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“All empires fall, eventually.
But why? It’s not for lack of power. In fact, it seems to be the opposite. Their power lulls them into comfort. They become undisciplined.”
At its peak, the Vijayanagar Empire was the first truly Hindu Empire of India. In the 15th century, almost all of India was under the rule of the Turko-Afghan invaders. By all contemporary accounts, this was a tumultuous period for the Hindu majority population. They had been harassed and pillaged by mercenaries who while fighting, at least on the face of it, on behalf of the Muslim Caliphate, found India to be rich beyond their imaginations and its temples a huge source of gold to pillage. Above all, this was a very violent period in Indian history. Ancient cities, universities and temples were laid waste and many thousands massacred.
It was in this context that Vijayanagara, in the southern part of India, rose to prominence. Vijayanagara’s history starts with a popular folklore. Two brothers, Hukka and Bukka who spent much of their time fighting Muslim invaders, present day Karnataka, tell their Guru about an unusual sight they witnessed during their hunting expedition. They narrate a story about how a hare pursued by a hound suddenly turned courageous and started chasing back the hound. Their Guru told them that this was a celestial sign and that the brothers should establish a kingdom at that very site.
And Hukka and Bukka did exactly that and laid the foundations of what would become the great Vijayanagara Empire covering a large part of South India! At a time when a large part of India was ruled by Muslim sultanates, one can certainly see how this story would have been inspirational to a series of Hindu Kings who would rule over this land for the next 200 years.
Vijayanagara became a major centre of South Indian culture— retaining and developing the best of that which had been salvaged from the wreck of the three greatest Empires of southern history: the Pallavas, the Chalukyas and the mighty Cholas of Tanjore. The Empire reached its peak under the rule of Krishna Deva Raya. He was a great administrator, military strategist and a devout Hindu. An interesting aspect of his rule was how he would hire Muslim generals in his armies and encouraged all religions to co-exist. This spirit of inclusion was what made his rule so prosperous and noteworthy.
AFTER THE DEATH of Krishnadevaraya, the city began a period of decline. Its rulers, particularly the usurper Ramaraya, grew arrogant and complacent. He not only succeeded in falling out with all his neighbours but actually managed to unite them in hatred and envy of the largest and richest of the Indian kingdoms. Thus ended a glorious Hindu Empire which was described by travellers “as having no equal in the world”
The current ruling formation in India is a powerful Hindu dispensation powered by a popular vote which cherishes the ideals of Hindutva. The mandate from the voters, perhaps overtly unstated, was to build a glorious Hindu Empire which could rival the great powers of the world. Now, we can all use our imagination to figure out who Hukka and Bukka are in the current political milieu. The real question is: Will Hukka and Bukka consolidate their position and make India the land of Krishna Deva Raya or will an old familiar tale of arrogance, smugness and hubris repeat itself? As Churchill said, “all men make mistakes. Wise men learn from them”. Dare I add, wise men admit their mistakes and learn from history!
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