Sometime at the beginning of his long and eventful reign, the Vijayanagar emperor Devaraya II (r. 1425-46) summoned a council of all his principal advisers and high nobility. And to this gathering he expressed wonder at how, despite his country being “in extent, population, and revenue” vastly superior to the dominions of the Bahmani Sultans, his predecessors were “reduced to pay them tribute”. Some with foolish beliefs declared that Muslims possessed a divine mandate “for thirty thousand years” to dominate the universe, while others, with more rational instincts, pointed out that the strength of the Bahmanis came from their horses and mounted archers. “Dew Ray [Devaraya] upon this,” we are informed, “gave orders to enlist Mussulmans in his service, allotting them estates, and erecting a mosque for their use in Beejanuggar.

He also commanded that no one should molest them in the exercise of their religion, and moreover, he ordered a Koran to be placed before his throne on a rich desk, so that the faithful might perform the ceremony of obeisance in his presence without sinning against their laws.”

And so the story goes that Muslims came into the service of the Hindu empire of Vijayanagar, with remains of their buildings and burial grounds still visible among the ruins of that city – one pillared pavilion, for long thought to have been a rest house, proved to be a mosque minus minarets and domes, known to inhabitants of the city not as a masjid but as just another dharamsalai.

Ferishta, who narrates this tale, generally tends to flatter Islamic kings in his writings, and there is a hint of conceit in his suggestion of an inherent superiority in Muslim horsemen. But there is yet truth to this account for Devaraya II did indeed enlist a large body of “Turkish” mercenaries into his service – an inscription from 1430 tells of 10,000 cavalry the king absorbed, while Ferishta himself reports an initial induction of 2000 men. None of this, however, was unprecedented. Three hundred years earlier, the Hoysalas had employed Muslims in their armies, though these came from settlements on the coast and were most likely of Arab descent unlike subsequent Turkish and Persian émigrés. Devaraya II also had commercial dealings with Muslims, and made efforts to nurture the ports on the west coast and monitor the import of warhorses from overseas. Bhatkal, for example, was home to a large community of Muslim traders, and when decades later a hot-headed successor of Devaraya II decided to massacre a good portion of them for serving the wrong buyer, the settlement escaped to Goa. Mahmud Gawan, then, swiftly swept up both Goa and these persecuted merchants to ensure an undisturbed source of mounts to his own Sultanate. In the next century, even Krishnadeva perpetually fretted over a reliable supply of horses, making a sensational financial offer to the Portuguese if they promised him exclusive rights over their imports. Not oblivious to how fabulously profitable the traffic was, the latter shrewdly declined and kept their options, as well as coin boxes, open.

Muslims who served the Rayas of Vijayanagar were granted senior administrative posts, though, like the Bahmanis where arrangements worked in the reverse, the majority of military ranks were divided among Kannada, Telugu and Tamil nobles with Hindu roots.

One later regent of Vijayanagar, himself having served a northern Sultan in his early career, permitted his Muslim subordinates to even consume beef, despite protests from Brahmins at court.

Admittedly, it was during his rule that the empire collapsed, but the fact was that in the Deccan, north and south, the elite “enjoyed considerable mobility, moving from patron to patron according to changes in political winds”, and not on the basis of what religion they pretended to uphold – a state of affairs quite at odds with the enduring picture of Vijayanagar as a Hindu bulwark against Islamic bigotry. When the invaders from Delhi first came to pillage, plunder, rape and destroy, the typical narrative goes, their misdeeds “set ablaze the latent energy of the Hindu Dharma”. The “smouldering forces of Hinduism” united to defend their own, finding political expression in the ascent of Vijayanagar, whose founders were pledged to “the liberation of the Hindus from the Muhammadan yoke”. Robert Sewell, who gave life to this fallacy, considered the kingdom “a solid wall of opposition” that “saved” Hindu culture from “ruin”, “devastation”, and indeed, comprehensive “annihilation”.

