The Story of an Unknown Vijayanagara Hero: The Barber Kondoja who Obtained Tax Exemption for his Entire Community

The Story of an Unknown Vijayanagara Hero: The Barber Kondoja who Obtained Tax Exemption for his Entire Community

Kondoja, an expert barber in Karnataka impressed Aliya Rama Raya with his beard-shaving skills and used the opportunity to get a tax exemption for his community throughout the Vijayanagara Empire. The story reveals a wealth of brilliant insights into the social, economic and political life of the period.

WHILE THE APOCALYPTIC BATTLE OF TALIKOTA witnessed the feral annihilation of Vijayanagara, one of the world’s grandest empires at the hands of savages sworn to an alleged holy book, its legacy, befitting its statuesque majesty, has endured as a treasure chest. It never disappoints the assiduous and honest seeker.

You pick up some thread at random and a gorgeous dress weaves itself with pleasing hues and dazzling patterns. In the end, you’re left feeling awed at the genius of the raw materials that created this dress.

One such thread that we picked up for this essay relates to a subset of political economy: taxes. And within it, taxes levied on a specific profession: barbering. And it led us, on its own, to other related threads. The completed tapestry is stitched together with some intricate details of the political, economic, social, and religious life of the Hindus of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Our story begins on the threshold of the sunset of Vijayanagara. In the regime of the nominal emperor Sadashivaraya, a puppet in the hands of the ill-famed Aliya Ramaraya.

For all his other faults, Ramaraya was a fearsome warrior and an extraordinary administrator, but above all, he had a true spirit of generosity characteristic of almost all Vijayanagara Emperors. He did give a compassionate ear to the problems of his people and resolved their troubles in a timely and sympathetic fashion.

As we have observed elsewhere, one of the foundational principles of the Vijayanagara Empire was the paranoiac caution it exercised in maintaining the Pūrvada-maryādegaḷu or hereditary usages and customs in all walks of the social, cultural and economic life of the people. Continuity was sacrosanct. Sudden and “revolutionary” changes were anathema. Thus, the system of land surveys and assessment that existed in the Tamil country for centuries predating Vijayanagara was maintained almost intact even now. This system varied substantially say, in the Kondavidu-Sime or the Karnata Desha and they were left as is. The same principle was applicable to temple management in various regions falling under the imperial control of Vijayanagara. Public discussions were held and relevant stakeholders were consulted before introducing new policies or altering existing ones.

Which brings us to a salient feature of the Vijayanagara administration. As the dedicated custodian of Sanatana Dharma in Dakshinapatha, it took Dharmic matters very seriously, especially with regard to regulating the Hindu society in conformity with the tenets of the Dharmasastra. While the Varna framework was tightly maintained, it had a profounder dimension to it: every Varna was not only “represented,” (to borrow a jaded contemporary term) it enjoyed a status of authority in the overall scheme of things. Incursions into its functioning were not only not tolerated but such cases were taken for judicial arbitration. Almost all Varnas threw up gallant and noble leaders from their ranks, feared and respected. While some remained in the shadows, they nevertheless exercised their influence in their own ways and some “lower castes,” ascended to meteoric heights.

The Ascent of the Barber Kondoja

THIS ESSAY NARRATES THE RISE of the Nayindaras or the barber community which rose to stunning prominence and eventually commanded power in the royal court thanks entirely to the patronage of Aliya Ramaraya. The hero of this community who made this ascent possible was a barber named Kondoja along his fellow-professionals, Timmoja and Bhadroja.

Several inscriptions recount this story with slight variations but a unifying strand emerges from both.

  • The Hirekerur inscription dated 1543-4 tells us that Svāmidrōharagaṇḍa (The Terror to the Betrayers of the King) Ramarajendra Mahaarasu (i.e, Aliya Ramaraya) was pleased with the proficiency of Timmoja, Hommoja (Kondoja) and Bhadroja, in the Gaḍḍada kelasa [i.e, shaving the beard) and exempted them from the payment of all taxes.

  • The Hiriyur inscription dated 1544 says that the barbers led by Kondoja “made four petitions” to Ramaraya and all of these were granted by the royal order signed by Sadashiva-Deva-Maharaya exempting them from all imposts.

  • The Tiptur inscription dated 1545 narrates how Ramaraya, “being pleased with the barber Kondaja, exempted the barbers of the country from tax, customs, and all other imposts whatever.”

  • The Holalkere inscription dated 1546 reads: “by order of the Maharajadhiraja Raja-paramesvara vira-pratàpa Sadashiva-Déva-Maharaya, the Mahamandalesvara Ramaraya granted to the barber Kandója, in all the countries which he governed, remission of taxes and a grant of land.”

