The Apocalyptic Battle of Talikota is an Eternal Warning

The Renaissance in Europe witnessed the revival, restoration and resurgence of the ancient, classical traditions of the Greeks and the Romans chiefly in the spheres of art, literature, and other cultural elements. This revival found brilliant expression in the syllabi of various centres of higher learning throughout Europe. For over three centuries, these educational institutions made classical studies mandatory even for those students and aspiring scholars who later pursued the pure sciences. Indeed, it is not coincidental that Greek and Latin names are assigned to the elements found in the Periodic Table, and the fact that biological taxonomy is replete with Greek and Latin terms.

However, these classical traditions were entirely pre-Christian in spirit, character and expression. And it makes sense that they were revived during the Renaissance period because this period was singularly characterised by a rejection of and rebellion against the stranglehold of the Church that had pushed Europe into the Heart of Darkness for at least 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 names of behemoth corporations of today like Oracle, Amazon, and Nike, the influence of ancient Greece and Rome have been indelibly, subconsciously implanted in the DNA of the modern West and westernised Indians as well.

The Guardian Tower of Sanatana Dharma

This cultural phenomenon applies in equal measure to one of the world’s greatest empires: the Vijayanagara Empire. If Abhijata (pristine) Hinduism continues to survive in whatever form in South India today, the entire credit for it still rests on the shoulders of this Empire for building such a sturdy foundation way back in the mid 14th century CE.

One can still witness the numerous evidences of this grandeur in the temples built during that era (some of which continue to flourish even today), in Dharmic rituals, endowments, holdovers of administrative concepts, in the arts, in the way festivals are celebrated (Mysore Dussera being the greatest and world-renowned 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 Maharshi 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.

INLINE AD

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). [1]

Those temples of Gods, which used to reverberate with the sacred melody of the mridangam, now echo the dreadful howls of jackals. [5]

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. [7]

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. [13]

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. [15]

Gangadevi’s lament did not fall on deaf ears. By 1370 CE, a determined Kumara Kampana had succeeded in annihilating the sputtering vestiges of the infamous Madurai Sultanate by routing Nasir-ud-din, the so-called Sultan who ruled Madurai.

This period also witnessed swift conquests and the beginning of the consolidation of all territories in South India and eventually paved the way for making Vijayanagara the most unassailable and prosperous empire in South India for the next two hundred-odd years. The Vijayanagara Empire thus stood as the sweeping and insurmountable political Vindhya shielding all of South India from the relentless and barbaric depredations of Muslim armies.

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 and 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 its story is not pretty.

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 and fearsome warrior who had led several successful campaigns under Krishnadevaraya. He was also an able administrator and a skilful diplomat.

Rama Raya 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 had not descended from the royal lineage of the Rayas of Vijayanagara.

Front View of a Temple Complex in Hampi. Pic shot by Sandeep Balakrishna

To his credit, Rama Raya was a shrewd political operative. Surrounded by the five hostile Bahamani Kings, 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.

Germination of the Battle of Talikota

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, 24 years after the incident. 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.

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 the foregoing 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 temporarily forgetting mutual hostilities. And further that this grand alliance should march against Rama Raya. 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, a marriage of political expediency. Likewise, Murtajabiz the son of the Sultan of Ahmednagar, was married to Adil Shah’s sister.

All parties of this alliance agreed 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: 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 pitched 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 Overconfidence, Stealth and Treachery

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 march.

Meanwhile, a supremely overconfident Rama Raya continued to remain 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 sizeable 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 army 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 formidable fighting machine, and all of his adversaries had tasted humiliating defeats 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 cocksure 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 who had pleaded with him to to mount a horse. Instead Rama Raya 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!”

As blood-curdling as the cry was, it simply didn’t work. The scattered and indisciplined manner in which his soldiers fought began to take its toll. Rama Raya quickly realised this, dismounted, and spread out a 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.

This turn of events greatly worried Nizam Shah, Qutub Shah and Ali Barid.

The Fall of Rama Raya

Nizam Shah put up the Rahtaanat sign in front of his tent. This sign signifies a holy Islamic oath that the Muslim soldier would die in jihad and attain jannat (heaven). It also meant that no matter what would happen, no Muslim soldier should run away from this Jihad.

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 anticipated danger to his own life, 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 but it is definitely not the famed Kanauj in Uttar Pradesh]. 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 “infidel” army.

This was apparently motivated by the treacherous 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.

Faced with this kind of multi-pronged assault, 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 including Rumi Khan who had toppled Rama Raya’s elephant.

But the game was given away when the Brahmin Dalapatiraya yelled, “Stop! Don’t you dare harm Rama Raya!”

And just like that, Rumi Khan realised that his hour of triumph was etched in these words. With all the contempt he could muster, Rumi Khan 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 are you doing! Exchanging pleasantries with a captured prisoner? Kill him now! If the Bijapur Sultan comes here, he will spare him.”

Nizam Shah immediately 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 propelled a full-blown retreat of the Vijayanagara army. However, they were unable to flee very far. The morale of the Muslim army which had redoubled after Rama Raya’s death now reached a feverish heat of murderous passion when it spotted the Hindu army retreating.

“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, jewellery and slaves: both male and female.”

One account says that it took twelve days to count the dead bodies that lay in the region from “Ali Kandi” to Vijayanagara and estimates the number of people killed as Ten Lakh.

Hampi becomes a Wasteland

The Sultans thanked Allah for this grand victory and remained at the scene of the battle for twenty days. Once the battle wounds had healed, they marched to Hampi vowing vengeance. They decimated the tall, grand buildings, temples, expansive houses with their equally vast private gardens that housed animals and exquisite birds, and burned everything in sight and plundered Vijayanagara’s wealth with unimpeded abandon. Perhaps for the first time in its history, South India witnessed the savage and thorough extent of the practice and ultimate success of Jihad.

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.”

Rear View of a Random Temple at Hampi. Pic shot by Sandeep Balakrishna

The grand Hampi was reduced to a wasteland. Even today, it is known by the tragic Kannada moniker, Haalu Hampi (Ruined Hampi). And this is how Hampi was reduced from being the global centre of awesome wealth and refined culture to merely becoming a tourist spot.

The Hindus of South India never recovered from this mortal blow.

The glory that was scripted by the Tapas of Maharshi Vidyaranya and ably executed by the intrepid gallantry of Harihara, Bukka and Kumara Kampana’s exploits culminated more than two hundred years later in the sweeping desolation of Hampi. The cataclysm of Hampi is the eternal warning of the deep and fundamental values of culture and civilisation, of history, of reason, of common sense, and of the stupor induced by prosperity.

And this is the warning that Hampi will tell every “tourist” who will pause and listen to that cautionary voice behind this desolation.


Works Consulted

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

Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.