A Tale of Two Travellers – 2

Published on: 18/03/2019

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A view of Hampi from Anjaneya Hill – Photograph: Nicholas Rixon

Fernão Nunes, a Portuguese horse trader, arrived in Vijayanagara (circa. 1535) when Achyuta Deva Raya had succeeded Krishna Deva Raya as the king. A decade or so earlier, Domingo Paes witnessed the golden age of the Vijayanagara Empire under Krishna Deva Raya. Fernão Nunes beheld a glorious kingdom as well; but the rule of Achyuta Raya (Krishna Raya’s younger brother) brought with it the beginning of the end of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Even though trouble was brewing on the borders of this vast South Indian kingdom, Nunes’ records a fascinating picture of Achyuta Deva Raya’s main palace. The five hundred wives of Achyuta Deva Raya slept on beds plated with silver; the king rested on a bed with gilded legs, a silken mattress, and bolsters adorned with seed pearls. Achyuta Deva Raya had a mobile home built of iron that enclosed a large bed he slept on during his travels. His wives travelled in palanquins ornamented with silver and gold.

As Nunes explored the area surrounding the royal palace he came across the horse and elephant stables. Achyuta Deva Raya’s personal stable contained seven hundred of the finest Arabian horses, bought from the Portuguese, and four hundred elephants. Per day, a whopping two thousand pardaos (Indo-Portuguese coins) was spent on attendants and for the upkeep of these animals. As you explore the Zenana Complex in Hampi, you will arrive at the stable for the royal elephants. It’s cavernous chambers with Indo-Islamic style domes offers a glimpse into how these massive creatures were so intimately cared for.

elephant stables

The Elephant Stables – Photograph: Nicholas Rixon

Nunes’ trip coincided with the festival of Mahanavami. Besides the religious connotations of the nine-day celebration, this was when the captains landed up to pay their rents. The principal captains of the kingdom set up nine castle-sized tents facing the main palace. These temporary castles were made of the finest materials and housed dancing girls and musicians in honour of the king. The horses and elephants that form part of the parade were decked out in precious stones and diamonds. Buffaloes, sheep and goats were sacrificed on all nine days, while a ceremonial procession of priests and maidens from the palace greeted the parade on the royal grounds. A thousand wrestlers sparred before the king who handed the winners silken scarves. Nunes describes the air being heavy with scented incense and loud military bands creating an electric atmosphere worthy of Vijayanagara.

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The Royal Stepped Tank – Photograph: Nicholas Rixon

The word opulence is an understatement when it comes to describing the wealth of the Vijayanagara Empire. All the chroniclers who visited the kingdom speak of vast diamond mining and Nunes confirms the fact. All diamonds above 25 carats had to be sent to the royal coffers of the Raya.

Fernão Nunes may have spent only three years in Vijaynagar but his documenting is vital to understand and comprehend the glory of the second-largest medieval city in the world. While Achyuta Deva Raya’s reign was prosperous on the surface, a coalition of the Muslim sultanates was slowly forming. In less than two decades after Achyuta Deva Raya’s death, Vijayanagara would be plundered and nearly razed to the ground. It is said that it took the invaders anywhere between five months to a year to destroy Vijayanagara’s majestic structures.

Hampi, as we know it today, was a different world when Nunes landed up in 1535. If you’re visiting Hampi anytime soon, read up on its history as reported by Paes and Nunes. They help imbibe the silent ruins with a sense of glory. As you explore the beautifully dilapidated structures you will also be thinking of a time when, nearly five centuries ago, Fernão Nunes decided to visit Vijayanagara to sell a few horses.


Nicholas Rixon

Nicholas Rixon's work has appeared in The Indian Quarterly, Scroll, The Statesman, Hindustan Times and The Assam Tribune, among others. He currently lives in New Delhi and is working on his debut collection of short stories.

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