The Vijayanagara Empire, also called Karnata Kingdom, was based in the Deccan Plateau region in South India. It was established in 1336 by the brothers Harihara I and Bukka Raya I of the Sangama dynasty, members of a pastoralist cowherd community that claimed Yadava lineage.
The empire rose to prominence as a culmination of attempts by the southern powers to ward off Islamic invasions by the end of the 13th century.
At its peak, it subjugated almost all of South India’s ruling families and pushed the sultans of the Deccan beyond the Tungabhadra-Krishna river doab region, in addition to annexing modern day Odisha (ancient Kalinga) from the Gajapati Kingdom thus becoming a notable power.
It lasted until 1646, although its power declined after a major military defeat in the Battle of Talikota in 1565 by the combined armies of the Deccan sultanates.
The empire is named after its capital city of Vijayanagara, whose ruins surround present day Hampi, now a World Heritage Site in Karnataka, India.
The empire’s legacy includes monuments spread over South India, the best known of which is the group at Hampi. Different temple building traditions in South and Central India were merged into the Vijayanagara architecture style. This synthesis inspired architectural innovations in the construction of Hindu temples.
The rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire maintained the administrative methods developed by their predecessors, the Hoysala, Kakatiya and Pandya kingdoms.
The King, ministry, territory, fort, treasury, military, and ally formed the seven critical elements that influenced every aspect of governance.
The King was the ultimate authority, assisted by a cabinet of ministers (Pradhana) headed by the prime minister (Mahapradhana). Other important titles recorded were the chief secretary (Karyakartha or Rayaswami) and the imperial officers (Adhikari). All high-ranking ministers and officers were required to have military training.
A secretariat near the king’s palace employed scribes and officers to maintain records made official by using a wax seal imprinted with the ring of the king.
The economy of the empire was largely dependent on agriculture. Sorghum (jowar), cotton, and pulse legumes grew in semi-arid regions, while sugarcane, rice, and wheat thrived in rainy areas. Betel leaves, areca (for chewing), and coconut were the principal cash crops, and large-scale cotton production supplied the weaving centers of the empire’s vibrant textile industry.
Spices such as turmeric, pepper, cardamom, and ginger grew in the remote Malnad hill region and were transported to the city for trade. The empire’s capital city was a thriving business centre that included a burgeoning market in large quantities of precious gems and gold. Prolific temple-building provided employment to thousands of masons, sculptors, and other skilled artisans.
The Hindu caste system was prevalent and it influenced daily life in the empire. The rulers who occupied the top of this hierarchy assumed the honorific Varnasramadharma (lit, “helpers of the four castes”). According to Talbot, caste was more importantly determined by occupation or the professional community people belonged to, although the family lineage (Gotra) and the broad distinction described in sacred Hindu texts (the four Varnas; namely the Brahmin or priestly, the Kshatriya or warrior, the Vaishya or merchant and the Shudra or artisan) were also factors. The structure also contained sub-castes (Jati) and caste clusters.
According to Vanina, caste as a social identity was not fixed and was constantly changed for reasons including polity, trade and commerce, and was usually determined by context. Identification of castes and sub-castes was made based on temple affiliations, lineage, family units, royal retinues, warrior clans, occupational groups, agricultural and trade groups, devotional networks, and even priestly cabals. It was also not impossible for a caste to lose its position and prestige and slip down the ladder while others rose up the same.
The socio-religious movements that gained popularity in the previous centuries, such as Lingayatism, provided momentum for flexible social norms that helped the cause of women. By this time South Indian women had crossed most barriers and were actively involved in fields hitherto considered the monopoly of men such as administration, business, trade and the fine arts. Tirumalamba Devi who wrote Varadambika Parinayam and Gangadevi the author of Madhuravijayam were among the notable women poets of the Sanskrit language. Early Telugu women poets such as Tallapaka Timmakka and Atukuri Molla became popular. Further south the provincial Nayaks of Tanjore patronised several women poets. The Devadasi system, as well as legalized prostitution, existed and members of this community were relegated to a few streets in each city. The popularity of harems among men of the royalty and the existence of seraglio is well known from records.
Physical exercises were popular with men and wrestling was an important male preoccupation for sport and entertainment, and women wrestlers are also mentioned in records.
Gymnasiums have been discovered inside royal quarters and records mention regular physical training for commanders and their armies during peacetime. Royal palaces and marketplaces had special arenas where royalty and common people amused themselves by watching sports such as cock fight, ram fight and female wrestling. Excavations within the Vijayanagara city limits have revealed the existence of various community-based gaming activities. Engravings on boulders, rock platforms and temple floors indicate these were popular locations of casual social interaction. Some of these are gaming boards similar to the ones in use today and others are yet to be identified.
The Vijayanagara kings were tolerant of all religions and sects, as writings by foreign visitors show.
