All through the nearly two-and-a-half century rule of the Vijayanagara Empire, we know of the opulence of the kings. Even during the reign of Achyuta Deva Raya, when the kingdom’s halcyon days were on the wane, historical documents outline the great wealth of the royalty. For instance, everyday household items—basins, spoons, utensils, among others—were inlaid with gold or silver. Mattresses of the finest silk, pillows with seed pearls, and even mosquito curtains were framed with silver. Even while travelling, the king, his wives and children, experienced grandeur of the highest order. Palanquins of silver, bedsteads fashioned of ivory travelled with the royals wherever they went. However, the diamonds of southern India paint an even more affluent portrait of the sovereign’s wealth.
Fernão Nunes, a Portuguese chronicler and horse trader, who visited the Vijayanagara Empire in 1535, writes that any precious stone heavier than twenty mangellins (roughly equivalent to twenty-five carats) excavated from a diamond mine was the property of the Raja of Vijayanagara.
However, we shouldn’t think that this opulent resource only came to light during the reign of the mighty Vijayanagara kings. Marco Polo set foot on the Coromandel Coast in 1292, to begin his short sojourn in India. He chronicles how the diamonds that were exported from India, even though they were magnificent, were still only the “scrap” of the lot. The finest stones, pearls and diamonds were all reserved for the personal fortune of the rulers of the land.
The mediaeval historian Couto mentions a diamond as large as a “hen’s egg” that came into Adil Shah’s possession right after the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire. Couto also goes on to mention that this magnificent stone was attached to the headgear of the ruling Raya’s horse. This particular diamond has a certain folklore around it and a number of travellers, before and after the fall of Vijayanagara Empire, have chronicled the “hen’s egg” diamond.
The major diamond mines were located on the northern shores of the Krishna River. Vajra Karur had one of the biggest mines, and the Kurnool and Anantapur regions were dotted with mines, too. Most people will have heard these mines being referred to as a generic grouping: mines of Golconda. Uertomannus, a Roman gentleman who travelled around South India in the early 1500s, describes how these mines were protected by massive ramparts and had their own garrisons in case of emergencies.
The Persian traveller and chronicler, Abd al-Razzaq, writes in length about the diamonds and overall wealth of the Vijayanagara Empire. His scrolls mention the time he met Deva Raya II. He writes, “…around his neck he wore a collar composed of pearls of beautiful water and other splendid gems…”, and he goes on to write about a gigantic throne inlaid with precious stones and an assortment of diamonds.
Even the well-known Portuguese naturalist, Garcia da Orto, talks of diamonds that were anywhere between 100-140 carats, and also mentions one diamond that may have weighed a whopping 250 carats!
It comes as no surprise that the City of Victory, and the kingdom as a whole, were so economically prosperous. Besides rich trade ties, the diamonds of the South added immeasurably to the wealth of the Vijayanagara coffers. Today, as we take in the archaeological ruins of this majestic city, it is hard for the common traveller to conjure up sparkling stones and opulence. The beauty of visiting a historical site is that you get to re-imagine what it must have been like for the kings and nobility of old. You walk the same paths, and it is the closest we can get to time travel.