Venkatapati Deva Raya – the Great Savior of Southern India

Disastrous two decades post Talikota

The most common opinion among the people and historians has been that post the disaster at Talikota, Vijayanagara had fallen into a period of misfortune facing defeats after defeats – losing territory gradually. They either defended their borders or lost territories. The famed aggression seen from the days of Saluva Narasimha to the last days of Aliya Rama Raya had deserted the empire completely. The truth is much different.

It is indeed true that the period from 1565 to 1585 was nothing but two decades of misfortune and ignomy. Tirumala Raya, who lost one of his eyes and his eldest son at the talikot.a battle, tried to re-establish the Hindu rule at Vijayanagara but had to abandon the city for good by 1567 when he transferred the capital to Penukonda – due to constant attacks from the Mohammedan rulers of Bijapur and Golkonda. By the time he left the throne to his son, Sri Ranga Raya, he had faced several invasions in the northern parts of his empire – wherein he lost Adoni, Turkal, Dharwad and Bankapur to Adil Shah of Bijapur. While he was able to drive back the Mohammedan forces which invested Penukonda, he was not able to recapture any of the territories lost to the enemies. His transfer of capital to Penukonda effectively ended any attempt to regain Raichur doab for the empire. Portuguese compelled the nayaks of the western coast to pay tribute to them by using the opportunity of a weak empire. This further alienated the nayaks from the emperor as the emperor was not able to help his nayaks – as he was facing constant attacks on his northern borders from Mohammedan neighbors.

Sri Ranga Raya’s fortunes turned to the worse year after year. Though initially, he was able to regain the forts lost to Golkonda – his inscription of 1576 mentions that he conquered Vinukonda and Kondavidu which must have been captured by Golkonda army sometime prior to this. Nayak rulers of the western Kanarese districts accepted the suzerainty of Adil Shah. In 1575, when Adil Shah invested Penukonda, Sri Ranga Raya was able to repulse the Bijapur army with the help of his vassal, Hande chief of Bukkarayasamudram. But in the following year, when he tried to check the expedition of Adil Shah towards Penukonda, he was imprisoned alive by the Bijapur army leading to a rout of the Hindu army and had to be ransomed back for a huge sum. Hande, the vassal who helped him in the previous year, defected to Adil Shah thinking that the Hindu empire was due to set very soon and the days numbered. In a period of 11 years, twice the Hindu rulers were captured by the Sultans. After Talikota, the empire lost all possessions to the north of Tungabhadra while after the second defeat, they lost all possessions to the north of Penukonda. The following year, we see another invasion of Penukonda by Adil Shah. But this time, Jaggadevaraya, the son in law of the emperor, killed two of the four Bijapur generals leading the attack and drove back the Mohammedans with huge losses. Some terrirory seems to have been regained back but not all the lost lands were reconquered. The empire was continuously on a backfoot. The rebellion and treachery of the nayaks post Talikota also contributed to the weakness of the empire.

Post 1579, Qutb Shah of Golkonda dispatched his troops against the empire capturing Vinukonda, Kondavidu, Bellamkonda and Udayagiri. Golkonda army, led by a traitorous Brahmin general named Murari Rao captured Ahobilam and sent the ruby encrusted image of Vishnu to the Sultan. This was one place where Sri Ranga Raya was able to decisively defeat the Mohammedans later. Srivan Satakopa Svami, pontiff of Ahobila math during that time, conveyed to the king that Vishnu appeared in his dreams and asked the two generals Venkataraju and Tirumalaraju to lead the armies of the empire against the occupying forces and reestablish his worship at Ahobilam. The emperor dispatched these two generals against the Golkonda forces entrenched in Ahobilam. They achieved a signal victory against the Mohammedans and captured Murari Rao alive (who was left alive due to his being a Brahmana – in our eyes, he was no Brahmana and was fit for the most torturous death possible).

The eastern Telugu region was lost to Golconda while the north western Kanarese and parts of western Telugu region was lost to Adil Shah. Sri Ranga Raya was able to quell the rebellion of his vassals on the Southern and western coasts. Later towards the end of his rule, he regained Ahobilam but the empire had indeed effectively lost most of the possessions to the north of Penukonda when he breathed his last during 1585-86. The annual jihads which were stopped by Krishna Deva Raya were resumed by the Sultans post Talikota. That the sultans gained a decisive upperhand is established by this. His brother, Venkatapati Raya, during his viceroyalty at Chandragiri, managed an expedition to Lanka and gained tribute from there (this action of Venkatapati during one of the most turbulent periods of the empire seem to indicate a reversal of fortunes for the better which shall occur during Venkatapati’s reign).

