Be­yond the Hindu­ Mus­lim bi­nary


The story that the Bat­tle of Ta­likota was a re­li­gious war is per­pet­u­ated in many fo­rums and feeds into re­duc­tive right-wing his­tor­i­cal it­er­a­tions that en­sure that the oth­er­ing of the Mus­lim in con­tem­po­rary In­dia is com­plete.

ON a sunny Novem­ber day, throngs of tourists wait to be fer­ried to the Vi­jaya Vit­tala tem­ple in Hampi, Kar­nataka. Elec­tric carts carry tourists on a mud path, with the typ­i­cal boul­ders of Hampi dom­i­nat­ing the scenery, for a kilo­me­tre to the en­trance. Guides seek out tourists ad­mir­ing the mag­nif­i­cent fa­cade and launch into their re­hearsed spiels after per­func­tory in­tro­duc­tions.


Hampi. tem­ple and most of Hampi when they at­tacked the city after the Bat­tle of Ta­likota,” says one of the guides wav­ing his hand around. Vis­i­tors take in this piece of in­for­ma­tion and walk to­wards the stone char­iot where they pose for pho­to­graphs. This story is about how Mus­lims beat the Hin­dus and plun­dered Hampi. This stan­dard nar­ra­tive of the Bat­tle of Ta­likota, which was fought in late Jan­uary 1565 be­tween the com­bined forces of the Dec­can sul­tanates and the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire, is re­peated by sev­eral guides on a daily ba­sis.

It is this nar­ra­tion that is chal­lenged by Girish Kar­nad’s new play, Rak­shasa Tan­gadi (Cross­ing to Hampi). It busts the myth that the bat­tle was fought for re­li­gious rea­sons and chal­lenges the re­duc­tive right-wing his­to­ri­og­ra­phy that takes this line. The play has re­vived the de­bate about the bat­tle and the most com­mon in­ter­pre­ta­tion of it as an epic show­down be­tween the forces of Is­lam and Hin­duism in which Mus­lims pre­vailed, lead­ing to the

cul­tural de­cline of Hin­duism. Kar­nad, who ex­cels in pick­ing up his­tor­i­cal themes and pro­vid­ing them with fresh and nu­anced per­spec­tives, has once again shown why he is still a pop­u­lar play­wright.


The play’s cen­tral char­ac­ter is the aged “Aliya” Ramaraya (1485-1565), the re­gent of the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire and son-in-law (aliya in Kan­nada) of Kr­ish­nade­varaya (r. 1509-29). It de­picts him as a com­plex char­ac­ter. He is a gen­er­ous and com­pe­tent leader, an aes­thete even, but has a cruel, am­bi­tious and ar­ro­gant streak that per­haps stems from the fact that he is not the em­peror of Vi­jayana­gara, even though he is ably suited to be, but re­mains an out­sider. His hubris and his ob­ses­sion with the city of Kalyana (modern-day Basavakalyan) sets him on a col­li­sion course with the Dec­can Sul­tans. The bat­tle, which was fought a few years after the sec­ond Bat­tle of Pa­ni­pat (1556) in north In­dia, al­tered the map of the Dec­can and south­ern In­dia per­ma­nently and marked the be­gin­ning of a new epoch in In­dian his­tory.

The seeds of the 1565 epic en­counter were sown more than 250 years ear­lier when the forces of the Sul­tans of Delhi—dur­ing the time of Alaud­din Khilji (r. 1296-1316) and Mo­hammed Tugh­laq (r. 1325-51)— swept through south­ern In­dia in a fe­ro­cious ex­pand­ing spree. For a few decades, these rulers had a ten­u­ous hold on most of the sub­con­ti­nent, in­clud­ing south­ern In­dia. How­ever, by the mid­dle of the 14th cen­tury, faced with re­bel­lions, Tugh­laq with­drew to Delhi, leav­ing be­hind two vast em­pires: the Bah­mani Em­pire (founded in 1347), which ruled the Dec­can from Gul­barga (now Kal­aburagi), and the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire (founded in 1336), which had most of south­ern In­dia as part of its do­min­ion with its cap­i­tal in Hampi. The Raichur Doab, the fer­tile tract of land be­tween the Kr­ishna and Tungab­hadra rivers, ex­isted as a nat­u­ral bound­ary be­tween these two great king­doms, with wars often break­ing out over con­trol of this ter­ri­tory.

