Indian History Part 73 The Sangama Dynasty Section VII Vijayanagara

Canberra, 23 June 2019



Often the name of the capital, which forms the principal seat of government, is given to the whole empire or kingdom that it controls. The Roman Empire and the Vijayanagara Empire both fall into this category.

The Chalukya scion Vijayadwaja ruled in Kishkinda, a much reduced territory in comparison to the once great Chalukya kingdom, from 1117 to 1156. He built a city on the southern banks of the River Tungabhadra. The city was strengthened by fortifications around a series of hills that surrounded it. In a somewhat limited fashion, Vijayadwaja was a powerful monarch and the city he built became as important as the older town, Anegondi, on the northern banks of the river. The city must have been built around 1150 at the height of Vijayadwaja’s power, and he called it after himself, Vijayanagara. The city did not exist in its glory for long, but continued to exist for nearly two centuries in some form or the other. Subsequently it was rejuvenated into becoming the capital of the greatest Empire of medieval India.

Much after Vijayadwaja’s demise, the town came to be called Vidyanagari for a brief period, after the sage Vidyaranya revived the city in grand proportions. For some inexplicable reason, in some of the copper-plate grants the new city is referred to as Anegondi in Canarese and Hastinavati in Sanskrit.

The first mention of Vijayanagara in external chronicles is in the narrative of Soleman (Suleiman?), a ninth-century Muslim merchant from Basra, who travelled to the Indian sub-continent. In the narrative of his travels, Soleman mentions a kingdom in the Peninsula where cotton cloth was made of such fine quality that a complete robe made of the cloth could pass through a signet ring. [Similar descriptions of the cloth made by the weavers in other parts of the Indian sub-continent can be found in later-day descriptions also. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that many different areas of the vast sub-continent excelled in the production of exquisite textiles and other artistically exuberant material for centuries.]

The chronicle of the merchant Soleman was translated from the Arabic to French and published in Paris in 1718 and from the French into English in 1733. However, it was only in 1845 that a correct English translation of the chronicle was brought out by M Reinaud. Reinaud considers ‘the country where fine cotton was manufactured’, and where the king went to war with 50,000 elephants, to be ancient Vijayanagara Empire.

A Connection to the Arabian Nights

Some historians consider the descriptions of the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor in the stories of the Arabian Nights to be based on real facts that were known to the Arabs at that time. The voyages described are, in terms of the timeframe, coincident with the dates of travel of Soleman the merchant in the ninth and 10th centuries.

In the stories, the first country that Sindbad reaches is that of the ‘Maharaja’, the Great King. The author of this tale also recounts the tradition or legend of the king’s mare meeting a stallion that emerges from the sea and the fervent beating of drums that accompany this meeting. This story is also repeated in some narratives from Malaya. The tradition is connected, in a vague manner, to the founding of Vijayanagara, which is almost at the centre of Peninsular India. It could be inferred that Sindbad’s Maharaja was an allusion to the Raya of Vijayanagara who was known to the Arabs.

Nicolo Conti’s ‘Bizenegalia’

From the very first days of its founding in its second iteration, as early as 1375, the beauty of the capital of the empire, Vijayanagara, was renowned far and wide. The city continued to grow in importance and grandeur as successive kings added to its stature and strength. Around 1420-22, an Italian traveller, Nicolo de Conti visited Vijayanagara. He belonged to a Venetian noble family and had been a merchant in Damascus in his younger days. He journeyed in the East starting in 1420-22, and returned to Venice in 1444. The visit must have been shortly after Deva Raya II, the greatest Sangama ruler, took charge of the administration as the co-regent during his father’s reign.

Nicolo Conti (1395-1469) apparently did not keep a chronicle or write anything down during his travels. His stories and observations were recorded by the Pope’s secretary in Latin for the Holy Father’s information, after having extensive conversations with Conti himself.

The Story of a Confession

Conti visited many parts of the interior of the Indian sub-continent and then moved on to Ceylon, Sumatra, and Java. He also visited South China, before returning—passing the coast of Ethiopia, the Red Sea and crossing the desert to reach Cairo. From there he returned to Venice. Once in Venice, he petitioned the Pope, Eugene IV, for absolution since he had been compelled to renounce his Christian faith many times during his travels, for fear of losing his life.

The Pope granted the prayer but on condition that, as penance, Nicolo would relate the stories of his travels to the Pope’s secretary, Poggio Bracciolini. The narrative was published in Paris in 1723 and translated later into different languages.

Over the years, the original narrative in Latin was translated to Portuguese and then retranslated into Italian. There was a Latin version published in Paris in 1723, which is believed to have been the original, although the veracity of this claim cannot be verified. It is highly likely that the original has been lost in antiquity and therefore the accuracy of the translated tomes in their entirety should not be taken for granted.

