Indian History Part 72 Disputed Origins: The Continuing Debate

Canberra, 16 March 2019 

The first reality that is noticeable regarding the great Vijayanagar Empire is that unlike many other famous, and infamous kingdoms, it is named after a city with the title ‘Empire’ added to it. It is opined that calling this great Hindu empire, unquestionably the greatest in medieval India, by the name of its magnificent capital Vijayanagara is a misnomer and of a more modern origin. It has now been proven through research that throughout its actual existence, the kingdom/empire was called ‘Karnata Samrajya’, meaning the ‘Kingdom of the Carnatic’. This title is more appropriate and understandable.

The name Karnata Samrajya has been used in many inscriptions across the history of the empire and is also seen in many literary works. Krishna Deva Raya, one of the Empire’s more illustrious kings, used the term to denote his kingdom in the Sanskrit work ‘Jambavati Kalyanam’ that is attributed to him. A Telugu book of the period, ‘Vasu Charitam’ also uses the term to denote what modern history refers to as the Vijayanagara Empire. In fact, Vijayanagar was only one of many capitals of the empire, since the central seat of the government moved many times during the centuries of the kingdom’s existence. However, for ease of understanding and to adhere to what has become the accepted terminology in modern history, this volume uses the term ‘Vijayanagara Empire’ to denote the kingdom whose history is being narrated—from its inception to its final demise.

Karnataka, the generic term used for the geographic region in which Vijayanagara is situated, is the Sanskritised form of the vernacular Kar and Nad or Kari and Nadu, meaning ‘Black Country’ on account of the soil of the region being predominantly black. The area is centrally positioned in Peninsular India with River Krishna in the north, the Western Ghats in the west and demarcated by the River Vedavati in the east. The land is generally flat in the north and undulating towards the south. The region is fertile with five major perennial rivers—Bheema, Krishna, Tungabhadra, Vedavati and Kavery—flowing across it. Standing in silent testimony to its militarist background, the region also has around 40 hill-top forts—fort called in the vernacular ‘durga’ meaning ‘unassailable stronghold’—spread across it. The core territory of Vijayanagara Empire encompassed the modern districts of Bellary, Dharwar, Chitradurga and Mudgal. Later all Kannada speaking areas came to be known under the generic name ‘Karnataka’, which was a region defined by the two major Rivers Kavery and Godavari.

Like Hindus across the entire Indian sub-continent, the population of Karnataka was also divided into many castes and creeds. There was a minority of Brahmins in the state; the Banajigas and Nagarthas were trading class; while the Chattris and Arasus claimed to be Kshtariyas, although both these groups were also minorities. The bulk of the population of the region were Vokkaligas, the general cultivators of the land. There were also the shepherds called Kurubas and Bedas who were hunters, who together as a group formed the bulk of the fighting force of the kingdom. The Kurubas are a fiercely independent people and well known for their sturdy physique and obstinate character. They can be compared to the Ahirs of North India or the Dhangars of the Maharashtra region.

The Bedas are hereditary huntsmen who lived in the hills and forests and are uniformly great swordsmen. They are customarily called Naiks, loosely meaning chiefs, and resemble the Bhils of Central India and the Mavalas of Maharashtra. Traditionally in the Karnataka armies, the Kurubas formed the bulk of the officers and generals while the Bedas filled the ranks of the common soldiery.

Prologue to Independence

The plundering, and later conquering, military raids of the Muslim armies of the Delhi Sultanate into the Deccan were well into its fourth decade by the time the local Hindu chieftains began to become alarmed regarding the ultimate objectives of these invasions. It is also noteworthy that the campaigns also equally alarmed the Muslim armies that had been stationed in the Deccan and the South since the beginning of the Islamic invasions. The reasons for this attitude of the resident Muslim army are many, but extraneous to this narrative. It was but natural that rebellions and revolts would breakout against the occupying forces at the slightest opportunity. Revolts broke out in Bengal, Ma’bar coast and the Devagiri region. However, the most formidable opposition to the northern invasions coalesced in central Deccan where a sort of informal confederacy against Delhi started to take shape.

