Five days before I boarded an overnight train to Victory City, the Coromandel Express rammed into a stationary goods train at the speed of eighty miles per hour. The impact of the collision sent the express train careening onto an adjacent track, where a third train, traveling in the opposite direction, crashed into some of its coaches. Nearly three hundred people had been reported dead. Signboards at the Bengaluru railway station flashed appeals for help identifying the dead and the missing, many of whom were migrant workers crammed into unreserved coaches. But my own train was on time. I slept well. Before I knew it, it was morning, and I was in an auto-rickshaw, zipping by banana fields.
My destination was Hampi, one of India’s most stunning archaeological sites, the seat of a fabulously wealthy empire between 1336 and 1565 CE. At the peak of its power and influence, Hampi, then known as Vijayanagara (“Victory City”), was one of the major cities of the world, said to be as large as Rome and just as beautiful, a walled citadel of gardens, temples and palaces. Today, it is a city of ruins, sacked and pillaged in 1565 by an alliance of Muslim principalities, and abandoned for centuries. But the battles of late medieval times have had a long, poisonous afterlife in this part of the world, and there is something ominous about Vijayanagara’s desolate beauty. Phantasmagoric memories of a once-glorious Hindu civilization supposedly smashed by the sword of Islam continue to haunt modern India, sowing deep and bitter divisions.
According to the last complete census of India, an estimated 966,257,353 Hindus lived in the country, packed closely with 172,245,158 Muslims, 27,819,588 Christians and 20,833,116 Sikhs. (Its neighbor Pakistan has a population of about 242 million, of whom the majority are Muslims, with tiny Hindu and Christian minorities.) India and Pakistan have more than a hundred nuclear warheads each; Pakistanis like to name cruise missiles after the Islamic founder of the Mughal dynasty, Indians after the Hindu god of fire. The day I arrived in Hampi, there were interreligious riots in the nearby state of Maharashtra, triggered by social media posts that seemed to celebrate the seventeenth-century Muslim emperor Aurangzeb. As I write this, there are sectarian riots ongoing in the northeastern state of Manipur as well as in the outskirts of the capital city of New Delhi; the seven killed fifty miles away from Delhi include two Home Guard personnel and the imam of a local mosque. A deranged constable just shot four people on a train headed toward Mumbai: a Hindu colleague and three unarmed Muslim men. In an unverified but widely circulated video, the constable can be seen standing over the bodies and calmly declaring his support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
My journey to Victory City was partly a morbid exercise in cultural exhumation provoked by Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, which narrates the rise and fall of the Vijayanagara empire as a fable about the fragility of tolerance in a world naturally prone to fanaticism. And it was partly an attempt to determine for myself if things were really as grim as the headlines suggested, to discover whether it was still possible to walk through the ruins of Vijayanagara and dream of another subcontinent, one less consumed by hate. But it was also a pilgrimage. I came to Vijayanagara to commune with the medieval dead, whose memory weighs so heavily on the living in India. Like Proust’s cathedrals, the ruined but sublime temples of Victory City suture the past and present together, their granite walls oxidized over centuries but still touched by the living thoughts of the long-dead craftsmen who shaped them. I wanted to sit in a house of god whose arrangement of space, color, light and air did not make me feel like an intruder.
I have lived in America for the last eight years, returning every summer to a country that feels less and less like home. As the debates on television grow shriller and the op-eds more somber, I feel myself losing the motivation to follow the details of the latest outrage or cause du jour. I barely read the news anymore. But it is not easy for me to lose faith in India. The Isa Upanishad, perhaps the most poetic work of revelation in the Hindu tradition, describes self-alienation as a sunless, enveloping gloom—an alienation from the natural world, from the flow of life, from anything outside of oneself. I was in Victory City hoping to melt a foreign sliver of ice in my heart.
The phrase “Modi’s India” recurs in most foreign reporting about the country, shorthand for the Hindu nationalism that has dominated politics and public life since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014. With his disdain for the independent press and sketchy human-rights record, Modi makes for a good villain in an era that demands good villains. But there is something facile, even narcissistic, about the tenor of much of the global reporting about authoritarianism these days; Western anxieties about the rise of populism have congealed into a meta-narrative that creates easy but unilluminating parallels between the situations in Turkey, Russia, Israel and India. What gets left out is everything that matters.
