Rudramadevi: A King Like No Other

Rudramadevi: A King Like No Other

Made to come alive on celluloid, in a popular Telugu film Rudhramadevi, this Kakatiya ruler chose to adopt the title of ‘King’ - akin to many women corporate leaders who prefer to be called the Chairman rather than Chairwoman of their boards. While today, this may be interpreted as a way to underline the gender-neutrality of an office of power and responsibility, way back when Rudramadevi became ‘King’ it was out of necessity.

Being anointed ‘King’ was the only option for Rudramadevi, who had to fight against patriarchy all her life. But the fact that she held her ground, ruled for decades and was recognised as a great ruler back in the 13th century CE, is testimony to her greatness. We know very little about Rudramadevi. But here is what we do know, pieced together from contemporary records, inscriptions from the era and historical research.

Poster of the Telugu film Rudhramadevi
Poster of the Telugu film Rudhramadevi|Gunaa Team Works

Being anointed ‘King’ was the only option for Rudramadevi

Rudramadevi ruled over the Kakatiya kingdom, which comprised of parts of present day Telangana and Andhra Pradesh from 1261 to 1289 (or 1295) CE. Venetian merchant and traveler Marco Polo who visited India during this period has written extensively about her rule. In fact, Rudramadevi even features in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. But sadly, little is mentioned about her in Indian history text books. One of the few scholars who has studied and attempted to sketch her life is Cynthia Talbot, Professor of History at University of Texas in her book, Precolonial India in Practice: Society, Region, and Identity in Medieval Andhra (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Kakatiya architecture at Warangal
Kakatiya architecture at Warangal|Wikimedia Commons

The Kakatiyas were a dynasty which ruled over Telangana between the 12th and 14th centuries CE. Their capital was the circular city of Warangal, named after a huge black boulder in the middle. This gave the city its name Orugallu or one stone boulder, which over time became Warangal.

Little is known of the early history of the Kakatiyas. They probably began their reign as feudatories of the western Chalukya kings . Around 1163 CE they threw off the yolk to become independent rulers. It was King Ganapatideva (1199-1262 CE) who conquered areas of coastal Andhra and united all the Telugu speaking lands.

Rudramadevi had to fight against patriarchy all her life

The story goes that King Ganapatideva did not have a son, only two daughters, Rudrama and Ganapamba. In the absence of a male heir, he decided to make his elder daughter Rudramadevi his heir. But there was vehement opposition to this from the nobility. With no options left, the king was forced to perform a special ceremony where Rudramadevi was declared his son and given the name Rudradev. Talbot writes that for two years, the father and daughter served as joint rulers of the Kakatiya kingdom till Ganapatideva died in 1262 CE.

On ascending the throne, Rudramadevi took the title of ‘Maharaja Rudradev’ and actually wore masculine clothes. She was a great warrior, but much like Razia Sultan who had died by 1240 CE, she had to face constant antagonism. There were attempts on her life from those within her family.

Warangal Fort
Warangal Fort|Wikimedia Commons

On ascending the throne, Rudramadevi took the title of ‘Maharaja Rudradev’ and wore masculine clothes

Despite this, on the battlefield Rudramadevi was a great success. She repelled an invasion by the Yadava king of Devagiri (Daulatabad) forcing him to sign a peace accord. Probably to win new loyalists, given the antagonism against her, Rudramadevi also began a new policy of enlisting people from non-aristocratic backgrounds as commanders in the army and in the administration. This was quite a revolutionary idea for the time. The fort of Warangal was also strengthened under her rule with a moat and an additional circular wall being added.

Marco Polo
Marco Polo|Wikimedia Commons

It was in around 1289 CE that Marco Polo visited the Kakatiya kingdom. Even he seems to have found it hard to believe that a woman had inherited her father’s throne. In his records he wrongly assumes that she was King Ganapatideva’s widow. While he may have made a big mistake there, he does leave one of the only accounts of Rudramadevi’s rule. Marco Polo testifies that she was a kind and benevolent ruler. In his work 'Travels of Marco Polo' which he narrated to Rustichello da Pisa, ( who helped him write his autobiography) he says–

When you leave Malabar and go about 1,000 miles in a northerly direction you come to the kingdom of Mutfili [Motupalli – Port under Kakatiyas]. This was formerly under the rule of a King, and since his death, some forty years past, it has been under his Queen [Marco Polo got this wrong], a lady of much discretion, who for the great love she bore him never would marry another husband. And I can assure you that during all that space of forty years she had administered her realm as well as ever her husband did, or better; and as she was a lover of justice, of equity, and of peace, she was more beloved by those of her kingdom than ever was Lady or Lord of theirs before. The people worship idols, and are tributary to nobody. They live on meat, and rice, and milk.’

Inscription on the death of Rudramadevi in Chandupalta in 1289 CE
Inscription on the death of Rudramadevi in Chandupalta in 1289 CE|Wikimedia Commons/Satishk01/CC 4.0

Marco Polo testifies that she was a kind and benevolent ruler

Rudramadevi was married to Chalukya Virbhadra, a minor prince of the Eastern Chalukya dynasty. They had no sons but only daughters. She adopted her grandson, Pratapdeva as her heir. There are differing views on the exact date of her death and how she died. Some historians believe that she died in 1290 CE, while others believe she died in 1295 CE. Few years back, an inscription was found in Chandupatla village, in the Nalgonda district of Telangana, which states that she died on 27th November 1289 CE, along with her general Mallikarjuna Nayaka. But there is no mention of the cause of her death or even where she died. Many believe that she might have died in battle, fighting a rebel lord Ambadeva.

Kakatiya’s well at Warangal
Kakatiya’s well at Warangal|Wikimedia Commons/Aravind Pakide/CC 4.0

What we do know though, is that she was succeeded by her grandson Pratapdeva. He was the last ruler of the Kakatiya dynasty and had to face invasions from the armies of Alauddin Khilji. His reign ended in 1323 CE, when Warangal was conquered by the Delhi Sultanate. When that happened, his brother fled with a large retinue to the thick forests of Bastar, further North. The fleeing Annamadeva also took with him the idol of the Goddess Danteshwari. He established a kingdom at Bastar and also the Danteshwari temple there. Rudramadevi’s heirs continued to rule Bastar all the way till 1947 when this little kingdom was merged into the Union of India. Even though she hasn’t been given her due in our history books, Rudramadevi’s legacy continued in Bastar, long after she was gone.

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