A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar) : A Contribution to the History of India

Author: Robert Sewell

Chapter 7 the City of Vijayanagar in the Reign of Deva Raya II. (A.D. 1420 (?), 1443)

Description given by Nicolo to Bracciolini — The capital — Festivals — Immense population — Abdur Razzak’s description — His journey — The walls — Palaces — The Mint — Bazaars — The great Mahahnavami festival.

It will be well to suspend our historical narrative for a time in order to acquire some idea of the appearance and condition of the great city of Vijayanagar in these days. We have already noticed that as early as 1375 A.D. Sultan Mujahid of Kulbarga had heard so much of the beauty of this capital that he desired to see it, and it had grown in importance and grandeur during the succeeding half-century. About the year 1420 or 1421 A.D. there visited Vijayanagar one Nicolo, an Italian, commonly called Nicolo Conti or Nicolo dei Conti, and if he was not the earliest European visitor, he was at least the earliest that we know of whose description of the place has survived to this day. His visit must have taken place shortly after the accession of Deva Raya II. Nicolo never apparently wrote anything himself. His stories were recorded in Latin by Poggio Bracciolini, the Pope’s secretary, for his master’s information. Translated into Portuguese, they were re-translated from the Portuguese into Italian by Ramusio, who searched for but failed to obtain a copy of the original in Latin. This original was first published in 1723 by the Abbe Oliva of Paris under the title P. BRACCIOLINI, DE VARIETATE FORTUNAE, LIBER QUATUOR.

Nicolo, on reaching India, visited first the city of Cambaya in Gujarat. After twenty days’ sojourn there he passed down the coast to "Pacamuria," probably Barkur, and "Helly," which is the "Mount d’Ely" or "Cabo d’Eli" of later writers. Thence he travelled inland and reached the Raya’s capital, Vijayanagar, which he calls "Bizenegalia."[125] He begins his description thus: —

"The great city of Bizenegalia is situated near very steep mountains. The circumference of the city is sixty miles; its walls are carried up to the mountains and enclose the valleys at their foot, so that its extent is thereby increased. In this city there are estimated to be ninety thousand men fit to bear arms."

I must here interpose a correction. There were no "mountains" properly so called at Vijayanagar; only a confused and tumbled mass of rocky hills, some rising to considerable altitude. The extent of its lines of defences was extraordinary. Lofty and massive stone walls everywhere crossed the valleys, and led up to and mounted over the hillsides. The outer lines stretched unbroken across the level country for several miles. The hollows and valleys between the boulder-covered heights were filled with habitations, poor and squalid doubtless, in most instances, but interspersed with the stone-built dwellings of the nobles, merchants, and upper classes of the vast community; except where the elaborately constructed water-channels of the Rayas enabled the land to be irrigated; and in these parts rich gardens and woods, and luxurious crops of rice and sugar-cane, abounded. Here and there were wonderfully carved temples and fanes to Hindu deities, with Brahmanical colleges and schools attached to the more important amongst their number.

As to the appearance of the scenery, I cannot do better than quote the description given in 1845 by a distinguished South-Indian geologist, Lieutenant Newbold:[126] —

"The whole of the extensive site occupied by the ruins of Bijanugger on the south bank of the Tumbuddra, and of its suburb Annegundi on the northern bank, is occupied by great bare piles and bosses of granite and granitoidal gneiss, separated by rocky defiles and narrow rugged valleys encumbered by precipitated masses of rock. Some of the larger flat-bottomed valleys are irrigated by aqueducts from the river.... The peaks, tors, and logging-stones of Bijanugger and Annegundi indent the horizon in picturesque confusion, and are scarcely to be distinguished from the more artificial ruins of the ancient metropolis of the Deccan, which are usually constructed with blocks quarried from their sides, and vie in grotesqueness of outline and massiveness of character with the alternate airiness and solidity exhibited by nature in the nicely-poised logging stones and columnar piles, and in the walls of prodigious cuboidal blocks of granite which often crest and top her massive domes and ridges in natural cyclopean masonry."

