Raya: Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara
For a student of the past with a penchant for the history of South India, there’s nothing better than tuning in to JLF Brave New World and listening to a conversation discussing the life and times of an extremely captivating figure, Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara. Srinivas Reddy, the biographer of this historical figure, shed light on the political and cultural legacy of the king of Vijayanagara who reigned in the 16th century (1509-1529), Krishnadevaraya. Reddy was in conversation with another writer of the past, Manu S. Pillai.
The colloquy started off with a dialogue on the ‘unorthodox’ origin of Raya - who did not come from a ‘historically accepted’ or exalted caste background for a king and lacked pedigree. The legend of Raya’s unorthodox origin is wrapped in enigma - one legend narrates how his father, due to some ‘magical circumstances’, slept with a dasi (servant) of the court, resulting in Raya thus having been called a ‘dasi-putra’ (son of a female servant).
However, Reddy quipped that by placing ourselves in a position wherein we view the background of Raya as an exception, we are giving in to the stereotypical notions that surround kingship. “He is a good example of the types of kings that were around this time; in all of Vijayanagara, the whole kingship is non-kshatriya!” claimed Reddy and said that once the context is understood, we begin to realise that him not being a kshatriya is not a central plot of the story and his caste-background is not the reason for his uniqueness.
Reddy and Pillai then began discussing the political relationships Raya had with neighbouring ruling elites and how we usually like to think that Raya had the most strained conflict with the Deccan Sultans - however, this is not entirely true. Though there existed antagonism towards the contemporary Sultans of the South, the longest battles and the most acrimonious relationship he had was with a Gajapati king who claimed suryavamshi (house of the sun/solar people) lineage (debated matter).
Reddy wanted to emphasise the strained relationship Vijayanagara had with the Gajapatis “to highlight and to give a good counterbalance to this theme that Vijayanagara was just fighting the Sultans all the time.” With the urge to reclaim what was traditionally Vijayanagara land (South of Krishna), he battled constantly with the Gajapatis. Fundamentally, the Sultans were Northern enemies but to reclaim the coastal side of Andhra was one of the central ideas behind his continuous battles against the Gajapati.
Language then became the theme of the conversation, with Reddy shedding light on the cultural legacy of Raya and how he was a “king of Karnataka, writing in Telugu, about a Tamil saint”. In the 16th century,
Raya authored the Telugu work ‘Amuktamalyada’ (A Garland of Pearls). The work described the wedding of Lord Ranganayaka and the woman Alvar Tamil saint, Andal.
“This is where Raya is really unique!” said Reddy and suggested that by the time of Raya, regional literature and language had reached their apex and a sense of independence prevailed in the empire. At such a time, Raya happened to be investigating the history of Alvars - however, the story gets more interesting! Raya looks at a Tamil tradition but not in isolation; he is actually tapping into the connection formed by Ramanuja and the development of Sri-Vaishnavism, a modality by which the old Tamil-bhakti of the Alvars was given a Sanskritised overlay.
Raya had a unique contribution in a way that he was integrating various strands. He wrote Sanskrit texts;he must have had training in Tamil. He knew of the theological doctrines of Sri Vaishnavism, possessed poetic sensibility and had a penchant for the arts to such an extent, that he even established a ‘Bhuvana Vijayam’ (Hall of Victory) - a place dedicated to literature and culture. Here we witness a relationship being established between cultural production and political power.
On the matter of political power - Pillai asserted that Raya attempted to cultivate a bureaucracy rather than a nobility which might threaten the king’s power. Reddy, with great enthusiasm, agreed to this and went on to map the interesting political past of Raya and how he had a policy of putting Brahmins in fort-commander positions, which was a way to curb lords who had the potential of politically rising up as opposed to Brahmins.
Reddy also claimed that the political-philosophies of Raya’s ‘Rajneeti’ were inspired by the Arthashastra of Kautilya and were also fashioned after the ideas of the Portuguese, but also emerged from very specific 16th century-phenomena. Therefore, it seems like Raya was updating and adapting old philosophies with newer ones emerging during his own time.
Wrapping up the session, Manu asked Reddy about the ‘lack of historical material’ which one faces while reconstructing the history of someone like Raya and how does one deal with this - Reddy suggested that this problem goes to the heart of one of the ‘great issues’ - “we have to think about what history and memory means in India, it does not mean what it means in the West!”.
Reddy claimed that Indian history has also been fashioned after oral testimonies, the memory of an image, passed down as a feeling and through stories, “that is what these guys were doing...the Nayakas, Thanjavur...they are all reviving and adding to the myth all the time.... if you grew up in that world, you knew who he (Krishnadevaraya) is.”
What Reddy wants to do in his book ‘RAYA: Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar’is to trespass the ‘typical Western historical methodologies’ and give legitimacy to other stories and legends because in the ‘typical method’, these things are not allowed!