The tale of two ‘tyrants’. The Strange dichotomy in the treatment of Ramaraya versus Tipu Sultan.
He was ruthless and ambitious to the extent that he usurped the power from the rightful king of the land, reducing them to virtual puppets. Yet under his rule, the kingdom reached the apex of its power. He was feared and despised by his neighbors for his numerous success against them. The story of his life, unfortunately, was told primarily by his enemies which meant that almost all the available accounts were uniformly critical of him. If you had to guess who I am talking about, then many of you would assume it’s Tipu Sultan, the last sultan of Mysore and you would not be wrong. But there is another man who had a similar career, rising to the height of power from relative obscurity before being brought low in the fateful battle of Rakhasa-Tangadi. While their lives and their fates are rather similar, their names do not invoke the same reaction in modern India. Whereas Tipu Sultan is considered to be a ‘hero’ despite his many failings, Rama Raya is considered by most as an ‘evil’ man. In fact, so horrible is Ramaraya’s reputation that pieces of propaganda created by his enemies are often repeated as absolute truth with barely any shred of evidence. The most famous of which is the one where Ramaraya, on the eve of the battle of Talikota refuses to meet his wife, the daughter of Krishnadevaraya because he is angry with her for being passed over as a successor to the throne of Vijayanagara by her father.
History, as they say, has always been written by winners and in the case of both Tipu Sultan and Ramaraya, they were unfortunate to have lost so thoroughly that their history was written mainly by their enemies. The British, in the case of Tipu Sultan, the Deccan Sultanates in the case of Ramaraya.
Yet, as I have mentioned earlier Tipu Sultan was at least lucky to have his reputation restored by modern historians. No such luck for Ramaraya who continues to suffer in ignominy, his achievements lost behind a series of lies and propaganda. Let us look at some of the most prominent allegations leveled at Ramaraya and see if he was any worse vis a vis Tipu Sultan.
Ramaraya usurped the throne from the rightful king of Vijayanagara.
This was an accurate charge, the last Tuluva king Sadashiva Raya was kept as a virtual hostage inside the royal palace of Vijayanagara. The only time the people of Vijayanagara were able to see their emperor was during the Mahanavami festival every year. Ramaraya for all practical purposes ruled over the empire as his own. But he was not the first one to do so, before him, Narasa Nayaka, the father of Krishnadevaraya ruled over the Vijayanagara empire as a proxy for the last ruler of Saluva Dynasty, while keeping the young king ‘safe’. His son and Krishnadevaraya’s elder brother continued the system briefly before the rising independence of his ‘ward’ caused him to have the Saluva king murdered thus ushering in the Tuluva dynasty. So Ramaraya’s actions were neither new nor unique.
This was the same situation with Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan both of whom never assumed the royal power instead of taking the title of Sarvadhikari, ruling on ‘behalf’ of the Wodeyar kings of Mysore. The royal family kept imprisoned in their palace under a strong guard. While the firmans still contained the seal of the Wodeyar kings, it was only a formality as Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan ruled over the state of Mysore as independent sovereigns. Tipu Sultan maintained this facade until 1796 when he formally declared himself as the Badshah, only three years before his death.
Ramaraya’s forces were extremely cruel to their enemies.
This probably the most often quoted reason for the supposed destruction of Vijayanagara. However, the only evidence we have for this was the devastation of Ahmadnagar by armies of Vijayanagara during one of their many wars. While this was probably true, the only evidence we have concerning the scale of this devastation is in the work, Burhan -I Ma’asir, written by Sayyid Ali Tabataba who was a court poet of Ahmadnagar kingdom. He wrote his magnum opus which was the story of the Ahmednagar Sultanates in honor of his patron, Burhan Nizam Shah(Son of Hussain Nizam Shah of Ahmednagar). The work was written in 1591–1595, full twenty-five years after the battle of Talikota and the death of Ramaraya. Considering the fact that Ali Tabataba was the court poet of Ahmadnagar, his accounts cannot be considered to be completely unbiased. Even if for the sake of argument we assume that Ramaraya’s troops had devastated the Ahmednagar countryside, their actions were not much different from the actions of the armies of the Deccan Sultanates. Ferista notes numerous instances in his account of the massacres committed by Bahmani Sultans against the population of Vijayanagara. In one of the battles, the Bahamani armies were supposed to have massacred over 5 lakh Vijayanagara civilians. In fact, Ferista notes, rather triumphantly, that the Sultan( Mohammed Shah) after defeating the armies of Bukka Raya orders his forces to kill the camp followers with such strictness that pregnant women and even children at breast did not escape the sword. Considering the situation prevailing during those times, are we supposed to assume that Ramaya’s actions were somehow worse? or were his actions simply one of the many massacres done by the armies of the day. Certainly no different from what had been done by the Sultanate armies against the population of Vijayanagara. The only difference was that this time the recipient of this cruelty was the unfortunate civilians of the Ahmednagar Sultanate. Also, it is noteworthy that while Ramaraya’s armies were engaged in wars with all five of the Sultanates, there is no report of his forces committing ‘war crimes’ against other Sultanate states except for Ahmednagar which once again casts doubts on the accounts of Sayyid Ali Tabataba.