The remains of palaces, temples, walls, and gateways are still to be seen, and these abound not only on the site of Vijayanagar proper, but also on the north side of the swiftly rushing river, where stood the stately citadel of Anegundi, the mother of the empire-city. The population of this double city was immense, and the area occupied by it very extensive. From the last fortification to the south, beyond the present town of Hospett, to the extreme point of the defences of Anegundi on the north, the distance is about twelve miles. From the extreme western line of walls in the plain to the last of the eastern works amongst the hills lying in the direction of Daroji and Kampli the interval measures about ten miles. Within this area we find the remains of the structures of which I have spoken. The hovels have disappeared, and the debris lies many feet thick over the old ground-level. But the channels are still in working order, and wherever they exist will be found rich crops, tall and stately trees, and a tangle of luxuriant vegetation. On the rocks above are the ruins of buildings and temples and walls, and in many places small shrines stand out, built on the jutting edges of great boulders or on the pinnacles of lofty crags, in places that would seem inaccessible to anything but monkeys and birds.

In the central enclosure are the remains of great structures that must once have been remarkable for their grandeur and dignity. These immediately surrounded the king’s palace; but in 1565 the Muhammadans worked their savage will upon them with such effect that only the crumbling ruins of the more massive edifices amongst them still stand. The site of the palace itself is marked by a large area of ground covered with heaps of broken blocks, crushed masonry, and fragments of sculpture, not one stone being left upon another in its original position.

To return to Nicolo. He continues: —

"The inhabitants of this region marry as many wives as they please, who are burnt with their dead husbands. Their king is more powerful than all the other kings of India. He takes to himself 12,000 wives, of whom 4000 follow him on foot wherever he may go, and are employed solely in the service of the kitchen. A like number, more handsomely equipped, ride on horseback. The remainder are carried by men in litters, of whom 2000 or 3000 are selected as his wives on condition that at his death they should voluntarily burn themselves with him, which is considered to be a great honour for them....

"At a certain time of the year their idol is carried through the city, placed between two chariots, in which are young women richly adorned, who sing hymns to the god, and accompanied by a great concourse of people. Many, carried away by the fervour of their faith, cast themselves on the ground before the wheels, in order that they may be crushed to death — a mode of death which they say is very acceptable to their god. Others, making an incision in their side, and inserting a rope thus through their body, hang themselves to the chariot by Nay of ornament, and thus suspended and half-dead accompany their idol. This kind of sacrifice they consider the best and most acceptable of all.

"Thrice in the year they keep festivals of especial solemnity. On one of these occasions the males and females of all ages, having bathed in the rivers or the sea, clothe themselves in new garments, and spend three entire days in singing, dancing, and feasting. On another of these festivals they fix up within their temples, and on the outside on the roofs, an innumerable number of lamps of oil of SUSIMANNI, which are kept burning day and night. On the third, which lasts nine days, they set up in all the highways large beams, like the masts of small ships, to the upper part of which are attached pieces of very beautiful cloth of various kinds, interwoven with gold. On the summit of each of these beams is each day placed a man of pious aspect, dedicated to religion, capable of enduring all things with equanimity, who is to pray for the favour of God. These men are assailed by the people, who pelt them with oranges, lemons, and other odoriferous fruits, all which they bear most patiently. There are also three other festival days, during which they sprinkle all passers-by, even the king and queen themselves, with saffron water, placed for that purpose by the wayside. This is received by all with much laughter."

The first of these festivals may be the Kanarese New Year’s Day, which Domingo Paes in his chronicle asserts to have fallen, during his visit to Vijayanagar, on October 12 — "FESTAS EM QUE TODOS VESTEM PANOS NOVOS E RICOS E GALANTES, E CADA HUU COMO O TEM, E DAO TODOS OS CAPITAEES PANOS A TODA SUA GNETE DE MUYTAS CORES E GALANTES."[127] The second should be the Dipavali festival, which occurs about the month of October, when lamps are lighted by all the householders, and the temples are illuminated. The description of the third answers to the nine-days’ festival, called the MAHANAVAMI, at Vijayanagar, which, during the visit of Paes, took place on September 12. The other feast of three days’ duration answers to the HOLI festival.