Conti reached India at the port of Cambay in Gujarat and stayed there for nearly a month. Thereafter he travelled south, down the coast to ‘Barkur’. In the account written regarding his travels, the names of the towns in India are mentioned—written and called—in peculiar ways. The reason for this re-naming and re-spelling of the town names cannot be explained or understood. [There are two probable reasons and it could also be a combination of both. One, it may have been difficult for Conti to pronounce the names or comprehend the meaning of some of them, making it impossible to get even the phonetic spelling correct. This situation was obviously compounded by the fact that Conti recounted his travels to someone at a much later stage from which the available account has been created. The person recording the narrative, Bracciolini, is highly unlikely to have travelled to the East and therefore would have been unfamiliar with the names. Two, the names could have been corrupted in the translation, since they were done by people who had never visited India and most probably had no knowledge of the written or spoken vernacular of the region.]

From Barkur, Conti travelled inland to Vijayanagara, which he referred to as ‘Bizenegalia’. However, in this chapter the city will continue to be referred to as ‘Vijayanagara’ unless another corrupted spelling comes up, when it will be mentioned.

Conti describes Vijayanagara being at the foothills of steep mountains with a circumference of 60 miles and having a population of over 90,000 citizens ‘capable of bearing arms’, meaning adult males. The mountains he refers to are a mass of rocky hills, some of them rising to reasonably good heights. The lines of defences are described as extraordinary, with ‘walls carrying up to the mountains’. The vast community living in the city was a mix of nobility, merchants and peasants, with the dwellings of the upper class being made of stone while the peasants lived in poor and squalid habitations, often between boulder-covered heights. The Raya ensured adequate irrigation to facilitate cultivation and agriculture. The city also boasted a number of temples with ‘wonderful’ carvings in them and had Brahminical schools and colleges attached to them.

Culture, Religion and Traditions

Conti declares the Vijayanagara king to be more powerful than any other in the region. He describes the Raya as having 12,000 wives, an obvious exaggeration. In this observation Conti seems to have been completely misled. Deva Raya II, the king that he encountered, had two ‘Patta Mahishis’, meaning married Queens. Each of the Queens had hundreds of attendants and Conti seems to have mistaken these women also to be the Raya’s wives.

Nicolo Conti goes on to describe the practice of ‘Sati’, of the wife being burned on the funeral pyre of her husband, without actually using the term ‘Sati’. The authenticity of this report is doubtful since Sati was not a practice common to South India and had never been so. In fact some inscriptions of the time explicitly mention that although the practice of Sati was sanctioned by Hindu scriptures, it was not a common practice in Vijayanagara. It is highly likely that he heard about the practice from some other source and embellished his story of Vijayanagara with it, while not being able to recall the term used for the practice, while he was recounting the tales of his travels at a much later stage. It is also possible that the mention of Sati could have been added at a later stage by a translator who may have thought that the practice was common to all Hindus.

Conti also recalls the practice of parading the idols of the more important temples in chariots around the town, accompanied by a great deal of singing and dancing. The chariots were pulled by men who would pierce their skin with needles and attach ropes from them to the chariot to pull it forward. This practice is still observable in some regions of South India. In association with the chariot ambulation, Conti mentions that men committed ritual suicide by throwing themselves under the wheels of the chariots. This assertion is also questionable since ritual suicide was not a practice accepted or condoned in Hinduism. If Conti did indeed witness a death under the wheels of the chariots, it must be considered as the result of some accident, probably created by a minor stampede.

Conti also describes the festivals of Holy, Diwali, Mahanavami and also the celebrations that were conducted to usher in the New Year. He provides details of the computation of the calendar that was used, which was based on the Zodiac. He goes on to mention the diamond mines of the kingdom, locating them about 15 day’s journey to the north of Vijayanagara. This information is also wrong, since the mines were actually located to the east, near the River Krishna and in later chronicles were referred to as the ‘mines of Golconda’. He also observed the army and comments on the siege engines that were used. He mentions the army as having been numerically very large, putting the figure at more than a million, a number that cannot be verified from any other source.

The Venetian noble provides a very interesting observation regarding the way in which the Hindus viewed the Europeans who had already started to make their presence felt in the sub-continent. The Hindus called them ‘Franks’ and generally thought of people of different religious persuasions to be ‘blind’. Hindus were considered to have two eyes and the Christians to have only one eye. Further, the Hindus considered themselves to be the best, excelling all others in matters of prudence. This insight into the Hindu thinking regarding both Christians and Muslims is a matter for further consideration, since this attitude to other religions could provide the basic reason for some of the actions that were initiated by Hindu kings when faced with the armies of the ‘outsider’.

Abdur Razzak’s Bidjanagar

Abdur Razzak was the Persian Ambassador who led an embassy from the Shah of Persia to Calicut, capital of the kingdom of Malabar ruled by the Zamorin (Samoothiripad). He arrived in Calicut in November 1442 after a ten-month journey from Persia. His first impression of Calicut was very favourable. He speaks very highly of the honesty of the people and the facilities made by the state to assist and enhance trading activities, although he is derogatory regarding the physical appearance and dress of the local people.

