“A perfect king...a great ruler and a man of much justice,” recorded Domingos Paes, a Portuguese traveller of the 16th century. The king was Krishnadeva Raya, who ascended the Vijayanagara throne in 1509 and died, of unknown natural causes, in his forties. But it is for very good reason that these encomiums were showered on him, and his coronation is being celebrated half a millennium after the event. He was a great warrior but also an able administrator, a tolerant statesman, and a learned patron of the arts. In a relatively short reign of 20 years, Krishnadeva Raya expanded the Vijayanagara kingdom into a vast empire. Aggressive military campaigns might have enabled this, but it was his administrative acuity and farsightedness that checked the authority of territorial chiefs and strengthened the core of the empire. His ambitious expansion plans often brought him into conflict with the Deccan sultans. He fought them bitterly, but neither he nor the other Vijayanagara kings were anti-Islamic, as they are made out to be by the communally minded. Duarte Barbosa, another Portuguese traveller visiting Krishnadeva Raya’s court, confirms this by recording that every one was permitted to “live according to his own creed.” Muslim soldiers were acknowledged for their superior archery and cavalry skills and were an integral part of the army.
Hampi, the capital of this empire and now a world heritage site, owes much of its magnificence to Krishnadeva Raya. The vastness, wealth, “infinite trade,” and sophistication of life within this 30 sq km metropolis never failed to impress a visitor. Hampi, in fact, was frequently compared to Rome. It was significantly expanded, with six of its 12 sectors built during his reign. The art and architecture of South India reached its apogee. Tall gopurams, pillared halls, and sculptural columns are some of the architectural contributions of the Vijayanagara Empire. In fact, the hybrid architecture combining Hindu and Islamic elements, seen in the Lotus Mahal at Hampi, served as a prototype for what came to be known as Indo-Saracenic architecture. Krishnadeva Raya’s reign has also been described as a “glorious epoch of literature” and inscriptions attest to his support to poets, particularly Allasani Peddana. Legends, with a wide popular appeal in South India, recall the king’s literary prowess, the eight great intellectuals of his court, and the wit of Tenali Ramakrishna. The State of Karnataka may have taken the lead in celebrating the 500th year of Krishnadeva Raya’s coronation but his enduring legacy can be found in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu as well.