Vijaynagara is understudied

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Greater India (which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh) is home to well over 1/5th of mankind

23% of the world’s population

Yet this landmass does not hog as much attention of the world as it should

It remains an under-discussed, poorly understood region

Now the above tweet may raise two objections

a) Hey…why do you think it is under-discussed? The word “India” gives 7.2B search results on Google

b) “Greater India”? Whatever is that? Isn’t that just a Hindu nationalist fantasy?

Let me address b. first. And then move to a.

While “Greater India” is not an acceptable term in modern political discourse, it is not such a strange term if one takes a long view

The landmass bounded by Hindukush, Himalayas and the sea has always been viewed as “India” (NOT South Asia) for much of human history

A landmass that is not just geographically compact, but also culturally coherent

It is barely 7 decades ago that irreversible changes in religious demography at the edges caused a cleavage of this civilizational landmass into 2 and later 3 political units

So having clarified b., Let’s move to a.

Why do I think India and its history is under-discussed? Here’s a case study

Let us consider two great cities both of which were abandoned at roughly the same time

Macchu Picchu (abandoned in 1570s)
vs
Vijayanagara (abandoned in 1560s)

Let’s also consider the two Empires in question –

Inca Empire
vs
Vijayanagara Empire

Now some facts –

Macchu Picchu at its peak (~1500) was home to not more than a few thousand people

Vijayanagara – the capital of the empire bearing the same name, was the second largest city in the world with a population of ~500,000 in 1500

The Inca Empire (of which Macchu Picchu was one of the towns) pre-European conquest comprised of a population of 12MM people

The Vijayanagara Empire in contrast influenced the destinies of at least 3 times that number – (~30 to 40MM) on less than 1/4th of the area

Incas, for all their glory left no written records. Were unaware of the wheel. Had no money. No markets. The empire’s impact on later South American life was v limited

It lasted for barely a century from the early 15th to early 16th century

Vijayanagara in contrast, influences Indian life to this day. Its temples live on. Its literature lives on.

So do the numerous philosophies and thought movements that it accommodated for 2+ centuries.

Based on these facts, you would think that Vijayanagara must be much better known than Macchu Picchu, Cuzco or the Inca Empire.

But no.

# Google search results

Vijayanagara : 1.7 MM
Hampi : 6.6 MM
Macchu Picchu : 29.9 MM

Vijayanagara Empire : 703K
Inca Empire : 12.6 MM

Now this is a question that has to rankle most Indians.

This is one of India’s greatest ever empires. One of India’s greatest ever cities.

A city that was not “short lived” mind you.

Vijayanagara was founded in 1336 and got abandoned in 1565

That’s 2+ centuries

A city that was much larger than Delhi for much of its existence. Easily the largest city in India. At its peak at least twice as large as the second largest city in the subcontinent
Yet, awareness of Vijayanagara remains low. Tourism to Hampi for instance is abominably low

Machu Picchu located in the desolate highlands of Peru gets 1.2MM+ tourists each year

Hampi, located in a country of 1.2B people, gets a paltry 500K

Why should Indians and people interested in India learn more about Vijayanagara?

Not for the ruins. Not for the “architecture” scattered around the village of Hampi today but for more vital, important reasons

Here are some

1. Vijayanagara made the present Indian nation possible. The India we live in would look demographically and culturally very different, but for this Empire which halted the march of invasions into the Deccan for over two centuries

2. The Empire’s contribution to Hindu intellectual life is second to none. Most living sects of Hinduism in Southern India solidified and developed greatly during that crucial phase from 14th to 16th cen

Be it Sri Vaishnavism, Advaita, Madhwa Sampradaya, Lingayatism..you name it

3. Vijayanagara was that rare empire which was held together by strong cultural bonds, as opposed to dynastic succession

In contrast to say the Mughal Empire, there is no single Vijayanagara dynasty that held the empire together.

There were three successive dynastic lines – Sangama, Saluva, Tuluva – and the transition was seamless without hurting the empire

This is actually reminiscent of the continuity of English state from 11th cen to date despite numerous dynastic lines.. Eg: Plantagenet, Tudor etc

4.. Much of the religious life of modern Southern India revolves around temples. Though temples long predate Vijayanagara, this temple culture was greatly encouraged by the hectic architectural activity sponsored by the Vijayanagara Empire and its feudatory successors..
5. Vijayanagara was that quintessential cosmopolitan empire, which patronized as many as five languages

Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada, and to a lesser extent Tamil, Malayalam

6. Vijayanagara is a reminder of how fragile urban life can be

The civilization it stood for v much outlived it and continues to this day

So it is hardly a “lost culture” like the Inca Empire

But it is a reminder of the consequences of not reining in the barbarians at the gate

Among these six, it is worthwhile to elaborate on each, but particularly 1, 2, 4 and 5.

