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/...horsemen 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 Vijayapura.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.