Among other things, the Renaissance in Europe witnessed the revival, restoration and dissemination of the ancient Greek and Roman traditions chiefly in the fields of art, literature, epics, and other cultural elements.
This revival found expression chiefly in the syllabi of various centres of higher learning throughout Europe. For over three centuries these educational institutions made classical studies mandatory.
However, these ancient traditions and achievements were actually pre-Christian in nature, character and expression. And it makes sense that they were revived during the Renaissance period because it was also singularly characterised by a rejection of and rebellion against the stranglehold of the Church that had pushed Europe into an Era of Darkness for over a thousand years.
What we today know as the finer aspects of modern Western civilisation are therefore the combined appropriations of this pre-Christian heritage. Indeed, right from the name of the IT behemoth, “Oracle,” the influence of ancient Greece and Rome have been indelibly, subconsciously implanted in the DNA of the modern West and westernized Indians as well.
This applies in equal measure to the one of the world’s greatest empires: the Vijayanagara Empire. If classical Hinduism continues to survive in whatever form in South India today, the entire credit falls on the shoulders of this Empire for building such a sturdy foundation way back in the mid 14th century CE.
|Elephant Stables at Hampi.|
One can witness this in the temples built during that era (some of which continue to flourish even today), in dharmic rituals, in endowments, in holdovers of administrative concepts, in the arts, in the way festivals are celebrated (Mysore Dussera being the biggest example) and so on.
The period during which the foundations for the Vijayanagara Empire were laid by the intrepid Harihara and Bukkaraya (known as the Sangama Brothers) under the spiritual guidance of Sage Vidyaranya was truly happening and exciting. Not only did they lead from the front but inspired countless others to do the same.
Bukkaraya’s son, Kumara Kampana had distinguished himself as a warrior of repute early on. However, it is the extremely gifted Queen of Kumara Kampana, poetess extraordinaire, Gangadevi who gives us a valuable account of the condition of the period. She laments thus in the classic epic poem, “Madhura Vijayam” (The Victory over Madhura). Numbers in square brackets indicate the verse number below.
O King! The city, which is called Madhurapuri for its honeyed loveliness, has now become the city of cruel beasts; it now lives up to its earlier name of Vyaghrapuri, the city of tigers because humans don’t dwell there (anymore). 
Those temples of Gods, which used to reverberate with the sacred melody of the mridangam, now echo the dreadful howls of jackals. 
In the Brahmin Quarters [Agraharams] of our city, huge columns of smoke emanating from the scared Yagnas used to rise up and reach the skies amid the sacred Vedic chants but alas! today those selfsame Quarters send up wretched stenches of meat roasted by the Turushkas; the Vedic chants are today replaced by the beastly cacophonies of drunken hoodlums. 
During the days of Pandyas, our women used to bathe in [river] Taamraparni, whose waters turned white from the sandal-paste applied to their breasts. My lord! Now she’s coloured only in red from the currents of blood flowing into her from all the cows slaughtered by its wicked occupiers all over the country. 
O King! I cannot bear to look at the countenance of those Dravida ladies who were bounteously endowed with beauty. Ravished horribly by the scourging Turushkas, these delicate women now sport lifeless lips and exhale hot breaths, and their abundant tresses that have come undone are painful to the eyes. I don’t have the words to describe the suffering and dishonour painted on their faces, which know neither redemption nor protection. 
And so, by 1370 CE, Kumara Kampana had decimated whatever remained of the infamous Madurai Sultanate by routing Nasir-ud-din, the so-called Sultan who ruled Madurai.
This period also witnessed the rapid conquests and the beginning of the consolidation of all territories in south India and eventually led to making Vijayanagara the most unassailable and prosperous empire in South India for the next two hundred-odd years.
Yet, as the poet says, when fate summons, monarchs must obey. And so is it with empires. As with the downfall of the Roman Empire, so with the downfall of the Vijayanagara Empire.
From Kumara Kampana’s heroic, victorious exploits to Proudha Devaraya’s glorious regime, the Vijayanagara Empire reached its apex under Sri Krishnadevaraya. But in just 36 years after his death in 1529, the collapse of this mighty empire was swift, sudden and total.