India’s identity crisis did not begin with Modi’s election in 2014; it has been in the making for more than a thousand years, ever since generals of the Umayyad Caliphate first conquered parts of what the Arabs called Al-Hind, setting in place a momentous and transformative encounter between two of the world’s most popular religions: Islam and Hinduism. For this reason, the Indian “history wars” can be even more poisonous and all-encompassing than their American counterparts—our grievances go back millennia. The 1947 partition of British India provoked sectarian riots and ethnic cleansing on a scale that the world has rarely seen before or since (estimates vary, but most scholars agree that more than a million were killed and fifteen million turned into refugees), and for many years after this disaster, the official history of the Indian republic, as taught in schools and colleges, stressed themes of syncretism and harmony between the two major religious groups in the country. If anything, progressive historians of South Asia overcompensated for colonial biases, reducing the brutality of conquest to a footnote in their “airbrushed” representations of the wars of precolonial India as a benign “cultural-exchange programme” (to quote a polemic by the journalist Kapil Komireddi). The Muslim Turkic generals who raided north India and founded the Delhi Sultanate may have occasionally razed temples to build mosques and minarets, the Mughals may have initially hated the country they conquered and craved the melons and gardens of Central Asia instead—but eventually India transformed these invaders into mango-guzzling natives who would leave an indelible impression on the languages, music, art and architecture of the country. In the era of five-year plans and socialist dreams, the grievances of the past seemed to matter less than the promise of the future.
But the euphoria of independence did not last, and this syncretic perspective on history came under severe pressure as early as the Sixties and Seventies, weakened by economic gloom, persistent interreligious tensions and successive wars with Muslim-majority Pakistan, preceded by the inflow of millions of refugees, primarily Hindus and Sikhs. The most prestigious history departments in Delhi remained dominated by the intellectuals of the left, but as the Hindu middle class grew, it turned instead to outsider figures like Sita Ram Goel (1921-2003), a self-taught historian and the author and publisher of many books, pamphlets and articles on “Islamic imperialism” and “Hindu resistance.” Goel’s influential list of Islamic structures in the South Asia that had been built over the ruins of Hindu sites ran two thousand names long.
For Goel, the left-wing perspective on Indian history was a grand deception that had encouraged Hindus to celebrate a “parade of Islamic heritage” that concealed their own “degradation, distress, desolation, and death.” Rather than downplaying the role of religion in medieval conflicts, Goel argued that Indian history textbooks should highlight the stories of those who resisted Islam, such as the princes of Victory City, who took up the sword to save “the honour of Hindu women, and the sanctity of Hindu places of worship.” Over the course of his life, Goel moved steadily to the right, from Soviet-inspired anticolonialism to religious nationalism—a journey that many in the Indian middle class would make with him.
The future-facing consensus of the post-independence years unraveled completely on December 6, 1992, when Hindu nationalist groups demolished the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque, which was said to have been built over the ruins of an older temple—not just any temple, but one said to have marked the very site where the Hindu warrior-god Rāma had been born. The destruction of the structure triggered riots across the country, tit-for-tat demolitions of Hindu temples in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and moved the center of gravity of Indian politics decisively toward the right (one of the mid-level organizers of the movement to claim Rāma’s birthplace was an obscure provincial politician named Narendra Modi). In 2019, India’s Supreme Court finally disposed of the litigation that had arisen from the destruction of the Babri Mosque, essentially upholding the Hindu claim to the site. The Muslim litigants will have to build a new mosque elsewhere. Next year, Modi will inaugurate a grand, new Rāma temple at the same location. When Modi addressed a special joint session of the U.S. Congress in June of this year, he spoke of the “one thousand years” of foreign rule that had preceded independence—meaning two hundred years of British colonialism preceded by eight hundred years of Islamic dominance.
I arrived in Hampi with a muted sense of foreboding. In the heat of the day, the boulder-strewn landscape that surrounds the ghost city of Vijayanagara can appear touched by a supernatural force more malevolent than benign. You can feel your ordinary sense of time slipping away. The oldest burial sites in this region are cairn megaliths from the Neolithic era, and prehistoric rock art depicts humanlike figures and strange geometrical motifs. It felt silly to be thinking about elections or politics; the landscape itself invited eschatological thoughts. How many years of rain and sun did it take to erode granite cliffs into these mysterious shapes?
