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Purnaiah and Talleyrand

Two statesmen and survivors lived curiously similar lives around the same time and in far sides of the world.

In high school, we learnt of the attempts at collaboration between Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Mysore’s Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Both powers were implacable enemies of an expansionist British empire near the end of the 18th century, and tried to coordinate their efforts against the British in different parts of the world. Napolean tried to conquer Egypt and capture the Suez, in part because he wanted access to the Red Sea and India.

Many British individuals ended up playing significant roles in both theatres of conflict, including a young Arthur Wellesley, who participated in the final siege of Srirangapatna. Wellesley became a governor of Mysore and won a decisive victory against the Marathas at Assaye, before being spotted back home and pulled to the campaign in Europe against Napoleon. His military successes eventually led him to become the first Duke of Wellington.

Tipu, Hyder Ali and Napoleon were strong personalities in their own way, and some comparisons have been drawn between them both back then and later on. The novelist Walter Scott (of Ivanhoe fame) allegedly* had this to say, at the abdication of Napoleon in 1814:

Although I never supposed that [Napoleon] possessed, allowing for some difference of education, the liberality of conduct and political views which were sometimes exhibited by old Hyder Ally, yet I did think he might have shown the same resolved and dogged spirit of resolution which induced Tippoo Sahib to die manfully upon the breach of his capital city with his sabre clenched in his hand. [Wikipedia*]

However, the most astonishing duo were not the heads of state, but the Mysorean and French ministers Purnaiah and Talleyrand.

Talleyrand and Purnaiah

Krishnamacharya Purnaiah (also spelled Purnaiya) started managing the finances of Mysore under Hyder Ali, slowly moving to manage much of the state’s administration as well. Helping manage an easy transfer of power to Tipu upon the death of Hyder Ali, Purnaiah continued to be a close confidante and aide to Tipu Sultan. After the defeat of Tipu, he continued on under the British and was then appointed Dewan as the British allowed the Wodeyar family back into power in the early 19th century.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was a French politician and diplomat, who grew up and trained as a clergyman during the last years of the Ancien Régime. Early in his diplomatic career, Talleyrand was unsuccessfully sent to Britain to prevent war. This was just a year before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads in the French revolution. Though he had to seek exile during the tumultuous early years of the French revolution, he managed to make it back and become the Foreign Minister. In this time he also started working alongside Napoleon Bonaparte and continued as foreign minister under him.

Talleyrand had a significant role to play in improving peace at stability through treaties between Napoleonic France and other European powers – complementing the emperor’s conquering zeal. Like Purnaiah, Talleyrand made it back again as the foreign minister when Louis XVIII was restored to power after Napoleon.

Purnaiah had an uncanny ability to be found indispensable, no matter who was ruling Mysore. A realist and a statesman in his own right, he managed to continually save his own fortunes as well as promote the public interest. As Vikram Sampath notes,

After Tipu was vanquished, when the British forces traced [Purnaiah] and compelled him to surrender he supposedly declared ‘How can I hesitate to surrender to a nation who is the protector of my tribe from Kashi to Rameshwaram?’ Of course the alternate view point has been that it was Tipu himself who urged his Prime Minister to flee and serve the next ruler of the Kingdom. [Statesman and a survivor, Deccan Herald, 2011]

The case was not very different with Talleyrand. Both Purnaiah and Talleyrand had conflicted relationships with their longest patrons – Tipu and Napoleon respectively. Both fell out of favour at times, and acted on their own interests when they had to, but remained important and impossible to ignore or completely sideline.

Here’s to two statesmen and survivors, from far sides of the world. Purnaiah and Talleyrand.

PS. I first heard of Talleyrand through a quote of his. “The one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is sit on it.”

Photo: Crops of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), Metropolitan Museum of Art & Purnaiya, Chief Minister of MysorYale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

*I say allegedly because I can find this on Wikipedia but am unable to find the original source.

Update, November 17: froginthewell shares the link for the original Walter Scott quote. It’s from “Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. Walter Scott to Robert Southey, 17 Jun 1814” on Page 119. My thanks for the same.

