Horsepower was the engine that fueled Hampi’s growth and ensured its security. In those days of constant warfare, power flowed from the back of a horse. Cavalry was then the cutting edge of the military arm and a large cavalry ensured a great advantage in warfare. It therefore should come as no surprise that the Vijayanagara army had large cavalry companies. This placed a huge premium of the horse which were also required for the Emperor’s personal use. The ownership of horses rather than elephants defined one’s social status. Thus, they were much sought after in the Vijayanagara Empire.
The Vijayanagara kings faced a huge problem when it came to acquiring horses as they did not breed well in the kingdom. Given the importance of the horse something had to be done to overcome this. The answer was to import the finest Arabian horses from the Arabian Peninsula. The importance of this trade is best illustrated by the fact that the Emperor paid for horses in gold! To consolidate his hold on the trade and to maintain a monopoly, he even paid for the horses that died while making the journey. This tactic effectively ensured a steady supply of horses and also reduced the supply of horses to their main rivals – the Bahamani Sultanate.
The Vijayanagara cavalry techniques, were ironically, heavily influenced by the Bahmanis. Reliefs on the Mahanavami platform and Hazara Rama temple depict what appear to be Central Asian Turks in the role of grooms and trainers. These people are not shown mounted and one can conclude that they were employed mainly for the upkeep and welfare of the horses. The Vijayanagara cavalry was primarily officered and staffed by migrants from the Bahamani Sultanate.
The horse trade was controlled by Arab merchants during the 14th and 15th centuries as they held sway over the Arabian Sea trade route. The horses would be transported by ship to ports on the western coast and then brought overland to the capital. By the 16th century the Portuguese, having established themselves in Goa, with the help of their superior naval strength were able to take control of the Arabian sea routes from the Arabs. Consequently, they monopolized the horse trade with Vijayanagara. The Vitthala temple complex, dating from the late 15th to early 16th century has relief carvings showing Europeans, probably Portuguese, leading horses. This temple complex has a dedicated bazar, typical of Hampi, where only horses were traded.
This horsepower was one of the main reasons why the Vijayanagara armies were consistently victorious against their enemies. At its peak the empire controlled the entire south and what is now Orissa in the East.