At the pilgrimage site of Tirumala, one of the most-visited holy centres in the world, before one is allowed to have a darshan of Venkateswara, the presiding deity, one is welcomed by bronze images of Krishnadevaraya and his two consorts, Chinna Devi and Tirumala Devi. The not-too-distant Shiva temple at Sri Kalahasthi offers the same experience.

Although Krishnadevaraya ruled Vijayanagara for 20 years, between 1509 and 1529, his legacy has over the centuries transcended the human scale, enabling him to acquire semi-divine proportions in the collective memory of Southern India. There are roads, universities, even entire administrative units of states named after the king (why, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has instituted a Krishnadevaraya Chair at the School of Languages and Culture of Asia, currently occupied by Velcheru Narayana Rao).

Srinivas Reddy, a scholar and musician, has capitalised on the in-roads made in the last two decades into research on the Deccan by writing Raya, what could be called a “popular” and accessible biography of Krishnadevaraya. This book offers a well-rounded portrait of the sixteenth century ruler, as well as fresh insights through a rich and sometimes quirky analysis of some lush data.

Krishnadevaraya is eminently suitable for a biography because of the simple reason that his reign is one of the best-documented periods in premodern South Asia, thanks to a plethora of sources and media. The book makes timely and regular references to these, wisely using most of these resources.

These include the travel writings of horse-traders, diplomats, and jewel merchants in various languages: Niccolo Conti in Italian; Aburrazzak, the ambassador from the court of Timur’s son who travelled to the major peninsular cities on the Western coast, in Arabic; and Domingo Paes and Fernao Nunes, both of whom arrived from the newly-established colony of Goa (the accounts of these two were translated and published in Robert E Sewell’s authoritative history of Vijayanagara) in Portuguese.

Moreover, there are inscriptions spread across peninsular India, from Simhachalam near Visakhapatna, to Bijapur district and the temple-town of Tiruvannamalai in present-day Tamil Nadu, which, while painting a rich and complicated portrait of 16th century South Indian civil life and political existence, also boast of the exploits of Krishnadevaraya.

Confluence of culture

The court of the king was as glamorous as the king himself. It housed poets who composed in Tamil, Kannada, and Sanskrit, but the crest of patronage was reserved for a host of classical Telugu writers, later memorialised as the Ashtadiggajas. Finally, there was Amuktamalyada, the poet-king Krishnadeva’s own composition in Telugu – which, while being a love story between the god of Srirangam, Ranganatha, and the poet Andal – also speaks on the art of war and statesmanship, owing to its martial origins.

Reddy, who has translated this Amuktamalyada (besides Kalidasa’s Meghadutam and Malavikagnimitram, begins by narrating the incident that led to the writing of Amuktamalyada: Krishnadevaraya says that he was asked by the god Vishnu of Andhra to compose in Telugu an epic poem, since he had hitherto written in Sanskrit. Elsewhere in the book, Reddy quotes a poem that further justifies Krishna’s choice of Telugu:

“If you ask, ‘Why Telugu?’ It is because this is a Telugu country and I am a Telugu king. 
Telugu is one of a kind. After speaking with all the kings that serve you, didn’t you realise –
Amongst all the regional languages, Telugu is the best.”

The final words – deshabhashalandu Telugu lessa – has in recent times become a statement of Telugu pride. Reddy has excavated lines with uncanny relevance. In the love story of Amuktamalyada, he finds kingly wisdom:

“Just as the farmer occupies new land, by fencing it in,
Digging up rocks and roots, and making it ready for planting. 
AkKing should occupy a country by attacking an enemy 
Or by taking over forts with bribes. Then he should seek 
And uproot the enemies, one by one.”

Reddy dedicates an entire chapter to the writers and cultural enterprise in Krishnadevaraya’s court, which is consistently referred to in the sources as the Bhuvanavijayam, or “victory over the world” (the interior and culture being a neat metaphor for the functions of power and the exterior). Here he discusses the works primarily of Mukku Timmana and Tenali Ramalinga, today remembered as Krishnaraya’s favourite jester, and finally Allasani Peddana, who was crowned with the sobriquet “the father of classical verse poetry in Telugu” by none than the king himself.

