Challenging the popular narrative
Interview with Girish Karnad.
GIRISH KARNAD, the Jnanpith award-winning playwright, writer and actor, talks about his new Kannada play, Rakshasa Tangadi (Crossing to Hampi), the Battle of Talikota that took place in 1565 between the forces of the Vijayanagara empire and an alliance of the Deccan Sultanates. Excerpts from the interview:
Why did you feel the need to write a play on the Battle of Talikota at this point?
When one looks at the history of Karnataka in the last millennium, three events stand out not only for their importance for the region, but for the impact they have had on the political and cultural map of the whole of India: the revolution created by the Lingayat poet-philosophers under Basavanna and the Vacanakaras in the 12th century, the spectacular achievements of the Vijayanagara Empire, and the reign of Tipu Sultan, which was the last assertion of national pride against colonial onslaught. All three ended catastrophically but left legacies that continue to shape national life and thought. I have already dealt with Basava’s movement in Taledanda (1990) and Tipu Sultan in The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (1997). Here is my attempt to understand the third one, Vijayanagara, which despite being one of the most powerful military edifices of its age, collapsed overnight after a single battle. These three events changed the cultural ethos of Karnataka. All three were political and cultural confrontations but they had a deep impact. They changed the thinking in Karnataka.
The central character, “Aliya” Ramaraya, the regent of the Vijayanagara Empire, is fascinating. Can you discuss what drew you to him?
When I read [Richard M.] Eaton’s essay on Ramaraya, I realised what a terrific Shakespearean character he was. He was ruling the largest empire in India at the time and he thinks that he is being hated by that empire. At the same time, he is obsessed with something that is not part of his empire, which is Kalyana. And this is where the writings of Eaton are interesting because he argues that Ramaraya finds another lineage for himself, which is the Chalukyas. Kalyana was outside his kingdom in Bijapur [Vijayapura] district, but he claimed that his family was from Kalyana and he was from the line of the Chalukyas. He had to have some show of lineage. There are severe contradictions in his character.
The critical point is that the Vijayanagara army was led by him. He was old when the battle took place. He was known as “Aliya” because Krishnadevaraya made him his sonin-law. He gave him his daughter because he was a brave and capable leader. He and his brothers dominated the army, but he was not allowed to become the ruler. The simhasana went to Sadashiva, a complete nincompoop.
Think of his wife Satyabhama, Krishnadevaraya’s daughter. She was a princess and married to this brave general yet she does not become the queen. In the same palace where her father was once king, she was only Aliya Ramaraya’s wife. Ramaraya remains a perpetual servant and she has no rights and remains only a princess. This is the
kind of thing that playwriting helps you to analyse, which historians don’t talk about.
Is your engagement with the history of Karnataka complete with the publication of this play?
Yes, I think so. Ultimately, I’m not writing history, I’m writing plays. I write about subjects that are interesting. I wrote on Basavanna at the time because of the agitation around the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report. I was commissioned by the BBC to write a play on India’s Independence and I wrote the Tipu [Sultan] play.
What was the motivation for this play?
For a long time, the popular narrative around the Battle of Talikota worried me. For, if it had been a fight between Muslims and Hindus and the Sultans invaded Vijayanagara, then the battle should have taken place south of the river [Krishna], but neither Tangadagi nor Talikota are south of the river. They are north of the river, which means that the Vijaynagara army went north. Eaton answers this question; he says Aliya Ramaraya crossed [the river] because he was obsessed with Kalyana. It was a fantasy. That is what makes it marvellous.
The religious dimension is being perpetuated in popular discourse and I’ll tell you why. Because most of the historians are prejudiced. It is as simple as that. The great historian [K.A. Nilakanta] Sastri also takes the same line. A tourist who came to Hampi two years after the battle met some people and he said that Vijayanagara lost because there was betrayal by Muslims. Now, that is quoted by everyone. Imagine a person who comes two years after [the battle] in those days and talks to some person on the street and that is quoted as evidence. What is written by eyewitnesses is ignored. What does
this show? It shows prejudice.
V.S. Naipaul says in “India: A Wounded Civilisation” that Muslims destroyed Vijayanagara.
You see, Naipaul is a great writer. But as a thinker, he is an ass. He had only read The Forgotten Empire by Robert Sewell. On the basis of it, he came up with his idea. He read that one book and decided it fitted with his theory of Muslims destroying India.
When you write on historical themes what is the challenge you face?
I love history, I read history, it excites me. No one looked at Satyabhama until I wrote this play. All the women critics in Karnataka are thrilled with me. They think it is a feminist play because the entire solution is brought out by one person: Begum [wife of Husain Nizam Shah I of Ahmednagar]. The Begum tells Nizam Shah that they marry off their daughters to the Sultans of Bijapur and Golconda and make peace with them. Vijayanagara is brought down by this suggestion of hers. History doesn’t say that she said this, but if you’re marrying off your daughters she must have come into it. After Nizam Shah died, she ruled Ahmednagar for many years—a very bright woman. On the one hand, you have Satyabhama; what a humiliating life she must have lived. On the other, you have the Begum; she should actually get the credit for destroying the Vijayanagara Empire. This kind of thing in a play makes people come alive. A playwright thinks like that. That’s what excites me.
What do you think of the study of history now and its impact in popular discourse?
