Madhava-Vidyaranya: Contributions to Agriculture and Commerce

The Vijayanagara Empire attained great success from an agricultural perspective under the reign of Chikka Kampana. The Vijayanagara administration gave great importance to efficient schemes of irrigation that form the bedrock of any successful agricultural enterprise. A record number of tanks and bunds were built during this era – several of which are being used to this day. The tanks named Daroji-kere (near Hampi), Dhanayana-kere, Kamalapurada-kere, Rayara-kere and Hosa-kere are models in terms of their architecture and the type of their canals.

The three dams built across the Tungabhadra (under the reign of Bukkaraya) and the stone canals are unique from an engineering perspective to this day. Several chiefs and noblemen constructed tanks, wells and bunds under the guidance of Sri Vidyaranya. Examples for these include the supervision of tank construction by Lakshmidhara (the nephew of Madhavacharya), Bukkaraya-samudra at Malavalli built by the minister Bachiraya, the tanks of Mallave and Nagavve, the canal of Chaudappa, the canal built near Talakadu by King Chikka-Kampana’s minister Madarasa, and several tanks and wells constructed by Sayana and Madhava themselves. Sufficient attention was also paid to timely maintenance activities in the form of long lasting schemes established at every village. There are records to show expenses related to buffalo drawn silt–carts, lubricants for cart wheels, baskets to fill silt and digging implements and the laborers. That these activities were funded by funds dedicated to temples and brahmanas show Madhavacharya’s faith in the adage

Manava’s (Man’s) seva is madhava’s (Vishnu's) seva.

This is amply demonstrated by several inscriptions. Several noblemen, ladies of royal households, merchants and even courtesans worked in their private capacities towards tank building. There are examples of people of limited means building tanks with their collective finances. Such noble efforts did not go unrecognized by the government.

Agricultural tax was collected in a just manner during the ministry of Madhavacharya. One-sixth to one-fourth of the produce would normally be collected as tax. The people led prosperous lives despite these taxes. Tax rebates were given to tillers and lease-holders of uncultivated lands. Since there was a high chance of rebellion by farmers, the king desisted from either imposing high taxes or resorting to violent methods of tax collection.

Dharampal and other recent researchers have shown that agricultural production per acre was two and a half times that of current levels. The farmers were quite knowledgeable about soil quality, agricultural tools, quality of plant breeds and seeds, irrigation and fertilizers. The practice of two to four harvests a year was followed commonly. Sayanacharya himself mentions आशुव्रीहि or आशुशाली denoting (आशु – quick, व्रीहि – grain) grain harvested every three months. It was during this period that our nation’s agricultural products became world-renowned. Every village had realized self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Suffice it to say that even an arid district like Kolar was agriculturally rich with crops that suited its dry climate. Sugar was produced in immense quantities and even exported. Sugarcane, coconut and betel nut benefited rural cottage industries. Paddy, Ragi (finger millets), pepper, cardamom, cotton, green gram (moong dal), cumin, turmeric, onions, betel leaves, corn/maize, grams and oil seeds, mustard, fenugreek, fruits and vegetables comprised the bulk of the agricultural produce. Rice, sugar and spices (ginger, cinnamon and pepper), cotton, linen, indigo and medicinal herbs, teak, sandalwood and printed fabrics were exported at great profit to China, Maldives, Yemen, Portugal, Persia, Arabia, Aden, Malacca and Sumatra amongst other countries. Machilipatnam and Bhatkal were important ports for the export of high quality iron and steel. Vijayanagar had surpassed Northern India and even Arabia in perfume exports.

Imports consisted of satin, velvet, Arabian horses, porcelain, glass, paper, saffron, jewels, camphor, lead, tin, mercury, gold, iron, brass, elephants and explosives. The interesting point here is that these imports were for luxury or military purposes and not staple needs for the typical Indian of the day. Nothing could be more disastrous for a country than dependence on other countries for its basic necessities. While Vijayanagara was self-reliant for its basic necessities in its heyday, the same thing unfortunately cannot be said for modern India.

Per capita income and purchasing power are the generally regarded metrics of an economy’s health. It is worth noting that Vijayanagara’s currency had much better purchasing power than today. Through the accounts of travelers like Fernao Nuniz (a Portuguese traveler), we know that commodities were not deemed too expensive by the citizens of the Vijayanagara empire. Neither was abject poverty seen. While village leaders regularly collected taxes, village accountants maintained tax accounts. Taxes were normally in the form of agricultural produce, grains or currency. Tax collection efforts were marked by discipline, honesty and efficiency. Taxes were either discounted or cancelled in the event of any natural disasters such as drought, floods or robberies. Happy occasions such as coronations and festivals also resulted in tax rebates. The same tradition of consideration towards their subjects was followed by the Nayakas of Keladi, the Odeyas of Mysore and the Nayakas of Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. Tax breaks were offered as a fillip to commercial enterprise on certain occasions. Royal edicts encouraged businessmen to contribute towards social welfare.

Coinage is another feature through which one can understand the wealth and culture of a country. Vijayanagara’s coinage amply demonstrates the harmony of several sects, commercial success and technological prowess. Gold and silver coins from this period are testimony to the kingdom’s wealth as well as a profound knowledge of alloys and advancements in minting techniques. The harmony shown between Shaiva and Vaishnava deities (Shiva-Parvati/Lakshmi-Narayana) on the coins echo the षण्मत-सामरस्य (harmonious co-existence of the six devotional sects – शैव, वैष्णव, शाक्त, गाणपत्य, सौर, कौमार) propagated by Sri Shankaracharya and his successor Sri Vidyaranya. While the Kannada script used in some coins signified pride in the country, the Devanagari script used in the others showed the nature of relationship between the Karnataka region and larger India.

As an example, http://coinindia.com/MNI0877-damaru-508.26.jpg

The number of available edicts (around 9000) published by the Vijayanagara Empire, possibly the highest number published by any Indian dynasty or empire, shows the extent of administrative activities. Most of these edicts are in Kannada followed by Samskrit, Telugu and Tamil respectively. These edicts mostly are in simple prose, directly stating the matter at hand. It shows the desire of the administration to reach the common folk. Carved on hard granite, these inscriptions show a desire to record these messages for posterity.

It is thus no surprise that more than one traveler found Vijayanagar “as large as Rome, and very beautiful to sight” and as “the best provided city in the world.” Abdur Razzak related the most popular account of Hampi wherein jewelers publicly sold rubies, pearls, emeralds and diamonds in the “long and broad” bazaars.

Needless to say, such a commercially and agriculturally successful empire would have needed a strong foundation. That the brother duo of Sayana and Madhava, the first prime ministers of Vijayanagara, provided this in no small measure would not be an overstatement.

To be continued...

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Engineer. Lapsed blogger. Abiding interest in Sanskrit, religion, and philosophy. A wannabe jack-of-all.