In writing of Peddana’s masterful work Manucharitramu (translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman for the Murty Classical Library, for which this work is a fountainhead of the “Early Modern” in India for it charted out not the story of a god but of “Man”) – often considered the apex of South Indian kavya literature and ornamentation – Reddy explores Krishnadevaraya’s notions and praxis of kingship. He quotes Peddana as an authority not just on Hindu cosmology and Sanskrit poetics but also on the military campaign in coastal Andhra and Odisha:

“In the beginning, a blazing bright fire was sparked 
When the king’s steel sword struck the flint of Udayagiri
…And while Cuttack burned, the Gajapati fled in fear of the devastating trail of fires
Set ablaze by Krisharaya’s might arms!”

Battles and religions

Like most biographies of kings, this book too is predominantly concerned with the politics of the time, and especially with military campaigns held during Krishnadevaraya’s reign. The book – as Philip Wagoner points out in a review – makes an argument about the king’s martial engagements and this is one of the crucial contributions of this work: that it was not the “Islamic” kings of the North Deccan whom Krishnadevaraya considered his adversaries but, rather, the Gajapati kings of Odisha.

One particular ruler from that line, Prataparudradeva, appears to have been his nemesis. The Odia king apparently called him “Dasi-Putra” before recklessly broadcasting Krishnadevaraya’s humble origins, claiming that the peasant was in no way an equal to him, a Kshatriya. Reddy describes the campaign against the Gajapatis, which extended from Udayagiri on the southern Andhra coast all the way into Odisha, as the most “hard-fought” years of Krishnadevaraya’s reign.

The king’s obsession with the Gajapatis is evidenced in his own writing. As the quotes above from Amuktamalyada reveal, had he written an autobiography, it might have been dominated by the trek through the forts near the coast. Reddy demonstrates that the rivalry was as much personal as political. The Gajapatis had to be uprooted not just because they stood in the way of imperial expansion and political survival, but also because Prataparudradeva, bluntly put, was a vile fellow in Krishnadevaray’s view. As the Amuktamalyada says dismissingly of him:

“The Gajapati disguised himself as a cowherd and fled to the Vindhyas.
And there in a dark cave, he hid in fear and spent the night in a restless sleep.
When he awoke, a snake skin caught in his hair…”

While the Gajapatis seem to have been an obsession in between 1512 and 1519, perhaps the more exciting parts of Krishnadevaraya’s conquests has traditionally been considered to have been achieved the perennial conflict between the Deccan sultans – the Bahmanis, Adil Shahis of Bijapur, Qutb Shahis of Golconda, and Vijayanagara. The climax of the conflict was the Battle of Raichur on the banks of the Krishna.

The Adil Shahi king apparently refused to release a Portuguese horse trader who had absconded from the project entrusted to him by the Vijayanagara king. Reddy writes that scholars researching this battle have always enjoyed the benefits of riveting details provided by the Portuguese traveller Fernão Nunes:

“Taking up the rear followed the king’s three favourite eunuchs who could boast the charge of 40,000 foot, 1,000 horse and fifteen elephants. Even the king’s faithful betel bearer could claim authority over 15,000 footmen and 200 horses. And last but not least, the king’s personal guard which numbered some 40,000 archers and shield bearers and 6,000 horse, along with 300 of the finest elephants, because the king had his ‘pick of all his kingdom’. At final count, the reckoning offered by Nunes puts Krishnadevaraya’s army at well over half a million foot soldiers, almost 30,000 horses and over 500 elephants! No doubt an exaggeration, but Krishnadevaraya’s title as the Narapati or Lord of Men was no empty moniker.”

Closely aligned to war and politics has been the question of religion. In fact, the two have often been combined in this book. Sewell also described Vijayanagara as a “bulwark against Muhammadan conquest”, and VS Naipaul infamously echoed this in India: A Wounded Civilisation. In recent scholarship, the nuances of this proposition have been teased out by historians like Eaton and Wagoner.

