The richest kingdom in the medieval world?

The profusion of reliefs in Hampi showing horse traders seems to bear out a factoid that I’d heard repeatedly: that the Vijayanagar empire was the richest in the medieval world during its century of dominance, from the mid 15th to the 16th century CE. This probably has to be qualified slightly, since this was also the heydays of the Ming dynasty in China. But comtemporary records seem to indicate that the medieval city of Vijayanagara was not much smaller than its contemporary Beijing. It exported diamonds and imported horses. Its capital was a market which attracted Arab traders, and eventually Portuguese and Dutch travellers.

From various sources we know today that the most productive diamond mines were owned by the king. Workers were paid wages, but no other incentives. Based on the recorded wages paid to workers in the diamond mines, Pande and Raviteja wrote “Thus it may be constructed that the labourers in the mines probably led a miserable life.” The incredible difference in the quality of life of kings and commoners was noted by several travellers. It is likely that horse traders were far better off than the masses.

Iron, bronze and copper were mined and used. Iron was smelted in charcoal furnaces to make steel. In his influential book on the Vijayanagara empire, Robert Sewell wrote in 1900 that irons and steel was largely used to make weapons, but there was sufficient surplus to be turned into common household objects. The construction industry was dominated by temples and palaces, and employed a large number of masons, master builders, sculptors and various other artisans. Records of donations to temples show that artisans were well-off. Stone walls in temples (see photo on top) are dressed with precision, blocks sized and matched perfectly to sit on top of each other. So the lack of precision in the dressing of stone blocks in public works like the aqueduct of Anegondi (photo above), or the Mahanavami Dibba, cannot be attributed either to the lack of metals, or the lack of trained artisans. If this has not already been investigated by historians, then here is a mystery to be solved.

Victory celebrations

The Vijayanagara empire was one of the major medieval kingdoms of India, with its eastern boundary a source of friction with another major empire: the Kalinga or Odisha kingdom. Hampi, then called Vijayanagara, had been briefly occupied by an invading Kalinga army in the late 15th century CE. In that war the eastern part of the kingdom, west of the Krishna river, was annexed by Kalinga. The retaliation came a generation later, when Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara laid siege to the Kalinga fort of Udayagiri. The two-year siege ended in 1514 CE with the capture of the fort. After another five years of war, the Odisha kingdom, which was also busy fighting the Bengal kingdom to its east, agreed to a treaty marking the Krishna river as the border of the two kingdoms. Krishnadevaraya counted this as a major victory, having captured the son of the king of Kalinga, married his daughter, and brought back several famous temple idols from Kalinga as booty.

Some accounts say that the grandiose platform of Mahanavami Dibba was built in celebration of this grand victory, and from then on served as the focus for the imperial celebration of the ten days of Dasara. There is extensive research and writing about the history of Vijayanagara, so the lack of precise dating troubled me a little. If the platform was indeed made after the Kalinga war, or one of the battles during the war, then it could not have been seen by visitors before 1512 CE.

The high walls are extensively decorated with the low-relief sculptures that I found was characteristic of Hampi. Elsewhere they function as a narrative, like a medieval graphic novel. Here there are few stories (unless we have lost them, which is not impossible) but many illustrations of some parts of regular life. I spent time looking at the panels which showed horse trainers and traders, elephants and lions being used in war, women dancing, sometimes with sticks in hand, scenes of hunting. Hidden amongst these was the delightful chimera with the body of a horse, head of an elephant and the tail of a lion, which you see in the featured image. Like elsewhere in Hampi, the stone blocks were roughly shaped, as if care was needed to dress only the face on which the reliefs would be sculpted.

Why are the stone blocks so irregular? Does this say something about the lack of either tools, manpower, or funds? It is not clear to me from my reading whether the Kalinga war had renewed or drained the Vijayanagara exchequer, so I can’t tell whether the king had money to pay for a better wall. The capital was still expanding in the early 16th century, and the skills of builders would have been in demand; so lack of trained manpower seems unlikely. Perhaps the problem was with tools. But stone has been worked in India for millennia, and Indian steel was famous across Eurasia at this time. This lack of expertise in shaping stone blocks is intriguing enough to make me want to explore the literature in more detail.