Any historian who compiles a list of India’s 10 greatest kings can’t omit Krishnadeva Raya (ruled from 1509 to 1529), who brought great glory to the Vijayanagar empire with its capital in Hampi, Karnataka. We commemorated the 500th anniversary of his coronation by allowing one of his architectural creations, a gopuram at Kalahasti, to come crashing down near his statue. Hopefully, our leaders will learn from his life and ensure that even if we don’t protect his buildings, we will carry forth his legacy.
Krishnadeva Raya led several military victories and built many temples we admire for their grandeur—Kalahasti, Tirupati and Kanchi. He also constructed some of the most magnificent monuments at Hampi, a Unesco world heritage site. Several successors across South India emulated his style of construction and his patronage of scholars like Tenali Rama.
Primary sources of reference for the king’s life are the records of Portuguese travellers to the Vijayanagar courts, and two little-known works—Amuktamalyada, believed to have been written by Raya, and Rayavachakamu by a court poet. The first is ostensibly about poetess-saint Andal but presents several views on ruling. The second is about the king’s military campaigns and tours. Among his many successful strategies, two stand out.
The dry region in the central part of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the Vijayanagar empire depended on the fertile river basins in the south. Much of the land was fed from tanks and peopled by fierce nomads and peasants. When Raya came to power, the Bijapur sultans in the north, the Gajapathi kings of Orissa and a set of chiefs in Karnataka and AP who resented the Tuluva dynasty coming to power were threats to his kingdom. Military success was, therefore, essential.
The king headed the army, fought with his troops, and ensured the wounded were treated well. He kept himself fit and was an exceedingly fine horseman. Naturally, his armies were willing to go to any length to serve him. Raya was also innovative and persistent. His military might was based on his ability to lay siege to important forts for prolonged periods. Within a decade, he quelled all military opposition and made friends with the Portuguese.
In many cases, his treatment of the defeated also came in for praise—he didn’t unduly wound their ego but made sure they recognised his power.
The rule of kings as the heads of regional clans was not new, but Krishnadeva Raya revised the administrative system. Earlier, local chiefs were given fancy titles, allowed varying powers to collect taxes and were treated as unpaid servants to the king. In Krishnadeva Raya’s time, they became elevated to Palayakarar (Poligar to the British, Palegar to the Marathas and Palagaru in Kannada).
Raya made the relationships with the chiefs highly monetised. Military campaigns brought about greater commercial activity and each of the chiefs was expected to pay a fixed sum of money and contribute troops and animals to king’s forces. The Portuguese records show that some of chiefs had as many as 30,000 infantry and 25,000 horsemen. Significantly, each of these lords followed a similar Palayakarar system under him as well.
Further incentives to these local chiefs came if they created new villages (and, therefore, new revenue from taxes). Many of the kingdoms of South India that were present till the 19th century owe their creation or elevation to these times. The king was called the Rayar and the chieftains had various names including the Nayaks. The Nayaks of Thanjavur and Madurai were created from this system, as was Kempe Gauda of Bangalore.
With decentralisation also came a need to ensure loyalty of the lords under the king. In the Amuktamalyada, Raya says on the possibility of the lords being lenient while collecting taxes that it will be like using “water to clean a mud wall”. He also says, “If a king gets angry with them [his vassals] he cannot destroy them utterly. If on the other hand, he [the king] attaches them to himself with kind words and charity, they would be useful to him in invading foreign territory and plundering its forts”. In another context Raya says, giving quick audience to vassals and foreign merchants is a great way of ensuring the enemy never gets the best merchandise or the clever vassals.
Two important reminders of the king’s presence were ceremonial grand visits and art and literature. In Rayavachakamu, we hear the ministers say, “Nothing can be known if one is stationary. It is necessary that people know your majesty. Establish your glory by touring your kingdom accompanied by the four fold armies so as to create terror in the midst of enemies and subordinate chiefs”. On such visits, large gifts were given and temples renovated, stamping them with the king’s charisma and authority.
Raya made his only son the heir-designate during his lifetime, when Tirumalai Raya was six years old. It must have shattered the king to have seen this heir die due to poisoning by court intrigue. Soon after, in 1529, he took ill and died after nominating his half brother to succeed him.