The defeat and annexation of the kingdom of Kampili and the sacking of the Hoysala kingdom has been covered in detail in an earlier chapter. At this stage, the Delhi Sultan, Muhammad bin Tughluq, was physically in the Deccan and having destroyed the last two Hindu bastions of South India, actually controlled almost the entire Peninsular India with the exception of few pockets of fierce resistance. By 1330, the entire North India was firmly under Muslim rule and the Deccan had also been overrun by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate. In fact, the Northern Muslim armies were threatening the rest of South India with conquest. The region south of River Krishna, although continuing to be under Hindu domination, was being directly threatened by Muhammad bin Tughluq, whose intolerance, ferocity and ambition were only spoken about in whispers.

However, the Sultan was far away from his own capital and his formidable army was scattered across the entire sub-continent. Observing a sliver of opportunity where the strength and power of the Tughluq Sultan was seen as being spread thin on the ground, rebellions started across the Sultanate. With the Sultan in the Deccan, the Northern provinces erupted in revolt. The first to rebel and declare independence was the powerful governor of Punjab, Kislu Khan. (A detailed account of the rebellions in North India that Muhammad bin Tughluq faced is given in Volume V of this series of books, From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume V: The Delhi Sultanate.) Realising the fundamental threat to his core kingdom, Tughluq appointed Malik Naby (Naib?) as the governor of his southern headquarters at the fortress of Anegondi and hurried back to Delhi. On the news of Muhammad Tughluq’s departure for Delhi, the local people besieged Anegondi fort and isolated the newly appointed governor. The push back against the northern Islamic armies in the South and the Deccan had started.

The Origin of Empire

There are differing theories, narratives, legends and stories regarding the origins of the Vijayanagara Empire, none of which can be fully authenticated indisputably while at the same time cannot also be discarded as being figments of imagination. This situation is not unique to Vijayanagara. Often successful dynasties and kingdoms find it difficult to trace their origins correctly, especially in the modern recounting of their storied history. It is even more difficult to pinpoint events and developments that made a particular dynasty great or to identify the inputs that combined to establish an empire and elevate it to greatness.

In the case of Vijayanagara, the only common agreement in all sources of information is acceptance that the first kings of the empire were Harihara I and Bukka I, with Harihara referred to as Hakka in some chronicles. Harihara is the first person with whom the story of Vijayanagara and that of his dynasty starts and he is accepted as having been the eldest son of Sangama through his wife Kamambika. All other information available regarding the very first days of the founding of Vijayanagara Empire is mired in controversy, especially the linguistic and cultural affiliation of the founding members of the Sangama dynasty. It can also be believed that the dynasty came into being as the result of a supreme Hindu effort to protect their religion and ‘dharma’ from complete annihilation. At this critical juncture in the flow of events in the Deccan and South India, it became necessary to provide a bulwark against devastating flood of Muslim invasion from the north—the founders of Vijayanagara provided the strength to keep the floodgate shut. Under these circumstances the exact date of the founding of the dynasty and the establishment of the kingdom is only of academic interest, especially when viewed after so many centuries. It seems to be sufficient to know the decade, or two, in which the kingdom became established.

The Antiquity of Anegundi

Founded sometime in the 10th century, the fortified township of Anegundi, situated on the northern banks of the River Tungabhadra has thereafter played an integral part in the history of South India. It is considered by modern historians to be the mother-city of the capital of the medieval Hindu kingdom that bears the name of its capital itself—the Vijayanagara Empire. It is believed that Anegundi served as the traditional administrative headquarters for much of the Karnataka region and is thought to have been mentioned in the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, which itself is dated to more than 2000 years back.

