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

Maritime trade

The Vijayanagara kings called themselves “Lords of the Eastern and Western Oceans,” a title that asserted hegemony over the Bay of Bengal to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west of the Indian peninsula. Domination over the coastal territories was one of Vijayanagara’s primary geo-political objectives and a frequent cause of conflict with other kingdoms. Krishnadeva Raya tells us why coasts were so important:

A king should improve the harbours of his country and so encourage its commerce that horses, elephants, precious gems, sandalwood, pearls and other articles are freely imported . . . Make the merchants of distant foreign countries who import elephants and good horses attached to yourself by providing them with villages and decent dwellings in the city, by affording them daily audience, presents and allowing decent profits. Then those articles will never go to your enemies.

Access to ports meant access to a range of coveted goods, including the essential war-horse. Other items like sandalwood, musk, and camphor were deeply embedded in the rituals and gift exchanges that pervaded court life and helped constitute the charisma of kings.

Despite the claim implicit in their title, the Vijayanagara kings seldom exercised direct control over the western seaboard, a narrow strip of land that was separated from the peninsular interior by the Western Ghats. The western littoral had for centuries been ruled by a multitude of small chiefs who might enter into tributary relations with the more powerful overlords of the interior but were nonetheless lords in their own right. One such lineage was the Jain chiefs of Bhatkal port, on the Kanara coast (of modern Karnataka state) to the southwest of the Vijayanagara capital. Shipments of war-horses came to Bhatkal from the Arabian peninsula and Iran and were sent overland to the Vijayanagara capital. Copper and gold were also imported to Bhatkal from the Middle East while pepper, sugar, and textiles were among the items exported. As these goods were moving into or out of Vijayanagara territory, they would be subject to various taxes, but the revenues from the commercial transactions that took place at international ports like Bhatkal went to local chiefs rather than to the Vijayanagara state.

The lords of Bhatkal and other western ports took active measures to encourage foreign merchants to come to their towns since revenues from maritime trade were virtually their only income. Consequently, Arab traders from all over the Middle East did business on the southwestern coast and communities of indigenous Muslims also emerged in places, as a result of conversion and/or intermarriage with local residents. The largest concentration of Muslim population was found around Calicut in northern Kerala, on what is known as the Malabar coast. Calicut became the greatest entrepôt or free port of the western seaboard during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries partly because of the policies of its rulers, the Zamorins. Unlike other lords on the western littoral, the Zamorins did not plunder ships seeking refuge from storms, nor did they claim shipwrecks as treasure; rather they provided security. So many Arab merchants were attracted to Calicut that Ma Huan, a Chinese visitor of the early fifteenth century, believed its entire population to be Muslim.

A community of indigenous Muslims known as Mappilas also flourished in the Calicut region. The Mappilas spoke the local language, Malayalam, and observed many local customs but were actively engaged in maritime commerce, unlike other local communities. While the Arab merchants dominated the overseas trade from the Malabar coast to the west, the Mappilas were mostly involved in commercial activities along India’s coast and also on the routes to Southeast Asia. According to an estimate by an early sixteenth-century Portuguese traveler, Mappilas comprised a fifth of the people within the Zamorins’ domain.

The Malabar coast, on which Calicut is situated, has a long history of international maritime trade going back to the era of the Roman empire. Its chief export to the western world was black pepper; other items produced in Malabar were ginger, cardamom, teak (a hard wood used in ship building), and the aromatic sandalwood. Because indigenous social groups were almost entirely preoccupied with local agrarian matters, maritime trade along the Malabar coast had always been in the hands of immigrant trading communities. Two of the immigrant communities were the Syrian Christians and the Jews, who had been resident in Kerala probably hundreds of years before their presence is definitively attested in copper-plate grants, from the ninth and late tenth centuries, respectively. Similarly, although the earliest proof of Muslim presence dates back only to the ninth century, Arab sailors must have come to the Malabar coast long before the advent of Islam. Hindu mercantile groups from other areas of India had joined the cosmopolitan society of the Malabar coast by the fifteenth century, among whom were Chettis from the southeastern coast and Baniyas from Gujarat in western India.

Calicut was such a bustling emporium that it was visited even by Chinese ships – Ibn Battuta witnessed thirteen of them upon his arrival in Calicut during the 1340s. The Chinese came to “the great country of the Western Ocean,” as Ma Huan described Calicut a century later, in order to acquire items like frankincense and myrrh from the Middle East as well as pepper, diamonds, pearls, and cotton cloth from India. In exchange, they sold Chinese silks and ceramics which were in high demand in both India and areas to its west. Establishing diplomatic relations with the Zamorin, which involved the exchange of trade items, was the main objective behind the first state-sponsored naval expedition to Calicut. Led by Admiral Cheng Ho (who was accompanied on later expeditions by Ma Huan, acting as translator), it included 317 ships and over 27,000 men. Calicut continued to be a major stop on Cheng Ho’s subsequent voyages, but he gradually journeyed farther west: to Hormuz, Aden, and eventually Mogadishu on the east coast of Africa.

