‘The traitors want my city, but I’ll give them naught but ashes. Let Robert be king over charred bones and cooked meat.’
-Aerys II Targaryen
Above, is a famous quote appearing in the Game of Thrones series, uttered by Aerys Targaryen, the last Targaryen king, who, when it appeared that he would lose his capital to the rebels, decides to burn the city of King’s Landing, rather than losing it to Robert Baratheon unconcerned for the lives of its five hundred thousand inhabitants. For this and his other acts of wanton cruelty, he was known as the mad king.
The history of our world however is filled with numerous examples of leaders whose insatiable lust for power coupled with their willingness to go to any lengths to achieve it, have provided us with many a cautionary tale. Wu Zetian, Timur, Leopold of Belgium, Hitler, Stalin, all of these names evoke in us a sense of revulsion for their actions. India too has had its own share of power-hungry despots, Muhammad Bin Tughluq, Ghiyas-ud-din Damghani of Madurai Sultanate, Mihirakula of Sweta Hunas and Asoka, before the war of Kalinga and his conversation to Buddhism, to name a few. During the long reign of Vijayanagara kings, there were quite a few individuals who rose to prominence and who changed the empire for the better or worse. But there is one individual who stands out for his singular acts of cruelty and his willingness to commit the most heinous crimes for the sake of obtaining the absolute power. His obsession and hunger nearly lead to the premature destruction of the empire. The man in question was Salakaraju Chinna Tirumala.
The tale of Salakaraju Chinna Tirumala or as Father Henry Heras, a renowned historian calls him, Salakam Timma Raju, begins with the ascension of Achyutha Deva Raya on the death of his illustrious brother, Krishna Deva Raya. The empire that Achyutha inherited from was at its apex of glory and power. Yet the cracks had already began to be visible even during the lifetime of Krishnadevaraya. One of the greatest threats that the empire was facing was not external rather it was the rising impudence of its vassals, the Nayakas. Even during Krishnadevaraya’s time, the rebellion of Nagama Nayaka had caused serious threat to the stability of the empire. But Krishnadevaraya had managed to quell the uprising. Recognising the seriousness of the threat that the Nayakas posed, Krishnadevaraya had tried to curb their influence by appointing new men to the post of governor and creating a new class of smaller feudatories called the Palegars. However, Krishnadevaraya died before many of his reforms could be put in place. On ascension, Achyutharaya found the situation far from ideal since he was expected to fill the shoes of his illustrious brother, a rather tall task. The Nayakas who obeyed the orders of Krishnadevaraya unquestioningly no longer showed the same enthusiasm to obey his successor. Worse, Achyutharaya had to contend with the machinations of Ramaraya, Krishnadevaraya’s son-in-law who was not very keen at being passed over for succession. In desperation Achyutha, most probably under the suggestion his wife, Varadambika, turned to his brothers in law for support.
We do not possess a great deal of information about Salakaraju and his family since after his death, efforts were made to erase his name from the history of Vijayanagara as a punishment for his crimes. What is known that he was Varadambika’s brother and had one more brother, named Salakaraju Pedda Tirumala. The two brothers grabbed this opportunity with both hands to elevate their family in the imperial circles. This was also aided by the fact that Achyutharaya like his brother, did not place any trust in his own family. So his younger brother Rangaraya and his nephews were all placed under house arrest in the fort of Chandragiri. It was done to ensure that they could not pose a threat to Achyutha’s rule. The only vassal that Achyutha probably trusted was Chelappa Nayaka who had protected his throne from Rama Raya at the time of his ascension. A grateful emperor had elevated him to the position of a Mahamandaleswara and appointed him as the ruler over the vast areas of Tamil Nadu which was one the most important areas of revenue for the empire.
But this trust was misplaced as Achyutharaya soon discovered when Chelappa Nayaka raised his banner of revolt along with a great many of the Tamil Nayakas. There is some evidence to indicate that the two Salakaraju brothers were responsible for the estrangement and disillusionment of Chellappa. Irrespective of the reasons behind it, Chelappa’s rebellion hit Achyutha hard and he rushed immediately to deal with it before it could pose a threat to the empire. The rebellion was easily crushed by Achyutha Raya in the battle of Tamraparni, in which his brothers in law acted as his chief commanders. But this act of betrayal from one whom he had trusted so highly, pushed Achyutharaya closer to his wife’s family and he elevated Salakaraju Chinna Tirumala to the position of his treasurer.
Achyutha too, like his brother, died prematurely in 1542, leaving his underage son, Venkata and the empire under the care of Salakaraju as the regent. At this juncture, Ramaraya who until now had been sidelined by Achyutha once more tried to involve himself in the affairs of the state. In this, he was supported by the widows of Krishnadevaraya, Chinna Devi and Tirumala Devi who probably wished to create a balance to the growing power of Salakaraju. But Salakaraju, now that he was so close to his lifelong dream was not willing to share power with Ramaraya and his brothers. This led to the empire’s nobles being divided into two factions. Salakaraju stuck first, in an attempt to decapitate the opposition, he sent his forces to capture Ramaraya and his brothers, along with the prominent nobles who supported them. But they had been forewarned so Ramaraya and his brothers fled to Gutti, the centre of their power. There, they raised a banner of revolt. A great many of the prominent nobles of the empire too threw in their lot with Ramaraya. While the rebels revolted against the central authority, they made it clear that they were opposed to Salakaraju and not to the emperor Venkata I.
