Southern India in the age of Vijayanagara, 1350–1550 Part I

The rise of the Delhi Sultanate, although it brought many changes to north India, had little direct impact on the lands south of the Narmada river. Only from around 1300, when the Delhi Sultanate began sending armies down into the peninsula, did the histories of these two parts of the subcontinent start to converge. The military successes of the Delhi Sultanate gave a north Indian state control over portions of south India for the first time in many centuries. Although the Delhi Sultanate did not retain this control for long, its intervention into the affairs of the peninsula was to have long-lasting repercussions. Because a separate state headed by Central Asian Muslim warriors known as the Bahmanis was founded in the Deccan in 1347, the Islamic religion and culture that had taken root in the Deccan under the Tughluq sultans of Delhi continued to flourish in subsequent times. Another significant result of Delhi’s military expeditions was the destruction of the existing regional kingdoms of the south. This paved the way for the emergence of Vijayanagara, a new state ruled by indigenous warriors that shaped the society and culture of south India for centuries thereafter. The empire of Vijayanagara is often credited with preserving a distinctly Hindu way of life in south India that had been lost in the north, a misconception that overlooks both the creativity and cosmopolitan nature of the Vijayanagara elite. By 1550, south India was a considerably more diverse and complex place than it had been in 1300.

Rise and decline of the Vijayanagara kingdom

The origins of the Vijayanagara kingdom have been a subject of intense debate. We know that its first rulers were two brothers belonging to the Sangama family, but opinions on where they came from and what they did prior to becoming independent lords differ greatly. For much of the twentieth century, it was thought that the Sangama brothers were warriors of a local king defeated by the Delhi sultan whose service they then entered, converting to Islam in the process. Only after they had been sent from Delhi to the Karnataka region of south India as the sultan’s representatives did the Sangamas return to the Hindu fold and set up their own independent kingdom, with the help of a Hindu sage, according to this line of thinking. Implicit in this narrative is the conception of Vijayanagara as an overtly Hindu state, originating from a rejection of the Islamic religion and a Muslim overlord. Scholars also disagreed on whether the Sangamas were warriors initially from the Karnataka region or from the Andhra region to its east, since both regions wished to claim them as sons of the soil.

More recent scholarship, particularly by Hermann Kulke and Phillip Wagoner, has presented a radically different interpretation of the events leading to the founding of Vijayanagara. While the Sangama brothers were probably local warriors from Karnataka who first served in the army of the Hoysala king, they neither converted to Islam nor were they affiliated with a Hindu sage. Instead, they appear to have voluntarily given political allegiance to Muhammad Tughluq during the years when he was based at Daulatabad. Once Tughluq power waned in the Deccan, the Sangamas sought to establish their own state and held a major ceremony in 1346 to celebrate their conquests up to that time; this probably marks the true commencement of their kingdom, rather than the traditional date of 1336. Because the Sangamas were but the first of four ruling dynasties, we call the kingdom not after the kings but after the new name coined for the capital, Vijayanagara or “City of Victory.” Today the site is known both as Vijayanagara and also as Hampi, a variation on the name of the goddess, Pampa Devi, long associated with the region.

Although the Vijayanagara kingdom was to eventually become the largest state ever created in south India, its expansion occurred quite slowly. In its first decades, the various members of the extended Sangama family ruled in a semi-autonomous fashion the different provinces of the small kingdom, extending only from central and southern Karnataka into the interior portion of southern Andhra. In the first half of the fifteenth century, the state finally began to grow after power was consolidated within one lineage of the Sangamas. Under Devaraya II (r. 1432–46), generally considered to be the greatest of the Sangama dynasty of rulers, Vijayanagara controlled both the eastern and western coasts of the Deccan and was the pre-eminent state of the peninsula.

Vijayanagara’s chief rival during its first century of existence was the Bahmani Sultanate, established as an independent state in 1347 after a revolt among the officers of the Delhi Sultanate stationed in the Deccan. The Bahmani capital was soon moved from Daulatabad to the more centrally located Gulbarga and then during the 1420s to Bidar. The Bahmanis held sway in the western Deccan north of the Krishna river, while Vijayanagara was dominant in the western Deccan south of the Tungabhadra river. The alluvial zone in between those rivers, known as the Raichur doab, was hotly contested by the two states; both also tried to extend their influence into the fertile Krishna-Godavari river delta of the Andhra region to the east. A third area of conflict between the two states was the western coast, which would confer direct access to the maritime routes of Indian Ocean trade and thus to the most important military supplies of the time: war horses imported from Arabia, Persia, and Central Asia.