The kings used titles such as Gobrahamana Pratipalanacharya (literally, “protector of cows and Brahmins”) that testified to their intention of protecting Hinduism and yet at the same time adopted Islamicate court ceremonies, dress, and political language, as reflected in the title Hindu-rāya-suratrāṇa (lit, “Sultan among Hindu kings”).
The empire’s founders, the Sangama brothers (Harihara I and Bukka Raya I) came from a pastoral cowherd background (the Kuruba people) that claimed Yadava lineage. The founders of the empire were devout Shaivas (worshippers of the god Shiva) but made grants to Vishnu temples. Their patron saint Vidyaranya was from the Advaita order at Sringeri.
The Varaha (the boar, an Avatar of Vishnu) was the emblem of the empire. Over one-fourth of the archaeological dig found an “Islamic Quarter” not far from the “Royal Quarter”. Nobles from Central Asia’s Timurid kingdoms also came to Vijayanagara. The later Saluva and Tuluva kings were Vaishnava by faith, but worshipped at the feet of Lord Virupaksha (Shiva) at Hampi as well as Lord Venkateshwara (Vishnu) at Tirupati. A Sanskrit work, Jambavati Kalyanam by King Krishnadevaraya, refers to Lord Virupaksha as Karnata Rajya Raksha Mani (“protective jewel of Karnata Empire”)
During the rule of the Vijayanagara Empire, poets, scholars and philosophers wrote primarily in Kannada, Telugu and Sanskrit, and also in other regional languages such as Tamil and covered such subjects as religion, biography, Prabandha (fiction), music, grammar, poetry, medicine and mathematics. The administrative and court languages of the Empire were Kannada and Telugu, the latter gained even more cultural and literary prominence during the reign of the last Vijayanagara kings, especially Krishnadevaraya.
Most Sanskrit works were commentaries either on the Vedas or on the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, written by well known figures such as Sayanacharya (who wrote a treatise on the Vedas called Vedartha Prakasha whose English translation by Max Muller appeared in 1856), and Vidyaranya that extolled the superiority of the Advaita philosophy over other rival Hindu philosophies.
Other writers were famous Dvaita saints of the Udupi order such as Jayatirtha (earning the title Tikacharya for his polemicial writings), Vyasatirtha who wrote rebuttals to the Advaita philosophy and of the conclusions of earlier logicians, and Vadirajatirtha and Sripadaraya both of whom criticized the beliefs of Adi Sankara.
Vijayanagara architecture, according to art critic Percy Brown is a vibrant combination and blossoming of the Chalukya, Hoysala, Pandya and Chola styles, idioms that prospered in previous centuries.
Its legacy of sculpture, architecture and painting influenced the development of the arts long after the empire came to an end. Its stylistic hallmark is the ornate pillared Kalyanamantapa (marriage hall), Vasanthamantapa (open pillared halls) and the Rayagopura (tower). Artisans used the locally available hard granite because of its durability since the kingdom was under constant threat of invasion. An open-air theatre of monuments at its capital at Vijayanagara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the 14th century, the kings continued to build vesara or Deccan-style monuments but later incorporated Dravida-style gopuras to meet their ritualistic needs. The Prasanna Virupaksha temple (underground temple) of Bukka and the Hazare Rama temple of Deva Raya are examples of Deccan architecture.
The varied and intricate ornamentation of the pillars is a mark of their work.
At Hampi, the Vitthala and Hazara Ramaswamy temples are examples of their pillared Kalyanamantapa style.
A visible aspect of their style is their return to the simplistic and serene art developed by the Chalukya dynasty.
The Vitthala temple took several decades to complete during the reign of the Tuluva kings.
Aerial view of the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai. The temple was rebuilt by the Nayaks rulers under the Vijayanagar Empire
Another element of the Vijayanagara style is the carving and consecration of large monoliths such as the Sasivekaalu (mustard) Ganesha and Kadalekaalu (ground nut) Ganesha at Hampi, the Gommateshwara (Bahubali) monoliths in Karkala and Venur, and the Nandi bull in Lepakshi.
The Vijayanagara temples of Kolar, Kanakagiri, Sringeri and other towns of Karnataka; the temples of Tadpatri, Lepakshi, Ahobilam, Tirumala Venkateswara Temple and Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh; and the temples of Vellore, Kumbakonam, Kanchi and Srirangam in Tamil Nadu are examples of this style. Vijayanagara art includes wall-paintings such as the Dashavatara and Girijakalyana (marriage of Parvati, Shiva’s consort) in the Virupaksha Temple at Hampi, the Shivapurana murals (tales of Shiva) at the Virabhadra temple at Lepakshi, and those at the Kamaakshi and Varadaraja temples at Kanchi. This mingling of the South Indian styles resulted in a new idiom of art not seen in earlier centuries, a focus on reliefs in addition to sculpture differing from that previously in India.
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