The early history of Vijayanagar is still veiled in obscurity. According to the traditional accounts, five sons of Sangama, after whom the first dynasty of Vijayanagar Empire was named, laid the foundation of the city and kingdom of Vijayanagar on the Southern bank of Tungabhadra facing the fortress of Anegundi on the northern bank. Among the five sons of Sangama, the most eminent were Harihara and Bukka. They were inspired by Madhava Vidyarnya who was the celebrated Brahman saga and scholar of the day and his brother Sayana, who was the famous commentator on the Vedas.
In the time of Harihara-I and Bukka-I, the Vijayanagar kingdom brought under its influence many principalities including most of the Haysala territory. However, as some contemporary writers have claimed, Harihara-I and Bukka-I did not take full imperial titles. In A.D. 1378-79 Bukka-I died and was succeeded by the his son Bukka-II, who assumed the imperial titles of Maharajadhiraja, Rajaparamesvara, etc. Swell in his famous work, ‘A Forgotten Empire’, has stated that Harihara’s reign was a period of “unbroken peace”. However, as a matter of fact, the history of Vijayanagar Empire is an unbroken record of bloody wars with different powers.
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Social Life in Vijayanagar Empire
The different aspects of social life of the people of Vijayanagar Empire are contained in narratives of foreign travelers, inscriptions, and literature.
The instances of the active part women, who generally occupied a high position in society, took in political, social and literary life of the country are certainly not rare. Apart from being trained in handling swards and shield, wrestling, music and other fine arts, some of them, without any doubt, got fair amount of literary education.
Having more than one wife was a recognized practice, especially among the wealthy classes. Child marriage was an usual custom. The evil practice of taking excessive dowries was prevalent at large-scale among the people who were well placed in their lives.
The State, generally, did not interfere in social issue or affairs to settle disputes among various communities. The Sati Pratha¸freely sanctioned by Brahmanas, was very common in Vijayanagar Empire.
Brahmanas, held in high esteem by the rulers, exercised a Supreme influence not merely in social and religious matters but also in the political affairs of the State.
In the matters of diet there were no strict restrictions in the Vijayanagar Empire. Apart from fruits, vegetables and oil, meat of all kind (except that of oxen or cows since people had great veneration for them), was taken by the general population. However, Brahmanas never killed or ate any “living thing”. Nunin, in his narrative, describes the diet of the Vijayanagar kings: “These kings eat all sorts of things, but not the flesh of oxen or cows, which they never kill because they worship them. They eat mutton, pork, vension, partridges, hares, doves, quail, and all kinds of birds; even sparrows and rats, and cats, and Lizards……”
On this Dr. Smith remarks that if the statement of Numiz is true, then it was “a curious dietary for princes and people, who in the time of Krishnadeva Raja and Achutya Raja were zealous Hindus with a special devotion to certain forms of Vishnu”. It is most probable that rats, cats and Lizards were eaten by the lower section of the people who constituted the non-Aryan element in the Vijayanagar population.
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Economic Condition of Vijayanagar Empire
It has been firmly established from foreign accounts and other sources as well that in the Vijayanagar Empire prevailed unbounded prosperity. In different parts of the Empire agriculture flourished and States pursued a well thought over irrigation policy.
The principal industries comprised of textiles, mining and metallurgy. Perfumery was the most important among the minor industries. In the economic life of the kingdom craftsmen’s and merchants’ guilds played a very important part.
The most remarkable characteristics in the economic condition of the kingdom was commerce, inland, coasting and overseas. According to Abdur Razzaq the Empire “possessed 300 seaports”. Calicut, on the Malabar Coast, was the most important port. It had commercial relations with the islands in the Indian Ocean. The principle articles of export were cloth, iron, rice, sugar, saltpeter, and spices. The items of imports include elephants, horses, copper, pearls, coral, mercury, china silks and velvet.
Some of the epigraphic evidences prove that the rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire maintained fleets and people, there, were familiar with the art of shipbuilding even before the advent of the Portuguese.
The Cheap means for transport for inland trade were Kavadis, head loads, pack-horse, pack-bullocks, carts and asses.
Both gold and copper types of coinage were prevalent in Vijayanagar Empire. There is only one specimen of silver coin. The coins had on them the emblems of different gods and animals that varied with the religious faith of the rulers.
The narratives of foreign travelers illustrate that the people of upper classes had a high standard of living; however, the inscriptions of the time tell that the common people ‘groaned under the weight of heavy taxation that was collated with rigour by the local Governors.