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

Vijayanagara’s militarism

Vijayanagara is widely acknowledged to be the most militarized of the non-Muslim states of south India. Much of this militaristic orientation was a result of its origins as a polity created by an upwardly mobile warrior lineage in the Deccan. The semi-arid environment of the peninsular interior had long hosted peoples engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture, herding, and trade. The upland economy was precarious, encouraging the development of martial skills and the emergence of warlords. Since the late twelfth century, warriors from the semi-arid zone had become politically dominant throughout the peninsula. Facilitating their dominance were improvements in horse-riding equipment that had disseminated from the northwest into the Deccan during the century or two prior to the establishment of the Vijayanagara state. The innovations included the foot-stirrup providing greater support for the rider, better harnesses allowing more control over the horse, high saddles with pommels, and nailed horseshoes. These changes in horse-riding technology enhanced the destructive capabilities of cavalry and made it the decisive factor in an army’s success in battle. The availability of quality horses, which had also contributed to the Ghurid and Delhi Sultanate’s military successes, was another factor leading to greater militancy in the peninsula in the period immediately before the founding of Vijayanagara.

The early fourteenth-century incursions of the Khalji and Tughluq armies, by dislodging indigenous warrior lineages from their positions of power, further promoted the growth of militarism in the peninsula. In the power vacuum that resulted from the disruption of earlier political networks, there was plenty of scope for military adventurism for those with sufficient martial skills and motivation. The Sangama founders of Vijayanagara came out of this turbulent and competitive milieu and were successful in carving out a territory at the expense of numerous others who similarly aspired to kingship. The Bahmani Sultanate, with its more sophisticated cavalry techniques, was a persistent opponent to Vijayanagara’s expansionist ambitions and this forced Vijayanagara to commit more resources to building up its army.

But Vijayanagara’s militaristic character cannot be attributed to the presence of Muslim states in its vicinity, for this was an era when the scale and lethal capacity of armed force was escalating not only throughout the subcontinent but also throughout most of the Eurasian landmass. Armies were increasing in size, new weapons were being introduced, and more massive fortifications were being erected to defend the centers of political power. Gunpowder was introduced into thirteenth-century India by the Mongols, who learned about it from the Chinese. Gunpowder was first used to create burning projectiles or exploding devices that were used primarily during siege warfare. By the second half of the fifteenth century, gunpowder also came to be used in cannons, to propel a ball through the metal tube. According to one text, as many as 2,300 cannon and many smaller guns were deployed by the Vijayanagara army at the battle of Talikota in 1565.

The Vijayanagara capital was a massive site, the largest surviving in South Asia today, the defensive walls of which were intended to fend off invaders physically and at the same time overwhelm viewers by their awesome scale. Abd al-Razzaq, an emissary who arrived in the city in 1443 from Herat, was clearly impressed by the surrounding walls, for he notes that there were seven concentric walls, although in reality there are fewer. Huge earth-packed and stone-faced walls surrounded the suburbs and nearby villages. These walls were commenced with the city’s founding and as the state became increasingly militaristic in nature, the importance of having massive walls grew. Recent work indicates that some 650 square kilometers were encircled by these huge walls, manned by soldiers who monitored from ramparts, watch posts, and bastions the broad roads that ran in and out of the city. The walls also served daily needs, for catchment basins and reservoirs were part of the protective walls. The ground between the various walled areas of the greater Vijayanagara metropolitan area was often filled with large boulders known as horse-stones that would guarantee an invading foot soldier or cavalry unit difficulty in traversing the terrain. The inner city, consisting of roughly two parts divided along an east–west axis, which today are referred to as the sacred and royal centers, was also walled. Within the city’s perimeter were more walled compounds, but their walls often were designed to ensure privacy rather than for defensive purposes.

