The Wonderful World of Vipravinodins: The Forgotten Brahmanas of Vijayanagara

Vipravinodins were Brahmanas in the Vijayanagara Era whose profession was jugglery. This essay attempts to trace their chequered history using inscriptional evidence.
The Wonderful World of Vipravinodins: The Forgotten Brahmanas of Vijayanagara

THE RISE OF A UNITED HINDU POWER in south India less than two hundred years after the permanent decimation of Hindu political power in Uttarapatha is a great civilizational education in itself. It was the first, grand political—in fact, an all-encompassing—Hindu reawakening that happened with conscious intent and was underscored by a definite aim: safeguarding the sanctity of Sanatana Dharma against the serial barbarism of the unclean Turushkas. Everything else came next. The Vijayanagara Empire fell the day its rulers turned their eyes away from this aim. The actual physical destruction of Hampi was its visible, external consequence. Defeat first occurs on the plane of the spirit.

This all-encompassing reawakening accompanied by conscious action is what led to an equally grand revival of some of the best traditions of Classical Bharatavarsha especially in the realm of culture and society. It was not merely that the Vijayanagara Chakravartins singlehandedly and personally oversaw the revival. The early monarchs inspired and guided by Vidyaranya Swami and Sayanacharya and other sages laid the foundation. However, due credit also accrues to all the constituent parts of the Empire which enthusiastically, even piously participated in the ongoing endeavor.

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In one of the rare feats accomplished by any Hindu Empire, the early rulers of Vijayanagara had unlocked a great secret, which in hindsight, contributed to the Empire’s longevity. This secret is couched in a single Kannada word: Pūrvamaryāde, or the continuance of ancient traditions and customs. It was a solemn promise that all monarchs starting from Harihara and Bukkaraya gave to the Sanatana society and fulfilled it without fail. Pūrvamaryāde is an embracive term that includes almost every aspect of the society. Old rules governing taxation were maintained. Local traditions were honoured by the king himself. Festivals and temples throughout the Empire received an unprecedented fillip. All professions received substantial patronage. Trade and merchant guilds thrived. Grievances were remedied with immediacy. When new measures were introduced, they were done so after deliberate and elaborate consultations. Even the slightest murmur against such measures resulted in their reversal. Overall, the emergence of this new, muscular empire did not disturb or come at the cost of the established social stability of the eons. In fact, the Vijayanagara rulers were almost paranoid about preserving Pūrvamaryāde. The monarch freely gave his humility and invested his goodwill and his people deservedly put him on the high pedestal.

As the Empire stabilized and consolidated its grip over south India, the society it governed underwent profound transformations. In a very limited sense, its social order resembled that in the golden Gupta Era. While the rules of the Varnashrama Dharma were scrupulously followed, there was space, opportunity and flexibility for all Varnas and professions to carve out prosperous and distinguished niches for themselves. We are reminded of this famous verse in the Nālaṭiyār:

When men speak of ‘good varna’ and ‘bad varna,’ it is a mere figure of speech, and has no real meaning. Not even by possessions, made by ancient glories, but by self-denial, learning, and energy is varna truly determined.

One such Varna was the Vipravinōdin: literally meaning “Brahmanas engaged in the profession of providing entertainment.” Tracing their history is a chequered experience.

IN THE FIRST DECADE OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, officials of the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) on a tour in in the Andhra Desha made some interesting discoveries. C.P. Brown, well-respected for his contributions to the Telugu language, met a bunch of jugglers hailing from the Vipravinōdin community in Vishakhapatnam and Ganjam (now in Orissa) and learned that they were now classified as Sudras.

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But the history of the Vipravinōdin community in the Vijayanagara Era reveals the fact that they were spread across the Empire. They were originally Brahmanas practicing jugglery as a profession. Although their origins are largely unknown, inscriptional data reveals that they started out in the plebeian class and by the sheer dint of their character and service to Dharma, slowly gained prominence. Eventually, they came to be recognized as Vipravinōdin Brahamanas throughout the Empire.

Rayalaseema: The Hub of Vipravinōdins

On January 9, 1554, on the auspicious Makara-Sankranti festival in the reign of Sadashivaraya, three Vipravinōdin Brahmanas named Padmanabhayya, Keshavayya and Madhavayya left an endowment for conducting the Kartika-Puja in the Hanumantadeva Temple in the village named Ranganahalu falling in the jurisdiction of the present-day Uravakonda Taluk, Anantapur District. Today, Ranganahalu is known as the Ragulapadu village, about an hour’s drive from the fort-town of Gooty. The Hanumantadeva Temple still exists as “Hanuman Temple,” forgotten and languishing. The three Vipravinōdins had made that endowment in the honour of their distinguished senior contemporaries, the Vipravinōdins named Govindayya, Kesavayya, Mantramurti Basavayya, Dakshinamurti and Sunkada-Vallabhayya.

Which leads us to these luminaries. On April 21, 1555, Mantramurti Basavayya and Govindayya had made a perpetual endowment to the Deity Venkatadri of the Thimmaraya Temple in Bettapalli, a 21-Kilometre drive from Gooty.

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On January 12, 1556, Chemnayya son of the Vipravinōdin named Chernuri Keshavayya made a grant of income from the lands he owned in the Agraharas of Devulapalle and Jambuladinna to the temple of Doda Avubhaladeva. The income was to be used for celebrating the Dashami festivals.

A drive of an hour and half southwest of Gooty brings us to the Chinnahottoru village. On April 24, 1556, the Vipravinōdin named Rudrayya, together with his two sons, Govindaya and Vallabhaya made a grant of income derived from the Agrahara of Devarayapuram near Uravakonda for celebrating the perpetual Dhanurmasa-Puja to the Chennakeshava Temple in the village.

On September 5, 1556, the whole Vipravinōdin community in Chaluru—about thirty kilometres from Hindupur—made a gift to the Mahajanas (citizens) of the town. It was an incredible gift by any measure: the Vipravinōdins belonging to various Śākhās and sutras undertook to pay the annual taxes and dues owed by the town to the royal treasury.

On May 2, 1558, the Vipravinōdin community made a gift of a portion of their professional income from the village of Guntakallu to the deities of Mulasthana Bhogisvara, Keshava Perumal, and Viresvara located in the Poletimagani village.

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Finally, an undated Telugu inscription found in 1912 on a stone slab near a well in Manesamudram is whetted by the selfsame Vijayanagara king, Sadashivaraya. Its exact date is unknown but what it says is interesting: the citizens of Manesamudram made a gift of lamps for the temple of Hanumanta-deva for the Punya of all Vipravinōdins. Manesamudram alias Manesandra alias Devarayapura is located about ten kilometres north of Hindupur. It is now urbanizing at a rapid pace.

Takeaways

We can add some more inscriptional evidence that generally shows the position that Vipravinōdins occupied in the Vijayanagara Empire. But from my researches so far, while the Vipravinōdins were known as a Brahmana community, their influence began to ascend only in the sixteenth century and peaked in the reign of Sadashivaraya, the penultimate emperor. Interestingly, as the inscriptions reveal, their geographical sphere of influence was largely restricted in the vicinity of Rayalaseema. They were prominent around Gooty, Anantapur, Hindupur, and Penugonda, all lying relatively close to the capital, Hampi.

Pending fuller research, it is really not possible to obtain a complete picture of this rather quaint but highly Dharma-minded community of Brahmana jugglers. Brown’s note that they had become Sudras by the early twentieth century also opens up additional vistas for not only tracing the vicissitudes in their fortunes but the impact of sweeping historical and societal changes following the collapse of Vijayanagara.

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