The decline of great empires in Indian history was often accompanied by the rise of their feudatories. Sensing the collapse of an order, new alignments and formations took shape, some capable of enduring, others stillborn. It happened, for instance, with the Mughals—in Aurangzeb’s own lifetime the empire grew enervated, and, after his death, power deserted Delhi for the provincial capitals of the emperor’s subordinates. In Bengal, its governors became practically independent, while in Awadh, the nawabs would, with British connivance, actually declare sovereignty. In Hyderabad, meanwhile, the nizams paid lip service to Delhi’s badshah even as they carved up personal territory. And the Marathas too, without irony, proclaimed themselves Mughal subjects—for, while fortune abandoned their suzerain, they all sought for their ventures an imperial stamp of legitimacy.
But these dynamics were not limited to the politics of the northern plains alone. Before the Mughals, the Bahmani empire in the Deccan had folded when its weak kings were outsmarted by their nobles: While the latter set up independent states, the last of the Bahmanis boarded a ship to Mecca in the 1530s and was never heard from again. In 1565, these nobles-turned-sultans would inflict defeat on Vijayanagar’s autocrat, and soon the capital of that southern empire was abandoned. Its puppet emperor, who came from the line of the celebrated Krishnadeva Raya, was discarded, and the dead autocrat’s brother proclaimed himself head of a truncated empire from a new capital.
But, as with the Mughals and Bahmanis, as soon as weakness became visible, the imperial edifice was imperilled. And not really by assaults from enemies, as much as by the ambitions of its own servants and associates.
After the fall of Vijayanagar, for some years the nayakas (provincial chiefs) who held the empire’s Tamil territories remained pledged to their new emperor. Soon enough, however, they began to flex their muscles and explore prospects of a more individual nature. Some of it came from chaos in the imperial family and its own crisis of legitimacy: Their only claim to royal blood was through marriage, and, while powerful, they were not by themselves more exalted than their noblemen. Why, then, should the governors pledge fealty to them? In the mid-1610s, in fact, the central court saw a king murdered, a borrowed baby masquerading as a royal heir, and much bloodshed, all of which put wind in the sails of nayakas aching to cut loose and declare independence. For the most part, the centre held, but temptations of provincial freedom were always in the air.
In 1595, for instance, the nayaka of Madurai decided not to send tribute to Chandragiri (one of the cities to which the central court moved after the loss of Vijayanagar proper). It was only when the emperor sent an army that the nayaka paid up. Four years later, Madurai tried again—this time, the emperor not only charged the usual tribute, but also expenses for his punitive expedition.
Undeterred, the nayakas began to shore up legitimacy for themselves. Those who had been sent as governors of Thanjavur wedded their rule to the memory of the Cholas (much like the Marathas, who later ruled here, would), while in Madurai the nayaka was by the late 1590s already being styled king of the Pandyas. Romantic stories of their loyalty to legendary Vijayanagar monarchs like Krishnadeva Raya were told, all to bolster their claims at the cost of the current, less inspiring emperor.
While colonial-era historians would claim that the nayakas continued Vijayanagar’s supposed quest to “protect" Hinduism from the assault of Islam, their actual conduct was connected more to power than to religious zeal. By the 1620s, Madurai, for instance, was under the rule of the celebrated Tirumala Nayaka. He ceased sending tribute to the emperor, but when the latter died and was succeeded by a man bent on claiming imperial prerogatives, the nayaka prepared for a split.
In 1645, he orchestrated a meeting with his counterparts in Thanjavur and Gingee to discuss rebellion: a scene where all three came, accompanied by thousands of troops, and carried out discussions atop elephants. They were to act in concert against the emperor but when Thanjavur betrayed the conspiracy, Tirumala Nayaka seamlessly found another ally.
Even as the emperor set out with a force to punish Gingee and Madurai, Tirumala Nayaka got the sultan of Golconda to invade his master’s territory—thwarted, the emperor had to abandon plans to punish his refractory governors. When peace was settled with the sultan, Madurai proceeded to ally with the Adil Shah of Bijapur. Soon, all three nayakas became protectorates of that Muslim prince, while their emperor was left with no kingdom of his own.
Indeed, this last of the kings to carry the mantle of Vijayanagar was fated to wander for the rest of his life, from one court to another, while his governors upgraded themselves from servants of a dead empire to kings in their own right. He had once, for instance, threatened to make a drum out of Tirumala Nayaka’s skin—as it happened, the nayaka survived, ruling for three and a half decades.
In colonial times, when religion came to be seen as the guiding force of Indian history, Tirumala Nayaka was deemed perfidious. One authority called him a “political vandal" who “betrayed his religion", making the nayakas slaves to a “mlechcha" i.e. the Bijapur sultan. But the fact was that even Tirumala Nayaka’s nemesis, the ill-fated Vijayanagar emperor, had no hesitation in reaching out to potential allies across religions—at one point, it was to Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, through his hated son, Aurangzeb, that the emperor appealed for assistance in crushing the nayakas.
As a historian put it, “According to the conceptions of the day, it did not offend against political morals for the Muhammadans to seek Hindu help and vice versa." What actually guided politics was self-interest—and here, as long as loyalty to an emperor paid dividends, it was upheld. But if independence was the goal, even betrayal was fair.
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).
Twitter - @UnamPillai