The rendition is certainly heady and has held appeal for decades, but the more accurate position is less sentimental. To begin with, the figures provided by Muslim chroniclers are often suspect. As one scholar states, if Ferishta’s claims on the masses of Hindus killed by the Bahmani Sultans during their wars were taken literally, “there would hardly be a Hindu left in the Deccan”. In the early 1360s when the two states clashed, “a half million” Hindus are said to have been put to death, which, if true, would have converted Vijayanagar into a graveyard while it was still in the cradle – which, we know, was not the case, given the heights the kingdom scaled. And most revealingly, Bukka, one of the founders of Vijayanagar, invited the Sultan of Delhi back to the south so they could together eat the Bahmanis for breakfast – hardly the mark of an implacable Hindu zealot whose pre-Islamic paradise was shattered by Muslim barbarians from Delhi. Like Ferishta, Bukka’s chroniclers too were prone to exaggeration, celebrating him in overblown verse, as Krishna reborn “to deliver the world when it was overpowered by Mlenchchas” (Muslims). This when, in naked terms of strategy, he was more than agreeable to consorting with mlechchas for political ends. The fact, then, is that pronouncements made to flatter kings are not always a reflection of reality.

Their world was not one of black and white, though religion did lend itself to the invention of grand narratives, regardless of which faith was under consideration, on either side of the political divide.

So there is no irony in a record commemorating Bukka thus: “When his sword began to dance on the battle-field, the faces of the Turushkas shrivelled up, Konkana Sankaparya was filled with fear, the Andhras ran into caves, the Gurjaras lost the use of their limbs on every road, the Kambojas’ courage was broken, the Kalingas suffered defeat.” Leaving aside how this is practically a mirror image of Sultan Balban’s inscription from the previous century in faraway Delhi, here the king lists the Turks simply among all his other adversaries – the Muslim is not marked out for any pronounced hostility. So too a century and a half later, in other inscriptions eulogising the past, the Sultans are listed merely among other dynasties such as the Hindu rulers of Orissa and the old Cholas of the Tamil country. “In other words, Muslims are depicted as respected political rivals, just like other major Hindu powers of the peninsula.” Among the oldest ruins visible today at Hampi, on the Great Platform in the Royal Centre of the city, there are various reliefs carved in stone, featuring not only Hindus but also Muslims – depicted with long noses, pointed caps and shoes with pointed ends – who are seen riding horses, bearing arms and even dancing for the Vijayanagar king. The Ramachandra temple nearby features stone carvings of Arabs leading horses, while in the celebrated Vitthala temple there is a mandapa with a column that shows a “turbaned Muslim warrior”.

The Hindus did not unite as one to challenge Muslims, nor, with their own feuds and internal dissensions, were the Muslims of the north a single consolidated block, baring fangs and victimising Hindus en masse before supper.

In fact, the Bahmanis forged several Hindu alliances – the Telugu Reddy and Velama chiefs stood with them at one time, and not with fellow Hindus in Vijayanagar, and years later the suzerain of Orissa too allied with Bidar at the expense of the southern Rayas, despite their shared faith in the Hindu pantheon. In due course, several more instances would arise when Muslims from the north sought Vijayanagar’s aid for their wars, and a queen in Vijayanagar appealed to a Sultan to come to her rescue.

This explains why literary sources incorporated Muslim rulers into familiar metaphors. The king of Orissa was Gajapati, or Lord of Elephants; the Bahmani Sultan was seen as Ashvapati, or Lord of Horses; and completing the circle was Narapati, or Lord of Men in Vijayanagar. If all of the south towered in a “patriotic national” crusade against a monolithic blitz called Islam and its “alien attack”, the founders of Vijayanagar would not have had to suppress “widespread rebellions in Konkan and in the Tamil country”, raised by Hindu chieftains in the early days of their empire. To view the clashes of this age as a collision of religious identities is to ignore the fragmented era in which these confrontations occurred. And while it is romantic to proclaim that in founding Vijayanagar “the Hindus of the south” were making a “bid for freedom”, the actual careers of Vijayanagar’s founders, one of whom, Harihara, is even said to have served the Delhi Sultanate, shows that plain realpolitik, often couched in a vocabulary of faith, was what actually motivated them. The first Rayas of Vijayanagar, in establishing a new kingdom, were not shielding Hinduism as much as taking “advantage of a period of public commotion” to establish a state of their own and further their own dynastic interests, for reasons less poetic than many would prefer to believe.

Excerpted with permission from Rebel Sultans: The Deccan From Khilji to Shivaji, Manu S Pillai, Juggernaut.