Duarte Barbosa was a Portuguese writer and Portuguese India officer between 1500 and 1516–1517. He was posted as a scrivener in Cannanore factory and occasionally served as an interpreter of the local language (Malayalam). His Book of Duarte Barbosa (Livro de Duarte Barbosa) is one of the earliest examples of Portuguese travel literature.
After his arrival in Goa with the first Portuguese fleet in 1501, Barbosa made the journey to Vijayanagara soon after. His account mentions the king of Narsyngua, who is probably Vira Narasimha Tuluva. His writings give a detailed account of the layout, the inhabitants, the nature of trade conducted in Vijayanagara, the size of Kings army at the time and more.
Barbosa account of the city’s location and layout are quite accurate to what we know today from archaeological findings. The urban core is built on a flat plane surrounded by boulder hills, fortifications fill the gaps and the river Tungabhadra flowing provides natural defence along the entire northern stretch of the city. We also know about the numerous palaces, courts, water tanks within the Royal area.
Here, he makes an interesting observation of how equity and justice were observed by the citizens and the ruler. People of every creed & faith found shelter here and the Vijayanagara Kings were also known to have a diverse representation in their court and the military. The king patronised and built Jain, Vaishnava and Shaiva temples throughout his kingdom and capital city. All of this was a result of reforms that was brought in Military and Courtlife by Devaraya II, which his successors continued.
Here, Barbosa describes the riches that were traded in the markets of Vijayanagara in large quantities. There were several temporary and permanent markets throughout the city. The one he is referring to was likely located inside the Royal Urban Core.
This is perhaps the most interesting description in Barbosa’s work. He describes how men and women of Vijayanagara dress, including the perfumes they wear, jewelry. Very few europeans in early 16th century would have come across an Indian native, and here he was surrounded by them wearing their native clothing, which he had never encountered in his life. We are fortunate he was a very keen observer and wrote in great detail.
Here, Barbosa is writing about his observations on how men dressed, he seems to be describing a white dhoti with silk brocade work, turban of some sorts and most interestingly cape! Most likely he was describing the noblemen of Vijayanagara. He also talks about men having long black hair, which is confirmed by the several relief sculptures depicting men in the royal area. Men wore their long hair in a bun, so man buns were in vogue over 500 years ago! Also interesting is that men pierced their ears like the women.
Here, Barbosa clearly is describing women of Vijayanagara wearing a saree. He observed women with nose piercing in addition to ears. Women wore long hair in a bun and decorated them with scented flowers (Gajra).
Here, Barbosa makes a very critical observation about war horses. During this period in Indian history, warlords and Kings in India were obsessed with getting horses. To counter the quick moving cavalry forces of the Bahmani Sultanate, the Vijayanagara army needed its own cavalry force. Since the time of Devaraya II, Vijayanagara had established trade links with persia through its ports on Konkan coast to ensure regular supply of war horses by paying huge premiums. Horses needed to be imported because they couldn’t breed them locally, and in tropical climate they did not survive long.
Duarte Barbosa’s writing brings alive the medieval life of city’s inhabitants. In this article we have tried to cover most interesting parts of his writing in a easy to understand way. I hope this has inspired you and your imagination.
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