In this article we will discuss about the estimate of kingdom of Vijayanagara (South India) during the medieval period.
The Vijayanagara empire was one of the successful results of political contest of the Hindus against Muslim aggression in south India. The founder rulers Harihara and Bukka were inspired by the contemporary Hindu saint, Madhava Vidyanaranya to establish it primarily in defence of Hindu religion. They largely succeeded in their aim.
Of course, the rulers of Vijayanagara also fought against the Hindu rulers of Orissa, Warangal and others for their political gains, yet, their main enemies remained the Muslim rulers of Bahmani kingdom or rulers of those five states in which Bahmani kingdom was divided afterwards.
The causes of the conflict between the Vijayanagara and the Bahmani kingdom were economic, political and cultural. Both, primarily, contested for capturing the Krishna-Tungabhadra-Doab. The Doab was on the boundary of both the kingdoms and both desired to capture it with a view to extend their territories.
The Doab was not only very fertile but also rich in minerals, e.g., iron, and also had diamond mines which allured both the kingdoms to fight against each other for economic gains. Besides, on the one hand, while the Muslim rulers of the South were determined to destroy the strong hold of Hindu political power and culture represented by Vijayanagara empire, on the other hand, the Hindu rulers of Vijayanagara fought back to save their political existence and Hindu culture in the South and they succeeded in their efforts for a long time.
The rulers of Vijayanagara followed the traditions of Hindu polity in administration. The king was the head of the state and he was regarded as the God’s representative on the earth. He was the lawmaker, the highest administrator, the supreme commander of the army and the highest judicial authority in the state. Yet, the kings of Vijayanagara were not tyrants but enlightened despots.
The king was assisted by a council of ministers in administration and its advice was binding on the king at times. The king was guided by the rules of Dharma and the rulers of Vijayanagara looked after the welfare of their subjects as defined by Dharma. Besides, the ministers, there were many other high officials in the state.
Different departments looked after different activities and thousands of civil servants worked in those departments. The empire was divided into six provinces for the convenience of administration. The head of a province was called Prantpati or Nayaka. Mostly the relatives of the king were appointed to these high offices of the state and they enjoyed wide powers in relation to their respective provinces.
The provinces were divided into smaller units. A province was divided into Mandals and Mandals were further sub-divided into smaller units called Nadu, Sthal, Kottam. etc. However, the smallest unit was the village. Certain historians have described that one distinguished feature of the administration of the Vijayanagara empire was the existence of a particular type of feudalism.
The king used to assign land called Amarama to his feudal chiefs who, in return, paid fixed yearly amount to the king and also kept a fixed number of soldiers to assist him in wars.
They were called Amara Nayakas, were fairly independent in their internal administration, owed more responsibility in administering their territories as compared to provincial governors and mostly became hereditary owners of their lands or Jagirs. In the middle of the 16th century, their number was nearly two hundred.
The village constituted the smallest unit of administration where the village-assembly (Panchayat) looked after the administration of the village but enjoyed little autonomous powers. There were some officers for the village.
These officers of the village enjoyed hereditary rights. The officer called the Sentayava looked after the income and expenditure of the village, the Chaukidar of the village was called the Talra and the Begra looked after unemployed ones, labourers and their wages, etc.
Besides, there were twelve administrative officers jointly called the Ayagaras who were appointed by the government to look after certain specific duties in the areas assigned to them. They were not paid wages but were exempted from taxes in return of their services to the state. The primary sources of the income of the state were the land-revenue, irrigation-tax, grazing-tax and import-export duties on merchandise goods.
The land-revenue was 1/5th or a little more of the produce. The Vijayanagara empire kept a large standing army which constituted of war- elephants, cavalry and infantry. The kings recruited Turkish-archers in their army. They also kept an artillery but it was in a crude form. There was a separate department to look after the military administration. The head of military department was called the Dandanayaka or the Senapati.
All sorts of coins, viz., of gold, silver and. copper were issued by the rulers of Vijayanagara. Figures of different gods and goddesses were marked on coins. The justice of Vijayanagara kings was severe. Death-sentence, mutilation and confiscation of the property were the deterrent punishments for criminals. The rulers of Vijayanagara were devotees of Vaishnavism.
However, they were tolerant towards all other religions. The Muslims, the Christians, the Yahudis and people of other faiths were provided equal protection by the state. Thus, the kings of Vijayanagara established a liberal, tolerant and efficient civil administration. But, their military organisation remained weak and its primary weakness was a weak artillery.
Besides, the kings gave extensive powers to provincial governors and Amara-Nayakas. That proved a weakness of their civil administration because when the central authority became weak, they assumed independence and, thus, participated in the disintegration of the empire.
Society was well-organised in the Vijayanagara empire. Women were respected in the society. They were educated and were absorbed in government services. They were trained not only in fine arts like music, dance, painting, etc. but also in fighting, wrestling and weapons of war. Women, therefore, were employed as bodyguards as well. Many scholarly women were patronised by the court.
However, certain social evils concerning women as child- marriages, polygamy, dowry-system, practice of sati, Devadasi system etc., were prevalent in the society. However, efforts were made by the state for improving the condition of women.
Two clear proofs are available for that. Because of child-marriages, the dowry-system had become rampant in the society. The Brahamanas, therefore, requested the state to declare taking and giving of dowry illegal and the state accepted it. It is proved by an inscription of 1424-25 A.D.
