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

Muslim control over India (by which I mean the modern state of India, more or less) was always somewhat precarious because whatever Muslim dynasty happened to be in power at any given time, it was guaranteed to be 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 (although it did expand 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) syncretic Din-i Ilahi movement. But the Mughals also ruled sizable Muslim populations in the Sindh region (modern Pakistan) and in Bengal, so they weren’t entirely without a natural base of support.

The sultanates that ruled the Deccan, in central and southern India, were really out on a limb, ruling populations that were almost entirely Hindu. They had a couple of things going for them: these (mostly Turkic) dynasties moved south out of the highly militarized central Asian milieu, so they were excellent fighters, and Islam, which does preach a message of general equality among believers (admittedly, it’s never been perfectly applied), had considerable conversion appeal for people at the bottom of Hinduism’s rigid caste system. Still, they were constantly aware of the threat that a serious Hindu political enterprise might pose to their survival.

21180_deccan_sultanates_from_schwartzberg_atlas
The Deccan Sultanates and the Vijayanagara Empire

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, 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 army needed firearms.

For some time in the early-mid 16th century, it looked like Vijayanagara was positioned to stop playing defense and actually push the frontiers of Hindu-ruled India north, taking territory from the Muslim sultanates. This was due to the collapse of the Bahmani Sultanate, which ruled most of the northern Deccan as a unified entity 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 were 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 Vijayanagara.

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 simply assuming the throne 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 preface this by saying 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? Why are you asking me? I’m writing this today because I didn’t write about it on Saturday, but 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, who may have been as old as 80, personally led his forces anyway. The Vijayanagaran forces were larger and had war elephants, but the Deccans had a larger cavalry force 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 took off. 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.

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2 thoughts on “Today in South Asian history: the Battle of Talikota (1565)

  1. Is there any info on the religious makeup of the armies? I know that Mahmud of Ghazni and the Mughal Empires incorporated Hindu soldiers into their militaries, but do you happen to know if the Deccan Sultanates did the same?

    1. I don’t, but I will say it’s almost impossible to imagine a Muslim dynasty in 16th century central India operating without any Hindus in the army. The Vijayanagara reportedly had Muslims in their army, so I think it’s safe to say the reverse was true for the Deccan Sultanates.

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