Ascension of Venkatapati Deva Raya

It was at this juncture that Venkatapati Deva Raya (generally called Venkatapati Raya by historians) adorned the throne of Vijayanagara at Penukonda. He was the youngest of the four sons of Tirumala and gained the throne after the death of Sri Ranga. Though there were sons to another one of his elder brothers (Rama of Sri Rangapatnam) – who had perhaps a better claim to the throne – the Brahmins, generals and ministers of the court preferred to raise Venkatapati to the throne as he was considered the fittest man to rule the empire at such a critical moment. The empire appeared to be tottering everywhere and seemed to be nearing its death in a few years. Most major vassals had become non-cooperative and were trying to become independent. These nayaks had lost the vision for Hindu unity and were destroying the very foundation of the empire for their selfishness.

Venkatapati Deva Raya was crowned by his royal preceptor Lakshmi Kumara Tathacharya, who was 13-14 years of age at the time, as Srimad Rajadhiraja Paramesvara Sri Vira Pratapa Sri Vira Venkatapati Deva Maharaja. Despite popular beliefs, Vijayanagara had not folded so easily post Talikota. While the two decades post Talikota was indeed a period of disaster for the empire, a complete reversal of fortunes occurred during the reign of Venkatapati Raya. He is one of the three monarchs whose life size statues are found in the precincts of Tirumala Venkatesavara svami mandira. The other two being Krishna Deva Raya and his brother, Achyuta Deva Raya. We shall now look at his conquests and accomplishments.

Invasion of Golconda territories

He began his reign with an invasion of the dominions conquered by Golkonda during the reign of his elder brother. Qutb Shah sent a vast army against Venkatapati, driving him back to Penukonda and invested it. Venkatapati sent ambassadors to Qutb shah asking for a peaceful settlement and after this submission, Qutb Shah left Penukonda – happy that his newly conquered lands will remain with them. But Venkatapati proved to be a mastermind in strategy and tactics. Within three days he filled the Penukonda fort with required materials to withstand a long siege and on the fourth days, 30 thousand musketeers under Jaggadevaraya entered the fort to strengthen the defense. Matla Anantaraju, who later was called the right hand of the emperor, also participated in the defense of the fort. Where the fort was almost defenseless a few days ago, it became almost impregnable. Raghunatha Nayaka, prince of Tanjore Nayaks, also arrived to Penukonda with the Tanjore army. The Sultan understood his mistake and returned to commence the siege once again but it was of no use. Raghunatha Nayaka, Matla Anantaraju and Jaggadevaraya inflicted crushing defeats on the Golkonda forces forcing the latter to raise the siege and retreat.

Pennar Massacre

On the banks of Pennar, Venkatapati led the troops in person. He ambushed the Golkonda forces in the waters of Pennar, killing 50000 Muslims and dyeing the river red. This grand victory of Venkatapati broke the back of the Qutb Shah forces. For the first time since Talikota, Hindu forces had decisively crushed the invading marauders. The fear which had earlier engulfed the hearts of the Sultans during the reigns of Krishna Deva and Aliya Rama Raya came to re-occupy the place once again. Post this crushing defeat, Venkatapati chased the remnants of Qutb Shah’s forces till the banks of Krishna. Prince Muhammad Shah is shown as having lost a battle every other day while on this disastrous retreat. The vassals who ruled to the south of Krishna revolted against the Qutb shah and joined the cause of Vijayanagara. Golconda forces were also involved in defending their kingdom against the Mughal Prince Murad in the north, This split worked in favor of Venkatapati even more.

Annihilation of Qutb Shah’s forces – regaining territories lost

Qutb shah tried to recover from this disaster by sending an able general Amin-ul-Mulk to defend the possessions to the south of Krishna. While Amin-ul-Mulk managed to put down the revolts to some extent, it was very temporary ; as within a year, Venkatapati had successfully forced the Muslims forces to retire beyond Krishna. While Muslim chronicles state that he did not recapture Kondavidu, a careful study of the texts show that it is a lie. The Muslim chronicles state that when Venkatapati attacked Kondavidu, he became alarmed on seeing the Golkonda reinforcements and sued for peace. But the fact that he put the Muslim general to death and had even reached Kassimkota (north of Vishakapatnam), whose ruler Mukunda Raja, defected to Vijayanagara shows that he not only managed to reduce Kondavidu but even cross Krishna along the coast and conquered coastal lands upto Kassimkota and Palkonda ( i.e) almost the entire coastal region of current day Andhra Pradesh came under his control.

