The Path of a Downfall: Movements that Led to the Collapse of the Vijayanagara Empire

Published on: 20/03/2024

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Ruins of the Achyuta Raya temple

When discussing the last days of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire, we often point to the long drawn out battles of 1565 as the beginning of the end. However, Herculean empires like this one do not simply disappear into oblivion. They are brought to the point of extinction by decisions, forces, movements and incidents—big and small. History is always something that happens along the way. And if there is one thing that runs like a common thread throughout history is that—everything, and everyone, comes with an expiration date.

If Krishna Deva Raya is considered the greatest ruler of the Vijayanagara Empire—he was referred to as Karnatakaratna Simhasanadeeshwara (Lord of the Jewelled Throne of Karnataka)—then Achyuta Deva Raya, his immediate successor, was the exact opposite. The halcyon days of the empire were waning quickly and danger was brewing on every side. An ominous indication that the end was round the corner presented itself in the loss of the frontier fortresses of Raichur and Mudgal to Sultan Adil Shah. The Sultan’s army besieged the fortresses and took control in a mere three months, taking advantage of the feudal uprisings and other small skirmishes that Achyuta Raya was having to contend with.

From that point onward, throughout his decade-long rule, Achyuta Raya slowly but surely surrendered strips of land to the Sultanate. While accounts of these minor battles are mostly recorded by foreign travellers who had their own ulterior motives describing how it all played out, they all agree that the downfall of the Vijayanagara Empire was set in motion during Achyuta Raya’s rule. The writing was on the wall by the time he died, and was succeeded (in 1542) by the child king Sadasiva Raya, under the regency of the wily Aliya Rama Raya.

Now Aliya Rama Raya was always switching sides with different Deccani sultans. Due to the enormous treasury at his disposal, he was temporarily successful in keeping the sultanates in a fight against each other. However, his luck soon ran out. His first grave mistake was installing the Gilani brothers (former in the service of Sultan Adil Shah) as army commanders. His second mistake was constantly interfering in the affairs of the Sultanates and changing sides depending on the military advantages on offer.

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Ruins of the Achyuta Raya temple gate

These two mistakes were crucially detrimental to the Vijayanagara Empire and proved to be decisive in a climacteric event—The Battle of Talikota in 1565. Aliya Rama Raya’s second mistake resulted in the Sultanates finally realising that the only solution was to band together against this crafty ruler. A couple of marriage alliances later, the Deccan Sultanates were finally well placed to lay siege to the Vijayanagara Empire. The Gilani brothers, now positioned as commanders in Rama Raya’s army, defected to the Sultanates at a critical moment as the Battle of Talikota was raging, and directly resulted in the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire.

As i’d mentioned at the start of this essay, it is a combination of little things that results in widespread damage. In the downfall of the Vijayanagara Empire, historians trace how the beginning of the end is a trail that goes back all the way to the reign of Krishna Deva Raya. Even back then, the Sultanates were testing the waters, but it was only after Krishan Deva Raya’s death that the spark was lit. Like a long sunset, a shadow slowly began to encapsulate the mighty Vijayanagara Empire and it all came to a head in 1565. Everything, and everyone, comes with an expiration date.


Nicholas Rixon

Nicholas Rixon's work has appeared in The Indian Quarterly, Scroll, The Statesman, Hindustan Times and The Assam Tribune, among others. He currently lives in New Delhi and is working on his debut collection of short stories.

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