Let’s start with 1.

Why do we believe Vijayanagar is central to the existence of India today?

Those who think this angle is overrated are not quite aware of how the political map of India looked back in 1330s

Here’s how the Tughluq empire’s geographical extent looked in 1330. Muhammad Bin Tughluq commanded an empire greater than that of even Akbar 16th can.

The South had been ravaged by the Delhi Sultanate since the closing decades of the 13th century.

The capital of Hoysala Ballalas in Dwarasamudra (Halebidu today) fell in 1310 to Alladin Khilji

In 1323 Warangal was taken.

And the panic was real in the 1330s.

This is best described by the historian Robert Sewell in his seminal work on Vijayanagara authored in 1900

“With the accession in 1325 of Muhammad Bin Tughluq of Delhi, things became worse still”

(Contd..)

“Marvelous stories of his extraordinary proceedings circulated among the inhabitants of the Peninsula, and there seemed to be no bound to his intolerance, ambition and ferocity”
“Everything ..seemed to be leading up to but one inevitable end – the ruin and devastation of the Hindu provinces, the annihilation of their old royal houses, the destruction of their religion… All that the dwellers in the south held most dear seemed tottering to its fall”
“Suddenly about the year 1344 AD, there was a check to this wave of foreign invasion – a stop – a halt – then a solid wall of opposition, and for 250 years, Southern India was saved”
Then Sewell leaves us in no doubt on what constituted this solid wall of resistance-

“The solid wall consisted of Anegundi principality, grown into the great empire of Vijayanagar. To the kings of this house (Sangama), all the nations of the south submitted”

Sewell also suggests that this submission was voluntary, and it was very much a united front against foreign rule

“The old states appear to have submitted peaceably to the new monarchy. They were perhaps glad to submit if only the dreaded foreigners could be kept out..”

So the principality of Anegundi, a petty state in the 1340s eventually expanded to become a major kingdom and later an empire that recaptured all of the South back to Hindu rule by late 1300s
The fact that this process continued well into late 14th can is evidenced by the great feats of Kumara Kampana – the Vijayanagara Prince who terminated the rule of the very vile Sultans of Madurai in 1378
His great feat is a very critical victory in Indian history – commemorated in his own lifetime by the great Sanskrit poem Madhura Vijayam, written by his wife Ganga Devi
Do we have a “What if” scenario if the Hindu resistance to the expanding Sultanate rule had not materialized in the 1300s?

Yes…it most definitely would have meant pan Indian Muslim rule some 4 centuries prior to Aurangazeb, when it finally became a reality

It certainly would have meant an India demographically very different from what we see today. Imagine a Southern India that is 40-50% Muslim, like Punjab or Bengal in early 1900s…

The boundaries of 1947 would have been very different

Having covered 1, let’s move to 2, 4 and 5 –

Vijayanagara’s patronage of a vibrant Hnidu intellectual life

Vijayanagara’s cultural cosmopolitanism

Vijayanagara’s signal efforts to further Hindu religious practice by its efforts at temple construction

Vijayanagara Empire’s Hindu patronage is every bit as important as its political and military successes.

Its Sangama dynast founders were followers of the great Hindu figure Vidyaranya – one of the most influential Hindus of the past 1000 years

Vidyaranya not only was a kingmaker enjoying political clout, he was also a very serious intellectual with many great works to his credit.

These include –
Panchadasi – a manual on Advaita
Sarvadarshana sangraha – a compendium of all Indian philosophies

Vidyaranya was also the head of the Sringeri Mutt, and the brother of Sayana – the great Vedic scholar and author of Vedartha Prakasha – a commentary on Vedas.
The reason these are not mere tidbits but worth reiterating is because men like Vidyaranya and Sayana lent an intellectual and religious legitimacy to the Vijayanagara crown – lacking which the political legitimacy would likely have been challenged by rival Hindu rulers
It is also important to emphasize the cosmopolitanism of Vijayanagara

Not just its patronage of several languages as previously mentioned, but its religious cosmopolitanism. The Empire never assumed a parochial religious dimension, again crucial to the Hindu unity in this epoch

Its early kings were strong Shaivites, and also patrons of Advaitins like Vidyaranya and Sayana

But the later dynastic lines – Saluva and Tuluva – (which included Krishnadevaraya), had a stronger Vaishnavite orientation – patronizing both the Madhwa and Sri Vaishnava sampradayas

Vijayanagara’s efforts at building and renovating temples was every bit as monumental as that of the Cholas before them

Most of the great temples of the South in our times – be it Srirangam, Madurai, Tirumala – were greatly expanded during the reigns of Vijayanagara kings

Though the Empire is often stereotyped as being “brahminical”, it witnessed considerable democratization of religion, as evidenced by the explosion of devotional literature encompassing all sections of society.