Initially, Vijayanagara troops could not prevail over the smaller army of the Bahmani sultan. The sultan’s advantage was in cavalry and so he was known as the Ashvapati or Lord of Horses, in contrast to the Vijayanagara king who was called the Lord of Men or Infantry (Narapati). Only after the borrowing of both military personnel and technologies from the Bahmani Sultanate was the Vijayanagara kingdom able to expand its sphere of influence. Devaraya II (r. 1432–46) was largely responsible for narrowing the military gap, welcoming Muslims, highly respected for their martial skills, to the state. Significantly, Muslims were defined not in religious terms but by ethnic labels such as Turk. Devaraya II reputedly enlisted 200 Muslims at the officer rank, as well as many more at lower levels – up to 10,000, according to a probably exaggerated claim. As early as 1439, one of these officers had a mosque constructed in the section of the capital city that became a Muslim quarter. A number of Muslim tombs dot the surrounding area, indicating an elite Muslim presence. The adoption of advanced military techniques and the importation of war-horses contributed considerably to the success of Devaraya II’s military ambitions.

A second major competitor for power from Devaraya II’s reign onward was the Hindu dynasty of the Gajapatis, who had usurped the throne of northeastern Andhra and southern Orissa in the 1430s. Ruling a humid and forested region where elephants were still plentiful, the title “Lord of the Elephants” or Gajapati was given to these Orissa kings by their contemporaries, in admiration of their supply of war-elephants. After Devaraya II’s death in 1446, his less capable successors could not contain Gajapati power and the Gajapatis began to overrun Vijayanagara’s eastern lands, eventually reaching as far south as the Kaveri delta in the central Tamil country. They also wrested portions of northern Andhra away from Bahmani control. By the 1480s, the Vijayanagara kingdom had lost so much territory to the Gajapatis and the Bahmanis, who had overrun much of the west coast, that it was scarcely larger than it had been at its inception. This led Saluva Narasimha, the most active general in the struggle against Vijayanagara’s enemies, to usurp the throne in 1485. The short-lived Saluva dynasty was ousted in turn in 1505 when another general, this time from the Tuluva family, seized power. Under the Tuluvas, the third royal dynasty of Vijayanagara, the kingdom not only regained its strength but went on to achieve its greatest glory.

Krishnadeva Raya (r. 1509–29), the second of Vijayanagara’s Tuluva rulers, is largely responsible for making Vijayanagara the paramount polity in the peninsula. Ascending the throne while in his twenties, Krishnadeva Raya pursued a vigorous policy of consolidating Vijayanagara power from the outset. He is best known for the aggressive campaign against the Gajapatis initiated in 1513 which led to the recovery within two years of important sites situated to the south of the Krishna river. Vijayanagara forces kept pressing northward until they reached Cuttack, the Gajapati capital in southern Orissa, in 1517. The Gajapati king eventually surrendered and offered his daughter in marriage to Krishnadeva, who in turn gave all the coastal territory north of the Krishna river back to the Gajapatis. Krishnadeva Raya’s Orissa campaign has been called “one of the most brilliant military episodes in the history of sixteenth-century India.”

Partly because of his many military successes, Krishnadeva Raya was the most celebrated Vijayanagara king among later generations of south Indians. Even Domingo Paes, a foreign visitor to Vijayanagara city during the period when Krishnadeva Raya was king, praises him as “a great ruler and a man of much justice.” In physical appearance, however, Krishnadeva Raya was not impressive, for Paes describes him as “of medium height, and of fair complexion and good figure, rather fat than thin, he has on his face signs of small-pox.”2 Krishnadeva Raya was reputedly quite hospitable to foreigners who came to his capital seeking trade, although Paes, as a minor member of a Portuguese delegation from Goa, had little direct contact with him. Nonetheless, Paes witnessed much of the city’s public life and left behind a travel account that is valuable both for its many details and because it is the only foreign testimony contemporary to Krishnadeva’s reign.