Conti next describes the finding of diamonds on a mountain which he called "Albenigaras" and places fifteen days’ journey beyond Vijayanagar "towards the north." He repeats the story which we know as that of "Sinbad the Sailor," saying that the diamonds lie in inaccessible valleys, into which lumps of flesh being thrown, to which the precious stones adhere, these are carried up TO the summits by eagles, which are then driven off and the stones secured. The direction given, though it should rather be east than north, points to the mines on the Krishna river being those alluded to — mines which are often styled the "mines of Golkonda" by travellers. Marco Polo told the same tale of the same mines in the year 1296. Conti continues: —

"They divide the year into twelve months, which they name after the signs of the zodiac. The era is computed variously...."

After having given a short account of the different coinages and currencies, which is interesting, but of which the various localities are left to the imagination, he writes: —

"The natives of Central India make use of the ballistae,[128] and those machines which we call bombardas, also other warlike implements adapted for besieging cities.

"They call us Franks and say, ’While they call other nations blind, that they themselves have two eyes, and that we have but one, because they consider that they excel all others in prudence.’[129]

"The inhabitants of Cambay alone use paper; all other Indians write on the leaves of trees. They have a vast number of slaves, and, the debtor who is insolvent is everywhere adjudged to be the property of his creditor. The numbers of these people and nations exceeds belief. Their armies consist of a million men and upwards."

Abdur Razzak also visited, the city during the reign of Deva Raya II., but about twenty years later than Conti. He was entrusted with an embassy from Persia, and set out on his mission on January 13, A.D. 1442. At the beginning of November that year he arrived at Calicut, where he resided till the beginning of April 1443. Being there he was summoned to Vijayanagar, travelled thither, and was in the great city from the end of April till the 5th December of the same year. The following passage explains why he left Calicut.

"On a sudden a man arrived who brought me the intelligence that the king of Bidjanagar, who holds a powerful empire and a mighty dominion under his sway, had sent him to the Sameri[130] as delegate, charged with a letter in which he desired that he would send on to him the ambassador of His Majesty, the happy Khakhan (I.E. the king of Persia). Although the Sameri is not subject to the laws of the king of Bidjanagar, he nevertheless pays him respect and stands extremely in fear of him, since, if what is said is true, this latter prince has in his dominions three hundred ports, each of which is equal to Calicut, and on TERRA FIRMA his territories comprise a space of three months’ journey."

In obedience to this request, Abdur Razzak left Calicut by sea and went to Mangalore, "which forms the frontier of the kingdom of Bidjanagar." He stayed there two or three days and then journeyed inland, passing many towns, and amongst them a place where he saw a small but wonderful temple made of bronze.

"At length I came to a mountain whose summit reached the skies. Having left this mountain and this forest behind me, I reached a town called Belour,[131] the houses of which were like palaces."

Here he saw a temple with exquisite sculpture.

"At the end of the month of Zoul’hidjah[132] we arrived at the city of Bidjanagar. The king sent a numerous cortege to meet us, and appointed us a very handsome house for our residence. His dominion extends from the frontier of Serendib to the extremities of the country of Kalbergah (I.E. from the Krishna River to Cape Comorin). One sees there more than a thousand elephants, in their size resembling mountains and in their form resembling devils. The troops amount in number to eleven LAK (1,100,000). One might seek in vain throughout the whole of Hindustan to find a more absolute RAI; for the monarchs of this country bear the title of RAI.

"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. It is built in such a manner that seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other. Around the first citadel are stones of the height of a man, one half of which is sunk in the ground while the other half rises above it. These are fixed one beside the other in such a manner that no horse or foot soldier could boldly or with ease approach the citadel."

The position of these seven walls and gates have long been a puzzle to me, but I hazard the following explanation. The traveller approached from the southwest, and the first line of wall that he saw must have been that on the neck between the two hills south-west of Hospett. Paes also describes this outer defence-work as that seen by all travellers on their first arrival from the coast. After being received at this entrance-gate Razzak must have passed down the slope through "cultivated fields, houses, and gardens" to the entrance of Hospett, where the second line of fortification barred the way; and since that town was not then thickly populated, the same features would meet his eye till he passed a third line of wall on the north side of that town. From this point the houses became thicker, probably forming a long street, with shops on either side of the road, leading thence to the capital. The fourth line of wall, with a strong gateway, is to be seen on the south of the present village of Malpanagudi, where several remains of old buildings exist; and notably a handsome stone well, once probably belonging to the country-house of some noble or chief officer. The fifth line is on the north of Malpanagudi, and here the great gateway still stands, though the wall is much damaged and destroyed. The sixth line is passed just to the south of the Kamalapur tank. The seventh or inner line is the great wall still to be seen in fairly good repair north of that village. This last surrounded the palace and the government buildings, the space enclosed measuring roughly a mile from north to south, and two miles and a quarter from east to west. The remains of the upright stones alluded to by Razzak were seen by Domingo Paes in A.D. 1520.[133] I believe that they have now disappeared.

