• Anirudh Kanisetti

War, Aristocratic Culture, and a Brave Dog from Medieval South India

Welcome to medieval India.

The story of Kali, the brave dog, begins somewhat unexpectedly: with a pair of palace coups.

Vector portrait of the Rashtrakuta emperor Krisha III, by Arjunan Ullas based on art by Keshav Rajendran
Portrait of the Rashtrakuta emperor Krisha III, by Arjunan Ullas based on art by Keshav Rajendran

The first involves Krishna III, the last of the great and terrible Rashtrakuta warlords of the Deccan. He was a Rashtrakuta princeling, cousin of the ruling emperor Govinda IV, who had himself come to a throne after a coup. Govinda IV, like many other Rashtrakutas, was heavily involved in the politics of Vengi, the fertile little kingdom between the Krishna and Godavari rivers in coastal Andhra. Krishna (the future emperor, not the river) engineered Govinda IV's overthrowal by colluding with the powerful vassal lords of the Deccan early in the 10th century. Interestingly, in his inscriptions, Krishna leaves us some hint of what he looked like in person: he was a powerfully-built young man with lustrous dark skin, a self-declared master of politics.

Vector portrait of the Ganga king Butuga II, by Arjunan Ullas based on art by Keshav Rajendran
Portrait of the Ganga king Butuga II, by Arjunan Ullas based on art by Keshav Rajendran

Once he came to the throne, keeping his vassals satiated with blood and loot would become an overwhelming priority for Krishna III. He constantly sought to expand his wealth and power through campaigns into the Tamil country, Central India, and Malwa. This brings us to the second palace coup involved in the story of Kali. Krishna III's brother-in-law, who, according to his inscriptions, was a "pure tree", was called Butuga. Butuga was a Ganga - a royal family that ruled over Gangavadi, corresponding roughly to modern Bangalore-Kolar. Krishna had Butuga's elder brother Rachamalla, "a poisonous tree", murdered and set him up as king instead.

The Ganga territories gave Krishna and his Deccan vassals easy access to the Kaveri river valley and its wealth. At the Battle of Takkolam in 949 CE, the Chola crown prince Rajaditya was killed by the invading Kannaras. One account claims his elephant's head was split by arrows. Another claims Butuga "treacherously stabbed him with a dagger". (See Epigraphia Indica VI for the inscriptions).

Butuga's companion at the Battle of Takkolam was a brave knight called Manalera, "a marvel among those who pierce, who cuts off noses when he is angry". "Make thy request!" said Butuga. "Be gracious enough to give me thy favourite hound Kali, the ostentatious barker," said Manalera.

"Sure, bro," said Butuga (or the medieval equivalent - inscriptions do not enlighten us about the matter).

The Dog Culture of the Medieval Deccan

Medieval Deccan courts saw the rearing and import of hounds, and their use in the hunt, as a marker of sophistication. It was a sign of being wealthy enough to live the good life.

The Manasollasa, a courtly text composed about 200 years later in the court of the Kalyana Chalukya emperor Someshvara III, is aware of breeds from "Trigarta, Dugdhavata, Karnata, Andhra.. Vidarbha, Talanira, and the banks of the Tapi". Some Adivasi tribes raised them for export to settled courts. It mentions small dogs, huge dogs, slim dogs, and describes colours from dark blue to pale red, with stripes and spots. Medieval courts had stables of hounds, and were well aware of the nuances of canine anatomy and care. Their dogs are the ancestors of the hardy, climactically-adapted street dogs we still see today, their distinguishing features long since lost over generations, while Indian elites have long since turned to Western breeds such as golden retrievers and huskies.

What did medieval Indian nobles do with their dogs? Hunt for sport, of course! These are working dogs, not leisurely companions. The Manasollasa describes aristocrats taking bets on whose bitch would capture rabbits first, and says that "several mighty dogs" should be let loose on boars.

