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The Nayakkars make their way...

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Madurai Nayak dynasty was founded in 1529 and the Tanjore Nayak dynasty was founded three years later

 

  • The Vijayanagar Empire, the last Hindu Empire in India, was founded in 1336 AD

 

Vira Parakrama Narendrasinghe ascended the throne in Kandy in 1707. His father, Vimala Dharma Suriya II, had been quite unlike his namesake under whom much of Kandy had been built in the 17th century. In the 17th and 18th century, the role of the king underwent a subtle if not altogether significant transformation, in the form of a transition of power to ministers, and with Vimala Dharma Suriya II that transformation reached its apex: William Hubbard, an English prisoner in the Kandyan Court, wrote that two of these nobles, Yalegoda Rala, Disave of Matale, and Edanduvave Rala, Disave of the Three and Four Korales, had usurped power and were in control. It was only to be expected that reduced to a mere ceremonial figurehead, the king should give way to a more assertive successor.  


Culturally, socially, and politically, the administration of the Kandyan Court became very complex during this period. It was, as historians and writers like Gananath Obeyesekere have pointed out, a highly cosmopolitan city that imbibed every foreign influence that came its way even if throughout its history it was cut off from trade with the world outside. Accounts made of the first Vimala Dharma Suriya drinking wine from gold cups and of Spanish chairs and tables arranged in a “Christian manner” in the Court, by envoys and later the Oratorians, indicate that broad changes were unravelling in the kingdom. In Rajasinghe II’s time we see a congregation of Hollanders, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Danes; the king’s hobby, of keeping a menagerie of foreign ambassadors, added to an already multifaceted monarchy.  


We see a change after the arrival of the Nayakkars. Their arrival began with Rajasinghe II reviving the practice of securing brides from Madurai, the centre of Nayakkar power in the Vijayanagar Empire. According to the Culavamsa and Robert Knox, it was Rajasinghe II who revived this practice, though the Dutch Governor, Jan Schreuder, contended that it was Narendrasinghe who first intermarried that way. In any case, we know that Rajasinghe had two brides and one of them bore Vimala Dharma Suriya II. We also know what was expected of these South Indian brides when they arrived and were assimilated to Kandyan society. To understand it more clearly, however, it is necessary to understand the state the Nayakkars and the Vijayanagar Empire had reached at the time of the first intermarriages.  


The Vijayanagar Empire, the last Hindu Empire in India, was founded in 1336 AD. It was founded at a time when peninsular India had become socially and culturally very diverse. Never in the history of India was there ever a single Empire, and by the late 14th century its inhabitants were, as the anthropologist Carla Sinopoli has observed, “grouped into multiple polities of varying scale and complexity.” Their conception of empire was very different to its conception in the West, and their response to outsiders unpredictable. In the case of the Vijayanagar Empire, their biggest challenge was the Deccan Sultanates to the North, which were all Muslim dynasties; a combination of these Sultanates defeated it 310 years after its founding, in 1646. By that time, it had become a cosmopolitan kingdom split into states which had become or were becoming semi-independent polities.  


The Nayaks, who formed several of these semi-autonomous polities, were a group of military governors and mercenaries who had emigrated to the Vijayanagar Empire when it spread to the South in India. There was an influx of settlers from Telugu and Kannada regions to Tamil speaking areas. The Vijayanagar rulers, known as Rayas, rewarded many of them with estates known as palaiyam. The generals among them were designated by the title Nayak. Later on the name was extended to everyone who came under their dominion: the 1891 Census Report of India identified 28 sub-castes falling under the naikkan group. The dominating caste was sudra, not Brahmin; this was true of the Vijayanagar Kings as well. The power of the Empire was so widespread and far reaching, moreover, that by 1500 it had one of the most populous urban populations in the world. The Nayak polities couldn’t have escaped its influence.  
The Madurai Nayak dynasty was founded in 1529 and the Tanjore Nayak dynasty was founded three years later. Both of them challenged, defeated, and then broke away from the Vijayanagar rulers. In the late 16th century, when they were consolidating their power, we come across accounts by Francis Xavier bemoaning the plunder of parava Catholic converts by a group he refers to as badagas. Badaga was a corruption of vaduga, a term which was indiscriminately applied to all Telugu-speaking inhabitants of South India.


