Duarte Barbosa’s first person account of his Vijayanagara visit

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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. 

The city and its King

Vijayanagara is fenced with strong ramparts and by a river as well, on further side of a great chain of mountains. It stands on a very level plain. Here always dwells the King Narsyngua, who is heathen (Hindu) and is called Rayen (Raya), and here he has great and fair palaces, in which he lodges, with many enclosed courts and great houses very well built, and within them are wide open spaces, with water tanks in great numbers, in which reared an abundance of fish. He also has gardens full of trees and sweet-scented herbs. In the city as well there are palaces of the same fashion, wherein dwell the great Lords and Governors thereof. The other houses are thatched, but nonetheless are very well built and arranged according to occupations, in long streets with many open places

Duarte Barbosa

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. 

PEOPLE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH KING

The folks here are ever in such numbers that the streets and palaces cannot contain them. There is great traffic and an endless number of merchants and wealthy men, as well among the natives of the city who abide therein as among those who come thither from outside, to whom the King allows such freedom that every man may come and go and live according to his own creed, without suffering any annoyance and without enquiry whether he is Christian, Jew, Moor (Muslim) or Heathen (Hindu). Great equity and justice is observed by all, not only by the rulers, but by the people to one another.

Duarte Barbosa

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.  

items traded in city's markets

Here there is a diamond mine, whence are obtained many good diamonds; all other precious stones are brought from hither for sale from Pegu (Burma) and Ceilam (Ceylon), and from Ormus they bring pearls. Here also is used the broacades of poorer quality brought from China and Alexandria, also metals both wrought and unwrought, copper in abundance, quick-silver, vermilion, saffron, rosewater, great store of opium, sanders-wood, aloe-wood, camphor, musk and scented materials.  Likewise much pepper is used here, which they bring from Malabar (Kerala) on asses and pack-cattle.

Duarte Barbosa

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.

HOW MEN & WOMEN DRESSED IN THE CITY

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. 

The natives of this land are Heathen (Hindu); they are tawny men, nearly white. Their hair is long, straight and black. The men are of good height; the women go very trimly clad; their men wear certain clothes as a girdle below, wound very tightly in many folds, and short white shorts of cotton or silk or coarse brocade, with are gathered between thighs but open in the front; on their heads they carry small turbans, and wear some wear silk or brocade capes, they wear their rough shoes on their feet.

The substances with which they are always anointed are these: white sanders-wood (sandalwood), aloes, camphor, musk and saffron, all ground fine and kneaded with rosewater. With these they anoint themselves after bathing, and so they are always very highly scented. They wear many rings set with precious stones and many earrings set with fine pearls in their ears. As well as the page armed with a sword, they take also another who holds an umbrella to shade them, and of these some are made of finely worked silk with many golden tassels, and many precious stones and seed-pearls.

Duarte Barbosa

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. 

The Women wear white garments if very thin cotton, or silk of bright colours, five yards long: one part of which is girt around them below, and the other part they throw over the shoulder and across their breasts in such a way that one arm and shoulder remains uncovered, as with a scarf. They wear leather shoes well embroidered in silk; their heads are uncovered and the hair is tightly gathered into a becoming knot at the top of the head, and in their hair they put many scented flowers.

In the side of one of the nostrils they make a small hole, through which they put a fine gold wire with a pearl, sapphire or ruby pendant. They have their ears bored as well, and in them they wear earrings set with many jewels; on their necks they wear necklaces of gold and jewels and very fine coral beads, and bracelets of gold and precious stones are fitted to their arms. Thus more part of this people is very wealthy.

Duarte Barbosa

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).  

KING'S ROLE IN THE CITY

The King has a certain house as a hall of governors and officials to hear the correspondence and attend to the administration of the Kingdom. He punishes severely those who deserve it, and rewards the good with many honours and thanks.

Duarte Barbosa

KING'S ARMY

The King Narsyngua has always more than nine hundred elephants; they are of great size and beauty, he ever takes them with him for reasons of state as well as for war. He has also upwards of twenty thousand horses. These horses are distributed amongst the lords, to whom the King makes them over for maintenance, and they must continually give him accounts of them. Horses do not thrive well in this country, and live therein but a short time. Those that are here come from the Kingdoms of Ormus and Cambaya, and bring in high prices by reason of the great need for them here. Between both horse and foot the King of Narsyngua has more than a hundred thousand men of war continually in his pay.

Duarte Barbosa

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. 

Book a heritage tour with us at Hampi and hear more stories like this. An immersive experience of Hampi that covers all the monuments within Hampi’s UNESCO world heritage site. 

Arjun Bhat
Arjun Bhat
Travel Entrepreneur who works on curating immersive local experiences of South India. TEDx Speaker. Yoga & Meditation.

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