‘If a straight line be drawn on the map of India from Bombay to Madras, about half-way across will be found the River Tungabhadra, which, itself a combination of two streams running northwards from Maisur [sic], flows in a wide circuit north and east to join  the Krishna not far from Kurnool. In the middle of its course the Tungabhadra cuts through a wild rocky country lying about forty miles north-west of Bellary, and north of the railway line which runs from that place to Dharwar. At this point, on the north bank of the river, there existed about the year 1330 a fortified town called Anegundi, the “Nagundym” of out chronicles, which was the residence of a family of chiefs owning a small state in the neighbourhood. They had, in former years, taken advantage of the lofty hills of granite that cover that tract to construct a strong citadel having its base on the stream.’

Robert Sewell,

A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar, p. 4.

Hampi and Anegundi are a mere 12 kilometers distance from each other, but situated on the southern and northern banks of the River Tungabhadra. However, the two are intimately connected in the narrative of the medieval history of the region. The earliest settlements near Hampi are dated to 1100, and the poet Harihara mentions the famous Virupaksha Temple of Hampi in his works that are in turn dated between 1150 and 1250. There is definitive proof of the existence of Hampi in 1237 and it has also been proven that its construction was spread over a long time. In fact the core of the township was built over a period of time and is a collection of buildings, which can be definitely identified as having been erected at different times. The Bhuvaneswari Shrine could be dated to the 11th century since its architecture matches the style of the Chalukya period.

There are also conflicting dates that are given for the construction of the ‘gopuram’ (the ornate and monumental entrance tower to a Hindu temple in South India) of the Virupaksha Temple (also called the Pampapati Temple in some accounts) with one set of records giving the date as 1199 and the other set stating that the foundation for the gopuram was laid in 1118. This discrepancy of slightly more than 80 years could be explained by the language used in terms of beginning of the construction and the consecration on completion. In either case, it is certain that the temple existed in all its glory before 1200.

There are some inscriptions that are attributed to the ancient kings of Anegundi, dated even before the time of the Gajapathi kings who ruled Anegundi for a considerable period of time from around the 10th century. There is also evidence that both Hampi and Anegundi were part of the great Chalukya Empire, with some Jain princes ruling the region as vassals in the 10th century. It is also certain that the rulers of Anegundi, whoever they were at different times, were chiefs and kings of considerable influence even during the Muslim invasions.

Ancient Glory

It has been established that the chiefs of Anegundi became feudatories of the Hoysalas only at a later stage in their history, being independent rulers albeit of a territorially small kingdom. By some accounts, they had existed as a ruling dynasty for over 700 years by mid-14th century. However, this assertion is open to question since irrefutable proof of their rule before the 9th century is not available. The first Anegundi king who can be clearly identified is Nandamaharaja who has been dated to the year 1014 by multiple sources. It can also be ascertained that the king Vijayadhvaja shifted the capital to the south of the river, naming the new capital Vijayanagara, in 1150. Even though there are no inscriptions to verify the date and name, Vijayadhvaja could be considered the founder of the original Vijayanagara around or upon which the new capital was built. What is absolutely certain is that the Virupaksha Temple existed much before Hakka and Bukka moved to make Vijayanagara their capital.

Dates According to Francis Buchanan

[Francis Buchanan (1762-1829) (later known as Francis Buchanan-Hamilton) was a surgeon with the East India Company, serving in India and exploring the region from the end of 18th century till 1815. He made significant contributions to understanding the sub-continent as a geographer, botanist and zoologist. His travelogue, A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar, published in 1807, provides great insights into the region and its history.]     

Buchanan writes in his travelogue that the origins of the Vijayanagara Empire has not been well-researched or understood and that it is of great curiosity. He refers to the book ‘Gramapaddhati’ and gives 493 as the founding date of Vijayanagara, on the south of the Tungabhadra, after Anegundi had been reclaimed from some invaders.

He goes on to quote Ramappa’s ‘Rayapaddhati’ to assert that the Yavanas of Anegundi ruled for 54 years (782-836) when the citadel was captured by the Hoysalas who changed the capital to Dwarasamudra. Subsequently the Kampili kings ruled Anegundi for about 30 years till the last Kampili ruler Kumara Ramanatha was killed in battle in 901. Buchanan states that nine kings of the Bhoji dynasty then ruled Anegundi and surrounds for 145 years till 1063, followed by 18 kings from Andhra for 211 years.