And it occurred on January 23, 1565 in that fateful Battle of Talikota, or what I call the Sunset Battle of the Hindus.
Partial picture of an empire in decline
We can reasonably trace the seeds of this Sunset Battle to “Aliya” (literally: son-in-law) Rama Raya, the son-in-law of Krishnadevaraya. Rama Raya was a valiant commander, a tactful warrior who led several successful campaigns under Krishnadevaraya, an able administrator, and a skillful diplomat.
He was also endowed with a fatal flaw: an unquenchable thirst for power, haughtiness and overconfidence in his own abilities. He was also given to excessive sensual indulgence.
After Krishnadevaraya’s death, the throne passed on to his younger brother, Achyuta Raya who died in 1542 CE. His nephew, Sadashiva Raya was then a minor. Rama Raya seized this opportunity and eventually put Sadashiva Raya under virtual house arrest.
Acting as regent, he quickly took control of state power and replaced officers in important positions with people personally loyal to him. However, till the end, he could not become king because he was perceived to be not of royal lineage.
To his credit, Rama Raya was a shrewd political operative. Surrounded by the five hostile Bahamani kingdoms, he constantly pitted one Sultan against the other and in the process ensured two things: one, he extended the borders of the Vijayanagara Empire occupying territories north of the Krishna river and two, he kept Vijayanagara secure by capitalising on the incessant enmity between the Bahamani Sultans.
However, his luck did eventually run out when the Sultans realised that they had a common foe in Rama Raya.
It could be reasonably said that Muslim sources give us a fairly accurate picture of the Talikota Battle compared to their Hindu counterparts, comprising (historical-narrative) vachanas, bakhairs, kaifiyats, the “Keladi Nripavijayam,” etc. These narratives in Kannada were composed several decades after the battle.
In 1589 CE, Qasim Ferishta took up a position with the Sultan of Bijapur and then wrote the history of the Talikota Battle – ie 24 years after the battle. Some historians do not consider this as an eyewitness or accurate account because a quarter of a century is long enough for several legends and cooked-up historical tales to emerge.
Around 1560 CE, Rafiuddin Shirazi joined the services of the Bijapur ruler Ali Adil Shah and was eventually promoted to the post of prime minister. He lived for 24 years after the Talikota Battle and left behind eyewitness accounts of the battle.
This is also corroborated by Mirza Ibrahim Zubairi, who invokes his account of the battle in his Busateenus-Salateen.
Germination of the Battle of Talikota
Upon the request of Ali Adil Shah, Rama Raya marched against the Ahmednagar kingdom and successfully raided it. Equally, on occasion, the Nizam of Ahmednagar and Qutub Shah of Golconda had sought Rama Raya’s assistance to teach Ali Adil Shah a lesson.
In that instance, Rama Raya successfully wrested the Raichur doab on behalf of these two kings, angering Ali Adil Shah who then sought the advice of his close aides.
Two of these aides, Kishwar Khan Lary and Abu Turab Shirazi recommended an alliance of all the Bahamani kings after setting aside mutual hostilities. And further that this grand alliance should march against Rama Raya.
|Sultan Ali Adil Shah.|
As we’ve seen, Qutub Shah of Golconda and Hussain Nizam Shah of Ahmednagar had tasted bitter defeat at the hands of Rama Raya on several occasions.
Indeed, after Rama Raya’s successful campaign against him on behalf of Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur, Nizam Shah was so stricken with mortal fear that he abandoned even the thought of marching against Adil Shah.
And so, the Sultans of Bijapur, Ahmednagar and Golconda entered into a joint pact. Accordingly, Chand Bibi (popularly known for her defence of Ahmednagar against the forces of the Mughal emperor, Akbar), daughter of Hussain Nizam Shah was married to Ali Adil Shah I of Bijapur. Equally, Murtajabiz the son of the Sultan of Ahmednagar, was married to Adil Shah’s sister.
It was agreed upon by all parties to wage war against Vijayanagara after the marriage celebrations were over.