Un­der the rule of Kr­ish­nade­varaya, the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire reached its zenith and was vast and pow­er­ful, touch­ing the seas in three di­rec­tions. Trav­eller ac­counts of the time at­test to the rich­ness of Hampi. Ab­dur Raz­zak, a Per­sian trav­eller who vis­ited Vi­jayana­gara in the 15th cen­tury, wrote: “This coun-

try is so pop­u­lated that it is im­pos­si­ble in a re­spon­si­ble space to con­vey an idea of it. In the king’s trea­sury there are cham­bers, with ex­ca­va­tions in them, filled with molten gold, form­ing one mass. All the in­hab­i­tants of the coun­try, whether high or low, even down to the ar­ti­fi­cers of the bazaar, wear jewels and gilt or­na­ments in the their ears and around their necks, arms, wrists and fingers” (Vi­jayana­gar, edited and in­tro­duced by Va­sund­hara Fil­liozat, 1977).

At the same time, fis­si­parous ten­den­cies in the Bah­mani Em­pire en­sured that by the be­gin­ning of the 16th cen­tury it had bro­ken up into the five sep­a­rate sul­tanates—bi­japur, Gol­conda, Ahmed­na­gar, Bi­dar and Berar. While these were rich and pow­er­ful king­doms in their own right with large do­min­ions, their Sul­tans would con­stantly squab­ble among them­selves. Vi­jayana­gara strate­gi­cally al­lied it­self with one or the other of the Sul­tans. When there was a di­rect con­fronta­tion be­tween one of the sul­tanates and Vi­jayana­gara, the lat­ter pre­vailed, as in the case of the Bat­tle of Raichur in 1520, when Kr­ish­nade­varaya de­feated the Bi­japur Sul­tan.

How then and, more im­por­tantly, why was the great em­pire of Vi­jayana­gara was van­quished by a bunch of smaller king­doms whose rulers fought among them­selves con­stantly? This hap­pened at the epochal bat­tle in Ta­likota. On one side were the armies of the Dec­can Sul­tanates (mi­nus Berar) and on the other side was the vast army of the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire.


Trav­el­ling by car, it takes around three hours to get to the Kr­ishna river from Hampi. This is where, on a cool win­ter day in 1565, the grand bat­tle was fought close to the vil­lages of Rakkasagi and Tangadagi. To get to the vil­lages from Hampi, one has to pass through the fer­tile area of the Raichur Doab, which is still known as the “rice bowl of Kar­nataka”. The two vil­lages now lie in the dis­trict of Vijayapura in north­ern Kar­nataka and, like many other vil­lages in this part of the State, grow a lot of sug­ar­cane.

While there is a mi­nor dis­agree­ment be­tween his­to­ri­ans as to the ex­act lo­ca­tion of the bat­tle, the gen­eral con­sen­sus is that face-off be­tween the armies hap­pened on these plains. There was a flurry of move­ment up and down the banks as the two armies par­ried with one an­other. Even though it is called the Bat­tle of “Ta­likota”, lit­tle ac­tion took place in that town, which is some 50 km from Rakkasagi. It was merely a gath­er­ing point for the sul­tanate armies.

There are no ves­tiges of this great bat­tle now in Rakkasagi apart from a tiny de­crepit mosque of some vin­tage by the river­side that vil­lagers say was built by the en­camped sul­tanate armies. The land around the mosque looks as if it has been ex­ca­vated, and the for­mer head­man of the vil­lage, Shankar Gowda, con­firmed this. “The orig­i­nal vil­lage of Rakkasagi ex­isted around the mosque, but the vil­lage was shifted in­land by around 300 me­tres some 30 years ago. I still re­mem­ber that when we shifted our vil­lage and our huts were de­mol­ished, we found coins and ar­mour in the earth,” he said.