The two sides were quite evenly matched, and this meant the empire went through a period of cold war. Meanwhile, Salakaraju was slowly accumulating power into his hands and dealing with any opposition quite brutally. His behaviour caused concern in his sister, Varadambika for the safety of her son. So, she entreated the Bijapur Sultan, Ibrahim Adil Shah to come to her aid to secure the throne for her young son. Ibrahim Adil Shah led his army towards Vijayanagara but on the way he was met by Salakaraju’s agents who presented him with immense riches as a price for his retreat. This left Varadambika at the mercy of her power-hungry brother. Salakaraju realising the danger which his sister and her son presented had both of them brutally killed. Ferista claims Salakaraju killed his nephew and sister by strangling them with his own hands. Not satisfied with their deaths, he had the remaining brother Krishnadevaraya, Rangaraya and his nephews killed. The only one to survive was Sadashiva Raya who was imprisoned in Gutti, safe in hands of the rebels.
Salakaraju, with all of his rivals eliminated claimed the throne as his own. Most of the nobles close to the capital supported him however his casual brutality and bloodthirstiness caused many of them soon to begin plotting against him, in an effort to rid the empire of the tyrant. Once again, Salakaraju showing his penchant for violence stuck first capturing many of the prominent nobles and had them blinded. This only made it worse, for the remaining nobles in despair begged the Sultan of Bijapur for aid and even offering the throne of Vijayanagara to him. But Salakaraju having heard this, sent his own messengers offering to acknowledge Bijapur suzerainty and also paying three lakh huns (gold coins) for every days march. The Bijapur Sultanate tempted by this led his army to Vijayanagara where he was met by Salakaraju himself, who led the Sultan to the throne of Vijayanagara. Salakaraju ordered his subjects to acknowledge the Bijapur Sultan as the overlord and announced celebration for over a week. During that period, he massacred the remaining nobles who still opposed him and who were foolish enough to remain in the city. However, as they say, the mood of the people is fickle. Salakaraju assumed that he had won a powerful ally to aid in his rule, but his actions made the all of the great nobles of the empire to band together under the banner of Ramaraya and his brothers.
Ramaraya and his brothers had not been idle as they had used the period to strengthen their forces and recruiting a large army. But they did not wish to fight the combined armies of Salakarju and Bijapur Sultanate together so they sent an embassy to Salakaraju declaring their loyalty towards him and acceptance of him as the ruler but only after he sent the armies of Bijapur away. The brothers also promised to do personal homage to Salakaraju at the capital once the Sultan was back in Bijapur. Salakaraju accepted this readily no doubt planning to imprison the brothers on their arrival to the city. He sent armies of Bijapur away paying fifty lakh huns for their services along with costly gifts for the Sultan. The very moment armies of Bijapur entered their own territory, Ramaraya and his brothers at a head of a massive army marched towards Vijayanagara to avenge the death of the emperor. Salakaraju discovering this ‘treachery’ dispatched the royal army to defeat his enemies. He himself did not accompany them but he had confidence in the abilities of his commanders. The history is contradictory at this point with a few sources, mainly composed during the time of Aravidu dynasty claiming a massive battle while Ferista and Correa state that the royal army deserted to the side of Ramaraya. What is certain that Salakaraju had lost and his enemies closed in on the city. He knew he could not defend the city, not with a great portion of its population opposed to his rule. But Salakaraju’s who only aim in life was to live and die as a king of Vijayanagara was not yet finished.
Even as the armies of Ramaraya entered the city, Salakaraju in a fit of despair, had all the royal elephants and horses blinded depriving his enemies on their use. He then brought forth the precious jewels, the diamonds, rubies, ornaments, everything which had collected through the ages. As his last remaining guards fought to hold the enemy at bay, Salakaraju had the ornaments and the stones crushed to power under heavy milling stones, then scattered them on the ground. Finally, he fixed a sword into a pillar of the palace and ran himself into it just as the palace doors burst open. He had, as he wanted, died as the emperor of Vijayanagara. But his rule had destroyed the decades of prosperity that the empire enjoyed under Krishnadevaraya and Achyutharaya. Salakaraju had gambled for the empire and had lost, but the true loser was Vijayanagara itself for by his actions. The empire’s wealth and military had been serious compromised, and he had also ensured the undisputed ascension of Ramaraya who would lead it towards its fateful end.
However, one thing to note is the behaviour of the Sultan of Bijapur. Who time and again tried to interfere in what was an internal dispute of the empire. His actions were noted by Ramaraya and rest of the great nobles of the empire. It would not be wrong to say that the later actions of Ramaraya, naming interfering in the affairs of the Sultanates and his attempts at keeping them perpetually unbalanced had a lot to do with his efforts at being proactive with respect his northern enemies and to ensure that they did not ever again be in a position to threaten Vijayanagara.