Razzak describes the outer citadel as a "fortress of round shape, built on the summit of a mountain, and constructed of stones and lime. It has very solid gates, the guards of which are constantly at their post, and examine everything with severe inspection." This passage must refer to the outer line of wall, since Razzak’s "seventh fortress" is the innermost of all. The guards at the gates were doubtless the officers entrusted with the collection of the octroi duties. Sir Henry Elliot’s translation (iv. 104) adds to the passage as quoted the words, — "they collect the JIZYAT or taxes." This system of collecting octroi dues at the gates of principal towns lasted till recent days, having only been abolished by the British Government.

"The seventh fortress is to the north, and is the palace of the king. The distance between the opposite gates of the outer fortress north and south is two parasangs,[134] and the same east to west.

"The space which separates the first fortress from the second, and up to the third fortress, is filled with cultivated fields and with houses and gardens. In the space from the third to the seventh one meets a numberless crowd of people, many shops, and a bazaar. By the king’s palace are four bazaars, placed opposite each other. On the north is the portico of the palace of the RAI. Above each bazaar is a lofty arcade with a magnificent gallery, but the audience-hall of the king’s palace is elevated above all the rest. The bazaars are extremely long and broad.[135]

"Roses are sold everywhere. These people could not live without roses, and they look upon them as quite as necessary as food.... Each class of men belonging to each profession has shops contiguous the one to the other; the jewellers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. In this agreeable locality, as well as in the king’s palace, one sees numerous running streams and canals formed of chiselled stone, polished and smooth.[136]

"On the left of the Sultan’s portico rises the DEWAN KHANEH,[137] which is extremely large and looks like a palace. In front of it is a hall, the height of which is above the stature of a man, its length thirty ghez and its breadth ten.[138] In it is placed the DEFTER-KHANEH (court-house), and here sit the scribes.... In the middle of this palace, upon an high estrade, is seated an eunuch called the Danaik,[139] who alone presides over the divan. At the end of the hall stand chobdars[140] drawn up in line. The Dewan or Danaik settles people’s affairs and hears their petitions. There is no appeal. After concluding business the Danaik passes through seven doors into the palace, and entering the last alone, makes his report to the king.

"Behind the king’s palace[141] are the house and hall allotted to the Danaik. To the left of the said palace is the Mint.

"This empire contains so great a population that it would be impossible to give an idea of it without entering into extensive details. In the king’s palace are several cells, like basins, filled with bullion, forming one mass."

Opposite the DIVAN-KHANEH, he continues, is the house of the elephants.

"Each elephant has a separate compartment, the walls of which are extremely solid, and the roof composed of strong pieces of wood.... Opposite the Mint is the house of the Governor, where are stationed twelve thousand soldiers on guard.... Behind the Mint is a sort of bazaar, which is more than three hundred ghez in length, and more than twenty in breadth.[142] On two sides are ranged houses and forecourts; in front of them are erected, instead of benches (KURSI), several lofty seats constructed of beautiful stones. On the two sides of the avenue formed by the chambers are represented figures of lions, panthers, tigers, and other animals.[143] Thrones and chairs are placed on the platforms, and the courtesans seat themselves thereon, bedecked in gems and fine raiment."

The author took up his abode in a lofty house which had been allotted to him, on the 1st Muharram (May 1, 1443)

"One day some messengers sent from the palace of the king came to see me, and at the close of the same day I presented myself at court.... The prince was seated in a hall, surrounded by the most imposing attributes of state. Right and left of him stood a numerous crowd of men arranged in a circle. The king was dressed in a robe of green satin, around his neck he wore a collar, composed of pearls of beautiful water, and other splendid gems. He had an olive complexion, his frame was thin, and he was rather tall; on his cheeks might be seen a slight down, hut there was no beard on his chin. The expression of his countenance was extremely pleasing.[144] ...