Once one passes the mosque, the plains by the north­ern bank of the river pro­vide an un­end­ing vista of flat land on ei­ther side. This is where the sul­tanate armies pitched their tents. The Vi­jayana­gara army was en­camped on the south­ern bank of the river, which can be seen on the hori­zon across the mighty Kr­ishna. All is quiet on this day, with only a shep­herd graz­ing his sheep, far re­moved in time from the scene of bat­tle.

An eye­wit­ness to the bat­tle, Aftabi, who was in the ser­vice of Hu­sain Nizam Shah I of Ahmed­na­gar, wrote elo­quently about this con­fronta­tion in his pan­e­gyric Tarif-i-hu­sain Shah Bad­shah Dakhan: “The two clouds from op­po­site sides thun­dered, And the two oceans of fire came to ebul­li­tion/ The sound and fury from both the armies was such, That even a de­mon would go mad with hor­ror/­men shot the steel ar­rows through the day. They pierced the bod­ies of the brave, who were en­trenched there./ The twang of the arm-break­ing bows, made many men un­con­scious./ The line of fu­ri­ous and in­tox­i­cated ele­phants, En­tered the lines of sol­diers, like moun­tain after moun­tain/ Their eye lashes were like spears and the eyes red as ruby, From trunk to tail, they were cov­ered with ar­mour/ ...The clam­our and noise of both the armies pierced the skies, It was so loud that the ears of an­gel be­came deaf” (Tarif-i-hu­sain Shah Bad­shah Dakhan, edited by G.T. Kulka­rni and M.S. Mate and pub­lished by the Bharata Iti­hasa Samshod­haka Man­dala, Pune, 1987).

An­other his­to­rian, Ma­homed Kasim Fer­ishta, who was em­ployed by the Bi­japur court a few decades after the bat­tle wrote this: “The al­lies now drew up their army in or­der of bat­tle. The right wing was in­trusted to Ally [Ali] Adil Shah [of Bi­japur], the left to Ally [Ali] Bereed Shah [of Bi­dar] and Ibrahim Kootb Shah [of Gol­conda], and the cen­tre to Hoos­sein Nizam Shah [of Ahmed­na­gar].

The ar­tillery, fas­tened to­gether by strong chains and ropes, was drawn up in front of the line, and the war ele­phants were placed in var­i­ous po­si­tions, agree­able to cus­tom. Each prince erected his par­tic­u­lar stan­dard in the cen­tre of his own army, and the al­lies moved in close or­der against the en­emy. “Ram­raj [Ramaraya] in­trusted his right wing to his brother Yel­tum­raj [Tiru­mala], to op­pose Kootb Shah, and his left wing to his other brother Venkatadry, against Ally Adil Shah, while he him­self com­manded the cen­tre. Two thou­sand war ele­phants and one thou­sand pieces of can­non were placed at dif­fer­ent in­ter­vals of his line.” Fer­ishta also wrote that each of Ramaraya’s brothers had a large army con­sist­ing of “...twenty thou­sand cav­alry, five hun­dred ele­phants, and one hun­dred thou­sand foot...” (His­tory of the Rise of the Ma­home­dan Power in In­dia, Ma­homed Kasim Fer­ishta, Vol­ume 3).


What de­cided the bat­tle in favour of the sul­tanate armies was the wide gap that opened up in mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy be­tween the north­ern and south­ern Dec­can after the Bat­tle of Raichur. The his­to­ri­ans Richard M. Ea­ton and Phillip B. Wagoner ar­gue that there was a “mil­i­tary rev­o­lu­tion in the Dec­can” by the 16th cen­tury. Both armies had be­gun us­ing can­nons and guns ex­ten­sively by this time, but the sul­tanate armies just used this tech­nol­ogy bet­ter. It is in­ter­est­ing to note that Por­tuguese gun­ners were by now com­monly used as merce­nar­ies in these bat­tles.

