Vijayanagara Empire – the origins

Published on: 18/09/2019

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Royal pursuits including hunting – Photograph: Jose Ramapuram

When we speak of historically significant empires, the Romans and the Greeks come first to mind. However, in the mid-1300s, with the foundation of the Vijayanagara Empire, India witnessed the rise of a line of kings who would hold sway over a kingdom larger than Austria, for 250 years.

In 1330, northern India was in the firm grip of Muslim rulers. Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s accession signalled a terrible warning for south India where the old dynasties were in disarray. It seemed a matter of time before the Sultan of Delhi subjugated the south. However, around the year 1344, this foreign invasion came to a stuttering halt thanks to the tiny principality of Anegundi that would grow to become the mighty Vijayanagara Empire.

While the Vijayanagara Empire is said to have been established by Harihara I, there is an interesting story, among others, about the foundation of the city of Vijaynagar (capital of the empire), according to the Portuguese traveller, Fernão Nunes.

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Ruins of Hampi – Photograph: Evolve Back Resorts

He writes that the reigning chief was hunting south of the Tungabhadra River when a hare, instead of running from the hunting dogs, charged and attacked the pack. The king was homeward bound, lost in his thoughts, when he met the sage Madhavacharya, who advised him to build a city on that exact spot where the incident took place. Thus, around 1336, Vijaynagar was founded, that would grow to become the world’s second-largest medieval era city.

The first inhabitants of the Vijayanagara Empire were a mix of refugees, fighting men and outcasts, driven away from their lands by the Muslim invaders. The first rulers did not use the title of king, and Harihara I was given the Sanskrit title of Mahamandalesvara (Great Lord). Harihara’s successor, Bukka I, managed to expand the empire to include all the kingdoms of the south. However, the threat of the Sultan of Delhi was always close at hand and Vijaynagar, in its formative years, was constantly trying to repel invading forces.

The consolidation of the Vijayanagara Empire began under the son of Bukka I, Harihara II. Temples were built under his patronage and, according to an inscription in a Jain temple near Kamalapura, he was tolerant of other religions. More importantly, the vastness of the empire is proven by inscriptions of Harihara II reign found in Dharwar, Mysore, Kanchipuram, and Tiruchirappalli. Another interesting aspect of his reign is the doing away of the ‘Chieftain’ title and adopting the title of Maharajadhiraja. 

Like all major empires throughout history, total assimilation was arrived at through lengthy battles with heavy tolls on all sides. The Vijayanagara Empire was no different. Historical texts speak of a war in 1398 when Bukka II and his son ventured out to capture the Doab and the fortresses of Raichur and Mudkal. Sultan Feroz Shah prepared to meet them and, on the way, slaughtered a Hindu landowner and more than seven thousand followers. The historical text states that Bukka II’s son was fatally stabbed by the Sultan’s spy who entered the royal entertainment tent disguised as a musician.

After this, Bukka II retreated to Vijaynagar and a treaty was signed whereby the boundaries of both kingdoms would be respected. This took place around the 1399 and can be called a turning point in the success of the Vijayanagara Empire. For the next two decades, under the reign of Deva Raya I, wars continued, but the armies held strong. By 1420, the Vijayanagara Empire, under Deva Raya II, had grown to be the most powerful consolidation in India.

As you explore the ruins of Hampi, the towering temple complexes, royal elephant stables, and royal baths, it is not hard to imagine a city that was once, as Abdur Razzak, a Persian historian who visited Vijayanagara during the reign of Deva Raya II, describes it – “…The city of Bidjanagar is such that the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it in the world.”


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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