Politics was nevertheless all around me: at the time of my visit, the ruins of Victory City were being spruced up in anticipation of an upcoming Group of Twenty summit. India holds the presidency of the G20 this year, reflecting the country’s growing economic and strategic profile, and Hampi had been selected as one of the locations for a meeting of the Culture Working Group. New roads were being paved, and mobile towers installed. Everywhere I went, I saw men and women listlessly hacking away at the vegetation that invariably sprouted up in the stone structures, green bursting though ochre. Meanwhile, pilgrims and devotees pushed past me, only mildly interested in the ruins or the upcoming summit, heading for an intact temple dedicated to the worship of Virupak·sa and his two wives, the goddesses Pampadevi and Bhuvaneśvarī. Inside the courtyard, Lakshmi, the temple elephant, chewed banana leaves in her appointed corner. People reached forward to gingerly touch her. In response to a nudge from her mahout, Lakshmi curled her trunk over the head of a squealing infant, blessing him. At dusk, a man herded cows through a pile of stones that used to be a palace. I spotted parakeets, a distant peacock and a glossy blue-green coucal, said to be a harbinger of good luck. And I did indeed feel lucky to be in Vijayanagara during the enchanted cow-dust hour, the most beautiful time of the day in India.
Elsewhere in the city, in the old royal center, 108 friezes that wrap around the walls of the magnificent Hazāra Rāma temple narrate the story of the Rāmāyana, the most beloved of India’s ancient epics. A group of schoolchildren listened intently as their guide took them through the story, frieze by frieze. Here’s the young prince Rāma getting married to Sītā, before his fourteen-year-long exile. Here’s the demon-king Ravāna kidnapping Sītā, disguised as an ascetic. Here’s the monkey-god Hanumāna growing impossibly large in preparation for his leap across the sea. And here is where the story ends, with the coronation of Rāma as king, and the start of a golden age unparalleled in history. The outer walls of the temple compound tell a different kind of story about the political economy of Vijayanagara, an artificial city whose wealth was derived from war and conquest rather than the natural fertility of the soil: rows of war elephants, horses, camels and infantry battalions marching toward a stationary king.
I spent three of my five days in Victory City being shown around by a rather serious 47-year-old man I will call Altaf, properly turned out in a full-sleeved shirt and polyester dress pants, even as daytime temperatures exceeded 110 degrees. His father had been a laborer who worked on other people’s farmland; Altaf’s diploma from the local university made him the most educated man in his family. Later, I found out that Altaf’s family had squatted in the Vijayanagara ruins for five decades, using the pillars of a fifteenth-century structure as the core of their own home, before being evicted in 2011. Altaf now had a proprietary pride in these structures and did not hesitate to raise his voice at teens clambering onto a pillar for a selfie.
Altaf and I settled into a routine, starting early in the morning, breaking for lunch and continuing till just before dusk. The Āmuktamālyada (or Giver of the Worn Garland), a Telugu poem by Krishnadevaraya, the greatest of Vijayanagara’s kings, describes the South Indian summer in near-apocalyptic terms. During the summer, the king tells us, it feels as if Kāla Bhairava—the most frightening form of the god Śivā, the Lord of Time and Destruction—has laid out his washed white clothes to dry, producing a bareness in every direction. It is as if God has poured molten metal into the mud-caked bodies of elephants, boars and buffaloes, the king continues, transforming them into clay molds in anticipation of the next cycle of Creation. (Altaf nodded politely in response to these similes, his eyes hidden by a pair of giant sunglasses. “It’s much cooler right now,” he said. “You should have seen what it was like last month.”)
Local tradition associates the hills and caves of the Hampi region with the ancient forest kingdom of Kiskindhā, the home of the shape-shifting monkey-god Hanumāna, and a crucial setting in the Rāmāyana epic. Before he was voted out of power this May, the former chief minister of Karnataka state—Basavaraj Bommai of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—had announced grand plans to develop the region as a major pilgrimage destination, focusing on its links to the Rāmāyana rather than the archaeological significance of the Vijayanagara ruins. The total expenditure sanctioned by his government added up to one hundred crore rupees, or a little more than twelve million dollars. There was talk of new roads, a cable ropeway, a massive guesthouse and direct air and rail connections to holy sites in other states linked to the story of Rāma. This focus on Hindu pilgrimage sites was part of BJP’s standard electoral focus on religion; other components included the rewriting of school textbooks to reduce the importance of Muslim sovereigns and support for a ban on the hijab in schools. Despite a high-decibel campaign, however, the BJP did not win the state election, losing out to the Indian National Congress, whose campaign focused on accusations of corruption against the BJP government and populist economic policies like free electricity and free bus tickets for women. After winning the elections, the Congress promptly issued orders to roll back all of BJP’s recent changes to school textbooks. In a meeting with progressive groups, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah declared that there was no question of compromising when it came to “the protection of harmony” and the “secular heritage of Karnataka.” But nobody expects the cycle to stop here. There will be other elections, and other committees that review syllabi.