According to Buchanan this was followed by the rule of ‘Mlechchas’, foreigners, obviously Turks from the north, for a few years before they were expelled and the rejuvenated Vijayanagara city was established in 1336. Buchanan’s dating is not fully believable, especially since the narrative was compiled few centuries after the events and conspicuously relied on oral traditions in the keeping of historical records. However, while the dating may not be accurate, the narrative that provides the flow of events seems to be fairly believable.

With conflicting timeframes provided by different sources, it is difficult to date events in Anegundi with any assurance of accuracy. However, it can be ascertained that Anegundi was a fortified town in early 1300s, ruled by a family of autonomous chiefs controlling the fort and surrounding areas. The small state, on the north side of the River Tungabhadra, was secure because of the lofty granite hills on one side and the unfordable river on the other. The Hindu chiefs ruling the state would have definitely realised the importance of moving to the south bank of the great river as an antidote to the oncoming Muslim attacks from the north. It is clear that Harihara and Bukka recognised the strategic importance of the river being the border in keeping their fledgling kingdom relatively safe.

The Mythological Narrative

Anegundi is located within the region that formed part of the legendary kingdom of Kishkinda, ruled by the ‘Vanara’ king Sugriva. [The term ‘Vanara’ has been derogatively translated as ‘monkey’ but in mythology the term would have meant people living in the ‘vana’ or forest. The derisive term ‘monkey’, is believed to have been foisted on these forest dwellers by racially arrogant north Indian ‘scholars’, based on the darker skin and different facial features of the original people of the sub-continent who had moved to the Deccan and South India.] His elder brother Vali had turned Sugriva out of the kingdom for some misdemeanour.

During his stateless wanderings, Sugriva met Rama the celebrated hero of the epic Ramayana, somewhere near the source of the River Pampa (Tungabhadra) around the same place where the town of Vijayanagara was later established by the Anegundi chiefs. Thus the famed Vijayanagara Empire originated at the same place where Lord Rama assisted king Sugriva claim the kingdom of Kishkinda.

There are a number of place names near Hampi that are the same as the ones mentioned in the Ramayana. There are also a number of inscriptions that have not yet been fully authenticated, which mention the rule of Janamejaya Raya, the son of Emperor Parikshit, who was the scion of the Pandavas of the second Hindu epic, Mahabharata. However, the dates provided in the inscriptions have been found to be unreliable.

Connection to Sringeri Math

The sage Vidyaranya, reported as a disciple of Vidyasankara (also known as Vidyatirtha), is attributed as having written the book titled Rajakalanirnaya that provide details of the early kings of the Sangama dynasty. Vidyaranya’s brother Bharati Krishna was the pontiff of the famed Sringeri Math and according to accounts in the book, he was told the origin of the Vijayanagara Empire in secret.

Briefly, the story goes: the city of Vijayanagara was famous in history, but had become derelict and its stature had declined considerably. Vidyasankara decided to restore the previous glory of Vijayanagar and moved to the Matanga Parvata, Matanga Mountains, close to the city and started to live there. At this stage, two brothers Harihara and Bukka, said to belong to the ancient Kuru dynasty/clan of the epic Mahbharata, came to Vidyasankar’s hermitage. It is claimed that these brothers had been the treasurer and secretary to the Kakatiya king, Pratapa Rudra of Warangal till the Muslim destruction of Warangal. Thereafter they had moved to the service of Kumara Ramanatha in Kampili, and had been captured by Delhi forces on the fall of Kampili. After being released by the Delhi Sultan, they had taken up residence at Hastina Kona on the banks of the River Tungabhadra.

Hastina Kona has been variously referred to as Hastinavati, Hampi, Hampe-Hastinavati and Anegundi. An inscription that has been dated to 1347, still referred to the township as Hastini. After settling in the city, Harihara and Bukka became worshippers of Virupaksha and also came under the influence of Vidyasankara. In this story, there seems to be some confusion between Vidyaranya and Vidyasankara and the claim that the brothers had been converted to Islam in Delhi has been avoided. There is also no mention of the Tughluq sultan’s injunction to them to rule on his behalf. In fact, their mission to rule the region that had been the Kampili kingdom before, has been underplayed. Even so, the story follows the generally accepted sequence of events.

