Unlike the royal-blooded Prataparudradeva of the Solar Lineage, Krishnadevaraya was by all accounts a shudra, the unplanned offspring of a low-caste general and a dasi (servant woman). One story tells of an auspicious falling star that flashed across the sky at the moment of Krishnadevaraya’s conception. On that night his father Narasa Nayaka lay with a maidservant who had come to light the evening lamps.

According to Narayana Rao, “In his own locality, Krishnadevaraya was only a peasant and, if legends are to be believed, a low-caste peasant at that.”

According to oral tradition, Prataparudradeva looked down at Krishnadevaraya with contempt. He felt it below his high stature to engage with a son of a servant, a low-class upstart with no social standing. Prataparudradeva only saw Krishnadevaraya as a dasi-putra who had grafted himself on to the royal Lunar Lineage.

Clearly, this was a major point of tension, but Krishnadevaraya seems to have made every effort to live up to the ideal of a righteous Hindu king, regardless of (or perhaps because of) his humble origins. In their personal devotions, Krishnadevaraya and Prataparudradeva were both staunch Vaishnavas. At the same time, they were inclusive and tolerant in supporting state patronage of various other deities, sects and religious movements.

And although both kings worshipped the main god Vishnu, they supported two separate traditions of Vaishnava theology: Krishnadevaraya was a Sri Vaishnava, a follower of the Tamil saint Ramanuja, while Prataparudradeva was an ardent Gaudiya, having converted to this new faith after a profound encounter with its celebrated founder, the Bengali saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

One way to better understand the publicly perceived identities of both kings is to look closely at the royal epithets that commemorated them. Brahman court pandits eulogised their patron kings in hyperbolic terms, often deploying vapid stock phrases that reappeared generation after generation, like the hackneyed rajadhiraja or “King of kings!” At other times the poets used specific, historically rooted language, like Krishnadevaraya being the “King of Karnataka” or Prataparudradeva being the “King of Kalinga”.

In both cases, the king was being praised, even worshipped, as a god on earth, a bodily manifestation of righteous governance and dharma in action...

The brahman eulogisers at court were masters of languages and poetry; they brought kings to life and committed their memory to the palm leaves of history. But Krishnadevaraya and Prataparudradeva were both well educated; they were scholars and accomplished poets in their own right and actively participated in the creation of their literary legacies.

Indeed, this was very much in line with another important theme of Indian kingship: the ideal of a kavi-raja or poet-king. As Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock notes, the figure of the learned ruler “became virtually mandatory for the fully realised form of kingliness”. To be a truly righteous Hindu monarch, one had to be a master of both body and mind – a monarch and a philosopher who could rule with both might and wisdom.

The most famous Indian example of such an enlightened monarch is Bhoja, the legendary philosopher-king who ruled half a millennium earlier in the Malwa country. The tales surrounding King Bhoja and his court of culture seem to have set the standard for the model kavi-raja, and so it is not surprising that Krishnadevaraya was commonly known as abhinava-bhoja, “a New Bhoja,” sakala-kala-bhoja, “Bhoja in all arts,” and simply Andhra Bhoja.

Central to this ancient belief was the balance between a king’s body and his mind. He was to be a mighty warrior, of course, but also a man of culture and scholarly wisdom. A kavi-raja had mastery of śastra (weapons) and śāstra (texts), and so he was equipped to rule a vast kingdom with both strength and compassion. As the court pandits in Vijayanagara declared of Krishnadevaraya: “You are an emperor in the fields of war and letters!”

The Gajapati was eulogised in a similar vein as “lord of ninety million citizens, conversant in music and literature”. Below the surface of these grand epithets, however, the differences between these kings was striking. Prataparudradeva was a high-born kshatriya writing in classical Sanskrit, while Krishnadevaraya was a low-caste shudra writing in a vernacular. And although they were both steeped in a great Sanskrit literary tradition, their poetic productions were starkly different.

Prataparudra’s major composition was the Sarasvati Vilasam, a Sanskrit work on dharmashastra that “embraced the entire range of the religious, moral and civil laws of the Hindus”. Rather than an original contribution, however, it was more of a compilation of previous writers with no new opinions or insights. Furthermore, many literary scholars believe that the text wasn’t even written by the king, but by his court poet Lolla Lakshmidhara Pandita.

In contrast, Krishnadevaraya produced one of the most important and original texts of Telugu literature.

His Amuktamalyada, which tells the story of the Tamil poet-saint Andal is both fresh and exciting. As Narayana Rao and [David] Shulman observe, “This remarkable book is couched in a unique style...an enormous erudition in many branches of traditional science and learning is brought to bear upon scenes of ordinary life. Both an extraordinary realism and a sweeping imagination come into play...this highly crafted style was beyond imitation; no later Telugu poets attempted anything like it.”

In addition, the raja niti section of Amuktamalyada is a truly unique contribution to Indian political theory; unlike the Sarasvati Vilasam, it expanded on older concepts and integrated a lived knowledge of sixteenth-century governance. For Prataparudradeva, scholasticism and erudition were an inheritance – his father Purushottama was a highly accomplished scholar with many literary works to his credit.

Krishnadevaraya could claim no such ancestral right. He had to work for it, and he surely did. These fundamental differences between Krishnadevaraya and Prataparudradeva undergirded the long conflict and personal enmity between the two kings. Now after a long campaign that had already lasted for over three years, Krishnadevaraya pressed into Gajapati territory, north along the coast towards the famed temple of Simhachalam.

Excerpted with permission from Raya: Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara, Srinivas Reddy, Juggernaut Books.