Mysore control. Sri Ranga took up the offer and he was treated extremely courteously and with ceremony by the Mysore ruler. The second was that the Qutb Shahi forces, which Tirumala Nayaka of Madura had invited to come to assist in overcoming the imperial forces at Vellore, besieged Thanjavur. The Thanjavur Nayaka, unable to withstand the siege concluded a demeaning treaty with Golconda. The first event, was the final repudiation of any claim that Sri Ranga had of being the king of Vijayanagara, since such an entity had ceased to exist with the fall of Vellore and his own requesting permission from the Mysore king to stay in Mysore territory. The second was equally ominous—it demonstrated the duplicitous nature of the Deccan Shahi kings’ dealings with both friend and foe alike. More importantly, it was also the beginning of the end of the three powerful Nayaka kingdoms in the south that were the last independent Hindu outposts, other than Mysore, that remained of the once great Vijayanagara Empire.

After making Thanjavur an inconsequential vassal state, the Qutb Shahi forces advanced towards Jingi. This minor kingdom was of great interest to Golconda because of the number of ports that it controlled along with a sizeable and flourishing coastal trade. They laid siege to Jingi. Tirumala Nayaka realised his mistake in inviting Qutb Shahi forces and facilitating their entry into the southern part of Vijayanagara kingdom. This part of the kingdom had so far been secure from Muslim invasions. Tirumala Nayaka knew that his own Madura forces were insufficient to relieve Jingi and went on commit the second blunder in his judgement—he invited the Bijapur Adil Shah to come to his aid. These two errors of judgement, from an experienced, powerful and politically savvy ruler in unexplainable, especially in the circumstances that were prevailing at that time in South India. These two decisions cannot be defended in any manner, considering the further consequences of these decisions. The Madura Nayaka, single-handedly decapitated any semblance of Hindu resistance to the Islamic invasion that existed till then, even in a tenuous form. It is accepted that the inevitability of Islamic occupation of the Deep South was already evident at this time. However, the irresponsible actions of Tirumala expedited the end—a fact that cannot be condoned in any manner.

Bijapur was waiting on the sidelines for just such an opportunity to intervene in the politics of the Deep South, which had so far been almost inaccessible to the Deccan Shahis because of the long distance and the geographic barrier formed by the northern provinces of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Mustafa Khan, the commander of Adil Shahi forces, started to move south with an enormous army that included 17,000 cavalry and was accompanied by Shahji with 12,000 of his own men. Since the formal objective of this force was to relieve Jingi, Tirumala Nayaka also joined it with his own forces. This action of his is inexplicable and some analysts have explained it as an example of Tirumala’s naïveté, portraying him as a person who was perhaps too trusting in a world of conspiracy, intrigue and betrayal. However, looking back at his own behaviour and considering the fact that he was instrumental in creating the league that finally dissolved the Vijayanagara kingdom, this narrative dismisses the excuses being made to exonerate Tirumala Nayaka. There is no doubt that as the last of the powerful rulers in the Deep South he committed two unpardonable errors of judgement, which rang the death knell of the last Hindu bastion in South India.

The large army proceeded to Jingi and the initial conflict between the Bijapur and Golconda auxiliary forces laid waste the surrounding countryside. The devastation was such that it is reported that food became scarce and that the region was on the verge of succumbing to famine. Before the main bodies of the forces could meet, Mustafa Khan proposed to the Golconda commander that this was a golden opportunity to seize Jingi and divide the province between them. The Golconda commander agreed and withdrew his forces that were preparing to oppose Bijapur. He subsequently moved away to take care of his earlier conquests in South India. This is the time that Tirumala seems to have realised the deviousness of Mustafa Khan and that instead of defending Jingi, he was going to annex it.

The agreement between Bijapur and Golconda was to divide the entire South India between themselves, along a line starting at the Bay of Bengal at Chennaipatanam (Madras) going north-west and then roughly following the course of the Rivar Palar to its source. In accordance with this agreement and continuing to progress his objective, Mustafa Khan took over the siege of Jingi, much to Tirumala Nayaka’s consternation. Tirumala, belatedly decided to join the Jingi forces within the fort to withstand the Muslim siege. He was able to enter the fort with his forces and the combined Jingi-Madura forces were sufficient to have withstood a lengthy siege and powerful enough to have defeated the Adil Shahi forces. However, misfortune, another word for his own ineptness followed Tirumala even here.