Like many Indian Muslims, Altaf had nothing positive to say about the BJP, though he was hopeful that the new infrastructural developments they championed would eventually materialize. Their campaign rhetoric around reclaiming Hindu sites made him nervous. Some Hindu groups had been demanding the reconsecration of the abandoned temples of Vijayanagara, arguing that these were not dead archaeological sites but sacred spaces that belonged to a living religion. “The reconsecration may happen soon if there is political support for it,” Altaf said, “not now, but in a few years.” Would there be a place for a Muslim travel guide in a restored, reconsecrated City of Victory? Altaf wasn’t sure. There was no aspiration in his political talk, no passion or hope, just the desire to be left alone. But the “history wars” have a way of interpolating even the most reluctant among us. For those who see Indian history as a romantic epic of Hindu resistance against Islamic and Western imperialism, the mere presence of a large population of Indian Muslims remains a nagging problem.
One afternoon, I decided to pay a visit to Rama Devaraya, a descendant of the last royal family of Vijayanagara who lives in a dilapidated mansion in Anegundi village, across the river from the ruins. Devaraya’s family traces their lineage back to the powerful military general who was the de facto sovereign of Vijayanagara at the time of the disastrous Battle of Talikota in 1565. It was the sight of the decapitated head of Devayara’s kinsman (and namesake), stuffed with straw, that was said to have shattered the morale of Vijayanagara’s forces. I found the royal watching television when I knocked on his door (yet another news report about the train crash).
With his flowing white beard and opaque eyes (he is partially blind), the eighty-year-old Devaraya makes for a striking figure. I did not interrupt him even as he went over a familiar historical narrative. The armies of the Delhi Sultanate first raided South India in the early fourteenth century. The most devastating raids were led by the enigmatic slave-general Malik Kafur, a Hindu convert to Islam. Within a couple of decades, large sections of South India were conquered by Delhi, and the power of the old South Indian kingdoms began to fade. Amid this turmoil, two brothers of peasant origin, Harihara (or “Hukka”) and Bukka, cobbled together a kingdom by the banks of the Tungabhadra. Their fortified citadel later came to be known as Vijayanagara, or the City of Victory. “At its peak, the influence of the Vijayanagara empire stretched across all of South India: from Goa in the west to the Godavari in the east, from the Krishna [River] all the way down to [the southern tip of the subcontinent at] Kanyakumari,” said Devaraya, with just a hint of pride. “This was a golden period for south India, a time of great prosperity. But in 1565, the empire lost a battle against the five Bahmani sultans. The city was sacked and pillaged by its own people as well as by the Bahmani armies. It was uninhabited for centuries.” What used to be the center of the world became just another poor province, and the Vijayanagara empire passed into memory as one among the many beguiling stories of lost glory that make up the history of India.
As a young man, hosting the odd archaeologist or historian in his own home, Devaraya had been enthusiastic about the prospect of the world coming to Victory City. But he seemed to have lost most of his optimism over time, dreams of a rural cultural renaissance undercut by petty deprivations. Now his demands were, by global standards, rather meager: potable drinking water, a small café, a decent visitor-information center and an end to ad-hoc demolitions by the authorities. From Devaraya’s perspective, parking lots and tarmac roads represented the limits of the government’s interest in preserving the Vijayanagara ruins, a bureaucratic approach that destroyed more than it conserved. For all its supposed pride in Hindu history, the Indian government seemed content to let the sublime ruins of Victory City crumble into the kind of mediocre tourist site that people visit on weekends only because they have nothing better to do.
In the evenings, back in my room, I read accounts by foreign merchants and diplomats—travelers mesmerized by an impossible walled city, whose dark-skinned inhabitants had a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for jewels and horses. “The pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it,” wrote Abdur Razzak, an ambassador from the Persian court, who visited Vijayanagara in the mid-fifteenth century. “The ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything equal to it in the world.” During the annual Mahā Navamī festival, Abdur Razzak counted a thousand armored elephants in a military parade, resembling the waves of a troubled sea. More than half a century later, a Portuguese visitor would witness the armies of the empire gathering for the same annual parade, and feel equally at a loss for words. “To try and tell of all I saw is hopeless,” he wrote, addressing a European reader. “For I went along with my head so often turned from one side to the other that I was almost falling backwards off my horse with my senses lost.”