History writing is not only polarised now but the right wing is white-washing [history]. A lot of it is propaganda, and is being done deliberately. today, you will see that only those monuments belonging to the Vaishnavites have been destroyed and are ‘dead’ now like the Vijaya Vittala temple, whereas the ones that venerate Siva like the Virupaksha temple are thriving.”
Gopala Krishna Rao, a historian of the Vijayanagara Empire based in Bengaluru, said: “...the soldiers of the sultanates were interested in looting and [so] they plundered Hampi, not because of any communal feeling. The Battle of Talikota took place as the sultans, who Ramaraya constantly took advantage of by playing one against the other, brought the sultans together in a temporary alliance.”
G.M. Kulkarni writes after careful perusal of a variety of sources: “From the above passages, it appears that the unity was forged first, not because all the four sultans basically belonged to the same religion, but because the same was based on a common factor, viz., the fear of the
military might of Ramraj. Each one was more than sure that individually they were not capable of delivering the blow successfully to their common enemy....”
Other historians of Vijayanagar make the same argument. Burton Stein, for instance, writes: “That was the constant grasping about by great and small lords of the Deccan for advantage through coalitions and alliances, a strategy which recognised no frontiers between the Hindu kingdom and its supposed Muslim adversaries to the north” (Vijayanagara, Burton Stein, 1993). Vasundhara Filliozat, who relied a lot on epigraphical sources in her understanding of Vijayanagara history, also does not subscribe to the view that a religious element was responsible for the Battle of Talikota. About Sewell, she says: “But, still Sewell’s wrong remark that the capital was destroyed by Muslims has gone so deep in the minds of readers that it is difficult to uproot it even today.”
The notion that there was some kind of rigid “line of control” that divided these two areas is belied when we see the immense cultural intermingling of influences between the Bahmanis and their legatee kingdoms and the Vijayanagara Empire. While this is evident in a number of areas, even a tourist will be able to discern this influence in the architecture at Hampi. No one can miss the Islamic influence in the buildings such as the Lotus Mahal or the Queen’s Bath in Hampi. The significant tombs in Kadirampura also attest to the presence of Muslim noblemen in Hampi. There is a mosque located in the “Mohammedan quarters” of Hampi apart from more obscure monuments such as the tomb of Ahmed Khan, a nobleman who built a travellers’ lodge dedicated to the reigning rule of Vijayanagara. There are even the graves of Muslim holy men beyond the tomb of Ahmed Khan (see Basav Biradar’s article titled “Why Hampi Has Surprises Up Its Sleeve”, National Geographic Traveller India, August 10, 2018).
C.S. Vasudevan, a professor at the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, Kannada University, Hampi, said that several inscriptions found in Hampi attest to the existence of an elite corps of Muslims who dedicated monuments to the king. He translated the inscription on the plinth of the travellers’ lodge (some say that this is a mosque) built by Ahmed Khan: “For the merit of King Devaraya, Ahmed Khan got this choultry constructed.”
Similarly, in Bijapur (Vijayapura now), the largest sultanate, which became immensely powerful after the fall of Vijayanagara, one can see the influences of the Vijayanagara architects in majestic buildings such as the Gol Gumbaz and the Ibrahim Rauza. “The first major building to have been erected after the fall of Vijayanagara in Bijapur is the Jama Masjid whose pillars when looked at in isolation resemble those of temples. The brackets that jut out from the roof and even the majestic prayer niche of the mosque, the largest of its kind, has influences of the skilled artisans of Vijayanagara,” said Abdul Ghani Imaratwale, a historian and Persian scholar who teaches at the Anjuman Arts, Science and Commerce College in Vijayapura.
There was also no clear division between the faiths of the soldiers in the two armies. While the Vijayanagara army had a considerable number of Muslims soldiers within its ranks, particularly in the cavalry and the artillery, the sultanate armies relied on a number of Maratha chieftains to provide foot soldiers and cavalry.
The story that the Battle of Talikota was a religious war is perpetuated and conveniently feeds into reductive right-wing historical iterations that ensure that the othering of the Muslim in contemporary India is complete. This right-wing historical trajectory clearly follows the colonial model whose intention was to legitimise colonialism. Stein has written that the intention of such partisan histories was “...to make British rule a necessity and virtue”. The fragility of the “Muslim” alliance can be gauged from the fact that it lasted for only a year after the battle. The sultans fell out and another contentious era began. The Deccan kings would eventually be beaten by the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, towards the end of the 17th century, which brought the sultanate era to an end.
After the fall of Hampi, the ruins were left to nature until they were discovered in the 19th century. Unfortunately, a modern-day visitor to Hampi will not find any sculpture or picture of Ramaraya. But, strangely, there is a sculpture supposedly of Ramaraya’s head in the Archaeological Museum in Vijayapura. It was discovered when a baoli (stepwell) was cleaned in the city in the 18th century. While no historian of repute will confirm that this is actually Ramaraya as the sign at the museum says, visitors cannot miss this evocative bust of a great man, whose haughtiness led to his downfall and to the end of the one of the greatest empires of India.
GIRISH KARNAD,BY VIKHAR AHMED SAYEEDat his residence in Bengaluru.
VILLAGERS IN RAKKASAGI believe that this mosque was built by the encamped sultanate armies during the Battle of Talikota.
THE TOMB of an unnamed Muslim saint in Hampi.
A VIEW OF THE PLAINS along the Krishna river close to the villages of Rakkasagi and Tangadagi where the Battle of Talikota is supposed to have taken place.