The same way, though the state charged marriage-tax from both the parties, it exempted people in case of remarriage of widow and, thus, encouraged widow-marriages. The state did not encourage the practice of Sati though did not prohibit it. Brahmanas were respected in the society. Except the Brahmanas who avoided meat from their diet, there was no restriction of any sort on other castes in matters of food except the flesh of oxen or cow.
Animal sacrifices were common. Mostly buffaloes and sheep were sacrificed on occasions of important festivals. The people wore both cotton and silk clothes. Man wore Dhoti, shirt, cap or Pagri and a Dupatta on his shoulder. Woman used Dhoti and Choli while rich woman used Petticoat as well.
Shoes were used only by rich people. Both men and women used ornaments. The state did not arrange for the education of the people but temples and Maths did it and the state provided ample financial assistance to them. The Agraharas provided education only of the Vedas.
The Vijayanagara empire was the most prosperous state of its time. Several foreign travellers who visited Vijayanagara during the fifteenth and sixteenth century gave glowing description of the wealth and prosperity of the state and its people. The Italian traveller Nicolo Conti, the Portuguese traveller Domingos Paes and the Persian ambassador Abdur Razzaq praised the riches of the Vijayanagara empire.
They described that not only the king and the nobles were rich but even the common people enjoyed prosperity. The common people could afford to wear ornaments in their ears, necks, arms, fingers, etc. Besides the gold, pearls, diamonds and other precious stones were used to prepare ornaments. There was no dearth of any commodity; the prices of all articles were low; and, everything remained stored up in case of need.
All travellers also praised the beauty and splendour of the city of Vijayanagara. Nicolo Conti wrote- “In this city there are estimated to be ninety thousand men fit to bear arms. The king is more powerful than all the other kings of India.”
“(The city is) of great extent, highly populous and the seat of an active commerce in country dealing in diamonds, rubies from Pegu, silk of China and Alexandria and Cinnabar, camphor, musk, pepper and sandal from Malabar.”
The rulers of Vijayanagara were largely responsible for this prosperity of their state. They had encouraged agriculture, trade and commerce and provided every facility to their subjects for their development. There had been, therefore, tremendous progress in every field and the fruits were enjoyed both by the state and its subjects. The kings were very much tolerant towards people of all faith and therefore, got cooperation from all. Barbosa praised King Krishnadevaraya very much.
He wrote- “The king is extremely liberal in religious affairs. The Christians, the Yahudis, the Muslims, etc. can come and go, live wherever they like and pursue their religion freely in his kingdom.” Iranian traveller Abdur Razzaq praised the city of Vijayanagara thus- “I have never seen a city like Vijayanagara nor ever heard of a city in the world like it. The city has been encircled by seven walls, one inside the other, for protection.”
The Portuguese traveller Domingos Paes also wrote:
“It is the most beautiful city of the world where wheat, rice, barley, pulses and every other article is available in abundance.” He again wrote- “The king has enormous wealth, soldiers and elephants because everything is available here in abundance. . . .You will find citizens of every country here because the people of this city carry on trade, in precious stones particularly in diamonds, with every country of the world.”
Besides brisk internal trade, the empire maintained trade relations with distant foreign countries as Malaya, Burma, China, Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Africa, Abyssinia and Portugal. The main articles of export were cloth, rice, iron, sugar, saltpetre, spices and perfumes while the articles which were primarily imported in the country were horses, pearls, copper, mercury, silk and velvet.
The trade was carried on both by land and sea and the Indians manufactured ships of their own. According to Abdur Razzaq, the kingdom of Vijayanagara had three hundred ports. The Vijayanagara empire kept a small navy as well. The main industries of Vijayanagara were cloth, perfumes and utensils of various metals. The industrialists and businessmen were organised into trade-guilds to look after the interests of trade and industry.
Mostly gold and copper coins were used though there were some silver coins also. Thus, the empire enjoyed widely prosperous economy. However, the system suffered from one serious defect. Mostly the burden of taxation was suffered by the common people which resulted in economic disparity among the people.
Literature and fine arts progressed within the Vijayanagara empire. The rulers encouraged Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada literatures and languages. During its early period, Sayana wrote commentaries of the Vedas. His brother Madhava Vijayaranya was also a scholar of repute.
King Bukka I encouraged Telugu-literature. He provided protection to a great Telugu-poet, Nachan Soma. King Devaraya II provided court-patronage to thirty four poets. King Krishnadevaraya made free Telugu from the influence of Sanskrit language and, thus, opened way for independent writings called Prabhanda.
His court was graced by eight famous poets of Telugu including Pedanna. Besides Telugu, he patronized scholars of Tamil and Kannada as well. Therefore, the rule of king Krishnadevaraya marked the zenith of the growth of various literatures. He himself was a scholar and patronised many scholars at his court.
During the entire period remarkable texts on religion, philosophy, grammar, drama, music, dance etc. were produced. Fine arts like music, dance, painting and architecture also made good progress. The temple of Vitthalaswami and the Hazara temple built by Krishnadevaraya have been regarded as the finest specimens of Hindu architecture.
Thus, the Vijayanagara empire occupied an important place in the history of its own times. It occupies a remarkable place in Indian history because of its polity, economy, administration and cultural progress. Its one remarkable success had been that it provided shelter and the opportunity to grow Hindu religion and culture in the South against Muslim onslaughts.
Dr A.L. Srivastava writes- “The Vijayanagara empire served a high historical purpose by acting as a champion of Hindu religion and culture against the aggressions of the Muslims in southern India.”