Rise of the Vijayanagara Empire and its Capital City

From the ashes of the old kingdoms rose a new power that would dominate the region for over 220 years and transform the cultural ethos of South India. Here is the story of how it came to be.

Geopolitical Situation before Vijayanagara

In the 13th century, four major kingdoms dominated the territories South of the Vindhyas, that is, the Yadavas of Devagiri, the Kakatiyas of Warangal, the Hoysalas of Dwarasamudra, and the Pandyas of Madurai. Each one of these was legendary Kingdoms in their own right and had risen in power & influence by fighting hard. In the year 1296 CE, a powerful and ambitious ruler became the Sultan of Delhi, Allauddin Khilji. For the first time, a ruler from Delhi looked at the South and threatened the four great kingdoms. From 1308 to 1311, his trusted commander, Malik Kafur led several raids into the South and exacted tributes from them, and returned to Delhi a very wealthy man. The southern Kingdoms all became vassals of Delhi and agreed to pay an annual tribute to the Sultan.

A decade and a half later another ambitious young man ascended the throne in Delhi, his name was Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The Kingdoms of the South had stopped paying tribute and asserted their independence from Delhi by the time he became Sultan. And unlike his predecessors, he wasn’t interested in just raiding the Deccan & South, he wanted to annex the territories and rule over them. He led multiple campaigns into the South, swept through the region decimating all the 4 Kingdoms by the end of it. He then appointed loyal Amirs (outsiders to the region) to govern over the annexed territories and extract taxes on his behalf. By 1328 CE almost the whole of South India was brought under the control of Delhi.

Muhammad was eccentric and authoritarian in his style of decision-making. This was creating a lot of resentment and loss of support within his own court. His decision to shift the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and then move it back again in a decade did not help as it bled the treasury. By the 1340s the Delhi Sultanate was growing weak and vassals were getting increasingly rebellious. All of this led to a power vacuum in the Deccan and the South.

In the former territories of Hoysala Kingdom, a band of battle-hardened brothers annexed large territories and asserted their own rule in what would become the Vijayanagara Empire. In the North Deccan former Amirs of the Delhi Sultanate, rebel, and crown their own ruler on the seat of Bahmani Sultanate. Further south former Amir ruling over Tamil country from Madurai declares independence and crowns himself the Sultan of Madurai.  This way there are many claimants to the legacy of Delhi Sultanate, all in hopes of establishing their own rule.

Rise of Karnataka Samrajya or Vijayanagara Empire

The origins of the five sons of Sangama who established the Vijayanagara empire are unclear. In all likelihood, they were sons of the soil who rose in power & influence. By the early 14th century, these brothers appear as chieftains in different parts of the Hoysala Kingdom. In the invasion that followed, the brothers were captured and taken as political prisoners by the Sultan of Delhi. Most likely here they transferred allegiances to Delhi and were sent back to the South to be vassals and rule in the name of Sultan.

In the 1330s the eldest of the brothers appears in Raichur as the Amir of the Tughlaq court. What seemed to have happened is that as the Hoysala Kingdom disintegrated, with its King fighting a losing battle against the Muslim warlord parked in Madurai, the Sangama brothers fanned out to different provinces of Hoysala territories and conquered them.

In the year 1346 CE the five brothers came together at Sringeri, to celebrate their coast-to-coast conquest of the Southern Peninsula, by now also having discarded their loyalty to Delhi. This is why some scholars consider the year 1346 CE to be the founding year of the Vijayanagara empire. Although in reality, it would have been a gradual process that started with consolidation in the early 1330s and ending in 1346 CE with them being firmly in power.

Founding of the capital city of Vijayanagara

The site the Sangamas chose for their capital was on the banks of the Tungabhadra river, a place of religious importance, with river goddess Pampa (from which it derived its current name, Hampi) and Virupaksha. The folklore narrates a curious story as to why the Sangama brothers choose this location. As per the story, Harihara & Bukka (eldest of the 5 Sangama brothers) came to the foothills of Matanga Hill for a hunting expedition, where they witnessed an unusual sight – a hunting dog from their party was sprinting straight towards them, being chased by a rabbit! Surprised by this instance, and looking for answers, they walked further in that direction and were met by a sage named Vidyaranya on the foothills of Matanga. When they shared what they had just seen with the wise sage, he explained that this land protected the weak & gave them courage due to a curse laid by a Sage named Matanga. He then shared that he had a vision where lord Harihara appeared and tasked him with giving guidance to the brothers to build a capital city at this location and that it would bring great prosperity to the people and the land.  It is said that it was Sage Vidyaranya that brought the brothers together at Sringeri and helped lay the foundation of the Empire. Vidyaranya went on to serve as an advisor to the Sangama brothers for several decades. 

