And Then, The Devas Smiled On Madurai

How the Sultanate of Madurai was vanquished by the valorous Kumara Kampana

“The main shrine of the Shrirangam Temple, including the superstructure, has pathetically fallen apart, The only roof which covers the image of Shriranganatha is the hood of Adishesha.”

“The garbhagrihas of many other temples there are also crumbling, their mandapas are now overgrown with jungle leaves; their solemn wooden doors are honeycombed by white ant holes.”

If the sight of the ruins of the ancient temples of India is not disturbing enough for anyone with even a semblance of pride in the culture of this glorious civilization, then reading about how it came to be in such a state is even more jarring. Countless temples of India have suffered this brutal fate, with the only saving grace sometimes, fortunately, or unfortunately, is broken artifacts in the museums. Many temples were not even that fortunate. The only fate left for them is being under the Archaeological Survey of India and that by a long shot, is not something that can be envied.

But some temples were genuinely lucky. Not because they did not face the Islamic invaders, which that they did valiantly. But lucky because they survived, in whatever form, but they did. And then, the Devas smiled on them.

They sent their most esteemed sons of the soil, to the rescue of the temples. As if consoling them that they would be magnificent again, the vigraha would be worshipped again, their pavilions would be filled by devotees again, by the chants of the pious Brahmans again.

The temple of Shriranganatha was one such splendid temple. One of the most revered temples in India, it was often pillaged by the minions of the Delhi Sultanate like Malik Kafur in the early part of the fourteenth century.

Sriranganathaswamy Temple in 1870

Sriranganathaswamy Temple in 1870

After the invasion by the Sultanate under Ulugh Khan (Muhammad bin Tughlaq) in 1323 CE, the devotees were able to save the vigrahas of Vishnu and Lakshmi. Tradition says that many thousands of devotees defended the temple with indomitable courage. The land came under the Delhi Sultanate after this invasion.

The destruction of a temple is never just that but is always accompanied by the destruction of an entire society which depends on that temple. The destruction of livelihoods, of patronage, of an entire cultural environment, which sustained itself through centuries around that temple.

The pillage of Shriranganatha and many other magnificent temples of Madurai like the Meenakshi Temple meant subversion of the entire culture.

The territory was now under the Sultanate. The governor of the territory, the governor of Ma’bar, Jalaluddin Ahsan Khan/ Hasan Khan declared the independence of the Sultanate of Madurai in 1335 CE from the Delhi Sultanate. The country just passed from one marauder to the other.

If it was possible, the Sultanate of Madurai exceeded the Delhi Sultanate in persecuting the local populace, the infidels.

It proved itself to be a true successor of the Delhi Sultanate in every sense of the word. The rulers were almost always assassinated during infighting. Most of them were debauched and many showed cruelty which shocked sometimes even their co-religionists. Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan traveler was an eye witness to some of the inhuman cruelty of one of the Sultans of Madurai, Ghiyasuddin Muhammad Damghani in the 1340s. He gave his account in these words:

The Hindu prisoners were divided into four sections and taken to each of the four gates of the great catcar. There, on the stakes they had carried, the prisoners were impaled. Afterwards, their wives were killed and tied by their hair to these pales. Little children were massacred on the bosoms of their mothers and their corpses left there. Then, the camp was raised, and they started cutting down the trees of another forest. In the same manner, did they treat their later Hindu prisoners. This is shameful conduct such as I have not known any other sovereign guilty of. It is for this that God hastened the death of Ghiyasuddin.

The rule of the traditional kings of Madurai, the Pandyas ended. The traditional rulers who had nurtured this land for centuries were violently ousted. But, who were the Pandyas? A concise background for the readers is needed.

The Pandyas had ruled the southernmost area of Tamilakam since time immemorial. We find them ruling along with the other two traditional rulers; the Cholas and the Cheras even in the earliest Tamil poetry, i.e. the vast corpus of Sangam Literature. Almost all the usual foreign sources of ancient Indian history–the Greek, the Roman, even the Latin mention them. Emperor Ashoka’s edicts also refer to the Pandyas. The history of this kingdom goes back to at least the fourth century BC. The ancient city of Madurai is almost as old as the kingdom of the Pandyas.

After an interregnum of a few centuries, when the territory passed into the hands of the Kalabhras, the Pandyas under Kadungon revived the Pandya power by the end of the sixth century CE. The rise of the Cholas in the tenth century CE again sent them into the sixth decline but they were once again able to revive the Pandya dynasty by the end of the thirteenth century CE.

This very ancient and sacred territory was now under Islamic raiders. But fortunately, not for long. Kumara Kampana Udaiyar, prince of the Vijayanagar Empire, second son of King, Bukka I who ruled the Empire for almost twenty years, was the one chosen by the Devas.

The overthrow of the Sultanate of Madurai is very underrated, but an extremely important event in the history of India. This sole event saved the southern part of Indian civilization from going under the deep slumber of foreign Islamic rule, unlike the less fortunate northern India.

For this very reason Kumara Kampana in particular and Vijaynagar in general needs to be given more credit, more weightage in the annals of Indian history.

Unfortunately, the details of this campaign “are not forthcoming, but an epic version of it is to be found in the exquisite Sanskrit poem Madhura Vijayam (‘The Conquest of Madura’) by Kampana’s wife Ganga Devi.” The poem narrates the birth of Kampana and covers the events of his youth in embellished words.

The poem narrates how the Empire of Vijaynagar received the news of Kampana’s birth:

“The prince was born on an auspicious day at the time astrologers had determined was most auspicious, and happiness spread all over the kingdom because everyone felt sure that the child would grow up to become a famous king able to be a great guardian of the earth, a protector of Brahmin sacrifices and a generous giver of gifts.”