Ea­ton and Wagoner write: “To be sure Rama Raya brought con­sid­er­able fire­power with him. Fer­ishta records that he fielded 70,000 cav­alry and 90,000 in­fantry, the lat­ter be­ing mainly matchlock-men and archers.... In his front line he in­ter­spersed 1,000 can­nons with 2,000 war ele­phants. In­deed the bat­tle was ini­ti­ated with his fir­ing nearly 50,000 rock­ets, matchlocks and can­nons at the al­lies. But the bat­tle was de­cided by far more ef­fec­tive use of fire­power by the al­lies. Hu­sain Nizam Shah, who com­manded the cen­tres of the al­lies’ bat­tle for­ma­tion, brought up 600 can­nons of dif­fer­ent cal­i­bre, ar­ranged in three rows and fas­tened to­gether with strong chains and ropes so as to pre­vent Rama Raya’s cav­alry from break­ing through the al­lies’ lines. In the first row were placed 200 heavy can­nons, in the sec­ond were in­ter­me­di­ate can­nons, and in the third row were the swivel can­nons—smaller than the in­ter­me­di­ate can­nons but larger than matchlocks. All the ar­tillery were un­der the com­mand of Cha­l­abi Rumi Khan, a Turk...” (Power, Mem­ory, Ar­chi­tec­ture: Con­tested Sites on In­dia’s Dec­can Plateau, 1300-1600, Richard M. Ea­ton


The sul­tans could muster only half of the num­bers that the Vi­jayana­gara army had, but they used what they had ef­fec­tively. Rumi Khan’s ex­pert man­ning of the can­nons was what tilted the scales of the bat­tle in their favour. Added to this were around 2,000 archers, who are sup­posed to have played a deadly role in the bat­tle. As a re­sult of this as­sault, 5,000 Vi­jayana­gara sol­diers lost their lives early on, lead­ing to bed­lam among their ranks. At this point, Ramaraya, who, at the age of 80, was per­son­ally com­mand­ing the main body of his army, de­scended from his ele­phant to ex­hort his sol­diers. He is killed at this point although it is not clear how ex­actly this hap­pens as there are five dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Ramaraya’s end. Kar­nad goes with the ver­sion that Ramaraya was cap­tured and de­cap­i­tated by Rumi Khan on the or­der of Nizam Shah. One ver­sion says that after his sworn en­emy’s head was sev­ered, Nizam Shah ex­ulted: “Now I am avenged of thee! Let God do what he will to me!”

Be­cause of the na­ture of the con­tend­ing armies, the Bat­tle of Ta­likota has eas­ily lent it­self to a re­li­gious bi­nary: Mus­lims on one side and Hin­dus on the other. The Mus­lim sul­tans had in­ternecine dif­fer­ences but agreed to a tem­po­rary truce to gang up on the Vi­jayana­gara forces, which lent cre­dence to this the­ory. It is clear that the con­fed­er­a­tion of sul­tans was care­fully as­sem­bled by Nizam Shah of Ahmed­na­gar. He had once been hu­mil­i­ated by Ramaraya, who had forced him to eat paan from his hands. There were also mat­ri­mo­nial ties that ce­mented the al­liance be­tween the sul­tans, but is this enough to in­ter­pret the bat­tle as a clash of civil­i­sa­tions as a few his­to­ri­ans have done?

Robert Sewell, who was em­ployed in the Madras Pres­i­dency, was the Bri­tish his­to­rian who prop­a­gated the idea that “Mus­lims” van­quished a great Hindu em­pire. There were his­to­ri­ans be­fore him such as Mark Wilks (His­tory of





Mysore, 1810) who wrote in the same vein, but Sewell’s A For­got­ten Em­pire, Vi­jayana­gar: A Con­tri­bu­tion to the His­tory of In­dia (1900) pro­vided this as the dom­i­nant trope to un­der­stand the swift demise of the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire. Sewell used the evoca­tive phrase “a Hindu bul­wark against Muham­madan con­quest” to de­scribe Vi­jayana­gara, and his book ar­gues this out in de­tail.