Travelers wrote in greedy detail about a world they could not penetrate: queens, courtesans, women who handled sword and shield, women who wrestled, women who kept the accounts, women who blew trumpets and pipes and sang. Vijayanagara was said to be the best-provided city in the world. Its marketplaces sold every kind of luxury, from jewels to meat to fine clothes. “These people could not live without roses,” wrote a bemused Abdur Razzak. “They look upon them as quite as necessary as food.” I felt unexpectedly sad reading these accounts. I have met migrants from India in every European city I have visited, some of them precariously holding onto their dignity, selling trinkets to tourists outside the great cathedrals or castles of Europe; I intuitively understand the mix of shame and resentment that makes history such a prickly topic for Indians, both in the subcontinent and abroad. We have learned to crave the sickly-sour taste of victimhood like a dog that craves its own vomit; the tourist chatter I overheard at Hampi invariably returned to the city’s destruction and defeat. President of the G20 or not, it has been a long time since India was wealthy enough to make Europeans envious.
A month before he was stabbed in Chautauqua, New York in August 2022, Salman Rushdie had finished the manuscript of his fifteenth novel, Victory City. The book narrates the rise and fall of the Vijayanagara empire as a fable, invoking goddesses, an enchanted forest and a once-great polity whose freewheeling cosmopolitanism hardens into hubris and intolerance. Born to Kashmiri Muslim parents in Bombay in 1947, the year of India’s independence, Rushdie’s oeuvre has always been touched by the magic of this opening in world history; his “India” is an imaginary homeland reconstructed in Britain, part Kipling, part Bollywood, part childhood nostalgia, part myth. By his standards, Victory City is quite a pessimistic book. To be human, we discover in this late offering (both Rushdie and India turned 75 last year), is to cling to “the brief illusion of happy victories set in a long continuum of bitter, disillusioning defeats.”
When Rushdie went into hiding in 1989, after being sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini, he was seen as one of the brightest young novelists writing in English—a winner of the Booker Prize, his garrulous prose hailed as a “continent finding its voice” by the New York Times. Following his reemergence years later, he became an icon for Anglo-American liberals even as his literary reputation diminished, in a steady drip of messy divorces and lukewarm reviews. The last Rushdie novel I read was Quichotte, published in 2019, and I agreed with critics who found its treatment of the opioid epidemic and the Trump presidency shallow and gimmicky. But I felt a great sympathy for the predicament of the book’s elderly novelist character, who senses that he is close to reaching the end of everything: “When you were your own quarry, when the material you were dredging up lay buried in the caverns of the self, a time came when there was only an emptiness left.” Even before I learned that the assassination attempt had left Rushdie blind in one eye, I assumed he had already written his last novel. And then, miraculously, on a snowy winter day, there was Victory City in the window of a Cambridge bookstore, birds wheeling over South Indian temples on its front cover, and gray monkeys on the back. Rushdie had been exiled from India for more than twelve years after the fatwa; even after this unofficial “ban” was lifted, his visits to the country remained infrequent and short. With Victory City, Rushdie had returned to the country of his birth, the setting of his best work—if not in person, then at least in his imagination.
The novel opens with an image of a pyre and the stench of burning flesh. A nondescript southern kingdom has just been defeated by an army from the north, and the women of the vanquished king’s household have committed ritual suicide. Pampa Kampana, a young girl who shares her name with a goddess, is the only survivor. In partnership with two local boys, Bukka and Hukka, shepherds turned mercenaries turned kings, Pampa brings an entire city into existence by breathing magic into a sack of seeds. The enchanted city of Vijayanagara—or Bisnaga, as the Portuguese pronounce it—grows from strength to strength. More than two hundred years pass, Pampa’s children and grandchildren pass away, she does not die, she does not even seem to visibly age. But her power to influence history by whispering in men’s ears begins to fade, and, in a fit of pique, a jealous king has her blinded. Defeat follows hubris and arrogance. The once-magical City of Victory is sacked and pillaged. Four and half centuries later, a clay pot containing the 24,000 verses of a Sanskrit poem by Pampa is rediscovered, buried in the rubble of what used to be city’s royal center. This poem is all that survives of this once-enchanted South Indian kingdom, and Victory City concludes with a maudlin verse on the inevitability of death and the endurance of literature, supposedly from Pampa’s rediscovered poem (whose tragic but trite refrain states that “words are the only victors”). The story ends as it began, with war, arson and defeat. Rereading Victory City in India, its ending seems especially ominous, as if Rushdie is bypassing us to address future readers on the other side of a great calamity that will be here soon—maybe in five years, maybe in ten or fifty.
