Today he would be seeing him for the first time. Will it be the last?
Joao Alvarez had heard many stories about the new king, Krishna Raya… and was curious.
‘How could a man be so reckless and still be a leader of so many men?’ he asked the man next to him, Nadella Gopa, lord of a string of fortified cities in his path, each as big as Lisbon. There is no other country anywhere in the world that matches the splendor of Vijayanagara.
‘From what I heard, the king had caught himself in an impossible position, trapped and immobilized by enemy forces,’ he continued.
Gopa smiled indulging him, Alvarez is a man of importance, especially now when the army is in urgent need of quality horses. He’s a merchant of impeccable reputation, recommended by the governor, Albuquerque. He had just brought in a consignment of a thousand Spanish horses, bred in the hills of Basque, trained for battle. There’s no harm in humoring him, he thought, ‘Why do you think so?’ he asked.
‘I was told that on three sides he was facing the three Khans of the King of Orissa – Sitapati Khan holding the impregnable fortress of Kondapalli across the river, Mallu Khan in the north is in a fortress surrounded by Lake Kolleru, waiting for reinforcements, and Uddand Khan, blocking our way here,’ he said pointing at the river.
That’s a fair assessment, Gopa thought. Kondavidu is besieged and doesn’t pose any immediate threat. But Uddanda Raya is still holding this side of the river. ‘But we have arrived, aren’t we, with reinforcements?’ he asked engaging the visitor.
‘Yes, from the west,’ he laughed quietly, ‘but, your eastern flank is exposed, anytime the armies of Orissa can ford the river downstream and block your retreat, then your king is stuck between Scylla and Charybdis.’
‘So true,’ Gopa surmised aloud, ‘Most of our men are facing Uddanda Raya in the east; we need these men if Kondavidu has to fall quickly, if we pull them out, our backs will be exposed to the tusks of the Elephant King.’
‘Unless…’ Alvarez hesitated, ‘you get this Uddand Khan on your side.’
‘Oh, that’s impossible, he’s Gajapati’s minion.’
‘But if he thinks, he’s forsaken by his lord?’ The question hung there as Nadella Gopa lost himself in deep thought.
The camp looked like a city, now being called Rayapuri, City of Raya, divided into orderly townships, mostly mud and thatch, and some tents. The king’s quarter stood overlooking a lake, fed by a canal from the river. It was the only building made of brick and lime; the Raya of Vijayanagara never lives in a tent, even when on campaign. A standing army of ten thousand armed men, personally paid by him, guarded its outer periphery. Three thousand Amazonian Boya women, armed with shields and swords, took turns guarding the body of the king. They are oath bound to follow him even in death, he heard, so, their loyalty is unshakable.
Alvarez removed his boots, handed over his ceremonial saber to a guardswoman. A stiff nod from Gopa was enough, and he was allowed inside the audience hall without any physical check for weapons, a considerable honor, while every other guest was subjected to a careful pat down. He was guided to a comfortable seat to the right of the podium at the far end, a place of high esteem. Gopa meanwhile gravitated to a group of noblemen conversing in hushed tones. Alvarez recognized the man, who was at its center, as Appaji, probably the most powerful man in the kingdom, more so even than the king, Krishna Raya.
He watched as Gopa was whispering something in the ears of Appaji, who turned his head giving a sharp look, a little curious though. Their eyes met for a moment and he bowed his head … and … a slight nod acknowledged him. At that very moment a bell rang, at a distance, and the hall fell into a hush. Appaji moved towards the throne, set on a podium, adorned with satin cushions and strings of pearls. He stood there, his eyes scanning every person in the hall, but deep in thought. Other nobles moved to the edges of the hall, their backs against the walls, stonily facing the throne, except Gopa, who came and stood next to an unoccupied seat adjacent to his, and asked Alvarez to do the same.
A chorus of drums and bugles announced the entry of the king into the outer corridors. Priests chanting Vedic mantras entered first, followed by a bevy of dancing girls, sprinkling scented water and flower petals on the floor. Alvarez was surprised to see a moor, a priest, carrying their Book of Prophet reverently and place it on a podium in front of the throne. ‘It is for the purpose of those members of the court, whose faith doesn’t allow them to bow before a mere mortal,’ Gopa whispered, ‘but we consider our king as an immortal, an incarnation of our god, Vishnu,’ he chuckled.
As the heralds began singing the titles of the king, the whole court kneeled and touched the polished floor with their open palms and foreheads, except Appaji who stood attentively with his hands crossed over his chest. Alvarez kneeled on one knee, his torso upright and face straight, as was permitted for the Europeans. In spite of the stifling heat outside, the hall was cool, slight breeze fanned through vetiver screens, but the silk-clad backs of the courtiers were sweating, a faint stench of fear mixed with the perfumes of the prostrating bodies pervaded the air. The king is known for his temper, and mood swings between extremes of generosity and wrath… and he had been stuck here for over six months waiting for the city of Kondavidu to capitulate, and his patience must now be at its nadir.
