Founded in 1336 in the wake of the rebellions against Tughluq rule in the Deccan, the Vijayanagar empire lasted for more than two centuries as the dominant power in south India.
Its history and fortunes were shaped by the increasing militarization of peninsular politics after the Muslim invasions and the commercialization that made south India a major participant in the trade network linking Europe and East Asia. Urbanization and monetization of the economy were the two other significant developments of the period that brought all the peninsular kingdoms into highly competitive political and military activities in the race for supremacy.
Yhe kingdom of Vijayanagar was founded by Harihara and Bukka, two of five brothers who had served in the administrations of both Kakatiya and Kampili before those kingdoms were conquered by the armies of the Delhi sultanate in the 1320s.
When Kampili fell in 1327, the two brothers are believed to have been captured and taken to Delhi, where they converted to Islam. They were returned to the Deccan as governors of Kampili for the sultanate with the hope that they would be able to deal with the many local revolts and invasions by neighbouring Hindu kings.
They followed a conciliatory policy toward the landholders of the area, many of whom had not accepted Muslim rule, and began a process of consolidation and expansion. Their first campaign was against the neighbouring Hoysala king, Ballala III of Dorasamudra, but it stagnated; and after this the brothers reconverted to Hinduism and proclaimed their independence from the Delhi sultanate.
Harihara I then established his new capital, Vijayanagar, in an easily defensible position south of the Tungabhadra River, where it came to symbolize the emerging medieval political culture of south India. The kingdom’s expansion in the first century of its existence made it the first south Indian state to exercise enduring control over different linguistic and cultural regions, albeit with subregional and local chiefly powers exercising authority as its agents and subordinates.
In 1336 Harihara, with the help of his brothers, held uneasy suzerainty over lands extending from Nellore, on the southeast coast, to Badami, south of Bijapur on the western side of the Deccan. All around him new Hindu kingdoms were rising, the most important of which were the Hoysala kingdom of Ballala and the Andhra confederacy, led by Kapaya Nayaka.
However, Ballala’s kingdom was disadvantageously situated between the Malabar sultanate and Vijayanagar, and within two years after Ballala was killed by the sultan in 1343–44, his kingdom had been conquered by Bukka, Harihara’s brother, and annexed to Vijayanagar. This was the most important victory of Harihara’s reign; the new state now could claim sovereignty from sea to sea, and in 1346 the five brothers attended a great celebration at which Bukka was made joint ruler and heir.
Harihara’s brothers made other, less significant conquests of small Hindu kingdoms during the next decade. However, the foundation of the Bahmanī sultanate in 1347 created a new and greater danger, and Harihara was forced to lessen his own expansionist activities to meet the threat posed by this powerful and aggressive new state on his northern borders.
During Harihara’s reign the administrative foundation of the Vijayanagar state was laid. Borrowing from the Kakatiya kings he had served, he created administrative units called stholas, nadus, and simas and appointed officials to collect revenue and to carry on local administration, preferring Brahmans to men of other castes.
The income of the state was apparently increased, although centralization probably did not proceed to the stage where salaried officials collected directly for the government. Rather, most land remained under the direct control of subordinate chiefs or of a hierarchy of local landholders, who paid some revenue and provided some troops for the king.
Harihara also encouraged increased cultivation in some areas by allowing lower revenue payments for lands recently reclaimed from the forests.
The major accomplishments of Bukka’s reign were the conquest of the short-lived sultanate of Malabar in 1370 and the maintenance of his kingdom against the threat of decentralization.
Krishnadevaraya was a prominent ruler of the Vijayanagara Empire of South India. As the third ruler of the Tuluva Dynasty of the Vijayanagara Empire, he extended the empire to most of South India.
He ascended the throne during the most critical stage of the empire and went on to consolidate it as a flourishing empire. He played a major role in defeating the Bahmani Sultans and Portuguese, forcing them to retreat their plans of expanding their empire beyond their boundaries. Along with his prime minister and mentor, Timmarusu, he defeated the Bahmani Sutans, thereby conquering their fortresses of Bidar, Gulbarga, Raichur, and Bijapur. He led a major campaign against the Gajapatis of Odisha, following which he seized and captured the fortresses of Udayagiri, Kondavalli and Kondavidu.
He is often compared with the greatest emperors of Asia and Europe, due to his brilliant achievements and exceptional ability to maintain political stability in the Deccan. By ruling the three most powerful territories in the southern peninsula of India, he was known by different titles.
Since the Portuguese dominated the sea trade along the Indian coastline, he developed friendly relations with them, following which he traded Arabian horses and guns from the Portuguese merchants. He also engaged Portuguese engineers in improving the supply of water in Vijayanagara City, apart from receiving arms for invading Raichur.
Following the defeat of the Sultan of Bijapur, Sultan Mahmud, in 1509 at his hands, towns and villages in Vijayanagar saved from annual raids by the Deccan sultans.
Following his homage to Sri Venkateswara at Tirupati after his successful invasion of the Udayagiri Fort, he defeated the Gajapati army at Kondavidu and captured the fort after a series of initial routs, compelling the army to surrender.
Prathapa Rudra’s plan of crushing Krishnadevaraya and his army was crushed by his attack on the Gajapati Empire’s capital, Cuttack, forcing the former to surrender. A treaty was signed in 1518, according to which the territories in the Odisha kingdom on the north of Krishna River were returned to the Gajapati ruler while maintaining complete peace between the two empires.