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Warfare in ancient India and high school football

I’ve spent the last week reading KA Nilakanta Sastri’s magnum opus, the History of South India, that spans from prehistory to the fall of the Vijayanagar empire. Among the many insights and curious facts that the book reveals, it throws some light on military prowess of kingdoms and empires over the ages.

By the 13th century, warfare in South India was internally competitive but had lost the edge to armies from the north of the Vindhyas. This was certainly not the case earlier – notable examples of southern victories include the Chalukya Pulakeshi II defeating Harshavardhana of Kannauj in the 7th century and Chola Rajendra I conquering up to the Ganges in the 11th century. Southern armies were no longer competitive after the formation of the Delhi sultanate.

The Khilji and Tughlak sultanates from Delhi began making inroads south of the Vindhyas starting in the latter half of the 13th century. One finds that the southern kingdoms did not offer a whole lot of resistance immediately. Allaudin Khilji’s famous slave general, Malik Kafur raided deep into the Deccan and Tamil heartlands, and they are referred to repeatedly as daring. they caught almost everyone off-guard. For example, kings like the Hoysala Veera Ballala III appear to have capitulated almost immediately, instead of putting up a fight. Ballala was busy trying to sort out affairs in Tamil country while Kafur came marching up to his capital Dwarasamudra (present day Halebeedu near Hassan, Karnataka). On full reading, it appears that extended supply lines, the limited objectives of the initial incursions and an increasingly hostile Hindu populace were the major reasons why Kafur and his successors did not fare better. Nothing that can be pinned to a competitive armed force.

This reminded me a little of the way a few of us played football (soccer) while in high school and later. A few of us friends played regularly with each other on a basketball court and the games were fun and competitive, and continued that way for years. But if we had to play with other groups, or play on a full-size football field, the game suffered immensely. While we were enjoying the sport within our little group, we were not even remotely competitive against anyone good outsiders.

Warfare in south India appears to have become equally stultified – there were known kingdoms, empires and fiefdoms spread across the land whose relative power varied with time. But by and large there was a code of the conduct for warfare. For one thing, temples were rarely destroyed. They were deprived of their wealth at best, and the priestly class were rarely harmed. For another, governance and civilian life continued without too much change. Caste groups, village leaders and corporate guilds provided much of the governance (iniquitous as it might have been) – from dispute resolution and policing to developmental works like irrigation and road building. The entry of new forces changed this status quo irrevocably.

Even if you were to discount the earlier example of Malik Kafur as having the advantage of surprise, the story remains the same even a century later. While Harihara and Bukka Raya of Vijayanagara were rapidly consolidating their hold on regions south of the Krishna river in the 14th century, they barely met with any success in military engagements with the rival Bahmani sultanate. If anything, only the incessant in-fighting and intrigue between various ruling muslim factions in the Deccan appears to have blunted the impact of their victories against Vijayanagara. It is only by the time of Krishnadeva Raya in the early 16th century that Vijayanagara starts winning large scale victories on the Northern border of their empire that were not quickly reversed.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Krishnadeva Raya managed to achieve this only by creating a more martial state, fostering a competitive military culture with games and contests of physical feats, as well as a modernisation of the army with gunpowder technology and horses via the Portuguese, and other sweeping changes.

North Indian powers were equally blind to events outside the subcontinent, as noted by historian KM Panikkar in a speech in 1961, ‘Before the enemies reach Panipat‘. They probably paid for it a lot more. South Indian states paid for this blindness to people outside the basketball court less frequently, but this deserves no excuse. Perhaps a key failure was in not looking for military technology through oceanic trade routes and restricting trade largely to luxury items and commodities. The only major defence import via the seas was the horse – and it is quite telling that south Indian armies never developed the ability to care for horses well, with many of them dying regularly of disease. Not even the Vijayanagara empire managed to change that. For Arab and Persian traders, south India remained a happy export destination for horses, with an ever-present demand.

Religious taboos on sea voyages likely resulted in a complete lack of parity in trading ability, and it is little wonder that maritime powers from Europe conquered India from the south. With the exception of the Cholas, Indian powers never had a blue water navy. One can only imagine the possibilities if an Indian power had developed a blue water navy after the invention of gunpowder.

Though India sort of has a blue water navy in the 21st century, we should really be asking ourselves – have we really left the basketball court?

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