"When the hog in defense resists the attack by stopping them in [a] huff with its hair raised erect, with its entire body contracted, dropping balls of froth from [its] mouth, protesting in shouts of deep and indistinct gurgling sounds, all the more fearsome due to tightly locked fangs, the king should kill it with sharp arrows of the kind of tomara (lance), bhalla (arrow with crooked head), and naracha (iron arrow). - Mānasollāsa IV-11, verses 1325, 1326.

The Atukur hero-stone (viragal) of Kali the dog, now in the Bangalore Museum
The Atukur hero-stone (viragal) of Kali the dog, now in the Bangalore Museum, Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was in one such hunt that poor Kali met his end. Manalera set him on a "mighty boar on the hill in the western quarter of the village of Belatur of the Kelale district". The two animals fought each other to the death. A heartbroken Manalera set up a hero-stone or viragal to Kali at Atukur, in front of the temple of the god Challeśvara. This hero-stone, like its contemporaries, was meant to be worshipped out of respect for the bravery of the dead. Surprising as it may seem, it was not the only hero-stone erected by medieval Deccanis for their canine companions.

But how did Manalera really feel about the death of his hound?

Did he ask for Kali as a gift simply because the dog was the most prestigious one that Butuga owned, thus reflecting well on his own sophistication as a leisurely aristocratic hunter? Or did he genuinely love him dearly, if differently from the parent-child relationship we have with pets today?

What we do know is: he made a land-grant to ensure that Kali's hero stone would be worshipped, and threatened anyone - even the priest in charge of the grant and the hero-stone - with dire consequences if it was violated. And what were these consequences? They would supposedly "incur the guilt of the sin committed by that hound". Even in death, medieval Indian dogs were still 'impure'. How complicated and ever-changing our relationships with our canine companions are.

Canine and Consequence

As important as Kali's life was, it's all the more interesting that this dog was so close to the machinations of power that so profoundly shaped South India.

Krishna III's campaigns were a way of keeping his vassals happy by allowing them to run rampant in conquered territory: in Tamilakam, for example, Krishna actually distributed land among the Deccani lords in order to keep them in line. He even claims to have set up two temples at Rameshvaram, giving the gods his own names: Krishneshvara and Gandamartandadityeshvara. The latter is a reference to his splendid royal title, Ganda-martanda-aditya, Sun Among Sun-Like Warriors. He even did something similar in Malwa - the furthest North a Kannada inscription has ever been found is a land-grant made by one of Krishna's officers after a campaign there. This might hint at a serious attempt at using vassal Kannada-speaking lords for territorial expansion and integration outside of the Rashtrakuta's usual core, which would be quite a novelty, though further study is needed.

Map of Southern India in 949 CE, showing the Rashtrakuta empire and the Chola and Ganga kingdoms in the 10th century CE.
The Tamilakam campaign of Rashtrakuta Krishna III, leading to the Battle of Takkolam, c. 949. Map by Arjunan Ullas.

However, the death of Krishna would end any such projects as the fatal results of his expansion returned to haunt the Rashtrakutas. Mere years after his death, the ruler of Malwa, Siyaka Paramara, would sack the Rashtrakuta capital of Manyakheta, leading to the collapse of the dynasty's power. More importantly, the death of the Chola crown prince Rajaditya, a result of Krishna's invasion of Tamilakam - the event which led to Kali being gifted to Manalera - changed the Chola dynasty's line of succession. This would lead to the accession of an unlikely candidate in 985: the man whom history, and the Deccan especially, would forever remember as Rajaraja Chola. Over the next few decades, Rajaraja and his descendants would be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Deccanis and the burning of a number of Deccan cities. On such a grand and tragic canvas, the life of a dog might seem like a small thing indeed, but it allows us such a tantalising glimpse of the rich, intensely personal emotional worlds of all these protagonists.

You are free to reuse material from this page non-commercially as long as you credit me (Anirudh Kanisetti, for the written content) and Arjunan Ullas (for the visuals).

This post originally appeared on my Instagram page - follow me for more on India's history, art, and interactions with the world. Thoughts or ideas about what I should write about? Use the "Contact" button above.

  • facebook
  • twitter
  • linkedin