The forces in the fort were not homogeneous and there were confrontations between different factions. The Nayakas—Jingi and Madura—were unable to control their followers and the friction soon broke out into open riots within the fort. It is obvious that along with the influx into the fort, some members of the Bijapur forces also had made their way in. These traitors took the opportunity of the on-going riots to open the gates of the fort. Bijapur forces rushed in and swarmed the place, overwhelming an unprepared defending force. The impregnable Jingi fort fell to the Muslim forces.

Soon after Jingi was captured, Mustafa Khan died and was replaced by a new commander, Muzafar ud-Din. Under him the Bijapur forces moved into the Deep South with renewed vigour, with the clear objective of annexing Thanjavur and subduing Madura. Once again old enmities and betrayals between the Hindu chiefs influenced the outcome of this expedition. Thanjavur had earlier moved out of the tripartite league with Madura and Jingi, without giving any reason or notice to the other two Nayakas. Therefore, when the Muslim army neared his borders, the Thanjavur Nayaka, knowing that he could not expect any assistance form Madura, lost heart and fled from his capital without offering any resistance. He took to hiding in the dense jungles of his province. Thanjavur was swallowed whole by Bijapur.

With the rampaging Muslim army coming close to his own borders, it would have been expected of an experienced commander and ruler like Tirumala to improve his defences. However, for some inexplicable reason, Tirumala made no preparations to meet the oncoming invasion. One can only speculate on the reasons for this inaction. Perhaps it was hubris, being the most powerful Nayaka, ruling a large kingdom; or he may have been lulled into complacence because of the long distance between his kingdom and the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan. In any case, he was caught flat-footed and at the arrival of the Bijapur army he shut himself up in his fort, fatalistically awaiting his doom. The inaction that he displayed even when the threat was at his gate defies logic and explanation. Was it that long years of being safe behind geographic features and other smaller and larger kingdoms had made the king unfit to face a determined foe bend on capturing his kingdom?

Bijapur forces encircled the fort and Tirumala sued for peace. In return he accepted vassal status of the Adil Shah and paid a large tribute to Bijapur. By 1650, the last vestiges of real independence were removed from South India. Complete Muslim overlordship had been established.

Mysore on the Offensive

With the subjugation of Madura, Mysore remained the only independent kingdom in South India. From controlling a part of a district, in a span of three generations the Odeyars had carved out a kingdom for themselves. They had also established themselves as the only viable successors to the Vijayanagara Empire, now almost extinct. Narasa Raya Odeyar, the ruling king, had successfully beaten back the Bijapur attack in 1642 and consolidated his power. He also took advantage of the tussle between Bijapur and Golconda for influence and control over the Vijayanagara territory and their preoccupation with their own precarious strategic situation vis-à-vis the Mughals to capture many more forts and annex territories to his growing kingdom.

Narasa Raya’s success had kindled some hope in Sri Ranga that he could return to power with Mysore’s assistance. However, Penukonda was overrun by Qutb Shahi forces by the end of 1652, which put an end to this fleeting dream. By this time, Muhammad Adil Shah was gravely ill in Bijapur and his army commanders in far flung regions had started to disobey central orders. Further, the traditional animosity between Bijapur and Golconda held each other back from employing their full potential against the Hindu kingdoms. Once again Narasa Raya took advantage of this slightly discomfited position of the Deccan Shahis and greatly enhanced his territorial holdings.

The Humiliation of Sri Ranga

Sri Ranga was still hopeful of bettering his position. On the encouragement of the Qutb Shahi commander and assistance from Narasa Raya of Mysore, he managed to recover Vellore, returning to his de facto capital after more than six years in the wilderness. The recovery of Vellore was a great morale booster for Sri Ranga. He now concentrated on raising a large army with the explicit aim of driving the Shahis out of Vijayanagara for good. However, once again his dreams did not come to fruition. The new Adil Shah of Bijapur did not wait for Sri Ranga to become more powerful, he send and army that besieged and then recaptured Vellore.

This time, the Adil Shah kept Vellore for himself and forcibly relocated Sri Ranga to Chandragiri. With this move the Vijayanagara king-in-name was surrounded by the Deccan Shahis—to the north and east by the Qutb Shahis and to the west and south by the Adil Shahis. Sri Ranga was left with no space to manoeuvre—not only was reconquest out of the question, but his own future hung in the balance. Being in this precarious situation, Sri Ranga turned to the Mughals for help, which was the beginning of the long saga of his humiliation and final and irreconcilable loss of dignity.

