B.A. Saletore's Magnum Opus

This article is part 6 of 8 in the series B.A. Saletore

Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire

Following the tradition of keeping the best for the last, it is time to examine Saletore’s seminal magnum opus, Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire in two volumes.

To begin with, we can quote from the foreword to the book written by the scholar of history, Dr. S. Krishnaswamy Aiyangar.

The very extent of the subject and the vastness of details available, would baffle anybody in this direction ordinarily. But Dr. Saletore has succeeded in producing a creditable work bearing on the vast subject. The work gives a correct and complete view of the life of the people under the empire, during the three centuries of its fight to preserve Hindu institutions and Hindu civilization.

Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire still retains its eminence as an eternal classic on the subject. As we noted earlier, this was his doctoral thesis submitted to the University of London which earned him his PhD but for both the academic and lay reader, its value is inestimable. It became an immediate classic and invited widespread acclaim and petty-minded criticism for the same reason: because it was such an extraordinary and pathbreaking work. In an incredible feat of racist spite, the British academic F.J. Richards wrote “review” of this thousand-page masterpiece that runs into exactly…half a page! It is not a review but a litany of cheap nitpicking looking for things that don’t exist in the volumes.

Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire is truly pioneering and belongs to the class of Jadunath Sarkar's volumes on Aurangzeb and the Mughal administration and his painstaking reconstruction of Persian primary records of the period.

In a single stroke, Saletore’s volumes created a new tidal wave in writing the history of Vijayanagara and became a model for future scholars and researchers. It still remains na bhooto na bhavishyati: never before, never after. For their intrinsic value, they are favourably comparable to P.V. Kane’s monumental and path-breaking volumes on the history of Dharmasastra.

In fact, the sort of preparations that Saletore made for writing this work is a beautiful and inspirational story by itself. He spent a majority of his time at the India Office in London, working long hours each day, digging for every scrap of material on Vijayanagara. It is said that he could use only a portion of the enormous wealth of Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil MSS, epigraphs, numismatics and other evidence in his final, published work. His disciple, Smt Jyotsna Kamat has written that Saletore’s unpublished findings from these MSS still have great scope for further studies in the history of Vijayanagara. Indeed, one fondly wishes that Saletore should have also written a detailed political history of Vijayangara.

Vijayanagara remained close to his heart till the very end of his life and we get a glimpse of this abiding interest when he writes these words tinged with humility: “I must confess that I have not exhausted the subject.” This statement, coming from the acknowledged expert on the subject serves us an important lesson in level-headedness.

Now we can quickly scan the major features of Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire, both volumes included. Saletore has dedicated it to Lionel David Barnett “by his pupil, the author.”

Its bibliography runs into fifty-five pages not counting the copious footnotes and excerpts from various primary sources in the main text itself. The work covers everything about the Vijayanagara Empire in exhaustive detail including the story of its origin, the geography it commanded, its revenue system, judiciary, administrative machinery, military, foreign relations, policy towards the Muslim Bahamani kingdom, social institutions with a special discussion on the role of Brahmanas, social etiquette, valour, patriotism, houses, food, drink, dress, corporate life, festivals, games and amusements.

In fact, judging by the encyclopedic level of details contained in the work, a creative person can physically reconstruct that era. Likewise, for people who are interested in preserving the Sanatana cultural continuity, there is enough material to make informed links between that era and our own.

This is precisely where we can reconnect the aforementioned point about epigraphy as a primary source for writing authentic histories of India.

Saletore’s volumes on Vijayanagara became authoritative landmarks precisely because he spotted and excavated the real-life stories of real people that epigraphs, inscriptions, grants, etc., contained within them. But his real feat, in fact, his signal service was to sift through literally thousands of such records, to give them a proper chronology, context, meaning, to flesh out the cultural nuances hidden in them and to finally compile all of these into a cohesive and cogent narrative.

In fact, as we read through the twin volumes, a whole world of connections opens before our eyes: it is an extraordinary experience of literary time travel to our own world which we have lost. But for Saletore’s works, the treasure of historical stories that he has unraveled for us would have perhaps been lost forever. Another marked revelation is this: even as we read the pages, an almost uncountable elements of the Hindu civilizational and cultural continuity become evident.

In the preface, Saletore describes the scope of the endeavor and it is worth recounting in some detail. First, he correctly characterizes the rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire as the custodians of Sanatana Dharma and says:  

I applied myself to the elucidation of many an interesting problem connected with the private and public life of the Vijayanagara rulers and their subjects in all its manifold aspects.

Vijayanagara rulers and their people may be judged in terms of the actions and thought of their predecessors both in and outside Karnataka. It is with this object that the following method has been adopted in the work. Classical and mediaeval Hindu theories relating to government and society have been first given followed by Vijayanagara conceptions of the same. Further, the origin of the political and social institutions of the Vijayanagara princes and people has been traced to their Hoysala and Tamil antecedents, in order to bring out more clearly the historical sequence that may be said to govern the actions of the mediaeval Hindu monarchs. An attempt has been made for the first time to bring before the reader classical and mediaeval Hindu theory in harmony with Vijayanagara maxims and practice. [Emphasis added]

The two majestic volumes are the living proofs of the success and fulfilment of this vision of writing Vijayanagara history. But let’s hear the intrinsic value of epigraphic sources for reconstructing Vijayanagara history from the horse’s mouth:

Evidence from all available sources has been utilized. And no source of information has been found so fruitful as the numerous epigraphical records which contain, especially in regard to government and social matters, innumerable details which throws flood light on the internal organization of Vijayanagara. [Emphasis added]

In a direct challenge to the prevailing European notions of Indian history, Saletore gives us this gem:

History is not preordained. Event Y will not automatically or naturally follow from event X. More often than not, great events of history occur through freak accidents of insignificance and end up having far reaching consequences.

Thus, Saletore correctly holds that the "study of the manner in which Hindus of those times led their lives" has a direct bearing on our understanding of how Hindus successfully warded off Islamic invasions in south India. Writing the history of Vijayanagara sans this perspective and understanding is fruitless at best and dangerous at worst, which has been the case today. And unlike the well-meaning but apologetic historians of today, Saletore was a fearless exponent of historical truths.

To be continued



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

Prekshaa Publications

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...