As Reddy points out, one of Krishnadevaraya’s sobriquets was Yavanarajyasthapanacharya – the founder of the kingdom of Yavanas (Yavanas here being a reference to Muslims). This title has been used in several inscriptions of Krishnadevaraya’s, and even Peddana does not shun from recounting in Manucharitramu the incident of the crowning of the Bahmani Sultan Mahmud at their capital, Bidar, after defeating the Adil Shahis.

Reddy echoes Wagoner and Eaton in averring that Krishnadevaraya too was an inhabitant of the Persian Cosmopolis: a grid of Persianate culture inspired from the literary corpuses of that language. However, the king’s allegiance to Hindu gods, practices, deities, and temples and, especially, Vaishnavism, is described in great detail.

Reddy points out, too, that Prataparudradeva was also a Vaishnava, although the sampradaya was a different one; Krishnadevaraya was a devout Sri Vaishnava and belonged to the Southern Vishnu School, while the Gajapati king was a convert to Gaudiya Vaishnavism from Bengal. During his siege of Udayagiri, Krishnadevaraya retreated for a season and resided in Tirupati with his wives. During his twenty year-long reign he made several donations to this opulent shrine, including his own statues that are described in the introduction.

According to Reddy, the appearance of Andhra Mahavishnu was a key episode in Raya’s life – and hence he places it in the prologue. This episode not only sheds light on the poetics of the time, the king’s literary career, and, if I may remind you, his military career, but also very critically illuminates the imagined relationship that the ruler had with god and his religious life in general.

What the architecture reveals

Krishnadevaraya’s engagement with Hindu gods and his relationship with the Persian Cosmopolis were most evident in the capital of Vijayanagara, now reduced to the village of Hampi in Karnataka’s Bellary District. The chapter titled “City and Palace” describes some of the structures that populated the former metropolis. What is striking in this chapter is Reddy’s approach of studying the city through the Portuguese writer’s lens rather than examining the structures directly.

The stories of the temples of Virupaksha and Krishna are glossed over, however. Krishnadevaraya famously altered state policy by replacing Virupaksha with Tirupati’s Venkateshwara as the kuladaiva or family god, and yet, as all guides in Hampi will tell you, he struck down the tower of the temple and constructed the current Vimana (the shift to Venkateshwara was further emphasised by his successor, his brother Achyuta, with the construction of the Tiruvengalanatha Temple).

In 1513, Krishnadevaraya commissioned a temple for Krishna to mark the early successes in the eastern campaign. The Mahanavami Dibba near the palace (in present-day Kamalapura) is described in this book as a venue of the Mahanavami celebration. Here too, we hear Reddy voice Nunes’ words. The Dibba represents a lost opportunity of sorts, for the structure was a memorial to the defeat of Prataparudradeva. It is filled with images of war – horses, elephants, camels and armies of various ethnicities.

Historian Richard Eaton has written of the richness of Vijayanagara architecture and the facets of the kingdom and the personality of the king that it reveals. For instance, Ahmed Khan Mosque is like a simple stone mantapa, while the Queen’s Bath and so-called elephant stables are conspicuous for Indo-Islamic motifs, such as flowers arches and austere pillars. The exclusion of such information from the book is surprising because the very scholars Reddy relies on have done spectacular research on these subjects. But perhaps Reddy prefers words to images as his source material, and hence channels Nunes and not descriptions of the Dibba, and cites the inscriptions in Tirupati rather than describing the tower of Virupaksha visually.

Interestingly, Reddy appears to take sides in his book. He is clearly taken with his subject, whom he refers to with a nickname, Raya, in the title. Perhaps it is from this position that we get the glorious narration of the eastern campaign, and the presentation of the king as an extraordinary aesthete and a kavya writer. This is a book that lovers of history could consider pouncing upon.

Raya: Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara, Srinivas Reddy, Juggernaut Books.