A few weeks ago the English adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Kannada play on the momentous battle of Talikota (1565) premiered in Bangalore under the name “Crossing to Talikota.” The English version is directed by Arjun Sajnani.
The costumes are beautiful, the dialogues crisp and the acting is good. In particular Viveck Jayant Shah as Hussian Nizam Shah stands out. The production is beautiful, making clever use of backdrop projections instead of sets. For example here is a scene set at the Vijayanagara court.
Karnad’s play focuses on the relationship between Rama Raya and Ali Adil Shah, and explores the former’s obsession with Kalyana, the former capital of the Chalukya kings. Rama Raya famously considered Ali Adil Shah to be his son. Mohammad Qasim Farishta is his history (Tarikh-e-Farishta, vol 3, pages 71 to 80), describes the occasion thus:
“Ally Adil Shah, on adding to his dominions, and repairing the losses sustained by his father, entered into a close alliance with Ramraj; and on the occasion of the death of a son of that Prince, he had the boldness, attended only by one hundred horse, to go to Beejanuggur, to offer his condolence in person on that melancholy occasion. Ramraj received him with the greatest respect, and the King, with the kindest persuasions, prevailed upon him to lay aside his mourning. The wife of Ramraj, on this occasion, adopted the King as her son, and at the end of three days, which were spent in an interchange of friendly professions and presents, Ally Adil Shah took his leave; but as Ramraj did not attend him out of the city he was offended, and treasured up the affront in his mind, though too prudent, for the present, to evince any signs of his displeasure.” (Vol 4, p. 71)
Farishta’s translator John Briggs adds a rather funny footnote to this incident:
“The importance which is attached to the neglect of little points of etiquette of this nature in the East generally, but in India particularly, is very remarkable. The practice of escorting a guest on way home does not seem so usual among the Hindoo princes as among the Mahomedans. Dew Ray neglected this ceremony on the departure of Feroze Shah Bahmuny from his court in 1406 (vide vol. ii. p. 239); and the latter swore vengeance against him, when no insult probably was intended; nor was there, perhaps, any premeditated offence in the present instance of Ally Adil Shah and Ramraj. This is one of the numerous examples which history affords, and which daily experience teaches us, of the necessity of studying minutely the customs of the people among whom we live, and whose goodwill we desire to cultivate.”
The politics of the Deccan in this period has often been simplistically reduced to a Hindu-Muslim conflict. As Richard Earton notes, Robert Sewell writing in 1900, has been highly influential in this respect. Richard Eaton notes, in his Social History of the Deccan, that,
“The view of Vijayanagara as the victim of Islamic aggression, and therefore of
Talikota as some sort of titanic “clash of civilizations,” is informed by a highly
reductionist view of the presumed essential character of both Vijayanagara and the northern sultanates.” (p. 94)
But the reality is a whole lot more complex with repeatedly shifting alliances. This is not to say that religion was not a factor, but it was so thoroughly intermingled with power and politics, that viewing historical events in the light of only religion seriously misunderstands them. Once again Eaton:
“…a scrutiny of the relations between Rama Raya and his northern neighbors reveals two important points. First, no party appears to have been motivated by religious concerns. And second, the Battle of Talikota, far from being a sudden, isolated event, possessed a very deep history. In fact, the battle grew out of several decades of conflict in which Rama Raya had chosen to ally himself with one or another of his neighbors. One might then ask why, from 1543 on, Rama Raya actively involved himself in the wars between the dynastic houses of the northern Deccan. A clue is found in his own growing dynastic identity. Departing radically from the traditions of any of the three houses that had theretofore governed Vijayanagara – the Sangama, Saluva, and Tuluva – Rama Raya increasingly associated himself, his family, and the state he governed with the Chalukya dynasty of Deccani kings (974–1190), and also with that dynasty’s capital city of Kalyana.” (p. 94)
But Kalyana always lay well beyond Vijayanagara’s northern borders. After several decades of alliances between this or that Deccan sultanate and the Vijaynagara state, in part driven by Rama Raya’s desire to indirestly control Kalyana, in 1564, the four Deccan sultans (Ali Adil Shah, Ibrahim Qutb Shah, Hussian Nizam Shah and Ali Barid Shah) met and decided to unify against Vijayanagara. At this time Rama Raya was 80 years old.
The result was the battle of Talikota, fought on the banks of the Krishna, the traditional northern border of the Vijaynagara state. This painting from the 16th century text, Ta’rif-i Husain Shahi (chronicle of Hussain Nizam Shah I by Aftabi) (manuscript of cat.8, fig.38), depicts the battle in panorama form.
The battle ended rather dramatically with the capture and beheading of Rama Raya. Farishta describes it thus,
“This officer brought him before Hoossein Nizam Shah, who ordered his head to be instantly struck off. and caused it to be placed on the point of a long spear, that his death might be thus announced to the enemy.”
And this last scene from the play, dramatically shows the impaled head of Rama Raya against the stunning Hampi landscape.
John Briggs, Farishta’s translator once again has an incredible footnote to this affair.
“It affords a striking example at once of the malignity of the Mahomedans towards this Hindoo prince and of the depraved taste of the times, when we see a sculptured representation of Ramraj’s head, at the present day, serving as the opening of one of the sewers of the citadel of Beejapoor; and we know that the real head, annually covered with oil and red pigment, has been exhibited to the pious Mahomedans on the anniversary of the battle, for the last two hundred and fifty-four years, by the descendants of the executioner, in whose bands it has remained till the present period.”
This grotesque story is most likely apocryphal. Certainly, neither Stein in his history of Vijayanagara nor Eaton make any mention of it. The Wikipedia entry on Rama Raya mentions the story and attributes it to Farishta. This is incorrect. It is not Farishta but rather John Briggs who is the source. And since Briggs cites no source, we have no way of knowing where it comes from.
One last point on the nature of politics and alliances. After all this drama, and the slaying of Rama Raya by Hussain Nizam Shah, when Venkatdry, Rama Raya’s brother who had escaped and set up his kindgom in Penukonda, was threatened by Ali Adil Shah soon afterwards, who did he seek help from? None other than Murtaza Nizam Shah, Hussain Nizam Shah’s son. Farishta tells us:
“Venkatadry, informed of his [Ali Adil Shah’s] designs, wrote both to Moortuza Nizam Shah and to his mother Khoonza Sooltana (who directed his affairs) for assistance. The Queen, unwilling to witness the aggrandisement of the King of Beejapoor, and acting by the advice of Inayut Oolla, took her son with her, and marched at the head of an army to Beejapoor; upon which Ally Adil Shah was compelled to retreat expeditiously from Anagoondy. and return to protect his capital, before which he found the Ahmudnuggur army encamped.”