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Vijayanagara - Why We Are Afraid To Mention It

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

In a recent column on Rediff.Net (http://rediff.com/news/2000/mar/22flip.htm), T.V.R. Shenoy wrote, "While everyone raves about the Taj, how many people have heard about Vijayanagara?" He was asking that question in the light of Clinton's visit to India and the predictable itinerary for foreign tourists, including such itineraries approved by the Indian government for visiting dignitaries. Shenoy raises that question to argue that the pro-North bias in India queers a number of things, including state visits. Shenoy claims that most books about India are written by people from North India or by people who think they know all about India by just visiting the North. But, even if Clinton had read about Vijayanagara, would he have been allowed to visit it? "Sorry, Mr. President" he would have been told, "the Indians don't want to talk about Timur and his destruction of Delhi; nor of Aurangzeb and his destruction of a myriad Hindu cities and temples in the north; nor of the Bahmani sultans who committed, may be, one of the most horrific of war crimes in human history. They don't want to remind themselves or others of their history, Mr. President, for fear they will tread on some sensitive toes of their "secular" historians". So, here is my chance to write a little about that "forgotten empire " which, if Clinton had visited it, would have been an interesting juxtaposition with his visit to the Taj Mahal. But I bring Vijayanagara or Hampi to your attention not just because of its location in the South but because of what else has not been said about that place: essentially, why the utter and vile destruction of the most beautiful and wealthy capital ever of a Hindu kingdom by Muslim marauders gets just a passing mention in Indian history text books.

I have visited Hampi twice. Go visit it and see if you can sort out your emotions as you stand on the rocky promontory next to the Ganesha temple and feel the hot wind on your skin: the sense of devastation; overwhelming anger and hatred for those who laid waste to this city of such grandeur that a Rome or Athens in its heyday would not have stood comparison to this now "god forsaken" place; awe and amazement as you glimpse the great temples and buildings that are still standing; fear of the hatred of a people who could carry out such a pogrom of vandalism and brutality.

It is difficult to describe Hampi. In Karnataka, the old-timers still call it "Haal-Hampi" (Hampi destroyed and laid bare) and do it with a sigh and a look in their eyes that will bring tears to your eyes. Hampi was many-faceted. It was the great capital of a great kingdom. It was both the last hurrah of a religion and culture as well as its greatest symbol. Its architecture was grand, its love of art breathtaking and the dreams and imagination of its people unsurpassed. They said, on Market Street, merchants sold precious gems in small bucketsful. Men and women vied with each other in weaving garlands of flowers for themselves as well as to the numerous gods in the thousands of temples in Hampi (Now, the only people who seem to remember that love of beauty and of flowers are the "hippies" who have made their home in Hampi). It is said that the beautiful prostitutes, on Prostitute Street, sat decked in their garlands and their betel-red lips on their front porches and played music or chatted with customers. It is said that the great Purandara Dasa, the father of Carnatic music, who lived in Hampi had a hundred-pillared music hall constructed for him by one of the great Vijayanagar kings. If what remains of Hampi is so overwhelming, you can't but collapse sobbing imagining the city in its grandeur.

All cities have their periods of growth and decay. What happened to Hampi is, however, different. How could a city, which visitors described as the most magnificent they had ever laid eyes on, succumb so fully to an assault by its enemies? What your historians will not tell you is simply this: no one else but religious bigots filled with hatred for idolators could have laid to waste such a beautiful city. For, after all, if Hampi was known for anything, it was for the multitude of its temples and of its gods and godesses, all carved and chiseled out of massive granite. The devastation of the city was so overwhelming it is said that people did not return to the area for hundreds of years till finally the archaeologists cleared the undergrowth and hacked their way through to the abandoned and destroyed city. Who were the cruel and hateful people who so massacred a people and destroyed a kingdom? Their symbols still stand in the form of the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur and the Charminar in Hyderabad: the Bahmani sultans. To understand their madness we need to go back in time and do a little survey of the area.

Not far from the famous Chalukyan town of Badami, whose cave temples date back to 600 C.E. (http://india.indiagov.org/tourism/exotic/badami.htm), in the fourteenth century, arose the great Vijaynagar empire. Vijayanagara (the city of triumph) was the last great Hindu empire which encompassed most of South India. It was founded in 1346 C.E. in response to the challenge posed by the Sultanate of Delhi. The story of the founding of the empire, while much debated, is the classic Indian story, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. According to historians from Karnataka, Harihara (Hakka) and Bukka were local chieftains posted at the northern border of his realm by the Hoysala king Ballala III and to defend it against Muslim attacks. The Karnataka historians claim that Harihara became king in 1346 after the death of Ballala IV.

