Rajaraja-Narendra and the Andhra Mahabharatamu
How mental health, a cosmopolitan South Indian elite, and family violence came together to create a new literary tradition
The blossoming of one of South India's most prolific literary traditions owes a great deal to the entangled networks of family, politics and poetry in the 11th century.
Rajaraja-Narendra was the Chalukya ruler of Vengi, the fertile alluvial lands between the Krishna and Godavari rivers in modern Andhra Pradesh. By the 11th CE, the lords of the Deccan had been intervening in the affairs of the Chalukyas of Vengi for almost 200 years - intermarrying with them, encouraging civil war, and watering the lush coast with the blood of brothers, fathers and sons.
In the late 10th CE, the rise of the imperial Cholas in Tamilakam added another actor to the politics of Vengi. Narendra himself was the son and grandson of Chola princesses, and had to draw on Chola support to defeat multiple bloody attempts by his ambitious half-brother Vijayaditya VII to unseat him. Vengi became one of two contested riverine regions between the mighty Kalyana Chalukyas of the Deccan and the Cholas of Tamilakam, the other being the Raichur doab.
After the death of the Chola emperor Rajadhiraja at the Battle of Koppam in 1054, Narendra became no more than a titular lord, the vassal of the Kalyana Chalukya emperor Someshvara I. He had little company in his sorrowful retirement: his son Rajendra seems to have preferred to live with his maternal uncles, the Cholas (this remarkable man would eventually take advantage of the chaos of the late 11th century to declare himself Kulottunga I Chola, but that is a story for another day). In this old age, ravaged by the trauma of his family history, Narendra turned to literature as a consolation.
Up to the 9th CE, most courtly literature in South India had been composed in Sanskrit. But by Narendra's time, South Indian elites had grown more interested in vernacular language texts that appealed to a deeper and more diverse political economy. Poets and kings began to create new, standardised versions of hitherto-diverse regional dialects conforming to Sanskrit aesthetics and grammar. This had been particularly successful in the Deccan: in the late 9th CE, the Rashtrakua emperor Amoghavarsha composing the Kavirajamargam, a manual of Kannada poetics based on the Sanskrit Kavyadarsha of the 8th century Pallava court-poet Dandin, inaugurating a flourishing tradition of Kannada court poetry, such as the Vikramarjunavijayam of Pampa. (Pampa was, incidentally, a Jain from the Telugu country). Poets such as Pampa were members of a highly-paid, highly-mobile, highly-skilled literary-political elite, whom kings competed to retain for the prestige they brought and the effective propaganda they could compose.
Narendra decided, for the first time, to undertake this process of creating a standardised, aestheticised courtly register of Telugu.
He reached out to Nannayya – a Brahmin from Tamilakam, possibly a Chola or Kalyana Chalukya officer - and said:
“My lineage begins with the moon... The stories of the Pandavas, virtuous and beyond blame... are ever close to my heart. Please compose in Telugu a book that makes clear… the proven meaning bound to the Mahabharata text.”
Perhaps this was Narendra's way of making himself feel relevant and powerful: his failures as a king redeemed by his success as a patron of literature. Perhaps situating the horrors that he went through in the language of his childhood, telling the story of his ancestors (he may certainly have thought of the Pandavas and Kauravas as such, ridiculous as it may seem) through the Mahabharata, helped him heal from his broken youth.
And so mental health, older literary experiments, a cosmopolitan courtly elite, and tragic violence all came together.
Courtly Telugu began to blossom.
This blog first appeared on my Instagram handle, @aniryuddha.
Artwork by Anusha Vikram (@loud_whisper_ on Instagram), a very talented art history student and friend of mine, who did some excellent research on how Narendra and his world may have looked using contemporary sculpture and inscriptions. In her illustration, Narendra's crown is adorned with letters from the Telugu alphabet at the time. The elegant curved symbols are likely developed from an older tradition of writing on palm leaves.
Map by my friend and fellow history nerd Arjunan Ullas (@geopoliticsdude on Instagram), check out his handle for some really cool, well-researched content on Indian history (especially about Kerala and the princely states).
I will continue The Story of Telugu next week with the history of the Kakatiyas. Until then, you might want to check out my YUDDHA podcast for more on the Chalukya-Chola wars and the story of the Kakatiya king Prataparudra.
Yazdani, Ghulam. The Early History of the Deccan. Vol. I. London; New York: Published under the authority of the Government of Andhra Pradesh by the Oxford University Press, 1960 [ie 1961].
Velcheru, Narayana Rao, and Shulman, David. Classical Telugu Poetry: An Anthology. Berkely and London: University of California Press, 2002.
Ali, Daud. Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Cox, Whitney. Politics, Kingship, and Poetry in Medieval South India (p. 109). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Narasimhacharya, R. History of Kannada Literature. Madras: Asian Educational Services, 1988.
Pollock, Sheldon. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India. University of California Press, 2006.