Tipu Sultan’s own actions were not much different. There are ample records of the excess committed by his forces during the invasion of Malabar and the 15-year long captivity of the Catholics of Mangalore in Seringapatnam. It was one of the reasons why the British were able to create such a powerful alliance of native powers against Tipu Sultan so swiftly as all of them were afraid of Tipu Sultan and his armies.
Ramaraya interfered in the affairs of the Deccan Sultanates which made them angry and vengeful towards him.
Once more this charge only gives an incomplete picture of the situation. Ramaraya fought around 8 wars before the battle of Talikota against the Sultanates. In each of these wars, he was allied with one or the other kingdom against their neighbors. The first war was caused when Bijapur and Ahmadnagar attack Bidar who was allied to Vijayanagara and Ramaraya leading his forces to the aid of his ally. The last one was in defense of Bijapur who was invaded by the combined armies of Ahmadnagar and Golconda. If one reads the accounts of Ferista or any of the other historians, it becomes rather apparent that Vijayanagara was not the instigator of the wars instead they just picked a side after having been invited by the belligerents. If there is one kingdom who was probably responsible for most of the wars in the Deccan, it has to be Ahmednagar and its sultans (the supposed victims of Ramaraya’s excesses). Conversely, if we study the history of Vijayanagara, we find many instances where the Deccan Sultans similarly interfering in the affairs of Vijayanagara. The most prominent example was when Bijapur Sultan led his armies in support of the usurper Salakaraju Tirumala who had tried to seize power after murdering the young emperor Venkata I( Son of Achyutha Deva Raya) the predecessor of Sadashiva Raya.
Tipu Sultan short period of rule was similarly filled with wars with nearly all of his neighbors. Under him, Mysore fought against Marathas, the Nizams, the British, Travancore kingdom. Not all of these wars were defensive in nature, for example, Tipu’s invasion of Travancore was launched in response to Travancore’s unwillingness to abandon the British and Tipu’s desire to expand his territories. This was a preemptive attack by Tipu Sultan to prevent the British from strengthening their hold in Malabar and posing a threat to Mysore. But despite his reasons, this was clearly an ‘interference’ in the affairs of Travancore which was an independent nation with its own foreign policy. Another example was Tipu and his father Hyder Ali’s attacks on the Nizam of Hyderabad with a desire to expand their territories which too was a case of an opportunistic war.
Ramaraya promoted only his kinsmen to power.
Again this was a fair allegation since during Ramaraya’s time, many of the older Nayakas were dismissed in favor of his kinsmen from Aravidu clan. But once again his actions were not unprecedented as multiple rulers before him had resorted to such measures to steady their hold over power. Ramaraya, after all, had usurped the throne from the true rulers and thus he was unsure regarding the support from the older Nayakas for his cause. In such a situation he turned to his kinsmen whose loyalty he could rely on implicitly. It might not have been the right decision but considering the situation he was in, probably Ramaraya felt he had little choice.
Tipu Sultan too did something similar in his efforts to cement his power in Mysore. Most of his officials, army commanders, were Muslims despite the fact that he ruled over a predominantly Hindu population(nearly 90% of his subjects were Hindus). A few exceptions like Dewan Purnaiyya, which is quoted often do not count as he was probably an exception than a rule. Tipu Sultan’s decision to rely on his Muslim officers too was done due to the circumstances of his rise to power and the considerable distrust that his Hindu subjects might have had towards one whom they considered as a usurper to the Mysore throne. Yet no such charge of favoritism is laid at the feet of Tipu Sultan.
From the above examples, we can see clearly that Ramaraya and his actions were not much different from the actions of Tipu Sultan. So it’s rather strange that the modern historians are willing to judge Tipu Sultan by the ‘standards’ of his time but are reluctant to extend the same courtesy to Rama Raya.