When a Washerman's Verse Inspired Sri Krishnadevaraya's Conquest of Kalinga
One of the world’s most powerful monarchs, Sri Krishnadevaraya decisively stamped his coronation immediately by beginning a series of Digvijayas starting with Ummattur in 1510. With that, he pocketed the entire Sivanasamudra region. After this, he wrested Kondavidu, Raichur and Gomantaka. In 1513, it was the turn of the formidable Udayagiri.
This was the Emperor, the Great Raya who knew no defeat. Indeed, the first twelve years of his magnificent reign were characterized by a series of Digvijayas. The two crowning glories of these Digvijayas were the conquest of Kalinga and the conclusive pounding of the Bahamani at Raichur. After more than two hundred years of repeated skirmishes, this brilliant Vijayanagara Raya had finally crushed the Bahamani power to pulp.
There a lull of sorts for five years after Krishnadevaraya’s conquest of Udayagiri. During this period, Sri Krishnadevaraya consolidated his administration and gave liberal patronage to culture. His military victories had earned fear and grudging respect from his enemies while his undaunted prowess, his sense of justice and his fabled magnanimity had endeared him to his subjects.
He would eventually get a personal taste of the precise extent of this endearment.
Late one evening, Krishnadevaraya was strolling the streets of Vijayanagara incognito along with his beloved Prime Minister Timmarasu. The sojourn led them to the Washermen’s quarters late in the evening. It was a rather unremarkable place. As they walked the lanes, they spotted a washerman relaxing on his portico after a hard day’s work. As they passed by him, they suddenly paused when they heard what resembled the lines of a poem:
కొండవీడు మాదేరా కొండపల్లి మాదెరా
కాదనిగీదని వాదకు వొస్తే కటకందాకా మాదేరా ||
koṃḍavīḍu māderā koṃḍapalli māderā
kādanigīdani vādaku voste kaṭakaṃdākā māderā ||
Kondavīdu is ours, Kondapalli is ours
If anyone dares to argue against it, we will declare that the entire region including kaṭakaṃ is also ours ||
kaṭakaṃ stands for present-day Cuttack in Odisha.
When Krishnadevaraya heard this poem composed impromptu, he was stunned, moved and energized. While the poem is straightforward and highly ordinary, the sentiment it conveyed, but more importantly, the social class of the person who composed it impressed the Great Raya to the core. He immediately recognized the fact that this washerman had shown him a sample of the esteemed nature of confidence that his citizens had reposed in their Raya’s unchallengeable prowess in conquest. This fellow maybe a washerman but he was SriKrishnadevaraya’s washerman.
And so, highly inspired by this simple poem, Krishnadevaraya immediately returned to his palace and summoned astrologers and Brahmanas and asked them to fix an auspicious day to embark on his conquest of Kalinga. This episode is also a glowing illustration of how Hindu kings were quickly responsive to the words of even the proverbial last man in their domain. In a manner of speaking, the washerman beat awake the Hanuman within Krishnadevaraya, and through a simple ad hoc poem, displayed his blazing patriotism towards the Vijayanagara Empire of which he was a proud citizen.
The next morning, a modest-sized retinue of officials from the palace landed in the Washermen’s quarters and began making enquiries in a grim tone: who was the guy singing that poem last night? The shocked washermen replied in fearful tones, “no, no, it’s not me, not me, not me…look, that’s the guy over there,” pointing to our washerman who was hauling the day’s load of dirty clothes on the back of his donkeys. When he saw the imposing palace officials approaching him, his mouth went dry and his body began to shiver. Thoughts of doom raced in his head: why the hell did I even compose that vile poem? Will these fellows arrest me for daring to compose a poem in a land fabled for the aṣṭadiggaja-s—the Eight Great Poets (of Krishnadevaraya’s court)? Or did I insult the Great Raya himself in some manner?
As the officials drew closer, he said in a shaking voice, “I’m sorry if I made a mistake. Please don’t punish me.” When they heard this, the officials laughed and said, “Silly fellow! You’ve done a great service to our Raya with your poem. You’ve indeed inspired him to launch a conquest of the Kalinga Desha. The auspicious dates for the campaign have already been fixed. Here, this is for you. All of it. The Great Raya wishes to convey his happiness to you. Take it.”
They put forward several large trays made of gold overflowing with the sort of rubies and diamonds and silks and jewelry that the washerman couldn’t even dream of. The washerman almost fainted. He said, “This is extremely kind of him. It befits his magnanimity. But what will I do with all this? I don’t even know the names of some of these items. How will I use it?” They said, “That’s up to you. You must not refuse,” and departed from the spot.
Later, upon the advice of learned men, the washerman kept only a meagre portion of the gifts and donated the rest for building temples and making endowments for various Pujas, and got wells and lakes dug up.
The story does not end here.
After Sri Krishnadevaraya returned from his decisive conquest of Kalinga, the washerman sought an appointment to meet him. It was readily granted. Then the Great Raya told him, “My dear man, you are the one who sang that delightful poem, right?” He said, “Yes Your Highness. I am that man. I’m sorry, but that’s all I could compose with my limited knowledge. Not a single word occurred to this dullard after that one line.” The Great Raya smiled and said, “That one line won me Kalinga, my good man! But I have not done enough for you.” Then he called his minister and whispered something in his ears. The minister in turn, smiled and said, “it will be done.”
After this, the washerman got the promotion of his life. He was now elevated as the personal washerman of the entire royal family of Sri Krishnadevaraya.
I read this story in a magazine in my adolescence. While I have forgotten the full details, I believe this is the gist of this charming story.
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