In 1653, Sri Ranga send a messenger to the Mughal Viceroy of the Deccan, Aurangzeb, seeking protection from further advances of the Shahi forces. However, Aurangzeb maintained a studied silence and did not interfere. Karnataka was too far from the headquarters of the Mughal forces that had been established at the northern edge of the Deccan, and Aurangzeb was not yet ready to start the process of annexing Golconda to the Mughal Empire. Sri Ranga continued to struggle within his confined space for two more years and by 1655 was convinced that he was about to be formally deposed of his meagre holdings. He send another urgent message to Aurangzeb, praying for immediate protection. In this request Sri Ranga also promised to pay the Mughal a sum of 2,50,00,000 rupees or 200 elephants and all the royal jewellery in his possession, in return for assured Mughal protection. He also agreed to let the Mughal annex his kingdom and return it to him as a jagir.

Then he made perhaps the most demeaning promise ever made by a supplicant Hindu king to a Muslim invader. Sri Ranga’s message said that: if the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s grace was not being provided because he was a non-believer, then he, Sri Ranga, along with his entire family would convert and embrace Islam. This promise from the last representative of a long line of illustrious, gracious and splendid monarchs who had upheld the flag of Hinduism and all it stood for—tolerance, equality, justice and freedom—was the lowest point in the historical narrative of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Sri Ranga’s only request was to be saved from the Deccan Shahi kings.

The canny Aurangzeb, viceroy of the Deccan for his father Shah Jahan, now proposed sending a team to assess the situation. In reality it was to be a mission to find out whether or not the Raya had the wherewithal to pay the large amount of tribute that he had so effusively promised. However, his father, Shah Jahan vetoed the proposal and asked him to send the team to frighten the two remaining Deccan Shahi kings with imminent invasion and then to ask them to pay a huge sum of money to the Mughals for refusing protection to the Vijayanagara Raya. Despite demeaning himself completely and being humiliated, Sri Ranga had achieved nothing.

Sri Ranga Deva Raya III – The Unsung End

By 1659-60, Sri Ranga was reduced to wandering from place to place with a small entourage, relying on the largesse of his erstwhile vassals even for food. It is reported that during this time he earned the nickname ‘Tirukuli’, meaning beggar. One old vassal, Shivappa Nayaka, perhaps emotionally moved by his ‘sovereign’s’ plight, invited the king to his own principality. Shivappa then declared his intention to revive the kingdom and managed to get some assistance from a few minor chieftains. He went out and captured Belur and bestowed it upon Sri Ranga, who made it his capital.

Unfortunately, no administrative or organisational structure had survived from the Civil War in the 1640s and the destabilising events that followed had not restored the old State or reinstated its central organisational structure. If an event or year has to be pinpointed as marking the end of Vijayanagara as an independent kingdom, it would have to be the fall of Vellore in 1645. From 1645, Vijayanagara did not exist as an entity.

All attempts to revive the kingdom after this date did not achieve any useful purpose—the kingdom became a shadow State, associated only with the person of the king, without any territorial holdings, a virtual entity existing in name only. From 1660, till his death (presumed to be 1678-79) Sri Ranga kept alive his hopes of reviving his kingdom and its lost glory. He continued to enter into agreements and arrangements with his old vassals, most of whom were also in decline and on the verge of collapse. These desperate efforts achieved nothing—for the kingdom had actually become extinct and ceased to exist in the mid-1640s.

Between 1680 and 1694 the Deccan and South India underwent cataclysmic changes. In the flow of events, chicanery and intrigue, betrayals and steadfast honouring of promises, loyalty and fickleness, all played their parts. They make interesting reading and are of importance in the greater sweep of Indian history, though not of direct influence to this narrative of Vijayanagara as an Empire. (Therefore, these events have not been analysed in this book.)

In the midst of this turmoil, the descendants of the last dynasty to rule Vijayanagara continued to live in a neglected corner of the kingdom near Anegundi, uncared for and unacknowledged. Up to about 1700, there is sporadic mention of king ‘so-and-so’ ruling from Vijayanagara, in proclamations and inscriptions that commemorate the grant of gifts or land by some noble or the other. Thereafter even such oblique references cease. Strictly, from a pure historical point of view, after the death of Sri Ranga Deva Raya III, the history of South India is disconnected from the fortunes of Vijayanagara and its royal family.

© [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 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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