Public rituals in the capital city highlighted the state’s military prowess. A case in point is the nine-day Mahanavami festival associated with veneration of the goddess Durga. All the great nayaka lords and their armies were required to attend the festival, after which a general muster of the troops was held outside the city proper. Witnessing the vastness of the assembled forces about 1522, the Portuguese traveler Domingo Paes was so overwhelmed that he reported “it seemed as if what I saw was a vision.” During the festival itself, the goddess was worshipped by the king both privately and publicly; the two sometimes also shared the Mahanavami Dibba, the large platform upon which the king displayed himself to his lords and in turn was paid homage by them.

The great platform as it stands today was built in four successive stages, the last one by Krishnadeva Raya in celebration of his victorious campaign in Orissa. While Paes observed the Mahanavami festival, carvings on the platform showing courtly figures throwing water indicate that the spring festival, also a nine-day event, was celebrated there as well. Given the prominence of this tiered structure in the heart of the royal center next to ritual baths and the important Ramachandra temple, it must have been the focal point for multiple royal ceremonies. All these festivals, while essentially religious, were in fact a celebration of the regime’s success in the economic and political realms. This multi-tiered platform dominates the skyline of the royal center. That aspect of it is visible from a considerable distance; however, it is only on close scrutiny that the sculpted carvings on every tier are noted. Here we see no religious themes whatsoever, but only those depicting the ruler, the military, and the endless processions essential to these royal celebrations, thus providing an important insight into the concept of kingship under the Vijayanagara rulers.

The royal center at Vijayanagara remained in use until the capital was abandoned in 1565, even when new complexes were built outside the city limits. So, for example, we know from the testimony of foreign travelers that Krishnadeva Raya continued to conduct the public ceremonial of the state in the royal center, although he actually dwelt in a fortified suburb built supposedly for the benefit of his beloved queen, Chinnadevi, a former courtesan who had been his mistress before he became king. This stands in sharp contrast to the practice in Delhi, where kings often had entirely new walled complexes, encompassing both residential and ceremonial functions, constructed at some distance from previous centers. Another difference is that the built environment of the Vijayanagara capital has undergone few changes since 1565, due to the dispersal of its population following the city’s fall from power. Delhi, on the other hand, was not only an urban locality comprised of a whole series of royal complexes but also one that continued to serve as a capital or major center for over 700 years, during which time its urban fabrics were constantly being rebuilt and expanded. The modern visitor to Vijayanagara’s extensive remains built over a 200 year period and to those of Delhi today, a city occupied by kings since about 1200, might therefore believe that Vijayanagara was the larger and more urban setting. This impression would be erroneous, for travelers such as Ibn Battuta had declared Delhi to be the greatest city of the Persian-speaking world, and its position as a major crossroads of trade and communications should not be underestimated. For peninsular India, however, Vijayanagara city was undoubtedly both the largest and most important of all urban centers in the precolonial era.

Vijayanagara kings as exemplary Hindu rulers

Since the early twentieth century, Vijayanagara has often been described as a state established in order to halt the advance of Muslim power in the peninsula. According to this view, the kingdom was born out of a desire to protect Hindu religion and culture, and so its militarism was a direct response to the threat posed by the Muslim presence, that is, the Bahmani Sultanate and its successor states. Vijayanagara allegedly stood as a bulwark against the burgeoning tide of Muslim conquest and thus became the savior of the south Indian people. This interpretation, which sees the Vijayanagara kingdom as inspired by and imbued with a deep sense of Hindu nationalism, is clearly anachronistic – a case of projecting a present-day situation back into the past.

A hundred years later, the flaws in the earlier depiction of Vijayanagara as a nation whose mission was the defense of Hinduism against Islam are readily apparent. For one thing, the concept of a unified Hindu religion did not exist in the fourteenth century, nor did that of a nation composed of all the peoples within a state’s borders. Vijayanagara’s militarism was largely a result of indigenous developments, although it was intensified by competition with more technologically advanced states in an age of escalating warfare worldwide. And the Vijayanagara state’s greatest rival for power was not the Bahmani Sultanate but the Gajapati kingdom of Orissa, a state headed by rulers who were Hindu. Continuing research on the material culture of Vijayanagara has, moreover, uncovered increasing evidence that it was strongly influenced by the states of the Deccan and the wider civilization of Islam.