Cheng Ho’s ships were exceptional in traversing the entire Indian Ocean from one end to the other; instead, most ships just sailed one segment of that expanse: from south China to Java or Malacca, from Malacca to Sri Lanka or India, and from the subcontinent to the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea, and then to destinations westward. The great appeal of the Malabar coast was the availability of goods from China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and other areas of India, which were brought there for trans-shipment because of its geographical location as a midway point. When Vasco da Gama, sailing on behalf of the Portuguese crown, became the first European to find a direct sea route to Asia in 1498, it was to Calicut that he headed in search of pepper and fine spices.

Portuguese hostility toward the Muslim ships and traders who frequented the Malabar coast soon led to open conflict and introduced a new phenomenon to the Indian Ocean: the use of violence as a means of furthering commercial objectives. The artillery mounted on Portuguese ships, which were heavier than the indigenous vessels, gave them a decisive advantage and enabled them to rapidly seize a series of coastal sites including the Sri Lankan port of Colombo in 1505, the Malay port of Malacca in 1511, and the Persian Gulf port of Hormuz in 1515. With possession of this string of strategically located harbor cities, the Portuguese tried to control all sea trade in spices from Asia to Europe. They also profited from the maritime trade within Indian Ocean waters, through the requirement that local ships pay custom duties to them or face bombardment. The center of the maritime empire the Portuguese established was Goa, a port seized in 1510 which was further north on India’s west coast than the Malabar region. Portuguese Goa was in direct competition with Calicut, which declined in importance over the long run. The introduction of Roman Catholicism and the emergence of a mixed population through intermarriage between the Portuguese and local women were two of the most important consequences of the Portuguese arrival, adding even more to the cultural diversity of India’s west coast.

On India’s southeastern or Coromandel coast, Pulicat was the major port in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Situated on the border between modern Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, Pulicat was part of Vijayanagara territory and was linked to the capital by a road. Textiles were the principal export from Pulicat to Southeast Asia, sent by Muslim and Hindu merchants from Coromandel and a diasporic community of Armenian traders. The imports included Indonesian spices (nutmeg, cloves, and mace) and non-precious metals. Pulicat also had an on-going coastal trade with Bengal, which supplied many foodstuffs to the Coromandel coast and Sri Lanka and possibly some of its better textiles. Bengal was renowned for the quality of its textiles, for Ma Huan names six different kinds of fine Bengal cloth, both cotton and silken.6 Bengal too had maritime links with Southeast Asia. Although ships and sailors from other parts of the world appear to have dominated the international trade, Indians had a greater role in the shipping within the waters of India and Sri Lanka and, to a lesser extent, to Southeast Asia.

Domestic economy

Little of what was being bought and sold in the ports of Calicut, Pulicat, Cambay in Gujarat, or Chittagong in Bangladesh was produced in their immediate vicinities. Most commodities were brought to these major emporia by boats engaged in coastal trading or overland by pack bullock. Since the thirteenth century, the volume of domestic trade in peninsular India had increased for reasons that had little to do with the international maritime trade. South India’s thriving networks of internal trade and production of marketable commodities certainly contributed to the success of India’s international port cities and, in turn, received an additional boost from international demand. Despite the greater attention paid by historians to the international commerce of this era, the domestic sector was much larger in scale and value.

Even before the Vijayanagara period, the peninsula’s agrarian economy had been growing due to construction of new irrigational facilities, large reservoirs that captured rainfall and the seasonal flows of small streams. The agricultural productivity of the semi-arid uplands was considerably enhanced by better water supplies and, as a result, the agrarian frontier was gradually pushed back into more marginal areas. Commercial agriculture – that is, the cultivation of crops for sale – increased, and different localities specialized in different products including cotton, indigo, and sugarcane. These commercial crops had to be hauled long distances, for sale in market towns, periodic fairs, and distribution points along the coasts. Long-distance trade during the Vijayanagara era was facilitated by the development of excellent roads linking the main urban centers and by the creation of roadside facilities for travelers.

