On January 26, 1565, South Indian history changed it’s faultlines for ever. The Hindu empire of Vijaynagara confronted the combined armies of the Muslim Deccan at the battlefield of Talikota and was decimated here.
An excellent first hand account of this epic battle is provided by the chronicle Tazkiratul – Muluk written by Rafiuddin Shirazi who wrote a history of his patron kings, the Adil Shahis of Bijapur. Shirazi travelled from Persia and reached Bijapur in 1560. He was absorbed into the elite of the Adil Shahi court and served in various senior positions including the Khan-e-Salar (Commander) of the army, Tahvildar(Accountant) of treasury, etc.
I will now piece together the events of that day from the narrative of Shirazi adding to it information from other sources regarding that fateful day.
After resolving all mutual differences through agreements between themselves, cemented by marriage alliances, the Sultans assembled to do battle with Rama Raya on the banks of the Krishna river. This grand alliance was the brainchild of Nizam Shah of Ahmadnagar who nursed the greatest hatred of Rama Raya, the latter having humbled him in battle in alliance with the Bijapur Sultan several times especially over the festering dispute about the territory of Kalyan.
After reaching the spot chosen to cross the river, the muslim armies turned about 2 farsakh upward in the westward direction. This was the majority of the army that moved in a feigned manoeuvre to confuse the Raya. However, in moonlit night an advance guard crossed the river where the depth was less and appeared to the great astonishment of the Vijaynagara troops who were as Shirazi says, engaged in merry making. This ‘merry making’ was not unusual to the Rayas alone and the Deccani Sultans even excelled the Mughals in that art. Shirazi added that point to show the degeneration of the opposing armies, a propoganda tool used since then to latest times when viewers on TV screen are exposed to Libyan leader Gadhafi’s rotting corpse on one side and his purported golden handgun on the other.
Let us now come back to Talikota and see what has been happening there. There is commotion in the Vijaynagar ranks as the Deccanis are attacking their Left flank and Nizam Shah himself takes the lead with Golconda troops attacking the center. Nizam Shah had 100 cavalry with several Khwaja Sarais (eunuchs) armed with swords as his bodyguard.
Rama Raya was all the while encouraging his men and attempted to help his brother Thimma Raya who was commanding the right flank fighting the Adil Shahi troops and was falling back. The circling movement was now complete with Nizam and Qutub Shahi troops at the front and the Adil Shahis at the back. Shirazi says that even at this depressing juncture, Rama Raya who was an old but energetic man, into his 90’s, still exerted himself in encouraging his troops and ferishtah writes that he got gold and jewels heaped in front of him and rewarded Vijaynagar generals who distinguished themselves in the battle, on the spot.
This encouragement gave spirit to the Vijaynagara forces and regrouping, they stood their lines and started advancing into the left and center Deccani flanks. Nizam Shah was getting desperate seeing this at this moment emerged a hitherto unheard man who would change the destiny of Central-South India forever. He was the man of the moment and his name was Rumi Khan. Rumi Khan was no nobleman or general in the Nizam Shahi army but only a havaldar of artillery. His name ‘Rumi’ signified that he may have been a Turk or formerly employed with the Turks at Constantinople. Byzantine Constantinople had a century ago fallen to the Turks and it was known to the Muslims as ‘Rum’ or ‘Rome of the East’.
Rumi Khan took charge of 2 great guns and filled them with copper coins and gunpowder, discharging them on the Vijaynagara infantry. This steady discharge took a huge toll of the Raya’s men and they started to fall back again. Rumi Khan now mounting an elephant, emerged from behind the lines of the artillery with a choice cavalry and dashed into the Vijaynagar center.
What was Rama Raya doing at this time? He was on a palanquin according to Ferishta’s account after disregarding the pleas of his advisors to stay on a horse for a quick escape if necessary. He instead reprimanded them saying that the opposing Deccanis were mere children and he would get rid of them in no time. He had also asked his men to get the head of Nizam Shah to him and bring Adil Shah and Ibrahim Qutb Shah to him in chains where he would keep them in a cage forever. How man proposes and how God disposes!!!!
Rumi Khan’s elephant charged directly at the Raya after his bodyguard was overcome by the Deccani horse and Rama Raya fell off his palanquin. Shirazi writes that the elephant wounded Rama raya too. Rumi Khan had no idea that the man lying sprawled on the ground was after his contemporary Akbar in the North, the greatest of Indian Kings – Raja Rama Raya. And at that moment, Rama Raya’s Vakil (Shirazi calls him Peshwa – Prime Minister), Dalpatraya fell onto his master shielding him from the elephant and disclosing to Rumi Khan the identity of Rama Raya.
Rumi Khan then took Rama Raya and bound him with a rope and put him on an elephant to take him to his master Nizam Shah. There, when Nizam Shah confronts his old nemesis Rama Raya, Shirazi recounts their conversation.
Nizam Shah asked Rama Raya – ‘Are you all right?’. Rama Raya does not reply and points his hand to his head, a signal that Shirazi interpreted as Rama Raya suggesting that he had reached his destiny. In the meantime news reaches the Nizam Shahi camp that news of Rama raya’s capture had reached Ibrahim Adil Shah’s camp and he was rushing to the spot. This put the Nizam Shahi camp in a dilemma because Adil Shah was close to Rama Raya who had adopted the former as his son some time ago.
Yes, these were the ways of the Deccan where father waged war on the son. Adil Shah had visited Vijaynagara the year before where he was honoured by Rama Raya and the Queen mother in front of all those assembled called him her dear son. And Bijapur and Vijaynagar swore alliance with each other and promised to make war on their mutual enemies-the other Deccani Sultans. Of course this alliance was shortlived and we see them meet each other in the field at Talikota.