from Amar Chitrakatha (https://www.amarchitrakatha.com/)

Beyond the story of Rabbit & the Hound, there were important strategic reasons, that would have influenced the decision to build a capital city at Pampa-Kshetra on the banks of the Tungabhadra river. First, it afforded them a great defensive position, with the Tungabhadra River on the north, Sandhur hills on the south, and surrounded by ridgelines of boulder hills. The narrow gaps between the boulder hills could easily be closed using fortifications, the hills also provided good vantage points to detect any approaching army from many kilometers away. Second, the Sangama brothers had local connections here that they could trust and rely on, they were related to the nobles of Kampli and Anegundi. Third, its geographical location on the northern edges of their territory allowed them to keep a check on their biggest enemy – the Bahmani Sultanate. Last, it was a major place of Shaivite pilgrimage, adoption of this shrine for worship gave them in return acceptance and support amongst the common folk of the region.

Before the arrival of the Sangama brothers, its former rulers, the Hoysalas had built a small fortified township on the Hemakuta Hill next to the Virupaksha Shrine sometime in the 1320s, they called it Hosapattana. The sangamas renamed this small township as Vijaya Virupaksha Hosapattana after they made grants to the Virupaksha Shrine. However, Harihara I is said to have ruled mostly from the fortified citadel of Anegundi lying North East of Hampi on the northern bank of Tungabhadra. Portuguese writer Domingo Paes referred to Anegundi as the “old capital”.  It was during the reign of Bukkaraya that a new citadel was completed, located south of Hampi, what today we call as “Royal Center”, what was then named as Vijayanagara – The City of Victory. An inscription dated 1368 CE states that Bukkaraya was “on the throne of the new Vijayanagara” and another of 1378 CE asserts that Bukka “built a splendid city, called the city of victory”. 

Was Vijayanagara founded to defend dharmic traditions from Muslim Rule?

There is no doubt that the Vijayanagara rule allowed the Dharmic traditions of all hues to flourish in the South due to the relative stability afforded. Under the Vijayanagara rule, several temples were built and old temples were renovated all over Southern India. In addition, classical art forms like Carnatic music, literature, dance all flourished with a strong connection to the temples and religious philosophies tied into them. It is difficult to imagine that this distinct cultural renaissance would have happened in the same way if the Bahmani Sultanate or some other power ruled over the Deccan & south. However, the idea that Vijayanagara was founded by the Sangama brothers with the express intention to protect the Dharmic traditions from the Islamic invaders of the north, would be in my opinion, an overly simplified world view. 

Harihara & Bukka, both used titles like Hinduraya Suratrana on inscriptions, which translates to Sultan amongst the Hindu Kings. With these declarations, they were claiming their legitimacy to rule because they were once vassals or connected to the Delhi Sultan. Such titles were used throughout the Vijayanagar rule by all the dynasties. Starting from the reign of Devaraya II, the Vijayanagara army recruited Muslim cavalrymen & archers, they were provided mansions within the city and allowed to build mosques & graves for their use. So clearly their fight wasn’t ideological but it was political. It just so happened that their biggest enemy between the 14th to 16th centuries was the Bahmani Sultanate (later Deccan Sultanates), with whom they fought often to control the fertile Raichur Doab & Konkan Coast.  But they also fiercely fought the Gajapati’s of Orissa, Reddys of Kondavidu, chieftains of several smaller territories along the east coast & South Karnataka, all of whom were of dharmic faith. 

The Sangama brothers and later rulers of Vijayanagara were not motivated by some ideological view of the world, they were instead motivated by power and pushed by ambition.  They were not interested in defensive orthodoxy of protecting some religious ideology, instead, they were interested in carving out a bold new future. 

Book our heritage tour and let us bring alive the glory of Vijayanagara for you through our stories. This is full day private experience of Hampi that covers all the monuments within Hampi’s UNESCO world heritage site as well. 

Join our Heritage walking tour of Hampi for a storytelling experience of Hampi.  We will engage you in stories from Purana, local folklore & History as we cover the Hemakuta Group of monuments and Virupaksha Temple area. This is a tour for all heritage enthusiast, conducted by our resident expert! 

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

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