In 1509, when Krishna Raya of Vijayanagar ascended the empire’s throne, it was with a debt of gratitude to a murdered goat. Legend has it that the prince’s half-brother and predecessor had no desire to see Krishna Raya inherit power—determined to safeguard the prospects of his own offspring, he commanded his minister to blind their rival and bring him his eyes. The minister nodded assent but acted treacherously. Sending Krishna Raya into hiding, he deceived the dying monarch with a pair of goat’s eyes. And when the man heaved a sigh of relief and took his final breath, the prince was cheerfully retrieved, returning from the political wilderness to be enthroned in Vijayanagar.
The empire under Krishna Raya—popularly known as Krishnadeva Raya—would scale great heights, the population in its capital region surpassing every city in the world save Beijing. But for all his achievements, Krishna Raya was never, it is said, expected to reign at all. He was the son of his father from an inferior wife: Nagamba or Nagi, some believe, was a lamp-cleaner. One day, the Raya’s father witnessed something dramatic in the skies—a shooting star, it is suggested. He consulted his astrologers and was instructed to lie with his lady at once. He looked for his wife, the story continues, but could not find her. So it was Nagi who went to her lord’s bedchamber. It was the lamp-cleaner who birthed a son blessed by celestial forces.
Many such apocryphal tales envelop Krishna Raya, marrying heady romance to cold reality. But even without a legitimizing preamble, what he achieved was phenomenal. Vijayanagar was not in a state of health when the prince seized its throne, so that for years he was preoccupied with stability. He fought foreign enemies even as he overawed rebellious feudatories. Swords were raised in Kanchipuram, as they were in Ikkeri, and in the field the emperor was magnificent and ruthless. He “crushed the skulls of Khurasani warriors", for instance, and with the head of a sultan “built a gruesome effigy". Such violence was not unusual, for spilling blood was an inevitable corollary to power—decades later, another figure would meet a similar fate, though this time it was a sultan doing the honours, while Krishna Raya’s son-in-law supplied the head.
Travellers’ accounts paint Krishna Raya as a man of tremendous physical vigour. “The king," recorded one, “is of medium height and good figure, rather fat than thin," with a pockmarked face. Every morning, he “anoints himself all over with…oil; he covers his loins with a small cloth and takes in his arms great weights made of earthenware". He rode, wrestled and fenced. But equally, once exercise was out of the way, he negotiated administrative minutiae. Impressively, between everything, the emperor also found time to compose poetry—works in Sanskrit and a great kavya in Telugu. With regard to the latter, it did not matter that he was a Tuluva from coastal Karnataka: He celebrated Telugu, not only due to admiration for the language but also to cement his place in a Teluguized imperial order.
Meanwhile, as his power grew, so did Krishna Raya’s confidence. Sometimes, in fact, it could manifest in peculiar exchanges of courtly insults. In 1520, for instance, the emperor seized Raichur from the Adil Shah of Bijapur after a spectacular battle featuring not only horses and soldiers but also hundreds of guns. When the sultan’s envoy asked for the return of this territory subsequently, Krishna Raya set one condition—the Adil Shah would have to come and kiss the emperor’s foot. It is hardly surprising that the defeated enemy made excuses to avoid embarrassment, but Krishna Raya was determined. He “led a stampede of ferocious elephants against the Yavana" king, and, when the latter fled, sacked Bijapur before returning victorious (and amused) to his own capital.
Subsequent chronicles often cast Krishna Raya as a unidimensional protector of Hindu pride battling Islamic perfidy. But his policy was not quite guided by religion even if it was articulated in the language of faith—just as he lambasted “yavanas" who ruled Deccani sultanates, so too did he rail against Odisha’s Hindu Gajapatis. Certainly, his world view was inspired by Sanskritic and south Indian traditions, but that did not preclude the absorption of Islamicate influence—in a bronze image he gifted to the temple in Tirupati, for example, he flaunts a Turkish fez. Even as he lambasted Muslim opponents, he also crowned the scion of a sultanate, thereafter assuming the title Yavana Rajya Sthapanacharya: the (Hindu) king who resurrected a Muslim state.
With time, Krishna Raya developed advice, too, for princes and aspiring sovereigns. “If the enemy has a powerful army," he proposes in his Amuktamalyada, “it is wise to treat him with gifts and respect." But if “reports of spies reveal that the enemy is weak", he was to be demolished right away. Great fortresses need not cause despair, he felt, for “there are mechanized weapons of various designs to penetrate rampart walls". Similarly, it was important to keep a close eye on foreigners and trade. Merchants were to be treated “with prestige" and given towns in which to reside. “Purchase their goods at a high price," suggested Krishna Raya shrewdly, “and ensure that your enemies are deprived of such resources."
A warrior king, an emperor unsurpassed, a patron and poet, Krishna Raya was a pragmatist too, encapsulating in his 20-year reign all that made for a triumphant 16th century monarch. But his story too suffered, ultimately, an unhappy end. Two of his sons died as children while the third was too young when the emperor began to fade. And so, as happened with his predecessor in 1509, his own successor was not his son but a half-brother, hitherto locked away. Indeed, even that unfortunate goat returned to haunt the Raya’s legacy: In the 1520s, a story goes, he fell out with his minister. And in a fit of fury, Krishna Raya sentenced him to a particularly sadistic punishment—the man who once saved the emperor with goat’s eyes had his own gouged out.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).