A Tenuous Hoysala Connection

There is an opinion that Vijayanagara was one of the residential capitals of the Hoysala king Ballala III, then known as Hosapattana. A number of Hoysala inscriptions support this theory. If this theory is correct, then it would indicate that Harihara and Bukka could have been chieftains or commanders under the Hoysalas. Even though it cannot be proven without any doubt that the brothers were Hoysala vassals, epigraphic research and interpretation of inscriptions point to the possibility that Harihara and Bukka were local princes in the service of the Hoysala kingdom.

It is proven without doubt that Ballala III created multiple capitals and moved between them frequently. This was presumably done to secure the borders of his kingdom, especially against Muslim invasions, both from the north and from the emerging Madura Sultanate to the south. The many capitals were also meant to ensure that the Hoysala kingdom could remain better connected to other Hindu kings in the region, a move that points towards the acceptance of the need for a joint or combined defence against the onslaught of Islamic armies. It is also obvious that Ballala III appreciated that his northern borders were the most vulnerable—he had absorbed a signal lesson from the ignominious fall of the Kakatiyas of Warangal.


There is a debate that questions whether or not Hosapattana was within the geographic limits of the Hoysala kingdom itself. Fluctuating boundaries were normal and the Hoysala borders were no exception. Since Hosapattana was located at an extremity of the kingdom it cannot be determined whether it was in the kingdom or not, a situation that in turn brings doubt to the assertion that Vijayanagara was Hosapattana.

The facts that are proven are: most inscriptions of antiquity indicate that Ballala III had built a residential capital at Hosapattana and that it was in the same place as Hampi and also that it was part of the Hoysala kingdom at least most of the time.

Early Vijayanagara inscriptions also refer to Hosapattana as being the capital. It is only around 1355 when Bukka ascended the throne that Vijayanagara was built. Many historian assert that Hosapattana was rebuilt as Vijayanagara and that both are identical to the ruins of Hampi that is seen today.

Origins: Kannada or Telugu?

While the origins of Vijayanagara as a capital and the name of an illustrious Empire is shrouded in mystery and doubts are still expressed about its antiquity; the antecedents of Harihara and Bukka, the founding brothers of the dynasty is also the topic of intense research and discussion. However, there is no one, accepted, acknowledgement of the origins of these two princes/chiefs/commanders/ministers—whether they belonged to the Kannada-speaking or Telugu-speaking people. Most of the available facts and arguments associated with this controversy are given below, although no conclusive verdict regarding the origins of Harihara and Bukka has been given in this analysis. This narrative remains content with letting the enigma continue.

The description of the coronation of Harihara in 1346, conspicuously mentions the name of the widow queen of Ballala III as being in attendance with her name appearing ahead of that of Harihara himself. This can only indicate that Harihara derived his legitimacy to become king and rule from his connection to the Hoysala royalty and claim to their legacy. In this case, the theory of Vijayanagara being the Hoysala township of Hosapattana is also invoked. The Hoysala connection is also emphasised in the theory that Vijayanagara’s rise was peaceful and gradual and could be considered a bloodless transfer of power—the Sangamas replacing the Hoysalas as the ruling elite with the nobility and military commanders of Dwarasamudra transferring their support to the Sangama kings at an opportune moment.

In some modern narratives Harihara is mentioned as the commander of the northern territories of the Hoysala kingdom, granted autonomous powers by the king Ballala III. He is supposed to have assumed the throne on Ballala being killed in battle with the southern Madura Sultanate. This is a tenuous argument and is not supported by any of the other sources available to the researcher. This argument seems to be based on the known titles assumed by Harihara, which are almost all in Kannada. Further, the inscriptions of some of the early kings of the dynasty is said to demonstrate a clear anti-Andhra/Telugu propensity, which is provided as proof of the Sangamas being of Kannada origin. Some historians also completely discount the theory of the capture of Harihara and Bukka by the Delhi Sultan, their conversion to Islam, and subsequent repatriation as vassal rulers in South India. The assertion that such an event did not take place is perhaps an attempt by later-day historians to clear the name of the dynasty and establish their untainted reputation as champions of Hinduism.