At least eighty major trade centers are mentioned within Vijayanagara territory, a clear indication that urbanization was on the rise. The greatest of all was the Vijayanagara capital, with an estimated population of 300,000 to 400,000. It sprawled out over a huge area – the central city was an estimated 25 square kilometers in size, while the greater metropolitan area, encompassing the outermost fortifications as well as the city’s waterworks, covered as much as 650 square kilometers. The city’s people must have consumed massive quantities of food, while the demand for luxury goods from the kingdom’s ruling elite, who were congregated at the capital, was no doubt considerable. The extent to which trade networks were centered on the capital is clear from the rapid decline of Bhatkal and Pulicat ports after the city was abandoned. The much smaller kingdom that was left after the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Talikota in 1565 shifted its base to southern Andhra and thus away from the old supply routes. The activities of the Portuguese, who had arrived in India in 1498, were also a contributing factor, but the primary cause for the decay of Bhatkal and Pulicat was the loss of the Vijayanagara market, with its enormous consumer demand and purchasing power. Pulicat was supplanted by Masulipatnam, the chief entrepôt of the growing Golkonda kingdom, once again demonstrating the impact of political centers on the geographic patterning of trade.

Large temple complexes were also major consumers of goods and served as a stimulus to trade. Temples accumulated large quantities of land, livestock, and valuables like gems, precious metals, and coins from the donations of pious pilgrims. Much of this wealth was used to support daily rituals in worship of temple deities as well as for periodic festivals, both of which increased in number and in scale over the Vijayanagara period. Oils and incense were lighted for the gods’ pleasure, perfumes and flowers adorned their images, and offerings of foods were made several times a day. In addition to administrators, priests, cooks, gardeners, and guards, large temples also had musicians and dancers to entertain and honor the gods. Sculptors, metalworkers, and other artisans found employment in the towns that sprang up around large temples, as did merchants catering to the pilgrim trade.

The hundreds of inscriptions at the Shri Venkateshvara temple in Tirupati record the great expansion in ritual activities that occurred during the Vijayanagara period. According to Burton Stein, the temple received grants of over a hundred villages as well as large sums of cash from more than 300 donors. Most of the endowments, whether in the form of land or money, were meant to support ritual services, both on a daily basis and on special festive occasions. At Tirupati, as at other temples belonging to the Shri Vaishnava sect, food offerings were of particular centrality. While food given to the deity at Shiva temples was consumed only by priests, at Shri Vaishnava temples the food was redistributed to donors and pilgrims as a sacred substance (prasada). The volume of food provided to the god, and later to his devotees, reached a surprisingly high level; by one calculation, the Shri Venkateshvara temple had sufficient resources in 1504 to feed over 1,400 pilgrims on an ordinary day and about 3,800 on a festival day.

Tirupati was not a typical situation, for it was one of the largest centers of the Shri Vaishnava sect, whose influence had been gradually spreading northward from the Tamil country since the days of the famous theologian, Ramanuja, c. 1100. Ramanuja integrated the orthodox philosophy of the Sanskrit Vedanta, which emphasized a transcendent and universal absolute essence (brahman), with the emotional devotion to a personal god (bhakti) that had been characteristic of the Tamil region for centuries. The Shri Vaishnava movement developed around temple complexes that were favored by Vijayanagara kings and high officials, more than those of any other persuasion, from the late fifteenth century onward. Each of the forms of Vishnu enshrined in a Shri Vaishnava temple has a distinct life history and a different appeal, as is the case with all south Indian deities. Lord Venkateshvara of Tirupati, for instance, takes the shape of an unusually large image that supposedly manifested itself in an ant-hill. It is commonly believed that he is especially receptive to devotees who vow to shave their heads in return for a boon.

Records of donations to temples like Tirupati show that merchants and skilled artisans benefited from the growing prosperity of Vijayanagara India. So, for example, professional organizations of traders would agree to make voluntary contributions to a specific temple, usually assessed as a percentage of goods sold. Individual merchants might make donations of land or cash, as did some wealthy weavers and workers in precious metals. While merchant-traders had been occasional patrons of temples even earlier, it was only in the Vijayanagara period that skilled artisans became prosperous enough to do so. As their economic standing rose, weavers and other artisan communities began to demand more social recognition and sought prominent roles in temple ceremonies. Many artisans appear to have favored the Tengalai branch of the Shri Vaishnava sect, which used the vernacular Tamil language in its liturgy rather than Sanskrit and was thus more accessible to the non-Brahmin and non-elite elements of society. The Tamil community of weavers known as the Kaikkola are one example. They successfully attained positions of responsibility at the two major Tengalai temples, Shrirangam and Tirupati. At the latter, they were in charge of the important task of distributing consecrated food offerings to the worshippers.

The growing trade and urbanization of Vijayanagara India parallel trends that had occurred earlier in north India at the height of the Delhi Sultanate. During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, south India became the most dynamic area of the subcontinent both economically and culturally. This was an age of physical mobility, social diversity, and cross-cultural borrowing all over the Indian peninsula. The reality that some ruling elites were Muslim while others were Hindu made a considerable difference in what institutions and individuals received the bulk of that state’s religious patronage. It also determined to a considerable degree what artistic styles and literary traditions would be prominent at a court. In countless other respects, however, ranging from revenue systems to military technologies to palace architecture, the large kingdoms of the peninsula were strikingly alike.