There are occasional moments of lightheartedness in Victory City, unexpected gags about country dentists and retired Indian cricketers, that are as delightful as Rushdie’s early prose. I wanted to like the book more. But large swaths are dourly serious, cuckold kings and Iberian lovers notwithstanding, while the novel’s political interventions have the dull sincerity of an “In This House We Believe…” lawn sign. The importance of religious tolerance? Check. Outrage at the inhumanity of wife burning? Check. Tolerance for same-sex love? Done. The desirability of including women in the military? Absolutely. Equality between princes and princesses? Of course. Midway through the novel, I started suspecting I was reading the script for a Marvel Studios adaptation of The Conquest of Madurai, a lurid Sanskrit poem on love and war by one of Vijayanagara’s princesses, updated by Rushdie to suit contemporary sensibilities, with a suitably diverse cast that included red-haired Europeans and Chinese martial artists.
Despite the lengthy bibliography that comes appended to the novel, Victory City is not a work of historical fiction as much as of anti-historical fantasy, aimed at an audience with the right education and the right politics. It belongs to a popular genre of our shallow times, reflecting a collective retreat from history, from realism and from reality. Among the ruins of Vijayanagara, it seemed like a warning about how much we miss when we turn the past into a mirror reflecting nothing but our own besieged liberalism.
The drift toward religious nationalism in South Asia has a momentum that far exceeds any one individual, political party or policy. The nakedly majoritarian sensibilities that allow many Pakistanis to be indifferent to the plight of Hindu minorities in Sindh or many Indians to ignore the injustices of life in the Kashmir Valley may offend contemporary Western sensibilities but are unlikely to be altered by petitions or protests in New York or London. No one outside of the white world takes lectures about human rights or democracy delivered in a British or American accent seriously, perhaps for good reason—witness the Indian finance minister’s response to Barack Obama’s recent comments expressing concern about the status of ethnic minorities in India (“A former president under whose rule six Muslim-majority countries were bombed with more than 26,000 bombs—how will people trust his allegations?”).
An underrated reason for Modi’s immense popularity is his ability to tap into the electorate’s deep yearning for an Indian civilizational state—not a secondhand replica of a Western liberal democracy, but a sovereign government rooted in the country’s ancient culture, with its own vocabulary of good and evil and its own culturally specific aspirations toward the good life. From the point of view of those who want India to be a homeland for “Indic” religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism), there is nothing illegitimate about the government clamping down on religious proselytizing by Muslim or Christian organizations, or amending citizenship law to make it easier for non-Muslims from India’s Muslim-majority neighbors to migrate to the country. No South Asian country is secular in the Western sense of the term—not India, nor Pakistan or Bangladesh. Yes, Modi’s supporters occasionally concede, the armed vigilante groups who have been known to lynch Muslims or Dalits suspected of illegally slaughtering cows (an animal venerated by many Hindus as a symbol of motherhood and sacred purification) were indeed taking the law in their own hands. But, as the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the massive, militant Hindu volunteer organization that has mentored many politicians of the ruling party, put it in interview earlier this year, “Hindu society has been at war for about a thousand years … It is natural for people at war to be aggressive.”
Walking around Anegundi village one morning, I ran into a family of pilgrims from the western state of Gujarat. They were on a month-long bus tour retracing the geography of Rāma’s exile, and seemed tired and happy. The rugged hills and dry deciduous forests that surround Victory City are home to half-a-dozen tīrthas, or sacred crossings, portals between human and divine worlds. For the devout, there can be no doubt that this is where events crucial to the action of the Rāmāyana actually took place—this hill is where a desolate Rāma met his new allies, the shape-shifting monkeys of Kiskindhā; this cave is where Rāma and Lakshmana lived as hermits for four months, waiting for the monsoon rains to stop before resuming their search for Rāma’s abducted wife. I was reminded of Diana Eck’s magisterial monograph, India: A Sacred Geography. Some of the oldest maps of India, Eck tells us, were composed over centuries, traced by the feet of pilgrims walking from tīrtha to tīrtha.
