Writer and historian Manu S Pillai details the origins of the Vijayanagar Empire.

Ruling the south The birth and rise of the Vijayanagar Empire Arian Zwegers/ Wiki Commons
Features Book Excerpt Wednesday, June 27, 2018 - 14:16

The origins of the five sons of Sangama who established the Vijayanagar Empire are unclear. Though at a later time they claimed descent from the mythological Lunar Race of the epics, in reality they were, in all likelihood, sons of the soil. By the early fourteenth century, one after the other these brothers appear as chieftains in different parts of the tottering Hoysala kingdom, though one origin myth connects them not to Karnataka but to a Telugu lord destroyed by Delhi. The brothers were carried off to the north where the Sultan either nodded as they willingly transferred allegiances to him, or had them ‘forcefully converted to Islam’. If the conversion theory is correct (for it appears most prominently in local traditions), it might have been voluntary, for the brothers won the favour of Muhammad bin Tughluq who, with countless rebellions and betrayals on his imperial plate, tasked them with returning and taming the unruly south – he would hardly hand over such an important task to reluctant brothers who had been converted under duress. It is now, in the 1330s, that the eldest of them, Harihara, appears in the Deccan as an amir of the Tughluq court (and it was in this capacity that the administration of Raichur was granted to him, later forming the basis for Vijayanagar’s claim over that district). But as ‘soon as they touched their native soil, their national feeling was stirred up by the Hindu liberation movement’, filled as they were with ‘horror and disgust at the conduct of Muslim officials’. Or so the yarn spins.

What seems to have happened is that as the Hoysala kingdom disintegrated, with its Hindu king (the very same who was flayed and hung) fighting a losing battle against Muslim warlords parked in Madurai, ‘Harihara conquered . . . nearly the whole of the Hoysala territories’ in coordination with his brothers, fanning out into various provinces of the dying state to pick up its pieces. In other words, while an old Hindu dynasty perished, the brothers sought not so much to salvage it in the name of a common Hindu cause, but to launch a new line of their own, gaining from the chaos in the country. In February 1346, a year and a half before Hasan Gangu was declared Sultan of the Bahmani state, the five Sangama brothers met in Srirangam, an important centre of their Shaiva faith, to celebrate their ‘coast-to-coast conquests of the southern peninsula’, by now also having discarded their loyalty to Delhi. In the wider context, thus, ‘between 1339 and 1347, two families of obscure or humble origins, operating on opposite sides of the Krishna River, led movements that radically redrew the Deccan’s political, and more importantly, conceptual map’. The Tughluqs had shattered the south and vanquished its old houses. And from the doldrums emerged Vijayanagar and the Bahmani Sultanate that, for reasons of economics cloaked in a language of religion, waged war against one another till nothing but ashes remained.

That said, there was certainly a conception of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in how the two sides viewed each other. For in 1347 one of the Sangama brothers added to his titles (which included such inventive variants as ‘a great kite to terrify serpents’ and ‘terrifier of foreign kings’) an unprecedented honorific that had never been used in India before: Hinduraya Suratrana, or Sultan among Hindu Kings. Five years later another brother, governing a different part of this stitched-together kingdom, took the same title, followed in 1354 by Harihara too naming himself Sultan. It was the first time Indian rulers applied the term ‘Hindu’ to distinguish themselves from Muslims of foreign origins –In other words, a geographical term applied to Indians in general by outsiders was now internalized. And in styling themselves ‘Sultans’, these rulers were clearly marking their place in a wider world and achanged geography where that term carried tremendous potency – to be a Sultan was to be part of the new world that was being shaped.


The site the Sangamas chose for their capital lay along a bend of the Tungabhadra. It was a place with sacred associations, first with the river goddess Pampa (from which is derived its current name, Hampi) and then with a male deity called Virupaksha. Both were connected to Devi and Shiva of the Sanskritic mainstream, and the Sangamas adopted their worship. The legend associated with the birth of the city, however, is a curious one. One day Harihara was hunting by the river when he witnessed a strange exchange: a hare, when chased by his hounds, instead of fleeing the other way, turned around and bit the dogs. The king was mystified, and shortly thereafter he ran into the sage Vidyaranya, who advised him to construct a city on that very spot, promising that it would ‘prove the strongest in the world’. The story is a peculiar one to claim divine benediction for their chosen capital, but it is not unique: according to legend, Kandy in Sri Lanka was also founded after a prince encountered another hare of a courageous, dogbiting disposition. That there were also a number of origin myths for the royal family itself – Kannada, Telugu, Hindu warriors, Muslim converts – is not necessarily an anomaly or a consequence of incorrect interpretations. Instead, it might simply be that ‘these stories were composed by different authors to be communicated to very different audiences’ to establish the credentials of a new house in a new realm, embracing peoples speaking a variety of languages and with diverse cults and cultures, all under a single imperial umbrella.