The Vijayanagara kings did not see themselves as engaged in mortal combat for the survival of Hinduism and south Indian society. However, the rulers of Vijayanagara did attempt to act as righteous kings behaving according to dharma, that is, who lived up to traditional Indic expectations of rulers. An important aspect of kingly duties in classical Indian thought was the protection of the social order and most particularly the upholding of Brahmin privilege. Hence, the Vijayanagara kings sought to portray themselves as champions of the ideal hierarchical society envisioned in Brahmin law books by claiming the title “upholders of varnashrama dharma” (the moral duties of class and stage of life). The early Vijayanagara rulers also sponsored Brahmin scholarship, including a series of commentaries on Vedic literature. Throughout the Vijayanagara era, Brahmins continued to be employed by the court in considerable numbers, and Brahmin lands received preferential tax treatment, not unlike the manner in which the sultanates favored Muslim theologians and institutions. Increasingly from the early medieval period onward, however, notions of royal legitimacy came to rest on linkages with temple deities rather than with Brahmins. It was in the combined role of servant and patron of the gods that the Vijayanagara kings excelled.

Almost simultaneously with their decision to settle in Hampi, the site of the capital city, the Sangamas adopted as their family deity the god Virupaksha, a form of Shiva, who was the most celebrated deity in that locality. In deference to the greatness of the deity they had chosen to be the protector of their family, capital, and kingdom, the Sangamas typically signed the name of Virupaksha to royal decrees rather than their own, suggesting that he was the true lord of the realm. Later Vijayanagara kings continued to engrave Virupaksha’s name on the copper-plate records of their religious grants, well after the capital had been abandoned in 1565. Another acknowledgment of Virupaksha’s pre-eminent status was the practice of announcing all religious endowments made throughout the kingdom in his temple. Virupaksha was thus informed of the meritorious behavior of the donors of religious gifts and, as a witness to their intentions, could safeguard the endowments they had made.

The Vijayanagara rulers honored Virupaksha in more concrete terms as well. Numerous grants of land and villages were made by the kings, their relatives, and their high officials in order to supply the material goods and labor required for the daily worship services dedicated to Virupaksha in his Hampi temple. This temple commenced as a small shrine, essentially a pilgrimage site, prior to the rulers taking over the locality. Extensive construction and renovation of the buildings in the temple complex had begun by the late fourteenth century. One of the most generous benefactors of the temple was Krishnadeva Raya. On the occasion of his coronation in 1509–10, he had a large pillared hall built, along with an enormous towered gateway (gopura). Increasingly, since the fifteenth century, temples in territory ruled by Vijayanagara diverged from the local style common to the Telugu and Kannada-speaking areas. Temples in the local style, such as the earliest temples found at Vijayanagara city, are small with no sense of height or grandeur. Later kings and lords of Vijayanagara chose to build temples that evoked the monumental style of the imperial Cholas, who ruled much of south India until the twelfth century. Thus, the large pillared hall provided by Krishnadeva Raya at the Virupaksha temple, as well as the towering entrances added to this temple and others, were intended to visually rank the Vijayanagara rulers on par with the legendary Cholas, whose temples reflected a sense of the rulers’ extraordinary military feats and their support of dharma.

Virupaksha was not the only god favored by the Vijayanagara kings. A temple to Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, was constructed in the early fifteenth century, most probably by King Devaraya I (r. 1406–22). It was situated in the middle of the city’s royal zone, at some distance from the Virupaksha and other earlier temples. Because Vishnu was thought to have repeatedly rescued the earth and its people from evil demons, he and his various incarnations had long been popular with Indian kings who sought to cast themselves similarly as saviors of their kingdoms. The association of Rama with this site dates back as far as the eleventh century, and the whole region is often identified with Kishkindha, the realm of the monkeys whose help the god-king Rama enlisted in the search for his abducted wife, Sita. Malyavanta Hill is where Rama is said to have spent a rainy season while monkey scouts scoured the peninsula for signs of Sita. Earlier Matanga Hill, the highest spot in the locality, had been the refuge of Rama’s monkey allies, Hanuman and Sugriva, when they were hiding from the wrath of a deposed monkey king.