Defeat of Adil Shah

Adil Shah attacked the Kanarese districts and besieged Penukonda. But it seems Venkata convinced a Hindu general of Bijapur to defect and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Bijapur army forcing the Sultan to flee to his capital. It appears that during this retreat Venkata managed to recapture some territory from Bijapur as well – we come across a renewed invasion in western Kanarese districts where the nayaks who had earlier accepted suzerainty of Adil Shah rebelled against the Sultan and joined Venkata’s army in conquering Bankapur and adjoining areas (lost in the reign of Tirumala Raya). Venkatapati Deva Raya ruled from 1586 to 1614. We do not find any Muslim invasion of his dominions post 1595. He achieved what Krishna Deva Raya achieved – putting an end to the annual jihads. Where Krishna Raya had a strong empire bequeathed to him and built upon the edifice further; Venkatapati was handed a weak empire whose vassals were not even cooperating with the sovereign. In such a tenuous situation, he managed to turn the tables on the Mohammedan neighbors of the north.

Consolidation of the empire

The later portion of his reign was spent in subjugating the vassals. He forced the Nayaks of Madurai and Jinji to accept his suzerainty. When Lingama Nayaka of Vellore revolted, he dispossessed Lingama of his fort and moved his own capital to Vellore. Till his death in 1614, he ensured that the empire remained intact and strong. The empire broke up only due to unfettered internecine struggle which began after his death leading to the Nayaks once again declaring independence – thus, disunity leading to defeat.

Where the empire was on way to disintegration and complete destruction before 1600, Venkatapati turned around the fortune of the empire singlehandedly. The importance of his reign in the defense of Hindu culture in Southern India has been greatly underestimated, nay even forgotten. The importance of strong Hindu rulers has not been understood either. The presence of Jaswant Singh stopped the hands of Aurangzeb from indulging in open anti-Hindu activities in northern India. Though a vassal, Jaswant was seen as a strong Hindu ruler and it was feared that Hindus might band together under his banner if they were persecuted. This prevented Aurangzeb from imposing Jiziya and destroying temples till the death of Jaswant. Upon the death of Jaswant, the tyrant is known to have thanked the rakshasa the Mohammedan’s worship as the creator for the death of this Hindu ruler. It was the arrival of a resurgent Maratha power in the Deccan which saved the holy land from being swamped by the unmatta-s.

Savior of Southern India

In the case of Southern India, the destruction of Vijayanagara would have made the field open for the Sultans to indulge in complete eradication of dharma and its institutions. Had the empire been destroyed before 1600, the Sultans would have got a period of 5 decades before any prominent Hindu power arose in the region (Marathas under Shivaji). Rather, the long reign of Venkatapati put an end to this possibility. Vijayanagara’s destructions was postponed by 4 decades due to his strong reign. The ultimate destruction happened in late 1630s and 1640s. By the time Vijayanagara reached its sunset in the 1640’s, Chattrapati Shivaji had begun his rise among the Marathas while his father began to exercise great power in his jagir of Bengaluru. A new fountain of Hindu power was established around the same time, thus saving the Hindus from a period of absolute tyranny which would have otherwise been inflicted upon them. Venkatapati Raya was indeed the savior of Southern India. One of those rare gems whose value has been wrongly assessed by most of us.

Stronger Pratap of the South

Where Rana Pratapa Simha declined to bow his head before any Mohammedan, Venkatapati had made a similar statement in South. During the early 1600’s, an ambassador from Akbar visited Venkatapati at his durbar in Chandragiri. It was suspected that the visit was more to spy on the empire rather than being a diplomatic visit. It was expected that Akbar would conquer the Deccan Sultanates and force Vijayanagara to submit to him. To which Venkatapati supposedly stated “I will not kiss the feet of a Mohammedan”. He was preparing for a war against Akbar rather than even think about accepting the suzerainty of some Mohammedan ruler – however powerful he might be. We end with this note on the indomitable spirit of this last great emperor – perhaps even the greatest emperor of Vijayanagara. Where Pratap is now popular among the Hindus, this stronger Pratap of Southern India (who ruled a vast empire and kept the Mohammedan Sultans at bay – whose title also includes Pratap) has been forgotten by the masses.