Continuing my ongoing series on the Vijayanagara Empire, in my last post, I had looked at how the reign of Sri Krishnadeva Raya, was regarded as a Golden Period of Telugu Literature. Starting the series after a long gap, shall be looking now at the glory of Vijayanagara empire, what made it one of the greatest empires down South. While Vijayanagara reached it’s zenith during the reign of Sri Krishnadeva Raya, it was the culmination of a long eventful period, which saw many a ruler contribute to the empire, lay down the rules and values that defined it.
Vijayanagar adopted the best practices of earlier kingdoms like the Hoysalasa, Kakatiyas, Pandyas, when it came to governance, making changes only where necessary. It was not surprising, considering that most of the Vijayanagara rulers, were drawn from these 3 kingdoms, and they bought over the best practices from there. The ultimate authority was with the King, who was assisted by the Pradhana, his cabinet, which in turn was headed by the Mahapradhana, his Prime minister. The Chief Secretary or the Karyakartha, the imperial officers called the Adhikari, and the scribes made up some of the other important positions at the palace. At the lowest level, wealthy feudal chieftains called the Goudas, had Karanikas( Accountants) and Kavalu( Guards) working under them. The entire administration was divided into 72 departments called Niyogas, each having trained female attendants who handled minor administrative matters and also served as courtesans.
The entire empire was divided into provinces called Rajyas, under a commander called Dandanayaka and headed by a Governor. The Rajyas were further subdivided into regions called Kottam, which in turn were subdivided into counties called Nadu or Seema and which had muncipalities known as Kampana. Most of these Rajyas were under the control of clans, who paid tribute to the Emperor, while certain Rajyas like Keladi and Madurai, directly were under commanders.
Troops were led by the king’s commanders, and large scale invasions were rare, you had the occasional Battle of Raichur. The more preferred mode of attack, was taking strategically important forts or destroying them. Vijayanagara was among the first empires in India to use long range artillery, that was manned by foreign gunners. There was the King’s private army which was directly recruited which consisted mainly of infantry, cavalry and elephants. The other was the Army that was given by each fedual chieftain, which consisted of archers, musketeers, shieldsmen, horses and elephants.
Located in a primarily arid region, Hampi depended on a network of canals and hydraulic systems that supplied water throughout the year. Huge tanks were constructed for storage, and a very sophisticated network of pipes and channels, using siphons transported water to palaces and the large temple complexes. In the fertile Tungabhadra doab region, canals with sluice gates were dug to get water into the irrigation tanks, while digging of wells was encouraged for water.
Primarily an agricultural economy, jowar, cotton were grown in the dry areas, while sugarcane, rice thrived in the more humid coastal areas. Betel, Areca and coconut were the major cash crops, and a vibrant textile industry sprung around the large cotton fields. Spices from the Malnad region were transported to the cities, and Hampi was a thriving trading center, especially in gold and diamonds. In fact a saying goes that in the markets of Hampi, diamonds, rubies, pearls and emeralds, were sold openly. Masons, sculptors, artists found employment through the construction of huge temple complexes and buildings. Majority of the farmers were tenant farmers, and were given partial ownership of the land. Taxes were levied on a case to case basis, for eg, as perfumes was a major trading item, taxes on rose petals were quite low. The same was applied for manufacture of salt and ghee.
There was a thriving sea trade, especially with China, and the major ports were located at Machilipatnam, Mangalore, Honavar, Bhaktal, Cannanore, Kochi. Many products were bought in from China and traded with by the empire. Taxes were levied on all merchandise arriving in ships, and Calicut grew to be a major trading town, with Arabs, Khorasians, Persian traders all settling down there.Ship Building was a major industry, construction was done by fastening entire hull with ropes, these ships went as far as the Red Sea ports of Aden and Mecca. Spices,myrobalan, timber, semi precious stones, cotton cloth,porcelain were exported mainly, cotton yarn was sent to Burma, while Indigo to Persia. In turn the Empire imported copper, mercury, coral,rose water etc from Palestine, silk from China and horses from Persia. East coast ports like Machilipatnam, exported calico cloth, muslin, diamonds mined in Golkonda, while importing non ferrous metals, camphor, porcelain and silk.
Caste system was quite rigid, and untouchability was common , each caste had it’s own caste leaders who represented the entire community. However it still remained a fluid society, especially in the military where men from lower castes could make it to the higher echelons. Brahmins were sought after for their wisdom, and in many towns, they often arbitrated in disputes. It was also a time, when scholars from lower castes like Molla( who hailed from a Potters caste) and Kanakadasa( a Kuruba) gained popularity through their writings and works. Though Sati was common, it was mostly followed by upper classes and was purely voluntary. Movements like Lingayatism, provided impetus to social reform and flexibility, and women did play a major role. Women poets like Tirumalamba, Gangadevi, Kummari Molla, were quite popular. Wrestling was a major entertainment, and many of the royal buildings had gymnasiums, while cock fights, ram fights were popular among the masses.
While Vijayanagar rulers were primarily Shaivites, starting with the founders Harihara and Bukka Raya, they were equally supportive of Vaishnavism too.The empire’s symbol was Varaha, one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu. Many Central Asian nobles settled around Hampi, and archaelogical digs have also shown up an Islamic Quarter. While the latter Suluva, Tuluva rulers were Vaishnavites, they also worshipped Lord Virupaksha at Hampi. Bhakti movement was quite strong in the Vijayanagara empire, spread primarily by Haridasas, which like the Virashaiva movement, aimed at removing discrimination among the masses. Haridasas were primarily of 2 kinds, Vyasakutas and Dasakutas, the former were proficient in the Vedas and Upanishads. The Dasakutas on the other hand, conveyed teachings of Madhvacharya, in the form of Kirtanas, through his disciples like Jayatirtha, Sripadaraya and Vyasathirtha. Purandara Dasa considered the Pitamaha of Carnatic Music, spread social awareness through his compositions, while his disciple Kanakadasa,carried on the work, and was regarded as the Kuladevata by Sri Krishnna Deva Raya. The great composer Annamacharya, who composed many kirtans in honor of Lord Venkateswara also belonged to this period.
Shravanabelagola, and Kambadahalli were the two major Jain centers, while trade contacts with Arabia and Persia, meant many Muslims settled on the West Coast. Most of the Muslims settled on the Malabar coast, intermarried with local women, and were often called as Mapillas, later corrupted to Moplahs. Trading contacts with the Portugese meant the presence of many churches on the West Coast, as also the numerous Dutch settlements too.
In my next post, I would be looking at how architecture developed under the Vijayanagara Empire, as also the growth of literature.