The importance of Rama to the Vijayanagara kings is evident from the centrality given to the Ramachandra temple in the overall plan of the capital city as it evolved in the first half of the fifteenth century. The temple is both literally and figuratively at the heart of the buildings and public spaces utilized by the court, and it divides this royal zone into two sections. To the west of the temple is the area where the royal family resided; to the temple’s east is the area including the great Mahanavami platform where the public activities of the court were conducted. Further accentuating the centrality of the Ramachandra temple were a series of roads that radiated out from the enclosure in front of the temple toward the north, northeast, and other directions. A different set of roads that circle the metropolitan area have the royal zone, and its Ramachandra temple, at their center.

The link between Rama’s life-story and the city is emphasized by the placement of the Ramachandra temple in relation to the hills associated with Rama’s monkey helpers. The temple’s inner shrine is aligned directly south of Matanga Hill, and both Matanga and Malyavanta Hills can be seen from within the temple complex. Sculptures narrating the Ramayana epic are located both on the exterior walls of the principal shrine and on the inner face of the walls enclosing the temple complex, visibly reminding the visitor of the god’s significance. On the outer face of the enclosure walls, in contrast, there are numerous scenes of court life at the capital, including depictions of elephants and war-horses, military parades, and female dancers. A complementarity, perhaps even a correspondence, between the king of the city and the god Rama is suggested by this distribution of sculptures, with Rama’s sphere internal to the temple and the king’s sphere external to it.

Patronage of Virupaksha’s temple, the major pilgrimage site in their locality, and the construction of new temples like that of Ramachandra in their urban center were important means by which the Vijayanagara kings sought to show themselves as exemplary Indic rulers. But it was not enough to act as a patron of temples within the capital, the locus of royal power, for the king’s righteousness had to be evident throughout the kingdom. Outside of their capitals or home bases, medieval south Indian kings were most likely to endow temples in areas that had recently come under their control. By commissioning buildings or making lavish presents to temples in outlying or frontier territories, kings not only displayed their piety but also visibly demonstrated their ability to allocate resources in that locality.

Krishnadeva Raya, the greatest of all Vijayanagara kings, was a master at this type of symbolic statement made through the medium of religious patronage. At various stages in his long campaign against the Gajapati kings of Orissa, Krishnadeva gave lavish donations to major temple complexes in the territories that had just been conquered. After the successful siege of Udayagiri, a well-fortified stronghold in southern Andhra, for instance, the king and his queens made a triumphant visit to the Shri Venkateshvara temple at Tirupati, then as now the pre-eminent Vishnu temple of the Andhra region, donating jewels and life-size copper images of himself flanked by his two queens, Tirumaladevi and Chinnadevi. (Tirumaladevi was the daughter of one of Vijayanagara’s tributary kings and thus became the chief queen, but Chinnadevi, a former courtesan, was elevated to the status of queen only because of the king’s great love for her.) The images of the king and his wives were installed so that they would permanently be paying homage to the deity. When the second major fort in Andhra, Kondavidu, was captured in 1515, the king, again accompanied by his two queens, made a pilgrimage to the renowned Shiva temples at Amaravati and Shrisailam in the general vicinity of Kondavidu. Once the war was finally won, Krishnadeva Raya embarked on a victory tour of his southern territories. He stopped at the premier temple complexes along the way – at Tirupati and Kalahasti in southernmost Andhra, at Kanchipuram in northern Tamil Nadu, and at Tiruvannamalai and Chidambaram in the central Tamil country – and at each place he gave valuables to the deities, commissioned temple buildings and monumental gateways, or ordered other improvements to the facilities. Following each military victory, the king thus expressed his gratitude to a major god of the newly subjugated area, but at the same time publicized the power he possessed and the good favor shown to him by the gods.

