Vijayanagar, A Forgotten Empire

November 17, 2006

Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of the Robert Sewell book, quoting Portuguese and Persian envoys, about the splendor of Vijayanagar. This book should be made compulsory reading for all high school students in India.

An electronic version can be downlooaded for free from

which is where I got this excerpt from as well.

I suggest you circulate the book widely. It is a good antidote to the re-toxified textbooks in India.


A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar



Introductory remarks — Sources of information — Sketch of history of
Southern India down to A.D. 1336 — A Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan
conquest — The opening date, as given by Nuniz, wrong — “Togao
Mamede” or Muhammad Taghlaq of Delhi — His career and character.

In the year 1336 A.D., during the reign of Edward III. of England,
there occurred in India an event which almost instantaneously changed
the political condition of the entire south. With that date the volume
of ancient history in that tract closes and the modern begins. It is
the epoch of transition from the Old to the New.

This event was the foundation of the city and kingdom of
Vijayanagar. Prior to A.D. 1336 all Southern India had lain under
the domination of the ancient Hindu kingdoms, — kingdoms so old
that their origin has never been traced, but which are mentioned in
Buddhist edicts rock-cut sixteen centuries earlier; the Pandiyans at
Madura, the Cholas at Tanjore, and others. When Vijayanagar sprang
into existence the past was done with for ever, and the monarchs
of the new state became lords or overlords of the territories lying
between the Dakhan and Ceylon.

There was no miracle in this. It was the natural result of the
persistent efforts made by the Muhammadans to conquer all India. When
these dreaded invaders reached the Krishna River the Hindus to their
south, stricken with terror, combined, and gathered in haste to the
new standard which alone seemed to offer some hope of protection. The
decayed old states crumbled away into nothingness, and the fighting
kings of Vijayanagar became the saviours of the south for two and a
half centuries.

And yet in the present day the very existence of this kingdom is
hardly remembered in India; while its once magnificent capital,
planted on the extreme northern border of its dominions and bearing
the proud title of the “City of Victory,” has entirely disappeared
save for a few scattered ruins of buildings that were once temples
or palaces, and for the long lines of massive walls that constituted
its defences. Even the name has died out of men’s minds and memories,
and the remains that mark its site are known only as the ruins lying
near the little village of Hampe.

Its rulers, however, in their day swayed the destinies of an empire
far larger than Austria, and the city is declared by a succession of
European visitors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to have
been marvellous for size and prosperity — a city with which for
richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare. Its
importance is shown by the fact that almost all the struggles of the
Portuguese on the western coast were carried on for the purpose of
securing its maritime trade; and that when the empire fell in 1565,
the prosperity of Portuguese Goa fell with it never to rise again.

Our very scanty knowledge of the events that succeeded one another in
the large area dominated by the kings of Vijayanagar has been hitherto
derived partly from the scattered remarks of European travellers
and the desultory references in their writings to the politics of
the inhabitants of India; partly from the summaries compiled by
careful mediaeval historians such as Barros, Couto, and Correa, who,
though to a certain degree interested in the general condition of
the country, yet confined themselves mostly to recording the deeds
of the European colonisers for the enlightenment of their European
readers; partly from the chronicles of a few Muhammadan writers
of the period, who often wrote in fear of the displeasure of their
own lords; and partly from Hindu inscriptions recording grants of
lands to temples and religious institutions, which documents, when
viewed as state papers, seldom yield us more than a few names and
dates. The two chronicles, however, translated and printed at the
end of this volume, will be seen to throw a flood of light upon the
condition of the city of Vijayanagar early in the sixteenth century,
and upon the history of its successive dynasties; and for the rest
I have attempted, as an introduction to these chronicles, to collect
all available materials from the different authorities alluded to and
to weld them into a consecutive whole, so as to form a foundation
upon which may hereafter be constructed a regular history of the
Vijayanagar empire. The result will perhaps seem disjointed, crude,
and uninteresting; but let it be remembered that it is only a first
attempt. I have little doubt that before very long the whole history of
Southern India will be compiled by some writer gifted with the power
of “making the dry bones live;” but meanwhile the bones themselves
must be collected and pieced together, and my duty has been to try
and construct at least the main portions of the skeleton.

Before proceeding to details we must shortly glance at the political
condition of India in the first half of the fourteenth century,
remembering that up to that time the Peninsula had been held by a
number of distinct Hindu kingdoms, those of the Pandiyans at Madura
and of the Cholas at Tanjore being the most important.