Vijayanagara was able to become dominant in the early sixteenth century not only because of the military abilities of kings like Krishnadeva Raya but also because its second important rival, the Bahmani Sultanate, had begun to disintegrate into smaller segments. The Bahmanis could not contain the long-term factionalism between the Deccanis, who were mainly descendants of settlers from north India and saw themselves as the old nobility, and new immigrants known as Afaqis, from Iran and Central Asia. The provincial governors of Bijapur and Ahmadnagar were independent by 1500 for all practical purposes, while the separate states of Golkonda, Berar, and Bidar emerged over the next few decades from what was left of the Bahmani Sultanate. Krishnadeva Raya had little trouble establishing Vijayanagara supremacy over the armies of the Bahmanis and their now virtually autonomous governors in 1509. He also brought the southern territories more firmly under control. With growing numbers of Vijayanagara nayakas or warrior lords settled in the various localities of the Tamil country, the mantle of Vijayanagara rule came to rest more heavily on the far south.

During Krishnadeva Raya’s reign, the Vijayanagara kingdom attained its largest size and its greatest degree of centralization, although small tributary states under the rule of their own kings lingered on in portions of southern Karnataka, southern Tamil Nadu, and along the western seaboard. Command over the outlying territories was entrusted to elite Vijayanagara warriors, often men with the title nayaka who carried out both military and civilian duties. With increasing frequency from the late fifteenth century on, members of the ruling class were rewarded with the assignment of nayamkara territories – villages, districts, or even entire provinces over which they had the right to retain certain revenues. Taxes on agricultural produce and the selling or transport of goods as well as the fee on grazing animals, that would otherwise be owed to the king, were instead given to the man who held the nayamkara assignment. The expectation was that the assigned revenues would be used to maintain troops in readiness for the overlord’s military needs. The king had the right to revoke a nayamkara assignment or switch the land included in a nayamkara, so that no subordinate could build up his own local power base and pose a challenge to the king.

Some of the duties and privileges of Vijayanagara’s nayaka lords are described by Paes, in the following passage:

These captains whom he [the king] has over these troops of his are the nobles of his kingdom; they are lords, and they hold the city, and the towns and villages of the kingdom; there are captains amongst them who have a revenue of a million and a million & half of pardaos, others a hundred thousand pardaos, others two hundred, three hundred or five hundred thousand pardaos, and as each one has revenue so the king fixes for him the number of troops he must maintain, in foot, horse, and elephants . . . Besides maintaining these troops, each captain has to make his annual payments to the king . . . Whenever a son happens to be born to this king, or a daughter, all the nobles of the kingdom offer him great presents of money and jewels of price, and so they do to him every year on the day of his birth.

The Vijayanagara lords were, in other words, required to maintain a stipulated number of troops and to make annual revenue payments to the king, depending on the size of the nayamkara territory they were assigned. In addition, they were expected to give the king gifts on special occasions. Other evidence indicates that lords who did not fulfill their obligations had their nayamkara assignments taken away.

Two Tuluva rulers followed Krishnadeva Raya on the Vijayanagara throne, but internal struggles at court and the increasing independence of the major lords led to a weakening of the king’s position. From the 1540s on, Rama Raya of the powerful Aravidu family acted in the name of the king and wielded the actual power. For more than twenty years, Rama Raya ruthlessly repressed all opposition at court and in the southern territories. He also kept the Deccan states that had emerged from the Bahmani Sultanate’s demise at bay through skillfully playing one off against another. His brilliant, if deceitful, strategy eventually backfired – their distrust of Vijayanagara grew so strong over the years that the rulers of Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, and Golkonda overcame their own mutual hostility and banded together to attack Vijayanagara forces. At the fateful battle of Talikota in 1565, Rama Raya was killed and the city of Vijayanagara left defenseless. Rama Raya’s brother Tirumala soon abandoned the capital and retrenched in southern Andhra, where he became the first member of the Vijayanagara’s final royal dynasty, the Aravidus. Although the Vijayanagara kingdom, now based in Andhra and much smaller in size, remained in existence for another century, its days of greatness were gone after 1565.