That done, Adil Shah sent an emissary to Rama Raya’s court with a message: to give up the key forts of Raichur and Mudgal. Rama Raya sent the emissary back with a contemptuous refusal. The same contempt was reserved for the emissaries that followed.
The stage was now set. The combined forces of Bijapur, Ahmednagar and Golconda began to march towards Vijayanagara. Because Bidar’s Sultan Burhan Imadul Mulk was a sworn enemy of Hussain Nizam Shah, he refused to join the coalition. The coalition army eventually reached and set up camp at a spot near Talikota, which fell under the domain of the Bijapur Sultan.
The battle that followed occurred at Tavarekere (today’s Tangadi or Rakkasatangadi), southwest of Talikota.
A battle of stealth
The Sultans assembled at Talikota didn’t immediately start war preparations. They indulged in merry-making for several days as a mark of more firmly cementing their circumstance-forged, superficial unity, and resealed their alliance against their common but far superior enemy.
And then they began their battle march.
Meanwhile, a supremely overconfident Rama Raya was unperturbed. He didn’t perceive this as a threat of any consequence and began to make his own preparations.
It is estimated that he sent a contingent of twenty thousand horseback soldiers and a lakh and fifty thousand elephants as advance force under the leadership of his brother Tirumala Raya.
He followed this up with another force of sizable strength and numbers. Historians peg the total strength of the Vijayanagara military force as comprising one lakh horsemen and five lakh infantry.
The task of the advance contingent was to prevent the Bahamani forces from crossing the Krishna river. The force had massive canons forming the leading front. Additionally, sturdy forts at strategic points along the Krishna river were designed to impede the enemy’s attempts at crossing it.
Spies of the Bahamani force reported that there were some places situated about two-three miles along the river line that were unguarded and could help the army cross the river.
Adil Shah conferred with his allies and sought their permission to conduct the war by stealth because whatever Rama Raya’s other faults, the Vijayanagara army was a fearsome fighting machine, and all of his adversaries had tasted defeat at his hands in the past.
Accordingly, Adil Shah ordered his men to adopt this strategy: pretend to attempt crossing the river at a few points and then turn back and then actually try to cross the river from a different place.
When the Vijayanagara army witnessed this, they realised that the enemy’s attempts were futile and abandoned their existing positions, thereby falling neatly into the enemy’s trap. Adil Shah’s strategy proved hugely successful.
The Bahamani army quickly tied up the canons with strong chains. In his certainty that this was a minor battle, Rama Raya had not even made a Plan B, forget a contingency plan.
Neither did he learn any lesson when he saw that he was outwitted. He led from the front and ordered his army to randomly attack the Bahamani force. There was no strategy, no discipline.
Even worse, he didn’t heed the advice of his ministers to mount a horse, and instead sat in his throne on the elephant. He bombastically motivated his soldiers with the war cry, “We are not cowards to be scared of this insignificant war! Go on, fight!”
That didn’t work. The random manner in which his soldiers fought began to take its toll. Rama Raya quickly realised this, dismounted, and spread out a vast heap of enormous quantities of gold, precious stones, and coins and declared that the one who displays the maximum valour would be rewarded with untold wealth and would be royally honoured.
This motivation helped breathe fresh zest into the soldiers who began hacking their way into the Bahamani force. The left flank of the Bahamani force was decimated and what was left of it began to retreat.
The fall of Rama Raya
This turn of events greatly worried Nizam Shah, Qutub Shah and Ali Barid.
Nizam Shah put up the “Rahtaanat” sign in front of his tent. This sign signifies a holy oath that the Muslim soldier would die in jihad and attain jannat (heaven).
As was customary, Nizam Shah’s personal entourage was accompanied by hundreds of women of his harem. The chief guard of the harem, a eunuch bearing the title of “Khwajasara” was given strict instructions: in the event that the Khwajasara fell in danger, he was to first slaughter all the women in the harem before taking any other action.
And so, the combined forces of Nizam Shah, Qutub Shah, Ali Adil Shah and Ali Barid attacked the “Hindu army which was continually gaining an upper hand”.