This ar­gu­ment was taken for­ward in the first half of the 20th cen­tury by In­dian his­to­ri­ans such as Ne­la­turi Venkatara­mana­iah, S. Kr­ish­naswami Aiyan­gar, K.A. Ni­lakanta Sas­tri and B.A. Sale­tore. G.T. Kulka­rni, a his­to­rian who was as­so­ci­ated with the Bharata Iti­hasa Samshod­haka Man­dala, wrote that Maratha his­to­ri­ans often took pride in Vi­jayana­gara, trac­ing the rise of Ch­ha­tra­p­ati Shivaji Ma­haraj to the fact that he drew in­spi­ra­tion from the Vi­jayana­gar king­dom (“The Bat­tle of Ta­likota, 1565 AD: His­tory, Lit­er­a­ture and Re­al­ity—a Fresh Per­spec­tive”, un­dated pa­per by Kulka­rni)

V.S. Naipaul also lent his in­flu­en­tial sup­port to this ar­gu­ment in his book In­dia: A Wounded Civil­i­sa­tion (1977). He wrote: “It was at Vi­jayana­gar this time, in that wide tem­ple av­enue... that I be­gan to won­der about the in­tel­lec­tual de­ple­tion that must have come to In­dia with the in­va­sions and con­quests of the last thou­sand years. What hap­pened in Vi­jayana­gar hap­pened, in vary­ing de­grees in other parts of the coun­try.... I won­dered whether in­tel­lec­tu­ally for a thou­sand years In­dia hadn’t al­ways re­treated be­fore its con­querors and whether, in its pe­ri­ods of ap­par­ent re­vival, In­dia hadn’t only been mak­ing it­self ar­chaic again, in­tel­lec­tu­ally smaller, al­ways vul­ner­a­ble.” The cel­e­brated Kan­nada au­thor S.L. Bhyrappa makes this point force­fully in his novel Aavarana (The Veil, 2007) wherein he blames the de­struc­tion of Hampi on the Mus­lim sul­tans who de­feated Ramaraya. This trope has been picked up by the scores of right-wing web­sites that now lit­ter the In­ter­net. In the age of so­cial me­dia, this mem­ory is fre­quently re­vived and works as a po­tent spirit to fur­ther the Hin­dutva agenda against Mus­lims. The his­tor­i­cal story of the Bat­tle Ta­likota is, as is com­mon with


most of me­dieval In­dian his­tory, much more nu­anced than this por­trayal of an epic show­down be­tween the forces of Hin­duism and Is­lam. In Kar­nad’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of events, he closely fol­lows the line taken by his­to­ri­ans such as Ea­ton, an Amer­i­can who has re­searched ex­ten­sively on the Dec­can, and Kr­ishna Kol­har Kulka­rni, a his­to­rian of Bi­japur who has writ­ten two es­says on the bat­tle (which ap­pear in the Kan­nada book Ra­ma­ra­jana Bakhairu, 2011) and re­cently headed a project to trans­late 21 vol­umes of me­dieval Per­sian texts into Kan­nada. In fact, Kar­nad’s play is ded­i­cated to these two his­to­ri­ans.

Ea­ton writes: “First, no party ap­pears to have been mo­ti­vated by re­li­gious con­cerns. And sec­ond, the Bat­tle of Ta­likota, far from be­ing a sud­den, iso­lated event, pos­sessed a very deep his­tory. In fact, the bat­tle grew out of sev­eral decades of con­flict in which Rama Raya had cho­sen to ally him­self with one or an­other of his neigh­bours.” Ea­ton says that the no­tion that there was any kind of “civil­i­sa­tional rup­ture” after the Bat­tle of Ta­likota is flawed as “...dur­ing the two cen­turies prior to 1565, states on both sides of the Kr­ishna river had as­sim­i­lated so much Per­sian cul­ture, and had ex­pe­ri­enced so much cul­tural in­ter­ac­tion, that their mu­tual strug­gles were prac­ti­cally re­duced to the usual ri­val­ries over ter­ri­tory and forts, and not over mat­ters of civil­i­sa­tion, whether Hindu or Is­lamic”. Ramaraya was also ob­sessed with Kalyana as he con­sid­ered him­self a de­scen­dant of the Chalukya dy­nasty of which Kalyana was cap­i­tal. He en­sured that he al­lied with which­ever sul­tan con­trolled Kalyana.

