Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: Vijayanagar, The Never To Be Forgotten Empire. A book by a forgotten scholar Pundit B. Suryanarain Rao

Founded in approximately 1336 by Guru Madhavacharya Vidyaranya of Sringeri Mutt along with Harihara and Bukka two local chieftains, it lasted for 229 years in the process creating one of the worlds most magnificent, richest and powerful Empires in the world. There is great deal written about the empires cultural, engineering, military and political achievements in various blogs and websites so I will refrain from replicating the same here. The objective of this post is to discuss two very good books which may interest those interested in Indian history.

Anyone interested in the medieval Indian history must make it a point to read two books on the Vijaynagar Empire the first being Vijayanagar, The Forgotten Empire by Robert Sewell followed by Vijayanagar, The Never To Be Forgotten Empire by B. Suryanarain Rao to get a 360° view of medieval India, the Vijaynagar Empire from all possible perspectives. I would recommend the reader to read the books in the chronology stated here for reasons discussed below.

The book by Robert Sewell, a civil servant posted in southern India during the British raj is a fast paced narrative of the Vijaynagar Empire and its kings* taking the reader from its founding in 1336 including the various stories and myths surrounding its founding to the various accomplishments cultural, political and military finally ending with the demise of the empire in 1565. During the course of his narrative Sewell  relies to some extent on contemporary accounts of travelers and ambassadors like Nicolo Conte an Italian traveler, Domingo Paes and Fernao Nuniz Portuguese travelers, Abdur Razzaq ambassador of Persia in the Vijaynagar court and to a great extent on Ferishta who wrote about two hundred year after the end of the Vijaynagar empire from the court of the Bijapur sultans and is of doubtful veracity as proved by Suryanarain Rao in his book.

B. Suryanarain Rao's book titled Vijayanagar, The Never To Be Forgotten Empire Empire seems to be a counter to Robert Sewell's book which exposes the many lapses and errors apart from correcting the historical events and putting the narrative in the right perspective. Suryanarain Rao was a learned and accomplished Veda pundit of his time and is credited among other things to be first person to translate Vedic Astrology treatise into English there by introducing Vedic astrology to the west. Born in 1856 in Srikakulam he graduated from Central College Bengaluru before practicing law at Bellary.

Well versed in the history and culture of the region including the Vedas, Sanskrit, Telegu, Tamil and Halle Kannada (Old Kannada) Suryanarain Rao approaches the subject using records preserved in various rock and copper plate edicts from across the empire known as 'Sasnas'. These edicts are records of various land and other property grants, laws, awards, constructions, felicitations, recognitions, deaths, victories etc. These edicts apart from preserving  dates also provide narrative on events and names of the kings who were reigning when the sasna were made thereby providing record of linear succession of kings to the throne with dates. Apart from these sasnas, Rao also had access to the records of the Sringeri Mutt and the Raya Vamshavali (Lineage of the Kings of Vijayanagar) of old Vijayanagar kings which clearly mentions the contribution of each king, his reign and by whom he was succeeded.

Rao in his works takes the reader way back into history and helps him understand the kingdoms  that existed before the Vijayanagar empire and the causes that led to the creation of the empire thereby giving the reader a panoramic view of medieval India's Hindu dynasties. He has dedicated sections to the three major dynasties with chapters for each king thereby giving in-depth analysis of each ruler and his achievements. Far from being an arm chair historian Rao in pursuit of authentic data traversed the length and breadth of the empire interviewing Brahmin scholars much like himself who had information passed down the ages and tomes of rare manuscripts that have recorded the history of the region which have acted as ingredients for his book.
Rao's application of his analytical and mathematical genius shines through as he vigourously investigates records from contemporary sources used by Sewell but instead of blindly relying on them as gospel Rao correlates this data with the sasnas, the Raya Vamshavali and the Sringeri Mutt records coming out with a clear narrative devoid of any ambiguity or bias and in places where he cannot conclude conclusively he openly declares multiple open paths which a reader can choose but states that the truth can be discerned only if new data is forthcoming in the future. Such openness and flexibility is not forthcoming from Robert Sewell who shuts doors firmly, never for a minute doubting the veracity of data, especially from the sycophant Ferishta who operated from the Bijapuri sultans court some 200 years after the end of the Vijayanagar empire. Sewell relies heavily on Ferishta, especially accounts of war which are skewed in favour of the Bahamani's. Rao demolishes these narratives by providing evidence to the contrary and concluding that if the Bahamanis ravaged Vijayanagar so much and so often then how come Vijayanagar continued to thrive and grow in all directions for more than 230 years attracting all sorts of luminaries from across the world whereas the muslims kingdom stagnated and finally fragmented into 5 parts.