Alvarez was in a best position to observe the king as he entered, a man of medium height, strongly built and fair of complexion for a heathen, an aura of power radiated from his face, clean-shaven and pleasant with a thin drooping moustache, a few pockmarks and a recent scar had only added to his formidable features. His dress was simple – layers of soft cotton, fell to the ankles and gathered together, and an upper vest of silk which flared out below waist. He was unadorned by jewelry except for a huge diamond, size of a hen’s egg on his chest kept in place by strings of pearls. A tall Turkish kullah of satin on his head, intricately embroidered in gold, completed his attire. Nothing stirred as he walked barefoot at an elegant pace towards the throne. Just before he climbed the podium he stopped, gave an appraising look at Alvarez, a smile appeared and a nod of acknowledgement. ‘So… is he the trader who brought those excellent horses?’ he asked Appaji, waiting in attendance, before he bowed to him with hands joined in a sign of reverence.
‘Long live my king,’ the old man said, with his right hand raised in benediction, ‘so you’ve seen those animals, already?
‘Yes Appaji, it’s too tempting not to. The moment Dannayak Ramalinga Nayaka informed me about their arrival. And… we even rode up to the river and up the hill to have a look at Uddanda Raya and his rabble,’ he smiled a little contritely.
‘That’s careless of you, Krishna,’ the old man hissed only for his ears, but his disapproval of the act was apparent to Alvarez, fortunately no one else could see as their heads were still bowed low.
‘You may rise,’ the king said to no one in particular his voice pleasant and cheerful, the exhilarating ride on the banks of Krishna had improved his mood. However much they tried to control, the collective sigh of relief was clearly audible as the courtiers rose in unison and stood facing him with their arms crossed.
‘Today, I’ve received a portent,’ the king announced, ‘I was riding on the banks of the river, and I heard a washerwoman singing, she’s a maiden of incredible beauty. It’s like the mother Krishnaveni herself was telling me, what lay ahead. I’ve asked General Ramalinga Nayaka to bring her here, with every honor she deserves … and, here she comes.’
‘The Lord of Gandikota… Pennaswami Ramalinga Nayaka… Chief Commander of the Armies of the East… Hear Ho!’ the general entered to the sounds of heralds, the most trusted vassal of the king and leader of his bodyguard. Beside him on an open litter was a young woman…
Dressed in a simple checkered saree, tucked between her legs, her hair tied in a knot, she was a stunning contrast to the finery of the court. The king was right, Alvarez thought, she’s a beauty, dark of skin, petite and perfectly built. As she took in the grandeur of the court, visible behind those wide eyes was inner steel, extraordinary for a country girl.
With a slight nudge from the general, she sang…
Kondaveedu is Ours… Kondapalli is Ours
Contend, if you may… Cuttack too is Ours
The court erupted in unrestrained cheer.
Even the king stood. At his nod, an incredibly large chest, with the insignia of the royal treasury, was carried in by four extremely strong men. Finest cloth and precious jewels and coin, it must contain, Alvarez was sure.
‘All this for a few words of praise?’ he wondered, loud enough for the ears of Gopa.
‘You may call it praise or an oracle, how does it matter, but it’s worth every coin and keeps these battle hungry soldiers on their toes, doesn’t it?’ Gopa smiled. ‘And by the way, a surprise for you, Alvarez, I was asked by the chief Appaji to escort you to the royal pavilion tomorrow,’ he winked, ‘a dance concert by the most famous courtesan of Dharanikota, her name is Madura Madhavi, you couldn’t have heard about her.’
‘Isn’t she a paramour of Uddand Khan?’ Alvarez asked without a thought. Now was the turn of Nadella Gopa to be shocked, how much does this horse trader know?
To be continued…
In the month of June 2015 the Government of Andhra Pradesh had identified a piece of land for the new capital and called it Amaravati. It was 500 years earlier, computed to the exactitude of days, the most beloved historical personage of Telugu people had placed his stamp of approval on this decision. The local folklore associated with the places Thullur, Rayapudi, Uddandarayuni Palem bear witness to his presence at the exact spot where the central district of the core capital is being envisaged by the present government.
If you let loose the mythopoeic mind, it is easy to imagine the river speaking to the leaders of men, then and now, and inspiring them with the stories of yore. It was one such story of Andhra Maha Vishnu, had inspired Krishna Raya, inaugurating the most glorious phase in Telugu culture. Who else could’ve told him that story, except Krishnaveni, the eternal repository of our heritage, who had been the witness to the lofty highs and abysmal lows of our past?
It compels my heart today to believe that the same Krishnaveni had spoken to the present leader of Andhra Pradesh, motivating him to build here a capital that will take the Telugu culture to a new and unprecedented high.