In the early period, Vijayanagar was governed through a system of parallel rule, with all the Sangama brothers in different provinces where they were practically autonomous. After Harihara’s death in 1355–56, Bukka succeeded to the overlordship and reigned for more than twenty years, stabilizing the kingdom and adding territory to it. Temples that had fallen in the course of the Muslim invasions in earlier decades were restored, and with the incorporation of wealthy Tamil lands into the empire, Vijayanagar’s prosperity became proverbial – in 1374 an embassy was even sent to China. While their legendary conflict with the Bahmanis concerned where the boundary between the states lay – and who, therefore, owned Raichur – where religious tensions did arise, it was not with Muslims.


Bukka’s son, Harihara II, forced changes in the basic structure of the state. Over the course of his reign, he ejected his cousins from control over the distant provinces of the empire, and appointed, much like the Mughal emperors, his own sons as viceroys in far-flung parts. In due course, a system of shared sovereignty would emerge, known as nayamkara whereby chieftains called amaranayakas (amara derived from the Bahmani amir) were granted dominions to rule as subordinates of the crown in Vijayanagar. But this did not mean transfers of power were particularly smoother, for when Harihara II died there followed a struggle for succession, so that in three years three kings ruled in Vijayanagar. According to a literary source, one of the contenders dealt with some of his ‘envious’ relations who tried to deny him his patrimony by killing ‘the whole lot of them in their beds’. But this is very likely an exaggeration, for though Vijayanagar would suffer an instance of parricide, in general those who were defeated were simply allowed to retire as governors. This was the fate of one of the other two claimants (who were Harihara II’s sons from different queens) – he was defeated and ruled ‘more or less independently’ as a provincial lord for a decade thereafter, even as the victorious third son became the Raya of Vijayanagar. It was this monarch whose daughter was married to Firoz Shah Bahmani in 1407, though another princess seems to have made a far less glamorous alliance when she took ‘an officer of the Customs Department’ as her husband. Still, the royal household was a most diverse setting, with one of the ruler’s wives following not any Hindu tradition but the Jain religion.

Like all medieval kingdoms, Vijayanagar, which by now covered 140,000 square miles, was a decentralized state. The districts immediately adjoining the capital were governed directly by the Rayas and the capital itself housed between one and two hundred and fifty thousand people. Indeed, by the end of Krishnadeva’s reign this core of the empire would be home to an estimated 480,000 people, ‘making it second only to Beijing in terms of population’. Relations with the wider empire were negotiated through feudatories, and subjects of the state could challenge, sometimes violently, the imperial government. Less than a century after the kingdom’s founding, for example, ‘communities of cultivators and artisans of the Kaveri delta. . . rose up in widespread rebellion against the oppressive taxes imposed’ from the capital. Vijayanagar, with its ‘chronic inability to harmonize the agrarian economy of the dry upland plateau with the commercialized economy of the rich Tamil coast’, granted the latter a degree of autonomy. Taxes too could be negotiated. We find, for instance, an artisan tax, loom tax, marriage tax, oil-mill tax, and even ‘egg duties’ and cooking tax. Tamil weavers not only obtained benefits on account of their importance to the economy, but were even granted superior status with the use of palanquins and the right to blow the conch on ritual occasions. Decades later, barbers were granted certain exemptions, with the result that when the English East India Company tried to drag the community back into the collector’s net, they refused to pay and told instead the story of how one of their forebears had given the Raya of Vijayanagar such a wonderful shave that, delighted, he had remitted taxes for perpetuity.

(Excerpted with the permission of Juggernaut from the book ‘Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji’ by Manu S Pillai)

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