Bukka I was so happy with the news that he wanted “to give away everything he owned, even himself to the messengers who came with such a joyous announcement. By royal command, the prisoners were unlocked and the inmates were freed.”

“Ganga Devi says that Bukka let the prisoners loose as if anticipating the need that would soon arise for new space to hold the many Muslim prisoners who would be captured during the forays in the times to come.”

According to the poem, Kampana with age goes on to become a fine prince of exceeding valor, and one day, he goes to fight the country of Champa, seizes their hill fortress and the brave heart is able to overcome their army, thus winning the war. He begins ruling very wisely and is savoring the fruits of his labor by enjoying the culture, poetry, etc.

This calm is interrupted by a “figure with the magic sword from the Pandyan dynasty” whose lament of the condition of the southern lands and their misfortune at the hands of the mlecchas (Turushka/Islamic rulers) compels Kumara Kampana to come out to re-establish the rule of Dharma.

The poem has evocatively depicted the woeful desolation in southern lands under the mlecchas. It is poignantly very metaphoric and sometimes feels very literal. Readers can see for themselves in these excerpts how this mystical lady describes the condition of the sacred land:

“O Raja, Vyaghrapuri has reverted to its namesake. Yes, now it is literally a ‘town’ where ‘tigers’ roam. And Chidambaram, and Perumparrapuliya! The whole region is truly becoming a wilderness again. Long ago people civilized that land, but wild beasts run free again there now.”

“In temples where the joyous drumbeat rhythms of the mridangam drums echoed resonantly, now there is just the desolate sickening howl of the scavenging jackals who have moved in and taken over the dilapidated buildings.”

“Even in the agraharas, where smoke used to rise from their Vedic rites (yagadhuma), now people gag from the stench of the Muslim fires roasting flesh; solemn Vedic chants have been replaced by the foreign invaders’ gruff voices.”

“The Tamraparni river, which used to run bright with sandalwood paste rinsed from the breasts of young women bathing there, now flows red with cow blood as the invaders slaughter herds of cattle.”

The mysterious woman then draws a brilliant sword from her belt and says that the sword is the one whose blade was forged by Vishwakarma himself by gathering particles from all gods. The sword was given to Parameshwara to conquer the daityas.

Then, the Parameshwara gave this sword as a boon to one Pandya king after a long Tapasya, and since then the sword has been in the possession of the venerable Pandyas. But with time, the Pandya kingdom came under some weaklings. Sage Agastya saw everything and gave the sword to her, to give the same to Kampana.

“Just as Krishna went to Mathura and killed wicked Kamsa long ago, so too, O King, must you now go to the southern town of Madurai, and kill the Muslim ruler, the enemy of the world and set up victory pillars along the bridge of Ram (in the water by Rameshwaram).”

The king in the poem then goes on to have a duel with the Sultan and beheads him but the Sultan’s headless body is able to strike Kampana before dying. “The intention of the poem is a celebration of the kings’ greatness, through lyrical bursts of poetic images.”

The story of the magical and powerful sword given by a Goddess to Kampana to cleanse the adharmic forces from this sacred land is very powerful. The importance of the sword can be gauged from the fact that it was a part of the emblem of the Vijayanagar Empire along with the boar (Varaha), sun, and moon.

Emblem of the Vijaynagar Empire

Emblem of the Vijaynagar Empire

“The sword and the boar emblem impressed its meaning: power and rescue, the strength of protection, fighting non-phantom occupiers of a traditionally Hindu India.” It is also similar to the famous story of how “Bhavani gives a blessed sword to Shivaji.”

This was the poetic depiction of how Madurai was freed. Historically, Kampana from the very start of the rule of Bukka I had been ruling the southern part of the Empire as his viceroy. He was “ably assisted in this work by such famous generals as Gopana and Saluva Mangu.”

This was the poetic depiction of how Madurai was freed. Historically, Kampana from the very start of the rule of Bukka I had been ruling the southern part of the Empire as his viceroy. He was “ably assisted in this work by such famous generals as Gopana and Saluva Mangu.”

“The Pandyas’ failure to recover Madurai is the historic justification for Kampana’s campaign against the Madura Sultan which history places in the years from 1365 to 1370.”

The south was now freed from the mlecchas by this able prince of the Vijaynagar Empire. The Shriranganatha Temple could again be its splendid self. “The image of the Ranganatha, which had been carried away from Srirangam for safety during the time of the Muslim inroads, was restored to its original place in 1371.” Doors of the sacred Meenakshi Temple were also reopened.

Unfortunately, Kampana died a few years later in 1374. Although Vijayanagar certainly did not have any dearth of strong rulers, one wonders, what could have been the course of history if he was alive.

Nonetheless, his legacy was carried forward by Harihara II whose long rule of 27 years “consolidated the supremacy of Vijayanagar all over southern India.” The pinnacle of the glory of the Vijayanagar Empire was reached under the reign of the illustrious Krishnadeva Raya.

I hope this history of a successful retaliation, of Hindu dominance, of sheer strength and valor shown by the prince and viceroy of the Vijaynagar Empire, becomes a known fact, worthy of celebration.

References and Quoted Excerpts

1.Vijaynagara Voices: Exploring South Indian History and Hindu Literature by
William J.Jackson.
2. A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijaynagar by
K.A. Nilkantha Sastri.
3. South India and Her Mohammadan Invaders by S.K. Aiyangar

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