The year 1001 A.D. saw the first inroad into India of the Muhammadans
from over the north-west border, under their great leader Mahmud of
Ghazni. He invaded first the plains of the Panjab, then Multan, and
afterwards other places. Year after year he pressed forward and again
retired. In 1021 he was at Kalinga; in 1023 in Kathiawar; but in no
case did he make good his foothold on the country. His expeditions
were raids and nothing more. Other invasions, however, followed in
quick succession, and after the lapse of two centuries the Muhammadans
were firmly and permanently established at Delhi. War followed war,
and from that period Northern India knew no rest. At the end of the
thirteenth century the Muhammadans began to press southwards into
the Dakhan. In 1293 Ala-ud-din Khilji, nephew of the king of Delhi,
captured Devagiri. Four years later Gujarat was attacked. In 1303
the reduction of Warangal was attempted. In 1306 there was a fresh
expedition to Devagiri. In 1309 Malik Kafur, the celebrated general,
with an immense force swept into the Dakhan and captured Warangal. The
old capital of the Hoysala Ballalas at Dvarasamudra was taken in
1310, and Malik Kafur went to the Malabar coast where he erected a
mosque, and afterwards returned to his master with enormous booty.[6]
Fresh fighting took place in 1312. Six years later Mubarak of Delhi
marched to Devagiri and inhumanly flayed alive its unfortunate prince,
Haripala Deva, setting up his head at the gate of his own city. In
1323 Warangal fell.

Thus the period at which our history opens, about the year 1330, found
the whole of Northern India down to the Vindhya mountains firmly
under Moslem rule, while the followers of that faith had overrun
the Dakhan and were threatening the south with the same fate. South
of the Krishna the whole country was still under Hindu domination,
but the supremacy of the old dynasties was shaken to its base by the
rapidly advancing terror from the north. With the accession in 1325 of
Muhammad Taghlaq of Delhi things became worse still. Marvellous stories
of his extraordinary proceedings circulated amongst the inhabitants
of the Peninsula, and there seemed to be no bound to his intolerance,
ambition, and ferocity.

Everything, therefore, seemed to be leading up to but one
inevitable end — the ruin and devastation of the Hindu provinces;
the annihilation of their old royal houses, the destruction of their
religion, their temples, their cities. All that the dwellers in the
south held most dear seemed tottering to its fall.

Suddenly, about the year 1344 A.D., there was a check to this wave
of foreign invasion — a stop — a halt — then a solid wall of
opposition; and for 250 years Southern India was saved.

The check was caused by a combination of small Hindu states — two
of them already defeated, Warangal and Dvarasamudra — defeated,
and therefore in all probability not over-confident; the third, the
tiny principality of Anegundi. The solid wall consisted of Anegundi
grown into the great empire of the Vijayanagar. To the kings of this
house all the nations of the south submitted.

5 Responses to “Vijayanagar, A Forgotten Empire”

  1. abhishek01 Says:

    I read the book. The high point of Vijaynagar’s rule was the victory of Krishna Dev Raya over Adil Shah.

    Unfortunately the way Hinduas finally capitulated due to their own ineptitude and laziness makes one enraged at these lame ducks. It was the time when victorious armies invariably destroyed (Krishna Deva did the same marauding when he was victorious) the vanquished cities.
    So if someone was responible for the utter destruction of Vijaynagar it was the Hindus.

    It also apperars that the final battle between Hindus and Muslims was won by the latter by only half as many forces. The muslims were Deccan Muslims not those from the North. There is no account of Vijanagar fighting agsinst North Indian Sultans.

    The sad part is that rulers of Vijaynagar (according to the book they were so craven that they ran away defated from the battlefield and were collecting riches before fleeing vijaynagar.

    Maybe the silver lining in the whole account is that this was the only Hindu kingdom that achieved any measure of success against Muslims, but overall they were not so valorous as you seem to suggest.

    This is the part about the final rout of Vijaynagar:

    “On seeing that their chief was dead, the Vijayanagar forces broke
    and fled “They were pursued by the allies with such successful
    slaughter that the river which ran near the field was dyed red with
    their blood. It is computed on the best authorities that above one
    hundred thousand infidels were slain in fight and during the pursuit.”

    The Mussulmans were thus completely victorious, and the Hindus fled
    towards the capital; but so great was the confusion that there was not
    the slightest attempt made to take up a new and defensive position
    amongst the hills surrounding the city, or even to defend the walls
    or the approaches. The rout was complete.