Returning back to the Nizam Shahi camp where Rama Raya stands bound before Nizam Shah, a prominent Noble of Nizam Shah, Qasim Baig Hakim protests to Nizam Shah that this was not the time of discourse and reminds him that Adil Shah was near. Hearing this, Nizam Shah ordered Rama Raya to be beheaded on the spot. Some sources suggest that Nizam Shah slit Rama Raya’s neck himself but in all probability and as per Shirazi’s account, this would have been done by an executioner.
An excellent and rare miniature from the Tazkiratul Mulk depicts the scene where Rama Raya is being executed. Nizam Shah can be seen seated on a horse with Qasim Baig in front of him under a parasol while the bound Rama Raya is being decapitated. A gruesome scene, but such was the nature of their hate.
Rama Raya’s severed head was immediately attached to a spear and taken for a stroll along the Nizam Shahi camp. The sight of the head was the signal to the raya’s army that all was over and they fled leaving bag and baggage accompanied by great slaughter. After resting on the battlefield for 20 days, Ferishta says 3, the Muslim armies entered Vijaynagara and subject it to the sack, a state of ruins from which the greatest city of those times in India, even comparable to Baghdad and Delhi never returned. Shirazi has left for us his own account of the gruesome sack of Hampi in the Tazkiratul Mulk.
Thus ended the great battle of Talikota that ended the life of a great Hindu monarch which in turn blew away the last flame of the great Vijaynagara empire.
However when I survey this scene in my mind, as a student of history I cannot help being both confused and amazed at the actors on the battlefield, that fateful day. The battle was not a simple black and white, Hindu versus Muslim war. Though I will not deny that this religious difference was the primary cause of the antagonism between Vijaynagara and the Deccani states, it had several other surprising subplots.
Ibrahim Adil Shah was an adopted son of Rama Raya. Adil Shah was a great patron of Hindu art and was the first Bijapur Sultan to engage local Deccanis a large number of them being Maratha Hindus in his court. It was in his time that public accounts of the state began to be maintained in the Marathi language. Nizam Shah, the inveterate enemy of the Raya had an army whose infantry wing was dominated in number by Hindus. A very large component of his army even at Talikota would have been composed of these Hindu elements.
Rafiuddin Shirazi notes in his acccount, that Rama Raya’s court had in it several Muslim nobles who had deserted the neighbouring Muslim states and had come to settle in Vijaynagara. They were given important positions in court and accorded great respect. A copy of the Koran was always kept above Rama Raya’s throne so that Muslim noblement entering the court could pay obesience to it while saluting Rama Raya. Shirazi goes further to narrate an incident where Rama Raya’s brother asked the Raya to insist upon the Muslims to stop sacrificing animals. Rama Raya replied ” These people (Muslims) have accepted your jobs for applying their service, not for quitting their religion’. So, Rama Raya was not the Muslim hating figure that many make him out to be.
But it is true that he was constantly at war with them, and was harsh to his enemies, but so is the nature of empires. Vijaynagara was then the last of the great Hindu Empires all of which had in the past 500 years been ravaged and extinguished by Islamic invaders from outside India as well as the ones who stayed behind. Even today when one reads the accounts of contemporary Muslim historians recounting the exploits of the Muslim Sultans of the Deccan who would very regularly declare Jihad on Vijaynagara, one shudders at the narration of the mass slaughter and slave taking that would accompany every Deccani expedition into Vijaynagara territory. It is also a common allegation hurled at Rama Raya that he provoked the ire of the Deccani Sultans and forced their hand into ganging up against Vijaynagara by constantly playing each Sultanate state against each other. But any student of history and politics will understand the difficulty of ensuring the existence of a state surrounded by enemies whose constant endeavor was focused upon your destruction. Rama Raya did all he could to ensure the survival of his people and their culture. Rama Raya’s haughtiness towards the Sultanate emissaries is also often held against him. How else could one behave against those who came from outside and conducted predatory raids upon your territories enslaving your people and destroying their homes and temples? It is my opinion that history should be kind to Rama Raya because he led his Kingdom through very difficult times and till his very last moments did not bow his head to the invader.
There is a story current in several quarters about 2 Muslim generals in the service of Rama Raya who desert him on the battlefield at the last moment – the Gilani brothers, but I am of the opinion that this is only a legend as I have yet to come upon any original source which corroborates this account. Neither does Ferishta, nor Shirazi make even a passing mention of any ‘Gilani brothers’. But what we know for sure is that the Deccani Sultans had a large number of Hindus, serving with them and there is no account of these Hindu soldiers deserting their Muslim masters either.
Though the Vijaynagara empire crumbled when Rama Raya’s head was put on that spear, the legacy that this great empire left behind remains to this very day. Even Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan would make use of Vijayanagara symbolism and tradition in their attempt to ingratiate themselves with the people of Mysore and to replicate a continuation of the Legacy of Vijaynagara that every Hindu South of the Krishna River held so dear.
And we also know what happened to that elephant who in a rush of ‘musth’ dismounted Rama Raya. His name was ‘Hasan Miyan’ and the Nizam Shahis honoured him by retiring him off and providing him ample forage and she-elephants till the end of his time. Lucky elephant!!
Tazkiratul Muluk, Rafiuddin Shirazi; translated by Abdul Gani Imaratwale
Tarikh -i-Ferishta, Ferishta
A forgotten Empire, Robert Sewell