The Dasa Kritis of the Karnata country being a good example

The impact of the developments down South on North Indian religious life cannot be understated

Men like Ramananda and Chaitanya in the 14th and 15th cen were heavily influenced by philosophies of Ramanuja and Madhwa

Chaitanya, for one, had his initiation in the Madhwa tradition

Again these are not trivia, but need emphasis. But for the political strength exuded by Vijayanagaa for two centuries, it is unlikely that these cultural transmissions from the South to the North would have materialized
It is also likely that Islam’s penetration not just in the South, but also up North, would have been greater, but for the Vijayanagara empire
The empire ofcourse had its fatal jolt in 1565, when the capital fell following the defeat in the Battle of Talikota…

But it hardly meant the end of a civilization….The civilization endured, and continues to this day

We are all in Vijayanagara’s debt for changing the course of history. But for the Empire, India would be a very different place today
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Demolishing the no “Hindu” myth

A brief rebuttal to ugly liberal cum dravidianist propaganda/myth that there was no such term as Hindu (And hence no religion as Hinduism) before british invented it in 19th century

One extremely well perpetrated myth by the liberals and Dravidnists is that there was no existence of word “Hindu” anywhere in Indian literature to identify themselves as distinct religions before British coined that word for the Hindus in 19th century

Since there was no such term as Hindu before 19th century, Liberals argue that before 19th century Hindus never perceive themselves as a part of single pan Indian religion & Hinduism is infact not the most ancient but the most modern & artificial religion of the world!

Jihadi Evangelical nexus of dravidianists further argue that since there was no Hinduism before 19th century, Tamils were never Hindus & if anything Islam &Xtianity came to the Tamil lands before Hinduism making them more legitimate religions for Tamilians than Hinduism

In reality however if one examine the medieval Indian literature & inscriptions, there are numerous mentions of word Hindu used in a sense of person belonging to the particular faith of Hinduism. Let me point out few

Speaking of Dravidian lands itself, interestingly one of the most well known reference to the word Hindu comes from the Vijayangara. For eg in this 14th century inscription Bukka raya, one of the earliest emperor of Vijayanagar identifies himself as “Hindu Raya Suratrana”

vijaynagar hindu

This tradition started by Harihara and Bukka raya was carried forward by all the mighty emperors of Vijayanagar including Krishnadeva Raya who proudly proclaimed themselves as “Hindu Raya Suratrana”.

It is hard to say the exact meaning of the title. Liberals further claim that word Hindu here was used in political sense & not in religious sense. In other words, word “Hindu” in those inscription simply means Indian and not someone belonging to Hindu faith.

But even if we take their argument into account it makes it abundantly clear that Vijayanagar emperors were clearly trying to distinguish themselves as Indians in contrast to the neighbouring Muslim rulers whom they perceived as foreigner/ non Indians ruling India.

Another important reference comes from the Gaudiya Vaishnava literature of Bengal where word “Hindu” appears frequently, many a times with clear aim to distinguish it from Muslim. Here’s the sample of some words that appear in medieval Gaudiya Vaishnava literature.

gaudiya vaishnava

One of the most important verse mentioning the word Hindu in pre British era is from Chaitanya Charitamrita where Chaitanya Mahaprabhu while refuting the Muslim Qazi states that no Hindu indulges in cow killing because it is clearly prohibited by Vedas.

no hindu

This verse by Chaitanya makes three things very much clear 1) There was Hindu identity long before the 19th century. 2) Vedas were accepted as prime authority by all Hindus. 3) Govadh was (& is) strictly prohibited for Hindus.

Reason why Gaudiya Vaishnavites had to consciously invoke their Hindu identity was that they were living in a time dominated by bigoted jihadi rulers which clearly becomes apparent from same scriptures.

“Bathing in the Ganga is prohibited” says Jayananda in his Chaitanya Mangala while describing pitiful situation of Hindus in 15th CE

chaitanya

It is but irony that Bhadralok from the same Bengal today would make mockery of someone if he/she asserts the same thing as Chaitanya proudly proclaimed couple of hundred years ago!

But Bengali Hindus weren’t the only one. Around the same time period in 15th century in neighbouring Mithila KAvi kovil Vidyapati had the same compulsion to show how Hindus are completely different from Muslims while complaining about their atrocities.

how we are diff

Another reference comes from MArathi Bhakta Kavi Eknath (1553 – 1599) who penned down the work called Hindu Turk Samvad (Dialogue between Hindu and Muslim). Turk/Turushka was how Hindus referred to Muslims at that time). An excerpt from the book.

marathi