The claim of Telugu origin is more predominant in available Muslim chronicles and is mainly based on the brothers’ service with Pratapa Rudra of Warangal and their possible imprisonment by the Delhi forces. These chronicles also accept that Harihara and Bukka later came under the influence of Vidyaranya, who became their spiritual guide and brought them back to the Hindu fold. These accounts also declare Vidyaranya’s connection to the Sringeri Math (‘Math’, or ‘Mutt’, is a Sanskrit word that means ‘cloister, institute or college’ an also use to denote a Hindu monastery) and identifies him as the 12th Shankaracharya of the ‘Math’ as well as the patron saint of Vijayanagara.

Robert Sewell, an acknowledged authority on the history of Vijayanagara, considers Harihara and Bukka to have been treasury officials in the service of the Kakatiya king Pratapa Rudra, who were taken prisoner at the fall of Warangal and converted to Islam by Muhammad bin Tughluq. They belonged to the Kuruba caste and was returned to South India by the Sultan with the imprimatur to consolidate the region in his name. However, there is no irrefutable proof to consider these as facts to be taken for granted.

Concluding Analysis

In the final analysis, what is certain is that there is no clarity regarding the origins of the Sangama dynasty. The debate regarding whether they were of Kannada or Telugu linguistic identity is of more recent origin and brought about in an effort to claim the ‘greatness’ associated with the famous Empire that came to be created from humble origins by two enterprising brothers. The debate regarding the linguistic identity of the founding dynasty did not exist even after a century of the establishment of the Empire, when it was at the height of its glory. Of course, it is certain that the Sangamas belonged to South India, and were chieftains and military commanders in the service of some of the more prominent dynasties of the region. Their linguistic origin is unclear and considering their later achievements, does not really matter in the broader assessment of their rule and accomplishments.

It remains a fact that origins of the Vijayanagara kingdom has been the subject of intense debate and continues to be so. Other than for the fact that the founders were two brothers belonging to the Sangama family, everything else about them was, and is, open to more than one opinion. Their service with the Kakatiyas and then the Kampili kings; their capture by Delhi forces and conversion to Islam; their subsequent return to South India to enforce the writ of the Delhi Sultanate; and then their coming under the influence of a Hindu sage; and thereafter their founding of the most powerful Hindu kingdom of medieval India; are all open to question regarding the authenticity of the claims.

Recent Scholarly Developments

Recent investigations by Hermann Kulke and Phillip Wagoner have come out with some radically different interpretations of the events that led to the founding of the famed Vijayanagara Empire. It is opined that although the Sangama brothers were local Hoysala military commanders, they did not convert to Islam and were also not affiliated with any Hindu sage or saint. Instead, they seem to have voluntarily given political support to the Tughluq government of Devagiri (Daulatabad) and then sought to establish their own principality when the Tughluq power started to wane in the Deccan.

The latest explanation of the origins of the undoubtedly great Empire is bound to raise the hackles of analysts and historians who have so far held on to the opinion that the Sangama brothers conceived of an overtly Hindu state when they embarked on founding Vijayanagara. [To the ‘nationalistic’ spirit of a rejuvenated Hindu culture that is prevalent in India currently, the new assertions may not be palatable. However, from a historical research point of view, these opinions cannot be discounted off-hand, but must be analysed and rejected or accepted based on the veracity of the proof that is produced. Such a way forward may not be possible if religious frenzy and emotions take over the debate, as often happens in modern India.]

Since the Sangama dynasty was only the first of four dynasties that would subsequently rule the empire, the kingdom has been historically named not after the dynasties as is the normal custom or after the regional name of Karnata or Karnataka, but after the newly created capital, Vijayanagara—the City of Victory.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2019]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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