Ea­ton de­lin­eates this ar­gu­ment by por­tray­ing the Dec­can as a space of “elite mo­bil­ity” where there was con­sid­er­able in­ter­min­gling among the higher no­bles, all of whom op­er­ated in a Per­sianised ethos. Ramaraya him­self had been in the ser­vice of the sul­tan of Gol­conda be­fore he en­tered the ser­vice of his pa­tron, Kr­ish­nade­varaya, in 1515. He be­comes part of the fam­ily when he mar­ries the daugh­ter of the great king, soon after. Ea­ton writes: “That the son of a prom­i­nent Vi­jayana­gar gen­eral could so read­ily take up ser­vice in the army of the sul­tan of Golkonda sug­gests that for elite sol­diers, at least, the en­tire Dec­can con­sti­tuted a seam­less arena of op­por­tu­nity, and not, as many his­to­ri­ans have imag­ined, a land di­vided into a ‘Mus­lim’ north and ‘Hindu’ south, with the Kr­ishna river run­ning be­tween them.” Ea­ton ren­ders Ramaraya as an am­bi­tious gen­er­alis­simo of Kr­ish­nade­varaya who suc­ceeded, along with his two brothers, in gath­er­ing power around him after the death of Kr­ish­nade­varaya in 1529 (A So­cial His­tory of the Dec­can: 1300-1761, Richard Maxwell Ea­ton, 2005).

Kol­har Kulka­rni added to this ar­gu­ment while talk­ing with Front­line at the Dr P.G. Halakatti Re­search Cen­tre in the sprawl­ing cam­pus of the Bi­japur Lin­gayat Dis­trict Ed­u­ca­tional As­so­ci­a­tion in Vijayapura. He said that Ramaraya played the sul­tans against one an­other dur­ing the pe­riod of his re­gency, frus­trat­ing the sul­tans who re­alised that only an al­liance could de­feat him. “There was no re­li­gious an­gle to the bat­tle. Even till the end, the sul­tan of Bi­japur, Ali Adil Shah, who re­garded Ramaraya as his fa­ther was very sorry about his death,” he said. About the plun­der­ing at Hampi, Kol­har Kulka­rni ex­plained: “Vi­jayana­gara was de­stroyed by an in­ter­nal feud be­tween the Shaivites and Vaish­navites. Even if you go to Hampi

THE STONE CHAR­IOTat the Vi­jaya Vit­tala tem­ple in Hampi, Bel­lari dis­trict.

IBRAHIM ROZA,the tomb of Ibrahim Adil Shah II in Vijayapura.

THE KAN­NADA PLAY “Rak­shasa Tan­gadi” (Cross­ing to Hampi) by Girish Kar­nad. The cover de­picts a scene from the Bat­tle of Ta­likota as con­tained in the “Tarif-i-hu­sain Shah Bad­shah Dakhan”, writ­ten by Aftab, an eye­wit­ness to the bat­tle.

A PAINT­ING DE­PICT­ING the de­cap­i­ta­tion of Ramaraya, an ac­tion that ended the bat­tle. (Right) The pur­ported bust of Ramaraya in the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum of Vijayapura.

A VIEW OF THE ELE­PHANT STA­BLES Mu­seum in Hampi. (Be­low) Can­nons from the sul­tanate era out­side the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal

THE LOTUS MA­HAL in Hampi. Many mon­u­ments in Hampi have the in­flu­ence of Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture.

GOL GUMBAZ, the mau­soleum of Mo­hammed Adil Shah in Vijayapura.

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