While residing in Calicut, in April 1443, he was summoned by the ‘King of Bidjanagar’ to present himself at the Vijayanagara court. Razzak writes that this king, although not the overlord of the Zamorin of Calicut, was greatly feared and therefore Razzak was asked to undertake the journey to the Vijayanagara court. This episode of the Persian Ambassador being summoned finds mention in both Vijayanagara and Malabar records. Razzak left Calicut by sea to Mangalore, which he mentions as the frontier of the Vijayanagara Empire. He then travelled inland, passing many towns, till he reached Vijayanagara in late April. He stayed in the city till 5 December 1443. Legend has it that at that time, Vijayanagara possessed 300 ports, each as great as Calicut, and that its territory comprised space that took ‘three months journey’ to traverse. Razzak’s initial description of the city is of seven citadels, each bounded in walls that ‘enclose each other’.

Razzak’s Description

Razzak states that the outer citadels—fortresses—were round and built on top of the hills, and constructed of lime and stone. Each of the citadels had a permanent detachment of guards at each gate. These gates also doubled as octroy posts, collecting taxes on goods going out and coming in. The palace enclosure inside the citadels was reported as being a square of about seven miles length. The space between the outermost wall i.e. the first and the second and between the second and the third concentric walls were filled with cultivated fields with minimal houses and some gardens. The area between the third and the fourth, all the way to the seventh were devoted to personal dwellings, shops and bazaars, which were long and broad.

Beside the king’s palace were four large bazaars with the portico of the palace to the north. The audience hall in the king’s palace was at the most elevated position. The shops in the bazaars were arranged according to the items that they sold, while streams and canals of chiselled stone interspersed the shopping districts.

Razzak also provides a description of a three-day festival that he witnessed, mistakenly calling it Mahanavami. However, according to the dates given by Razzak, it must have been the New Year celebration, with his description also corroborating with the earlier report by Nicolo Conti who had visited Vijayanagara about 20 years earlier. The report states that for three days, the royal festival was conducted in style from sunrise to sunset with a great deal of fireworks, games and amusements for the common people. The description by both Conti and Razzak of the three-day New Year festivities provide a clear indication of the splendour of the great Hindu capital of the 15th century.

The Daftar Khanah

Abdur Razzak describes a mini-palace called the ‘Dewan Khanah’ to the left of the king’s audience hall, which is described as a ‘the forty-pillared hall’ in later descriptions of the palace. This smaller facility would in all probabilities be the Daftar Khana, a room that measured 20 yards by seven yards and situated within the larger Dewan Khana, which functioned as the working office of the senior minister and his support staff.

This office also functioned as the ‘court house’ and the repository of documents and records. The Dewan, Prime Minister, presided over the functioning of this central office, where he settled all the people’s affairs as well as hearing and disposing of all petitions. There was no process for an appeal after a decision was given.

Robert Sewell Explains the Citadels

Robert Sewell is even today considered one of the foremost experts on the story of Vijayanagara. He explains the seven citadels as described below:

If the traveller approached the city from the south-west, the first line of walls connected two hills south-west of Hospet, which was the first view of the city for all travellers arriving from the west coast. The next line of walls was at the entrance to Hospet and the third line towards the north of the town, since Hospet was relatively thinly populated. The fourth line of walls, with a strengthened gateway ran to the south of the village of Malpanagudi, where several ruins of the wall can still be seen. The fifth line was to the north of Malpanagudi where the gateway still stands although the walls have been completely destroyed. The sixth line is to the south of Kamalapur tank and the seventh wall, which is the inner wall is still perceivable to the north of the Kamalapur tank. The inner wall enclosed the palace and other government buildings.

It is reported that a great deal of ruins, especially of the concentric walls, were still visible in early 19th century but most have vanished in the interim two centuries to now. The walls were concentric and mutually supporting, facing west, which was considered the most probable approach path of an invader. [Although an on-going enmity with the Bahmanis and their successor kingdoms had led to a number of wars, it is obvious that the prospect of an invasion from the sea to the west was always considered a threat by successive Vijayanagara kings. The orientation of the defensive structures for the capital is indicative of this awareness—that the more serious threats to the kingdom would emanate from the west!]

‘In pursuance of orders issued by the king of Bidjanagar, the generals and principal personages from all parts of his empire…presented themselves at the palace. They brought with them a thousand elephants… which were covered with brilliant armour and with castles magnificently adorned… During three consecutive days in the month of Redjeb the vast space of land magnificently decorated, in which the enormous elephants were congregated together, presented the appearance of the waves of the sea, or of that compact mass which will be assembled together at the day of the resurrection. Over this magnificent space were erected numerous pavilions, to the height of three, four, or even five storeys, covered from top to bottom with figures in relief… Some of these pavilions were arranged in such a manner that they could turn rapidly round and present a new face: at each moment a new chamber or a new hall presented itself to the view.’

Abdur Razzak’s description of the New Year Celebrations,

Quoted by Robert Sewall in A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar, p. 68.


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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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