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 – c lt res merged and cultures clashed, but the 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. He had to confront very modern problems such as building international alliances and negotiating overseas trade deals while grappling with the challenges of globalism and multiculturalism. The Deccan of his time was a place where Hindus and Muslims, north Indians and south Indians, Persians and Portuguese, all intermingled as they made their lives and fortunes. This cultural dynamism also inspired Krishnadevaraya to look back at India’s past and reflect on her histories and traditions. He presided over an Indian renaissance, when ancient texts and traditions were reinvigorated and infused with fresh and modern vitality.
Krishnadevaraya employed a cadre of spies to gauge the pulse of his people. His agents were fast of foot, strong in mind, fluent in many languages and skilled in the art of disguise. But their ports are not enough for the adventurous young king who often went out on his own intelligence gathering missions. At night, after all his official duties were complete, he would disguise himself and slip out of the palace under the cover of darkness. Interestingly (and unlike most other pre modern South Asian monarchs), we have an eyewitness record of Krishnadevaraya’s physique.
Domingo Paes was granted an audience with the king and observed him at close quarters. Contrary to Krishnadevaraya’s popular image today as tall, dark and handsome, and in stark contrast to his likeness in the Tirupati bronze seen on the cover of this book, Paes describes the king as being ‘of medium height, and of fair complexion and good figure, rather fat than thin’, with signs of smallpox on his face. However he may have looked, popular legends tell us that the king would often dispense with his rich embroidered silks and don the garb of a common man so that he might roam the city streets and observe the people of his capital in secret. Then, right at the break of dawn, he would sneak back to his chambers and rest a while before starting his day at sunrise. The king would brush his teeth and wash his face, and after he had applied his devotion l mark and sipped some sacred water, he would enter the great hall. Remembering all the things that he had seen and heard during the night, he would turn to Jangayya, his chief of security, and ask what had transpired at night. The king would listen carefully as Jangayya gave his report, and if all was in accordance with what he had observed himself, he would remain happy and quiet.
In addition to reconnaissance, Krishnadevaraya was probably going out to meet Chinnadevi, a beautiful and talented young dancer he had fallen in love with before becoming king. According to Nunes, when Krishnadevaraya was young and growing up in the city of Vijayanagara, he had a secret liaison with a courtesan for whom he had much affection. And out of his great love for her, he promised her many times over that he would marry her should he become king. Chinnadevi was not from a royal family; she was likely a low-caste dancing girl, and as king he could not take such a woman as his principal wife. But as the stories go, he loved her dearly and would steal out of the palace at night so they could be together. On the way to one such evening he was discovered by Timmarasu, which followed him all the way to Chinnadevi’s house. The old minister rebuked the young king as he accompanied him back to the palace, but all the while Krishnadevaraya professed his genuine love for her and told him of his promise. Understanding the king’s genuine affection for Chinnadevi, Timmarasu gave way to his wish, and promised to marry them in secret so that it would not look ill upon the king. But first Timmarasu oversaw Krishnadevaraya’s marriage to Tirumaladevi, a royal princess from the Tamil country who would be the king’s principal queen. Only then did Timmarusu arrange for the king’s secret marriage to Chinnadevi. She would remain the king’s true love through his life, the queen he adored above all others.
Excerpted with permission from Raya: Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara by Srinivas Reddy, Juggernaut Books. You can buy it here.
Watch Srinivas Reddy in conversation with Mini Menon, as they discuss more about Krishnadevaraya and his times here-
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