Ali Adil Shah managed to chase away Rama Raya’s brother, Tirumala Raya all the way up to Kanauj [it is unclear which place this refers to].
He then turned his attention to Rama Raya. He attacked Rama Raya from the rear while Qutub Shah and Nizam Shah faced him head on.
Even as the battle raged on, an enormous chunk of Muslim soldiers in Rama Raya’s army either defected to the enemy camp or became deserters by refusing to fight on the side of the “Hindu” army.
This was apparently motivated by the notorious Gilani brothers who were among Rama Raya’s trusted commanders. There are varying versions of this slice of the battle but constraints of space don’t permit discussing this aspect in any detail. The reader is referred to the references at the end of this essay.
Equally, panic struck Rama Raya when he realised that there was no force defending his right flank. Some historians aver that this was because he was unaware of Tirumala Raya’s flight away from the battle.
Meanwhile, a lowly officer (havaldar) named Rumi Khan fired two canons at the Vijayanagar force, taking a heavy toll and scattering the soldiers. He then climbed up his elephant and charged at Rama Raya’s elephant. In the ensuing fight, Rama Raya’s bodyguard was killed and the 90-year old head of the Empire fell down from his palanquin, wounded.
He was surrounded by enemy soldiers who didn’t know who he was. Even Rumi Khan realised who he had toppled when the Brahmin Dalapatiraya yelled, “Stop! Don’t you dare harm Rama Raya! ” Rumi Khan then had Rama Raya lifted by the trunk of his elephant and presented him before Nizam Shah. The Sultan, in a bid to humiliate Rama Raya, offered him a seat and mocked, “All well?”
The nonagenarian said nothing; he merely touched his forehead (indicating that fate had reduced him to this). At this point, the court physician Hakim Kasim Baig stormed into the tent and said, “What! Exchanging pleasantries with a captured prisoner? Kill him now! If the Bijapur Sultan comes here, he will spare him.”
Nizam Shah chopped off Rama Raya’s head, affixed it to the tip of a spear and had it paraded outside. It is said that Rama Raya’s severed head was thrown in a gutter in Bijapur; other accounts hold that it was sent to Kashi.
The sight of the slain Raya’s head put the Vijayanagara force in full-blown retreat. However, they were unable to flee very far. “The warriors of Islam chased them and slaughtered everyone in sight. An area spanning about twenty miles was littered with dead bodies, the earth bloody. The victorious soldiers of Islam took untold riches in the form of coins, jewelry and slaves: both male and female.”
One account says that it took 12 days to count the dead bodies that lay in the region from “Ali Kandi” to Vijayanagara and pegs the number of people killed at 10 Lakh.
The wasteland of Hampi
The Sultans prayed to Allah for this grand victory and remained at the scene of the battle for 20 days. Once the wounds had healed, they marched to Hampi vowing vengeance. They decimated the tall, grand buildings, temples, burned everything in sight and plundered Vijayanagara’s wealth with abandon.
In the six months that the Bahamani coalition was camped in Vijayanagara, every single house, temple, building and habitation in a radius spanning twenty leagues was burned down.
Hampi was reduced to a wasteland: even today, it is known by the Kannada moniker, “Haalu Hampi” (Ruined Hampi).
And so, the glory that was scripted (among others) by Kumara Kampana’s exploits ended, more than two hundred years later, in the desolation of Hampi.
And this is the story it will tell every “tourist” who will but pause and listen to the voice behind the desolation.
1. South India and Her Muhammadan Invaders: Dr S Krishnaswamy Aiyangar
2. A History of South India: Nilakanta Sastri
3. Foundation of Vijayanagar: Dr S Krishnaswamy Aiyangar
4. Madhuravijayam (Sanskrit): Gangadevi
5. A Forgotten Empire: Robert Sewell
6. Never to be Forgotten Empire: Suryanarain Row
7. Talikote Yuddhada Hinnele (Kannada): Dr S Srikanta Sastri
The writer is a technologist, author of Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore, the English translator of SL Bhyrappa’s Aavarna, and independent scholar.