Islamicate influence at Vijayanagara

Although the Vijayanagara kings were personally devoted to certain Hindu gods and dedicated substantial resources to the support of Hindu temples, this does not mean that they or their people were hostile to other religions and cultures. Indeed, Vijayanagara’s ability to flourish for over 200 years owes much to the kingdom’s willingness to adopt new technologies of control that were introduced into the peninsula by the Deccan Sultanates. This is most true in the military sphere, where Turkic cavalry and archery techniques were quickly assimilated. Skilled personnel who were Muslims were also hired into the Vijayanagara army, something the Hoysala rulers had also done in the early fourteenth century. The awarding of nayamkara assignments in return for military service may also have been modeled on the medieval Islamic practice of giving iqtas, which was introduced to India by the Delhi Sultanate. Earlier Indian warrior chiefs had acquired land through inheritance or conquest and thus were lords in their own right, whereas nayamkara, like iqta, was granted to an elite warrior by his overlord and could be revoked at the overlord’s pleasure. The many Perso-Arabic words relating to revenue collection and other administrative procedures that were absorbed into the regional languages of the Deccan – Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu – beginning in the mid fifteenth century suggest that there was considerable borrowing in this realm as well.

It is easy to see the practical value of adopting new military techniques and administrative systems, but less utilitarian aspects of Islamic culture in India were also embraced by the Vijayanagara ruling class. The most visible manifestation of Islamic influence is in the secular architecture of the Vijayanagara capital. While the function of much of Vijayanagara’s secular architecture is not altogether certain, pavilions used for administrative purposes, such as private audience halls and council chambers, or to enclose water, feature arches, domes, vaulting, and delicate stucco ornamentation similar to that seen on the architecture of the Bahmani Sultanate. These structures at the capital city, for example, the Lotus Mahal, the Elephant Stables, and the Queen’s Bath (all modern names), use architectural and decorative components of Islamic architecture, but they are combined in a highly creative manner unique to the Vijayanagara kingdom.

In contrast to secular architecture, traditional Indic architectural forms were retained for all religious structures, whether they were temples of any denomination (Jain, Shaiva or Vaishnava) or even mosques. A case in point is the mosque which a Muslim noble built in 1439 that, like Vijayanagara’s temples, uses only traditional Indic, that is, post and lintel construction. Likewise, the inscription on the mosque refers to the structure not as a mosque but as a dharmasale (hall of dharma or religion), employing Indic terminology. And, as in Indic traditions, the mosque / dharmasale was built to provide merit for the ruler. As Phillip Wagoner has argued, the patron was perfectly adept at code switching from an Indic to an Islamic idiom in any given situation. Wagoner has also pointed out that Vijayanagara rulers and courtiers made a similar distinction between Indic and Islamic styles when it came to clothing: they wore traditional south Indian garb when engaged in a Hindu religious activity or in a domestic setting, but opted for an Islamic style of dress for formal public audiences. The court was a place where the Vijayanagara elite might frequently meet and interact with Muslim visitors or guests, and so Islamic norms which stressed the covering of the body were observed. By wearing tunics, tall caps, and other articles of Islamic dress, the Vijayanagara ruling class was conforming to the fashions not only of the Muslim-ruled polities to their north but also of the larger Islamic civilizational sphere. The adoption of Islamic clothing in certain contexts and the choice of Islamic buildings for secular ceremony was a sign of the sophistication of the Vijayanagara court and its desire to participate in a cosmopolitan culture that extended far beyond the confines of south India.

Some scholars prefer the term “Islamicate” rather than “Islamic” to describe this cultural complex because it was created and carried by people who followed Islam but was not intrinsically related to the religion per se. Stitched clothing, true arches, and paper were all aspects of material culture that were introduced into India by Muslims but had nothing to do with the Islamic faith. The Vijayanagara kings incorporated many facets of Islamicate culture and practice in a dynamic synthesis that heralded a major break with the earlier cultural patterns of south India. The Vijayanagara kingdom may largely have been Hindu, but, contrary to what is often said, it was by no means the last gasp of the ancien régime or a mere continuation under heavy odds of the traditional ways of south India.