Another problem with Robert Sewells book is that he relies too much on foreign travelers who may have faced numerous challenges with respect to language, culture, customs in understanding and recording events from the right perspective which becomes evident in the way they record names of kings, places, festivals, events etc. Lets not forget that these travelers were coming from the Christian or Islamic west abhorring anything not conforming to their respective faiths. The bias that may have creeped in can only be imagined. Moreover these travelers were recording events at various points in history for a brief period during their stay, thus an empire that spanned the entire Deccan from the east to the west coast of India and lasted for 230 years was too big a canvas for any traveler to view or record. Thus its hardly surprising that Sewell has relied on Ferishta too much, no matter how so ever biased and erroneous who with the benefit of hindsight seems to have captured the entire history of Vijayanagar in couple of volumes where as the others have captured only small parts and places in time. 

Needless to say Sewell's lack of skills with indigenous languages like Kannada, Telegu, Tamil and Sanskrit proved a major handicap and he seemed to have altogether ignored the sasnas except in a few cases where some ready translations were available. Even then he has not correlated data with the travelogues of visitors to arrive at studied conclusions like Rao did .

Robert Sewell in my opinion, keeping with the tradition of the days of the 'Raj' like many unqualified, untrained and arm chair historians ended up writing the history of India, to make a name and a fast buck and in the process totally falsifying and destroying the truth, wrongly colouring the minds of generations to come. Sewell assembled various available records threaded a fast paced narrative and lo and behold ended up creating the most authoritative book on the Vijayanagar Empire. Let me assure you Sewell's value addition to the entire enterprise is only assembling various records in chronological order and publishing it.

But having said the above regarding Sewell's book, his contribution is important because it establishes the primacy of the Vijayanagar empire and its importance in the history of medieval India and the Hindu civilisation. Sewells work also makes available to future scholars all possible records of historians and travelers in one single volume (398 pages). Being a general narrative the book provides for quick and easy reading laying the foundation for the readers to understand more comprehensive information dealt with in the analytical and precise work by Suryanarain Rao's Vijayanagar, The Never To Be Forgotten Empire.

PS: The reader is made aware that Suryanarain Rao's book Vijaynagar, The Never To Be Forgotten Empire 2nd volume was never completed. 

* The three main dynasties being the founding Sangama Dynasty, the Saluva followed by the Tuluva dynasty made famous by Krishnadeva Raya the greatest Emperor of medieval India probably even greater than Akbar. During his reign the empire extended from Kanyakumari in the south to the Goa in the West to Odisha in the east. His contribution to arts, science, trade and culture is unparalleled for a monarch involved in constant warfare apart from the fact the he built grand monuments for the betterment of his subjects like dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, temples etc.

The Raya Vamshavali was provided by the then Raja of Anegondi, Sriranga Devarayalu

Suryanarain Rao repeatedly mentions discrepancies between the narrations of Sewell the travelogues and the sasanas and then goes on to correct the narrations using multiple data sources and correlating data.

In the true sense of entrepreneurship and opportunism that characterises the British raj, Sewell and other so called western academicians provided the market with information which did not exist no matter how so ever false. The only analogy that comes to mind is that of a bootlegger making and peddling spurious liquor.  


  1. I think you have been very unkind and unfair to Robert Sewell.

    He clearly states upfront (page 3) that his effort is a preliminary one and that subsequent historians will need to build upon ('make the dry bones live' as he says).

    There are many places where he questions Farista's narrative, clearly attributing to the inconsistencies to his coming on the scene much later.

    Reading the book, I certainly did not get the impression that he is 'unqualified, untrained and arm chair historian' - that is blatantly unfair and without foundation.

    Having said that, I must read up Prof Row's book - I have seen it it on the shelves but not read it yet! Your review certainly pushes me in that direction.

  2. Wow. . I was amazed to know that Sringeri matha has historical accounts with them. Good work bringing this to public view.