Today in South Asian history: the Battle of Talikota (1565)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

Muslim control over the Indian subcontinent, especially in areas south of modern Pakistan, was always somewhat precarious. Whatever Muslim dynasty happened to be in power at any given time was guaranteed to be part of a religious minority ruling over a vast number of Hindu subjects. The Mughal Empire, which ruled northern India, modern Pakistan, and modern Bangladesh for most of its lifespan and expanded deep into southern India in the late 17th century, had to manage this problem throughout its history, which led to some interesting developments like Emperor Akbar’s (d. 1605) Din-i Ilahi movement, which emphasized religious tolerance and combined elements of Islam and Hinduism (and other faiths) into an imperial religious syncretism that was intended to win broad acceptance among all of his subjects. Of course the Mughals also ruled sizable Muslim populations in the Sindh region and in Bengal, so they weren’t entirely without a natural base of support. But, again, that base constituted a minority of their subjects and they had to take that into account.

If the Mughals had to be sensitive to their non-Muslim subjects despite ruling over those large Muslim minorities, then the sultanates that ruled the Deccan, in central and southern India, were really out on a limb. These Muslim dynasties ruled populations that were almost entirely Hindu. They had a couple of things going for them. For one thing, they’d moved south out of the highly volatile central Asian milieu, so militarily they could handle themselves against uprisings. For another, they had Islam, which preaches a message of general equality among believers (admittedly it’s a message that’s never been perfectly applied), had considerable conversion appeal for people at the bottom of Hinduism’s rigid caste system. Still, the rulers of these kingdoms were constantly aware of the threat that a serious Hindu political movement might pose to their survival.

The Vijayanagara Empire was just such an enterprise. This dynasty arose in the 1330s in southern India and gained power by resisting the repeated Muslim invasions that eventually overthrew Hindu dynasties to their north. As the “last Hindu kingdom standing” (there were others, but you know how propaganda works), Vijayanagara held considerable prestige and was seen as the defender of Hinduism against Islamic encroachment. However, despite their staunch Hinduism they borrowed ideas of military and political organization from the Muslim invaders, and by the middle of the 16th century they were working with the newest arrivals on the subcontinent: Portuguese traders. Those European merchants brought with them Arabian horses, to supply Vijayanagara's Muslim-inspired cavalry force, and firearms, because every respectable 16th century army needed firearms.

For some time in the early-mid 16th century, it looked like Vijayanagara might be able to stop merely defending itself and actually push the frontiers of Hindu-ruled India north, taking territory from the Muslims ruling the Deccan. This was due to the collapse of the Bahmani Sultanate, which ruled most of the northern Deccan from the mid 14th century through the first half of the 16th. Over the last half of the 15th century, the Bahmani sultans gradually lost their grip on the sultanate, and their kingdom was replaced by five smaller sultanates—the Deccan Sultanates, as they’re collectively known nowadays—divided along Bahmani’s five major regions: Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda. The Vijayanagara emperor at the time, Krishnadevaraya (d. 1529), was able to exploit, quite skillfully, the rivalries between these new sultanates in order to weaken them and strengthen his own position.

Krishnadevaraya was succeeded by his brother, Achyuta Deva Raya (d. 1542), but behind the scenes his son in-law, Rama Raya (d. 1565), was working to usurp the throne. When Achyuta Deva Raya died, he was succeeded by first his son, then his nephew, and Rama Raya managed to get himself appointed regent for the latter. From that position, he didn’t have much trouble ousting the young emperor and taking power for himself. Unfortunately for Vijayanagara, Rama Raya wasn't nearly as smooth as his father in-law at managing the Deccan Sultanates, and his heavy-handedness caused the five of them to put aside their mutual hostility and stand together against the threat of Vijayanagaran expansion.

The Battle of Talikota was the result. I should note that I’ve seen references, none definitive, to this battle having taken place on both January 26, 1565, and January 23, 1565. Which is correct? Beats me. If anybody can point me to a definitive source that says January 23, I’ll change the date on this post and nobody ever needs to know. Rama Raya personally led his forces despite the fact that he was at least pushing 80 and was probably even older than that. The Vijayanagaran forces were larger and had war elephants, but the Deccans had a larger cavalry and more artillery, so on paper this was a fairly evenly matched battle. A heavy assault on the Deccan left wing nearly routed it, which would have given the Vijayanagarans the victory, but a Deccan attack on the Vijayanagaran rear was decisive, and in the chaos Rama Raya was thrown from his elephant, captured, and executed pretty much on the spot, at which point it’s said that his army began to flee.

Rama Raya’s brother (now successor), Tirumala Deva Raya, took command and promptly made a break for it. He made it back to the city of Vijayanagara, where he loaded up the imperial treasury and kept on hoofing it south, to the city of Penukonda (which became his new capital). The Deccan army entered Vijayanagara and looted it to the bone before torching it. The destruction was so complete that this city, which may at the time have been the largest city in the world outside of China, was never rebuilt or reoccupied. The Vijayanagara Empire was never the same; it was hard pressed by Bijapur and Golconda, which emerged as the most powerful of the Deccan Sultanates, and was eventually conquered by them in the middle of the 17th century. Those sultanates didn’t have long to celebrate their victory, however, because the expanding Mughals conquered both of them in the 1680s.