These bandit-like adventurers, who were constantly after Catholic converts, were according to Lorna Dewaraja the Nayaks first contacted by the Kandyan Kings; their links with the Court began in this period, specifically in the reign of Vimala Dharma Suriya I, who obtained their help from Tanjore and Madurai for his wars against the Portuguese. His successor Senarat continued to obtain their help, while Senarat’s successor Rajasinghe II revived the practice, dating back to the time of Vijaya, of establishing matrimonial links with them.  
Six years after the Dutch consolidated their control over the country, Rajasinghe II faced a serious uprising against him by several court ministers led by Ambanwela Rala and a group of monks: the latter were executed, the former was sent to the Dutch to be executed. R. A. L. H. Gunawardana in his monumental essay The People of the Lion argues that the opposition to the Nayakkars later on was less a manifestation of racial prejudice than a continuation of these uprisings, which at the time of Narendrasinghe had become widespread.  
On no account can we take these uprisings to be a sign of discontent among the people, since they were led by a small group of disgruntled noblemen. However, their effect was to be seen in the king’s decision to curtail the power of the noblemen by pitting rival adigars or nilames against each other (which, ironically, contributed to the dissolution of the kingdom later) and by marrying Madurai princesses. The latter, for their part, abandoned their faith and ethnicity and embraced those of their new residence: some of them even became accomplished poets, well versed in Sinhala as well as in Tamil and Telugu.  


Age old though the practice would have been, however, the motive for reviving links with Madurai was different to what it had been at the time of Vijaya. By the time of Rajasinghe II’s and Vimala Dharma Suriya II’s reign, as we have seen, the power of the court ministers had greatly expanded. At the top were the govikula sub-castes, of which the foremost was the radala aristocracy. It was from this aristocracy that the ministers were chosen. We are told that Narendrasinghe was extraordinarily unlike his father in the way he handled them: despite what the Culavamsa says of him (that he was pious), we have it from Francois Valentyn and C. J. Simons that his temper was very “directly opposite to that of his father.” The Culavamsa moreover tells us that Narendrasinghe married princesses from Madurai; a document written between 1798 and 1803 explains the ancestry of the princess who became his queen.  
The story, according to this document, goes that the deputation sent by Narendrasinghe was not that well received by the Nayak ruler, Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha Nayaka; he is reported to have ostracised the Sinhala king for having dared to try and fetch a woman from his own kingdom, and then to have warned his relatives not to give any of their females away to the deputation. Eventually, a poor Hindu family is said to have given up their daughter in return for several valuable gifts, and later to have embarked aboard a thoni to Sri Lanka where the nuptials were contracted. While this source has since been disputed (not least by Dewaraja), it follows a similar account of an earlier mission sent by Narendrasinghe’s father.  
The Culavamsa is emphatic on the point that the princesses and their relatives, who were (to the astonishment and anger of Buddhist priests and aristocrats) settled in an area reserved for them (Malabar Street) from which monks were excluded, “gave up their false faith... and adopted in the best manner possible the true faith that confers immortality.” But this did not, until the end, allay the grievances of the monks and radalas; as the Culavamsa itself indicts their religion as false (recalling the Mahavamsa’s denigration of Elara on similar lines), we can argue that, on the contrary, these unaddressed grievances compelled the Nayakkars, who ascended the throne after Narendrasinghe’s death in an act of succession (to his brother-in-law) that had no precedent in the country’s history, to appear more Buddhist than the nobles. This process of religious and ethnic assimilation could not survive the doubts of the nobles, however; that became their biggest tragedy, and ultimately, their undoing.  


Acknowledgment: The writings of Lorna Dewaraja, R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, Kamalika Pieris, A. H. Mirando, and Carla Sinopoli were used for this article.

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