The Vijayanagara Empire or the Hindu Resistance to Islamic Expansion in South India: What Europe was Doing

The introductory episode of a new series examining the pivotal role of the Vijayanagara Empire as a bulwark against Islamic expansions in South India.
The Vijayanagara Empire or the Hindu Resistance to Islamic Expansion in South India: What Europe was Doing
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Preface

IF THE FULL AND ACCURATE STORY of the Vijayanagara Empire were narrated in the way it should be, this is the picture we get: the Vijayanagara Empire remains an extraordinary watershed event not just in Indian history, but the history of the entire world. Although it might sound tritely, it merits repetition: that this Empire is a magnificent and unbroken saga of inspiration and glory spread over nearly three centuries. It was founded and sustained with the explicit goal and purpose of safeguarding Sanatana Dharma against the Turushka incursions and its looming threat, a task it executed with extraordinary aplomb. It is thus unsurprising that there is no area of Hindu life and activity that the Vijayanagara Empire did not touch and transform into gold. If Sanatana Dharma continues to survive in South India today, the entire credit for it still rests on the hefty shoulders of this Empire of Dharma.

Dissecting Europe

The fact that the Vijayanagara Empire was one of the world’s grandest empires cannot be emphasised enough.

However, the Eurocentric version of the history of our world naturally pretends as though the Vijayanagara Empire did not exist. With no malice and based entirely on what this version of history itself propounds, it is clear that Eurocentrism remains an enduring curse, especially upon Hindu history.

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Which elicits this question: forget world history, what exactly is a summary history of Europe itself? This is the short answer: about an entire millennium of internecine wars fought by “countries” as big (or small) as say Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, or Telangana. All Christian countries. All heavily feudal and highly class-conscious and ruled by absolute despots. And colonial “scholars” groomed in this tainted background issued grand and sweeping verdicts about Indian history itself.

To illustrate, let’s pick a random year. Let’s pick 1421.

In England, the nine-month-old boy “King” Henry VI was coronated and thereby inherited the bloody Hundred Years’ War, a long-running scepter that haunted his regime till 1453. Perhaps no other king of England witnessed such a conspiracy-fueled, war-torn and strife-ridden reign. Cliques and factions regularly overwhelmed the King’s nominal power. His over-ambitious wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou wielded the real power behind the throne. Dukes and cousins were murdered with impunity. Palace intrigues were the order of the day. England lost both its dominance and lands in France. A bloody civil war (the infamous Wars of the Roses) broke out just two years after the Hundred Years’ War ended. An incensed plebian named Jack Cade, a practical epitome of revolt against the lawlessness and oppression of the masses by this power-drunk royalty, was able to muster a five-thousand-strong mob and threaten Henry himself. Courts became the watering holes of political intrigue. Finally, as king, Henry VI was described as “shy, timid, war-averse, passive and mentally unstable.” Indeed, he lost his mind — politely known as “nervous breakdown” in contemporary parlance — several times during his rickety monarchy. In the end, “having lost his wits, his two kingdoms and his only son,” Henry VI died a prisoner in the Tower of London on May 21, 1471.

Indeed, no less than the immortal Shakespeare has delivered literary eternity to Henry VI’s infamy by dedicating an entire trilogy of plays skewering his dishonor. Or to borrow a line from the bard himself, these plays were written not because Shakespeare loved Henry less but loved England more.

The Scene in India

IN 1422, THE VERY NEXT YEAR, eight thousand kilometers from London, Devaraya II ascended the throne of Vijayanagara and inaugurated a quarter-century-sovereignty marked by serial military victories, political and social stability, economic splendor and prosperity, and cultural and scholastic excellence. In a manner of speaking, the full story of his glory has been rather eclipsed by the blinding dazzle of Sri Krishnadevaraya’s flamboyance.

Proudha Devaraya (literally, “Devaraya The Erudite”) is unarguably the greatest monarch of the Sangama Dynasty. The full credit for fully bringing all of South India under the Vijayanagara Śvēta-cchatra belongs to him. At the height of his rule, the Empire spanned Gomantaka in the West Coast and Odisha in the East, and subdued the warring and recalcitrant Rajas of Malabar. Proudha Devaraya’s reign also witnessed the high point of Kannada literature—it was verily the age of the Krishna-blessed Kumara Vyasa who composed the evergreen Karṇāṭabhāratakathāman̄jari or Kumāravyāsabhārata or Gaduginabhārata. Devaraya II was himself a poet of some merit who composed a quaintly-titled work, Sobagina Sone (The Drizzle of Beauty) and Amaruka and Mahānāṭaka sudhānidhi. Another little-known fact about his rule is his encouragement to the fabled Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics. Its celebrated exponent, Parameshwara was patronized by Devaraya.

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When Devaraya II left for Svarga in 1446, he had comprehensively transformed the Vijayanagara Empire not only as an indomitable political entity but had created an aspirational climate in which both rulers and the people wanted to reach higher peaks of prosperity, culture and learning.

In 1446, the disastrous Treaty of Tours became public knowledge in England. Accordingly, in 1444, Henry VI had secretly ceded Maine, a province in France then under British control, back to King Charles VII of France. In reality, it was not a treaty but a dowry that Henry VI had given to France solely in order to marry the fabled beauty, Margaret of Anjou, niece of Charles VII. The outrage that this alleged treaty generated eventually led to a series of political murders followed by the aforementioned revolt of Jack Cade.

And 1446 was forty-two years before the Portuguese pirate Bartholomew Diaz sighted the Cape of Good Hope and half a century before another Portuguese pirate Vasco da Gama actually crossed it.

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AT THE HEIGHT OF ITS POWER, the Vijayanagara Empire was perhaps the greatest economic magnet that enticed these selfsame Europeans in droves. With some forgivable latitude, it can be said that the fifteenth and sixteenth century Europeans came to India to trade primarily with Vijayanagara. We have their own testimony—chiefly the glowing Portuguese accounts that consistently praise Vijayanagara as the greatest Empire on this earth and its capital as the most fabulous city in the world.

Yet, just three centuries later, we have a history book written by another European, ironically titled A Forgotten Empire on Vijayanagara. No doubt it is a celebratory work but it is also highly reflective of the European mood of the twentieth century. Robert Sewell remains perhaps the solitary exception of European “scholars” of Indian history who largely wrote a truthful account of the Vijayanagara Empire.

But on the larger plane, unless this backdrop of the comparative scenario of world history is kept in mind, a full grasp and appreciation of the Vijayanagara Empire and its pervasive legacy will elude us.

To be continued

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