    “The plunder was so great that every private man in the allied army
    became rich in gold, jewels, effects, tents, arms, horses, and slaves,
    as the sultans left every person in possession of what he had acquired,
    only taking elephants for their own use.”

    De Couto, describing the death of Rama Raya, states[329] that Hussain
    Nizam Shah cut off his enemy’s head with his own hand, exclaiming, “Now
    I am avenged of thee! Let God do what he will to me!” The Adil Shah,
    on the contrary, was greatly distressed at Rama Raya’s death.[330]

    The story of this terrible disaster travelled apace to the city of
    Vijayanagar. The inhabitants, unconscious of danger, were living in
    utter ignorance that any serious reverse had taken place; for their
    leaders had marched out with countless numbers in their train, and
    had been full of confidence as to the result. Suddenly, however, came
    the bad news. The army was defeated; the chiefs slain; the troops in
    retreat. But still they did not grasp the magnitude of the reverse;
    on all previous occasions the enemy had been either driven back,
    or bought off with presents from the overstocked treasury of the
    kings. There was little fear, therefore, for the city itself. That
    surely was safe! But now came the dejected soldiers hurrying back
    from the fight, and amongst the foremost the panic-stricken princes
    of the royal house. Within a few hours these craven chiefs hastily
    left the palace, carrying with them all the treasures on which they
    could lay their hands. Five hundred and fifty elephants, laden with
    treasure in gold, diamonds, and precious stones valued at more than
    a hundred millions sterling, and carrying the state insignia and the
    celebrated jewelled throne of the kings, left the city under convoy
    of bodies of soldiers who remained true to the crown. King Sadasiva
    was carried off by his jailor, Tirumala, now sole regent since the
    death of his brothers; and in long line the royal family and their
    followers fled southward towards the fortress of Penukonda.

    Then a panic seized the city. The truth became at last apparent. This
    was not a defeat merely, it was a cataclysm. All hope was gone. The
    myriad dwellers in the city were left defenceless. No retreat, no
    flight was possible except to a few, for the pack-oxen and carts
    had almost all followed the forces to the war, and they had not
    returned. Nothing could be done but to bury all treasures, to arm
    the younger men, and to wait. Next day the place became a prey to
    the robber tribes and jungle people of the neighbourhood. Hordes of
    Brinjaris, Lambadis, Kurubas, and the like,[331] pounced down on the
    hapless city and looted the stores and shops, carrying off great
    quantities of riches. Couto states that there were six concerted
    attacks by these people during the day.

    The third day[332] saw the beginning of the end. The victorious
    Mussulmans had halted on the field of battle for rest and refreshment,
    but now they had reached the capital, and from that time forward for
    a space of five months Vijayanagar knew no rest. The enemy had come
    to destroy, and they carried out their object relentlessly. They
    slaughtered the people without mercy, broke down the temples and
    palaces; and wreaked such savage vengeance on the abode of the kings,
    that, with the exception of a few great stone-built temples and walls,
    nothing now remains but a heap of ruins to mark the spot where once
    the stately buildings stood. They demolished the statues, and even
    succeeded in breaking the limbs of the huge Narasimha monolith. Nothing
    seemed to escape them. They broke up the pavilions standing on the
    huge platform from which the kings used to watch the festivals, and
    overthrew all the carved work. They lit huge fires in the magnificently
    decorated buildings forming the temple of Vitthalasvami near the
    river, and smashed its exquisite stone sculptures. With fire and
    sword, with crowbars and axes, they carried on day after day their
    work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has
    such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a
    city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full
    plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged,
    and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors
    beggaring description.”

  2. rsoman Says:

    I am without words. Tears well up thinking about the grave injustice brought upon our country by these beasts. I hope I can read this book some day. Thanks guys

  3. 2009. we still don’t seem to have learnt much lessons. Dharma saves those who follow their dharma and take pride in it.

  4. Lahri Saheb Says:

    looking at present day India, the Indian ruletrs are amassing their wealth not in India but keeping it with others who use that money to run their economy. The present day rulers have no faith in one another but in others called the west (jo aaj ka badshah hai).

    like wise the same was going on then. pricely states one fighting with the other. aggression deciet and they were following the same religion etc etc. They were the ones who invited foreign powers to help defeat their own brothers.

    Hence do not be sad the state of today is that of yesterday

  5. S Rajeev Says:

    well, iqbal mulla, i am not quite sure what you are saying, but the case of vijayanagar — burned to the ground for 6 months — is pretty stunning. it was a defeat of civilization by barbarians.

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