Reading an Italo Calvino novel includes stepping out of the world as we know it. Invisible Cities, the Italian writer’s take on Marco Polo’s travels in Asia, is no different. Calvino’s vignettes of various cities are wildly imaginative, blurring the line between metaphor and reality. In the city of Zirma, a girl takes a walk with a puma on a leash; Armilla, where there are no walls, ceilings or floors, only water pipes that end in taps and showers; Leonia, where citizens use brand new household items every day, doing away with the previous day’s commodities in the morning; each of the fifty-five cities described turn out more enthralling than the last.


A view of the Tungabhadra River with the temples of Hampi in the background – Photograph: Nicholas Rixon


How does all of this tie in with the recorded history of the Vijayanagara empire? By a stroke of luck, I chanced upon the travelogues of Domingo Paes and Fernão Nunes right before my winter trip to Hampi. These Portuguese travelling-traders witnessed the Vijayanagara empire at its zenith. The records they left behind reminded me of Invisible Cities; as I explored the ruins of Hampi, vivid images of that ancient past, as seen by Paes and Nunes, were conjured up right before my eyes. Calvino was no longer missed.

Domingo Paes travelled to the Vijayanagara empire with a group of traders from Goa, around the year 1520, during the rule of its most powerful king- Krishna Deva Raya. As Paes describes him, Krishna Deva Raya was an able commander who led his troops into battle, an early riser, and ‘gallant and perfect in all things.’


Carvings depicting merchants at the Vitthala Temple Complex- Photograph: Nicholas Rixon


Besides forging an immensely successful military career, Krishna Deva Raya was a keen administrator. Paes’ notes mention irrigation canals that wound their way through Hampi and its adjoining areas. As for taxes and other societal policies, Krishna Deva Raya put in place a fluid system that maintained the economic standing of his vast empire. After Krishna Deva Raya’s success in the Deccan with the annexation of Raichur Doab, Paes was present at the feast marking a highpoint in the king’s two-decade rule.

Paes describes groves of jackfruit, tamarind and mango trees as he made his way from Darcha to Bisnaga(Vijayanagara). Fields of grains, beans, and Indian-corn spread across the region and he mentions the large number of domesticated animals (oxen, sheep, cows) and birds (quail, partridge, dove). I could almost picture the ‘strange, white-stone’ hills he describes that surround Bisnaga. He goes on about the vast gardens of lime, white grape, orange and radish gardens among rice plantations he came across while entering the city. When Paes talks about the market-areas, the abundance of produce is mind-boggling. With one silver or bronze Portuguese Vintem, a person could buy six partridges or two hares.

His description of the weekly Friday fair paints a picture of the hustle and bustle of an ancient gathering. Fowls, horses, pigs could be seen scurrying about while traders and locals alike gorged on dried fish and other delicacies of the region. The abundance of agrarian products meant that one could purchase large quantities of food at very cheap rates. Paes mentions he didn’t intend to write about the population, or the size of the city, for fear that readers would not take him seriously. All he says is, ‘this is the best provided city in the world.’


The Vitthala Temple Complex- Photograph: Nicholas Rixon


I could almost sense Paes’ wonder as he peered into a tank where nearly twenty-thousand men were working on an irrigation project. This was near the merchant quarters with beautiful flat-roofed buildings. He speaks of broad streets with merchants, out in the open, selling precious items like diamonds, pearls, seed-pearls, rare cloth, rubies and emeralds.

In Senagumdym (Anegundi), Paes encountered children sitting on the backs of large sheep and goats. People crossed the Tungabhadra, in groups of fifteen, in round boats, coracles, fashioned out of cane and leather. Oxen and horses swam across. It’s interesting to note how these boats are still made with the same materials and you can make the same journey as Paes did nearly five hundred years ago.

The beauty of Domingo Paes’ travelogue is its simplicity. He was no Marco Polo, neither was he a fabulist like Calvino. Instead, he penned down exactly what he witnessed. Even if you’re not a history buff, there is something infinitely fascinating about reading a person’s travel diary about a 16th century visit to Vijaynagar. In doing so, he managed to capture the very essence of the empire.

In my next post, I explore Vijayanagara through the eyes of Fernão Nunes- a Portuguese horse trader who visited Vijayanagara a decade or so after Paes. His account dwells deep into the everyday life of the king that included wide scale military conquests, grandiose celebrations, and the beginning of the end of the mighty Vijayanagara empire.