On a Saturday morning, on one of my last days in Hampi, I decided to hike up to the summit of the 1,500-foot-tall Anjanadri Hill, the site of a shrine to Hanumāna, one of the most beloved deities in the Hindu pantheon. Hanumāna, the Son of the Wind, is popularly associated with courage, steadfastness and strength; millions of Hindus turn to him when overcome by fear or weakness. It was still early when I began climbing up the 575 steps that lead to the shrine, ignoring the little market at the foot of the hill that sells flowers, flags, caps and toys. Large groups of young men, their saffron scarves glinting in the sun, made up the bulk of the devotees. Near the summit, the stairway narrowed considerably, and the crowd became a crush. A man chanted Rāma’s name in a monotonous, hypnotic frenzy. The view was gorgeous—green paddy fields, gray and ochre boulders, the ruins of Vijayanagara barely visible across the river. The Sanskrit Rāmāyana describes Kiskindhā as a beautiful wilderness, full of rutting elephants and lovesick peacocks; a sonorous verse listing the trees, shrubs and creepers of the region runs into 41 names.
As we waited to enter the temple, I was squeezed in with a group of men in their early twenties, from the nearby mining town of Bellary, volunteers with a right-wing political group that had a penchant for street fighting. The boys were livestreaming on Facebook and Instagram—barely glancing at the unassuming small temple ahead of them, their phones pointed straight at the lines of people waiting behind us. They seemed to be in awe of their newly discovered demographic strength. The cosmic geometric of Victory City belonged to the past. These were local boys, and they were in search of an empire in the here and now.
Back in Bengaluru, I met Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed, a journalist with Frontline magazine, who has reported extensively on the Indian history wars, including pieces arguing that the destruction of Victory City was not religiously motivated but a byproduct of the usual jostling over territory and wealth between neighboring states. But this perspective on history was no longer mainstream. Chapters on Muslim sovereigns had recently been deleted from school textbooks, both at the federal and state levels. Within Karnataka state, contestations over the legacy of the Muslim chieftain Tipu Sultan, killed by the East India Company in 1799, had spiraled into a major political controversy, leading to occasional violence. For a large and vocal section of the population, the only acceptable national heroes were Hindus. Sita Ram Goel’s dreams were finally coming true. “There has been a concerted effort to change school textbooks across the country to represent Muslims as invaders and aliens who had nothing good to offer to the nation,” Sayeed said morosely, as we chatted in his book-lined office. Earlier this year, India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training deleted a chapter on the (Muslim-dominated) Mughal court from school textbooks, while retaining the existing chapter on the Vijayanagara empire. (A statement signed by 250 prominent historians of South Asia had opposed this revision as a “disservice to the composite heritage of the Indian subcontinent,” guided by a “non-academic, partisan agenda”). “Indian Muslims are being severed from their roots, from their history,” Sayeed continued. “All possible role models are being snatched away from them.”
Trained as a historian, with degrees from Oxford and New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Sayeed drifted into journalism about fifteen years ago. I didn’t believe Sayeed when he told me that journalism was just a job for him, something he did just to make a living. No, this was existential. After an incendiary tweet about Hinduism, falsely attributed to Sayeed, circulated on Indian Twitter in April 2020, he feared he might meet the same fate as other journalists and historians who’d been assassinated in Karnataka in recent years. Sayeed filed a police complaint and tried to keep his head down.
Recounting the incident to me three years later, Sayeed seemed convinced that he had been targeted by an organized political network. Maybe. Though politicians have done their best to harness the power of social media, I am not sure there is anyone really in control of the daily waves of panic and revulsion that pass through Indian Twitter and WhatsApp. Everybody trembles before the algorithmic public, a capricious demon with many heads that demands a fresh sacrifice every evening. The deliberate use of social media to keep interreligious tensions inflamed is concerning enough; it is somehow even more troubling to think of an autonomous feedback loop with no guiding intelligence behind it at all.