This story is challenged by historians from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh who claimed that brothers from an Andhra (Warangal) family fled from their home when Warangal was captured by the Muslims. The brothers settled in Kampili, a small town that was to become the great Vijayanagara, but were taken prisoner by the sultan's army in 1327 C.E. Taken to Delhi and converted to Islam, the brothers were sent back to Kampili by the sultan to govern that region on his behalf. The brothers, two of them specially -- Harihara and Bukka -- who founded the empire came under the influence of the great monk, Vidyaranya, who reconverted them back to Hinduism. The brothers rebelled against the Muslim rule and set up their capital on the banks of the Tungabhadra, where Harihara was crowned as king in 1336 C.E. Traditionally, the more exotic version (the Andhra version) was generally accepted. Recent research has, however, dug up evidence that supports the Karnataka version. This new research also challenges some of the accepted notions about Vidyaranya's role as catalyst for the foundation of the Vijayanagara empire.

Harihara I was succeeded by Bukka I in 1357. Between 1357 and 1377 (when Bukka died) the Vijayanagara empire had expanded to become the largest South Indian kingdom ever. Bukka's exploits included defeating Rajanarayana Sambuvarya, Muhammad Shah Bahmani and the Sultan of Madurai. Harihara II (1377-1404) and Devaraya I (1406-24) continued Bukka's tradition and they saw to the growth of Vijayanagara. They were able to defend the empire against the Bahmani kings though at great human cost. Unfortunately, the Vijaynagar Kings' encounters with the Gajapatis of Orissa and that struggle for supremacy undermined the strength of these two Hindu realms' ability to resist Muslim rule.

However, Krishnadeva Raya (1509-29), the greatest of Vijayanagar's kings put an end to the crisis and restored Vijayanagar to its great glory. In the first year of his rule, Muhammad Shah Bahmani attacked Vijayanagar but Krishnadeva Raya was able to defeat him. He put his wounded enemy back on the throne intending to keep the rivalry of the Deccan sultans alive. In addition to his fame as a warrior, Krishnadeva Raya was known as a great builder. It is said that almost all the great temples of South India have some temple towers that were erected during his time.

After Krishnadeva Raya's death the internal struggles within the empire re-emerged. The Deccan Sultans were involved in the internal intrigues. During Sadashiva's (1543-65) reign Vijayanagar clashed for the first time with the Portuguese, who had begun destroying Hindu temples and were on a proselytization binge. But it was the dreaded Bahmani sultans who were to undo the Vijayanagar empire. And it happened that the "secular" nature of the Vijayanagar army itself was one of the reasons for its downfall! As Kulke and Rothermund note, the Vijayanagar rulers had not only adopted some Muslim methods of warfare but had recruited Muslim soldiers, even letting Muslim officers rise to high positions in the army. The Muslim officers then became conduits of information for the Bahmani sultans. When the Deccan sultans decided to join forces in 1565 to challenge the Vijayanagar king Rama Raya and the battle seemed to be going in favor of the latter, two Muslim generals changed sides. Rama Raya was taken prisoner and, in a time-honored Muslim way, had his head chopped off, his brother Tirumala fled with the whole army leaving Vijayanagar to the mercy of the Muslim marauders. Vijayanagara was more thoroughly mauled and mutilated than Delhi was by Timur. In the annals of human warfare, the destruction of Vijayanagar must rank among the worst. Historians now say that Vijayanagar experienced such wanton destruction because Krishnadeva Raya had devastated the Bahmani capital of Gulbarga in 1520. However, this flies in the face of other evidence that shows Krishnadeva Raya was an astute king and his strategy was to keep the sultans quarreling amongst themselves rather than to have them rally around a cause.

Many of the travelers and visitors to the Vijayanagar empire have recorded their experiences and their observations of daily life in the kingdom. Domingo Paes, who visited Vijayanagar in 1522, notes: "this king has continually a million fighting troops, in which are included 35, 000 cavalry in armor.... I saw, being in this city of Vijayanagar, the king dispatch a force against a place, one of those which he has by the sea-coast and he sent fifty captains with 150, 000 soldiers.... And when the king wishes to show the strength of his power to any of his adversaries amongst the three kings bordering on his kingdom, they say that he puts into the field two million soldiers...."

However, the rulers of Vijayanagar were not just warlords. They pursued a religious policy that enabled them to endow various temples, cultivate the heads of religious communities, enlist the moral support of those religious heads in their struggle against Muslim rulers. Finally, of course, it all seems to have come to naught. Vijayanagara, the City of Victory, is no more. It is now merely "Haal Hampe, " the devastated and abandoned reminder of a past glory. Go visit Hampe to understand a little bit about your own heritage. Go spend a few days wandering around that abandoned "city" to learn a little bit more about your history.

Published on Saturday, April 8, 2000.

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