  • The Molakalmuru inscription dated 1555, says that when Vira Sadashivaraya was seated on the “jewel throne” of Vijayanagara, “Timmója-Kondója having made application to Ramaraya, the monarch, Sadashivaraya remitted taxes payable by the barber Timmója-Kondója and his family—throughout the four boundaries of the kingdom, and ordered a Sásana to be set up granting hiin rent-free land.”

The final picture we get is this: around 1543-44, Aliya Ramaraya was pleased with the shaving skills of Kondoja and his compatriots and promulgated an ordinance exempting them from certain hereditary and common taxes. Whether the ordinance was the result of a petition that Kondoja & Co had given to the imperial Vijayanagara Court is merely incidental in the overall scheme of things.

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The Story of an Unknown Vijayanagara Hero: The Barber Kondoja who Obtained Tax Exemption for his Entire Community

Indeed, the barber community occupied a powerful position in the later history of Vijayanagara. In the present context, we can only give a brief sketch of the history of the remission of taxes levied on them and how that singular episode catapulted them into the halls of power. Some of these taxes included the following:

  • Labour tax

  • Birāḍa (House Tax)

  • Fixed Rent

  • Land rent

  • Tax on Mahanavami Torches

To his credit and large-heartedness, Kondoja’s petition also included a request for exempting these taxes to all barbers throughout the Vijayanagara Empire. And equally to his credit, the generous and pragmatic Ramaraya exempted them all. Accordingly, orders went to his subordinate chiefs throughout the land. A partial list of the regions where this royal edict for tax-exemption was passed is nothing short of stunning:

  • The barbers of Yelappeya-sime in 1543-4 were exempted from all taxes.

  • In 1544-5, barbers of Penugonda and of the agrahara of Gajaramapalli in Guttidurga (Gooty) together with their brethren at Kurukundi in the Adavani-sime enjoyed this royal remission.

  • In 1545, the barbers of Hole-Narasipura also profited by this tax remission.

  • In 1545-46, Murti Rama Rajayya, an agent of Aliya Ramaraya, exempted the barbers of Vinikonda, Bellamkonda, Addanki, and Amman-Ambrolu from taxes.

  • Barbers of the Bagur-sime and of the villages comprising Nasana-Kota-sthala received the royal order in the next year.

  • The barbers of the Karnataka country of the Ghandikota-sime (Gandikota is now in Andhra Pradesh), and of the villages belonging to the Indranatha temple in Kurnool district were relieved from the tax in 1548.

  • In 1548, Mahamandaleshvara Tirumalaraya, with the permission of Aliya Ramaraya, widened the scope of the benevolent order so as to include the barbers of Kalumalla in Pulavindala-sime.

  • Even after the tragic fall of Vijayanagara, as late as 1576, Srirangapattana was fortunate enough to have a sasana confirming the barber tax exemption. Indeed, Sriranga Raya I continued the liberal policy of his predecessors although he neither wielded the sort of power or wealth as they did.

Insights into the Hindu Social Life

CLEARLY, THE WHOLE EPISODE opens a wealth of insights into the Hindu social life of the period, and should hopefully help us dispel several myths and toxic narratives about Hindu society that were seeded by the British and continued with greater vigour by the Congress ecosystem.

Although the notion of low status was accorded to barbers during the Vijayanagara period, it is striking to notice that no obstacle “built into” the so-called “caste system” prevented the community from generating powerful leaders like Kondoja. In fact, Kondoja makes for an eminent case study for the flexibility and mobility of the Hindu society in Vijayanagara. We observe the same societal traits in other communities such as shepherds, cowherds, fishermen, and artisans but that is a topic for another day.

Kondoja’s Clout in the Court

At least fifteen inscriptions contemporaneous with Kondoja and postdating him mention his name with reverence. The Archeological Survey of India, in its numerous expeditions in the 19th and early 20th centuries found these inscriptions engraved on the walls of barbers’ homes in the locations mentioned earlier in this essay. For example, in one inscription dated 1555 found in Molakalmuru, the barber community of Nagasamudra expresses its gratitude towards Kondoja for having secured a “sasana free of all imposts, to the barbers of Nagasamudra.”

Kondoja’s leadership qualities and his fame, cemented throughout the Vijayanagara Empire, eventually drew the attention of the imperial court where, over time, he wielded considerable clout. In 1555, his whole family became conspicuous by receiving remissions from the Government. But the newfound power and influence didn’t infect Kondoja’s head. He was pretty much grounded till the end and used his prestige for worthy causes. The story of the poet Rudrayya—a goldsmith by profession—illustrates this point quite well.

Rudrayya had just arrived in Vijayanagara seeking royal patronage. However, he was denied an audience with the king owing to petty jealousies and insecurities of the established court poets. After months of frustration, he finally approached the influential barber Kondoja and poured out his woes. Kondoja listened to him with great empathy and relayed the message to Sadashivaraya.

The story had a happy ending: Rudrayya was suitably rewarded and feted and he in turn, composed a verse extolling Kondoja from the depths of his heartfelt gratitude.

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