Krishnadevaraya may be the most important monarch that most people (well, non-Indian people) have never heard of.
Not that Vijayanagara, over which he ruled, was some obscure tributary state; on the contrary, it was an empire comprising most of South India, with a population estimated at 20 million, more than France or the Holy Roman Empire. Its eponymous capital was one of the largest cities in the world, possibly the second largest after Beijing, and larger than any in Europe. Krishnadevaraya himself was the rough contemporary of England’s Henry VIII and Spain’s Charles I—and, if one believes the stories, considerably richer.
This amnesia could be because the polity of which he was king no longer exists and hasn’t for centuries, and was not in any case a “country” in the nation-state way we mostly now think of them. English-speakers, it should be noted, have it easy when it comes to history: countries and rulers have more or less proceeded in a linear direction since at least William the Conqueror. The situation in what is now called India was closer to that of 8th-century Anglo-Saxon England or medieval Spain: Mercia, Asturias and their kings suffer from similar global obscurity.
Srinivas Reddy sets about remedying the situation with Raya: Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara. Krishnaraya (the “deva” was added posthumously) ascended the throne in 1509 on the death of his brother; the succession itself is the subject of divergent legends ranging from chopped-off fingers to blinded goats.
There is, indeed, a surfeit of stories and a deficit of strict historical sources—certainly compared with Krishnadevaraya’s European and Chinese contemporaries—something of an impediment for the biographer. While well-researched and extensively footnoted, this is a work of popular history (replete with exclamation marks!) rather than an exercise in historical rigor. In his prologue, for example, Reddy recounts a dream in 1515 on “the eve of… the king’s greatest battle”, in which “the benevolent god Andhra Mahavishnu appeared before the king…”. Reddy goes on:
That fateful dream of 1515 was no mere fiction—it was divine inspiration for an unforgettable empire.
One can only know that the king reported the dream, not that he had it or what it consisted of. Raya, then, is history leavened with inference.
The book is structured chronologically around Krishnadevaraya’s military campaigns, presumably because these are relatively well-documented; Krishnadevaraya had his share of battles and sieges, coming out victorious in all that were recorded. Vijayanagara expanded considerably northwards on his watch. The last major campaign was the siege of Raichur, held by the kingdom of Bijapur, notable because it was described in detail by in an account by Portuguese horse-trader Fernão Nunes and because the siege was turned by Christovão de Figueiredo, who just happened to turn up with another of party horse-traders and twenty musketeers, who were able to pick the defenders off the walls, including the Captain of the city.
Reddy’s objective, however, is not to recount a series of events, but to paint a portrait of the king and the man. His prime sources are, ironically perhaps, the accounts of Fernão Nunes and his fellow Portuguese (ie foreign) horse-trader Domingo Paes, who spent considerable time in Vijayanagara in its heyday around 1520. There’s a Persian-language account, the Tarikh-i-Ferishta, from decades later originating from the Deccan Sultanate of Bijapur, which was hardly on friendly terms with Vijayanagara. Otherwise, he makes use of sources, mostly Telugu, which are either later or more literary than historical: poems, on the whole, rather than correspondence. Reddy deals with this, he says, by “sensitively reading each source with respect to its context, its production, its author and its intended audience.” Reddy has discussed this particular methodology in more detail elsewhere:“Stallions of the Indian Ocean”, in Exploring Materiality and Connectivity in Anthropology and Beyond, UCL Press 2020
I hope to move beyond the issue of empirical historicity, towards a discourse of relational historicity. That is, how do sources interact with each other? How do they reinforce, contradict and complicate our understanding of history? … Indic literary sources can, and should, be plumbed for richer and more inclusive historical perspectives.
These other sources are, in Reddy’s own words, “soft”. Raya should itself perhaps be read with some of the same sensitivity, for Reddy is an avowed Krishnadevaraya partisan:
Today, Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara is remembered as the iconic king of south India. Most histories portray him as a Hindu warrior who crushed Muslim invaders, some paint him as a peasant who rose to become an emperor, and yet others remember him as a shrewd statesman, a brilliant poet or a benevolent ruler. Each of these identities contributed to the king’s remarkable persona, but he was much more than any one of these readings. What makes Krishnadevaraya so exciting is that his life embodies all the vibrant dynamism of his era, a time that witnessed radical transformations in the social, cultural and political life of South Asia, and the world at large. His two-decade reign from 1509 to 1529 falls in what scholars call the early modern period, a precipice of world history when new global networks were being forged—cultures merged and cultured clashed, but vast lands of the earth were not yet claimed by European colonialism. Krishnadevaraya thus represents a critical transformation from ancient king to modern politician. And in that sense, he was India’s first global leader.
Reddy portrays Krishnadevaraya as competent, decisive, forceful, pious (albeit somewhat ostentatiously), religiously tolerant and benevolent; only rarely does the king come across as as duplicitous and manipulative—that is, a normal politician—such as when he tricks Adil Shah of Bijapur into war. The king had sent a Muslim official to Goa with money for horses; when the official defects to Bijapur instead, Krishnadevaraya has his causus belli. Reddy portrays the episode as a set-up, putting “defection” in quotes, rather than one of the king naively trusting an underling.
In the most dramatic incident in the book, Krishnadevaraya puts out the eyes of his long-term chief minister Timmarasu, framed for poisoning Krishnadevaraya’s son. It’s hard to know how much of this actually happened, of course—“ the whispers of legend grow loud”, writes Reddy—but this rash and vengeful action is more than a little at odds with the rest of the portrait the book intends to convey.
Raya seems to be the first major biography, in English at any rate, of Krishnadevaraya. This is curious, rather as if there were no biography of King Alfred, whose role in “stopping” the Danes seems to parallel (in mythology and overall success) Krishnadevaraya’s battle with the “Muslim invaders”. Raya is eminently readable by non-Indians. The few idiosyncrasies such as denominating numbers in lakhs—one million is written 1,00,000—and placing Malacca “near modern-day Singapore” (200-250km is “near” only by Indian standards of distance) seem merely to have snuck by the editor. Otherwise, India-specific references are explained and little if any prior knowledge or familiarity is assumed.
Krishnadevaraya, and his kingdom, certainly merit this treatment and much more. But it also seems impossible to read Raya exclusively from within the context of its own time and without reference to India’s current internal struggles as to how it should consider itself. By calling Krishnadevaraya’s “India’s first global leader”, Reddy would seem to be making exactly those references. The past, as they say, isn’t even past.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↩||“Stallions of the Indian Ocean”, in Exploring Materiality and Connectivity in Anthropology and Beyond, UCL Press 2020|