Due to his high respect and support for art and Telugu literature, his reigning period came to be known as the golden age of Telugu literature, though Sanskrit, Kannada and Tamil literates were also patronized.
He appointed Ashtadiggajas, or eight poets, in his court – Pingali Surana, Nandi Thimmana, Dhurjati, Ramaraja Bhushanudu, Madayyagari Mallana, Tenali Rama Krishna, Ayyala-raju Rama-Bhadrudu, and most importantly Allasani Peddana.
The Vijayanagara Empire, which lasted for more than two hundred years in the Deccan, had a well-organised administrative system. It was on account of this system that there was an all round prosperity in the state. Under the leadership of its several rulers, the state made a remarkable progress in the economic, cultural, political and social fields.
Kingship Krishnadeva Raya, the greatest ruler of the Kingdom of Vijayanagara explains the position of Kingship in his book, that “A crowned king should always rule with an eye towards Dharma”.
The ruler was a benevolent despot. He was the head of the state and was regarded as the God’s representative on earth. The king was the supreme authority in civil, military and judicial matters.
Council of Ministers
The king was assisted by ministers who were nominated by the king. The ministers were appointed from the three classes i.e. Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaishayas. The offices of ministers were sometimes hereditary. The three important key posts of the state were the Prime Minister, the Chief Treasurer and the Prefect of the Police.
There was the rule of two rulers simultaneously. Hari Har I and his brother Bukka Rai ruled at the same time. Likewise Vijay Rai and Dev Rai ruled at the same time.
For the purpose of administration, the empire was divided into 6 provinces. A province was called Prant, or Rajya.
Each province was under a Nayak who was either a member of the royal family or influential noble of the state. He enjoyed civil, military and judiciary powers within the province and was required to submit regularly account of the income and expenditure to the government.
The provinces were divided into smaller units. The village was the smallest unit. The village assembly was responsible for the administration of the village. The village accountant and the village watchman were the hereditary officers. These officers were paid either by grants of land or from a portion of the agricultural produce.
Sources of revenue
Land revenue was the chief source of income. The land was divided into four categories, wet land, dry land, orchards and woods.
Usually the share was one sixth of the produce and revenue could be paid in cash or kind. The rates varied according to the type of the crops, soil, method of irrigation, etc.
Apart from land revenue, other taxes were namely irrigation tax, grazing tax and import- export duties on merchandise goods.
Administration of justice
The king was the highest authority or the supreme court of justice. His word was final. Petitions were presented to the king or the Prime Minister by all those who had a grievance and these were disposed of according to the principles of Hindu Law. Punishments were very severe.
Torture was used to find out the truth from the alleged culprit. Death sentences, mutilation of the limbs of the body and confiscation of property were the deterrent punishments for the criminals. In the villages, panchayats dispensed justice for ordinary crimes.
The caste system was a major social norm to be fulfilled and was enforced to the letter. Each breed was represented in each population by a council of elders. These groups were responsible for the promulgation and maintenance of law, but needed a royal decree authorizing them to apply a particular rule.
The untouchables also part of the caste system and were represented by several leaders (kaivadadavaru).
The caste system, however, did not influence when promoted to senior positions in the army or the administration to persons who had rendered valuable services. On the other hand, the scheme served to be taken into high regard Brahmins. The Brahmins were devoted to spirituality and literature. Their separation of material wealth and power made them ideal referees in litigation at the local level, and the presence of Brahmins in every town and village was organized from aristocratic circles, to maintain order. The fame of the intellectual caste (such as the poets Molla, Kanaka Dasa or Vemana) shows the degree of social cohesion and fluidity which won the empire.
The ritual of Sati, although voluntary, was a common occurrence. Only in Vijayanagara, are discovered more than fifty entries related to the ritual. The satikal commemorating the custom of widows, while her husband’s funeral pyre burns, jump into the fire, while the sati-viirakal were intended to remind women who practiced Sati after her husband died in battle so Hon. In both cases, women were recognized at the level of a demigod.
Social and religious movements of the past centuries, as the one led by lingayatíes , allowed greater flexibility in social behavior traditionally more coercive to women. Women in southern India were actively involved in matters previously considered for “men”, such as administration, business, trade and the fine arts.
Tirumalamba Devi and Ganga Devi, authors of Varadambika Parinayam and Madhuravijayam respectively, are two of the most notable poets of the time. Tanjore Nayakas sponsored a large number of poets and poetesses. There was also a place of worship devadasi. Harems were frequented by noblemen and the royal family.
In contrast with the lowly, the royal family was surrounded by pomp in court. The queens and princesses had a multitude of servants, all of whom were dressed in the finest fabrics and jewels, and their works were not only very specific bit cumbersome.
Exercise was a very popular practice among men, and the most popular sport was wrestling. The royal palaces in every city had a gymnasium, and in peace time; the armies and their commanders were ordered to train.
The royal palaces and markets had specific places for both the nobility and the common people enjoy cockfighting championships, sheep or female wrestling. Games were also played.
Most of the details we know about the society of Vijayanagara Empire have come through the travel books written by the contemporary visitors and the information they give us the archeological excavations.
Many foreigner visitors like Nicolo, Abdul Razaq and Dominigos Pius have praised the prosperity of the state.
Various Sanskrit and Telugu works bear the history of the Empire. A constructive study of these sources goes a long way in correcting the chronicles in many places and conveys information which would make a fuller history of the Empire possible.