"If report speaks truly, the number of the princesses and concubines amounts to seven hundred."

Abdur Razzak gives a glowing account of the brilliancy of a great festival of which he was a spectator while in the capital. He calls it the Mahanavami[145] festival, but I have my doubts as to whether he was not mistaken, since he declares that it took place in the month Rajab (October 25 to November 23, 1443 A.D.). The Hindus celebrate the MAHANAVAMI by a nine days’ festival beginning on Asvina Sukla 1st in native reckoning, that is, on the day following the new moon which marks the beginning of the month Asvina; while the New Year’s Day at that period was the first day of the following month, Karttika (if the year began, as it certainly did at Vijayanagar in the time of Paes, eighty years later, on 1st Karttika). But the new moon of Rajab in A.D. 1443 corresponded to the new moon of KARTTIKA, not to that of ASVINA.[146] Either, therefore, the festival which he witnessed was the New Year’s Day festival, or the traveller was in error in giving the month "Rajab." It seems most probable that the former was the case, because he apparently makes the festival one of only three days’ duration, whereas the MAHANAVAMI, as its name implies, was a nine days’ feast. But there is also another difficulty. The MAHANAVAMI celebrations began with the new moon, whereas Razzak says that the festival he saw began with the "full moon." This, however, may have been due to a slip of the pen.

However that may be, he certainly was a spectator of a brilliant scene, and I append his account of it.

"In pursuance of orders issued by the king of Bidjanagar, the generals and principal personages from all parts of his empire ... presented themselves at the palace. They brought with them a thousand elephants ... which were covered with brilliant armour and with castles magnificently adorned.... During three consecutive days in the month of Redjeb the vast space of land magnificently decorated, in which the enormous elephants were congregated together, presented the appearance of the waves of the sea, or of that compact mass which will be assembled together at the day of the resurrection. Over this magnificent space were erected numerous pavilions, to the height of three, four, or even five storeys, covered from top to bottom with figures in relief.... Some of these pavilions were arranged in such a manner that they could turn rapidly round and present a new face: at each moment a new chamber or a new hall presented itself to the view.

"In the front of this place rose a palace with nine pavilions magnificently ornamented. In the ninth the king’s throne was set up. In the seventh was allotted a place to the humble author of this narrative.... Between the palace and the pavilions ... were musicians and storytellers."

Girls were there in magnificent dresses, dancing "behind a pretty curtain opposite the king." There were numberless performances given by jugglers, who displayed elephants marvellously trained.

During three consecutive days, from sunrise to sunset, the royal festival was prolonged in a style of the greatest magnificence. Fireworks, games, and amusements went on. On the third day the writer was presented to the king.

"The throne, which was of extraordinary size, was made of gold, and enriched with precious stones of extreme value.... Before the throne was a square cushion, on the edges of which were sown three rows of pearls. During the three days the king remained seated on this cushion. When the fete of Mahanawi was ended, at the hour of evening prayer, I was introduced into the middle of four ESTRADES, which were about ten ghez both in length and breadth.[147] The roof and the walls were entirely formed of plates of gold enriched with precious stones. Each of these plates was as thick as the blade of a sword, and was fastened with golden nails. Upon the ESTRADE, in the front, is placed the throne of the king, and the throne itself is of very great size."

The descriptions given by these travellers give us a good idea of the splendours of this great Hindu capital in the first half of the fifteenth century; and with this in our minds we return to the history of the period.


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Chicago: Robert Sewell, "Chapter 7 the City of Vijayanagar in the Reign of Deva Raya II. (A.D. 1420 (?), 1443)," A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar) : A Contribution to the History of India, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar) : A Contribution to the History of India (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed March 31, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L4TI7B66SG88PVM.

MLA: Sewell, Robert. "Chapter 7 the City of Vijayanagar in the Reign of Deva Raya II. (A.D. 1420 (?), 1443)." A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar) : A Contribution to the History of India, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar) : A Contribution to the History of India, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 31 Mar. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L4TI7B66SG88PVM.

Harvard: Sewell, R, 'Chapter 7 the City of Vijayanagar in the Reign of Deva Raya II. (A.D. 1420 (?), 1443)' in A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar) : A Contribution to the History of India, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar) : A Contribution to the History of India, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 31 March 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L4TI7B66SG88PVM.