Before Rushdie, there was Naipaul. Born in Trinidad to Hindu parents descended from indentured laborers, V. S. Naipaul first visited the Vijayanagara ruins in 1962. This was his first trip to India, a journey of ancestral self-discovery that he would later say “broke [his] life in two.” The ruins were not a popular tourist site, then; they were simply there, part of a surreal rocky landscape. The only people at the site were pilgrims, whose physical wretchedness affected Naipaul deeply (life expectancy at birth in India was only about 46 years at this time). He responded to misery as he often did, by turning “fear and distaste into anger and contempt.” An Area of Darkness, Naipaul’s unforgiving first book on India, contains a memorable, if brief, section on Vijayanagara, a biting contrast between the grandeur of the surviving structures and the state in which the “inheritors of this greatness” lived—“men and women and children, thin as crickets, like lizards among the stones.”
Naipaul returned to Vijayanagara for a second time during his next trip, which coincided with the suspension of democracy during the Indian Emergency of 1975-77. The ruins of Victory City had become something of an idée fixe for him, an essential symbol of the “wound” at the heart of Indian civilization. Elections had been suspended, opposition leaders were in jail, the freedom of the press had been withdrawn. But Naipaul was interested in a decay that went beyond politics or elections. Hindu India had reacted to centuries of conquest by retreating into insularity and stagnation, Naipaul argued, turning backwards toward fantasies of a half-known and half-imagined ancient past. An extended opening section on the ruins of Victory City, marooned in an “unfriendly landscape of rock and boulders of strange shapes,” sets the tone for India: A Wounded Civilization, sticking to other images of waste or destruction—the effect is morbid and nauseating. “While India tries to go back to an idea of its past, it will not possess that past or be enriched by it,” Naipaul concluded. “The past has to be seen to be dead; or the past will kill.”
Naipaul’s India books are unremittingly bleak, and his arguments easily caricatured. Even as his writing stressed the need to leave the past behind, in interviews he spoke positively about the “passion” of the Hindu activists who had razed the Babri Mosque in 1992. Naipaul was misogynistic and morbid to a fault, he spoke no Indian languages, and his history of the Vijayanagara empire was derived from colonial sources that axiomatically assumed that every battle between Hindus and Muslims was a clash between two alien civilizations. We now know far more about Islamic influences on the art, architecture and military strategies of the Vijayanagara empire; we now have a clearer picture of the mobility enjoyed by elite soldiers during the time of turmoil in southern India, some of whom switched between Muslim and Hindu patrons at will; we are now able to adopt a less dogmatic perspective on Vijayanagara’s diplomatic relations with its Muslim neighbors, which included periods of peace and cooperation as well as war. But it is difficult not to experience a Naipaulian jitter when confronted with the widespread reverence for an embalmed, pre-Islamic past that now dominates Indian television, Bollywood and social media. This reverence, as Naipaul puts it, is “comic” but also “sad,” speaking “as much as any ruin of exhaustion and people who have lost their way.”
At its core, Rushdie’s Victory City is a fable, a dream of what the subcontinent could have been if fanaticism and paranoia had not set in, if the people had not placed their trust in the wrong leaders—a magical and cosmopolitan place, simultaneously ancient and futuristic. But this is only a fantasy, a city of words. Naipaul’s more malicious knife cleaves closer to bone. Generations of modern Indians, both liberal and conservative, have written eloquently about the ancient origins of Indian civilization; where they saw beauty and continuity, Naipaul saw the blankness of ruins piled upon ruins. I am afraid his darker vision may prove to be more enduring.
Some schools of Hindu thought measure cosmic time in intervals of four yugas, or ages. Even the shortest of these yugas, the Kali Yuga, a time of misery and degradation, the age in which we live now, is supposed to last hundreds of thousands of years. When this yuga ends, the cycle will repeat itself. On my final day in Victory City, I woke up early and took the ferry across the river. I walked past a pile of half-paved roads, past the remnants of grand market, past a beautiful, rain-fed water tank, and into the courtyard of the absurdly beautiful Vitthala temple. A single plumeria tree dominated the courtyard. I was the only person inside the temple’s dancing hall. The pillars were carved with images that contained a whole social world, complete and self-contained; I saw jesters, wrestlers, drummers, elephants, courtesans and gods. The garbha graha, the innermost “womb chamber,” smelled of something rotten. The idols had long vanished, leaving behind empty stone stumps. I heard an odd, inhuman chirping. There were hundreds of bats roosting on the roof above, their bodies pale white in the light from my phone—envoys from an inhospitable mineral world of stone and darkness, a world older than all four yugas of Hindu cosmic time.
Photo credit: Raghu Rai, “Vijayanagara, the way to the Virupaksha Temple through mandapas and Hampi bazaar,” 1970. © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos.