About the book:
Robert Sewell (1845–1925) worked in the civil service of the Madras Presidency during the period of colonial rule in India. He was Keeper of the Madras Record Office and was tasked with responsibility for documenting ancient inscriptions and remains in the region, As with other British administrators of his type at that period, his purpose was not scholarly but rather to bolster administrative control by constructing a history that placed British rule as a virtue and a necessity rather than something to be denigrated. Portrayal of historic factionalism among local figureheads and dominion by alien despots would, it was thought, enhance the perception that only the British could rescue the country from its past.
Sewell’s specialism was the Vijayanagara Empire, about which he authored A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India (1900). Burton Stein described this book as Sewell’s
only popular work … [In which] an outline of the genealogical and chronological evidence on the dynasties of Vijayanagara was briefly presented followed by two long and historically configuring translations of the accounts of two sixteenth-century Portuguese visitors to the city.
Sewell undertook archaeological work, including at the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati, which had already been largely destroyed prior to his arrival. The site had previously been surveyed by Colin Mackenzie and Walter Elliot. His record-keeping at that site in 1877 has been criticised for making an already-bad situation worse, adding to the problems that meant it was impossible to correlate the finds made.
Sewell was guided by various native speakers of the Kannada, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu languages spoken there. Some of these aides went on to publish research of their own, such as S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar.
About the Vijayanagar Empire:
The Vijayanagara Empire (also called Karnata Empire, and the Kingdom of Bisnegar by the Portuguese) was based in the Deccan Plateau region in South India. It was established in 1336 by Harihara I and his brother Bukka Raya I of Sangama Dynasty. The empire rose to prominence as a culmination of attempts by the southern powers to ward off Islamic invasions by the end of the 13th century. It lasted until 1646, although its power declined after a major military defeat in 1565 by the Deccan sultanates. The empire is named after its capital city of Vijayanagara, whose ruins surround present day Hampi, now a World Heritage Site in Karnataka, India. The writings of medieval European travelers such as Domingo Paes, Fernão Nunes, and Niccolò Da Conti, and the literature in local languages provide crucial information about its history. Archaeological excavations at Vijayanagara have revealed the empire’s power and wealth.
The empire’s legacy includes many monuments spread over South India, the best known of which is the group at Hampi. The previous temple building traditions in South India came together in the Vijayanagara Architecture style. The mingling of all faiths and vernaculars inspired architectural innovation of Hindu temple construction, first in the Deccan and later in the Dravidian idioms using the local granite. Efficient administration and vigorous overseas trade brought new technologies such as water management systems for irrigation. The empire’s patronage enabled fine arts and literature to reach new heights in Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, and Sanskrit, while Carnatic music evolved into its current form. The Vijayanagara Empire created an epoch in South Indian history that transcended regionalism by promoting Hinduism as a unifying factor.
In the year 1336 A.D., during the reign of Edward III of England, there occurred in India an event which almost
instantaneously changed the political condition of the entire south. With that date the volume of ancient history in
that tract closes and the modern begins. It is the epoch of transition from the Old to the New.
This event was the foundation of the city and kingdom of Vijayanagar. Prior to A.D. 1336 all Southern India had
lain under the domination of the ancient Hindu kingdoms, – kingdoms so old that their origin has never been
traced, but which are mentioned in Buddhist edicts rock-cut sixteen centuries earlier; the Pandiyans at Madura, the
Cholas at Tanjore, and others. When Vijayanagar sprang into existence the past was done with for ever, and the
monarchs of the new state became lords or overlords of the territories lying between the Dakhan and Ceylon.
There was no miracle in this. It was the natural result of the persistent efforts made by the Muhammadans to
conquer all India. When these dreaded invaders reached the Krishna River the Hindus to their south, stricken with
terror, combined, and gathered in haste to the new standard which alone seemed to offer some hope of protection.
The decayed old states crumbled away into nothingness, and the fighting kings of Vijayanagar became the
saviours of the south for two and a half centuries.
And yet in the present day the very existence of this kingdom is hardly remembered in India; while its once
magnificent capital, planted on the extreme northern border of its dominions and bearing the proud title of the
”City of Victory,” has entirely disappeared save for a few scattered ruins of buildings that were once temples or
palaces, and for the long lines of massive walls that constituted its defences. Even the name has died out of men’s
minds and memories, and the remains that mark its site are known only as the ruins lying near the little village of
Its rulers, however, in their day swayed the destinies of an empire far larger than Austria, and the city is declared
by a succession of European visitors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to have been marvellous for size and
prosperity – a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare. Its
importance is shown by the fact that almost all the struggles of the Portuguese on the western coast were carried
on for the purpose of securing its maritime trade; and that when the empire fell in 1565, the prosperity of
Portuguese Goa fell with it never to rise again.
Our very scanty knowledge of the events that succeeded one another in the large area dominated by the kings of
Vijayanagar has been hitherto derived partly from the scattered remarks of European travellers and the desultory
references in their writings to the politics of the inhabitants of India; partly from the summaries compiled by
careful mediaeval historians such as Barros, Couto, and Correa, who, though to a certain degree interested in the
general condition of the country, yet confined themselves mostly to recording the deeds of the European colonisers
for the enlightenment of their European readers; partly from the chronicles of a few Muhammadan writers of the
period, who often wrote in fear of the displeasure of their own lords; and partly from Hindu inscriptions recording
grants of lands to temples and religious institutions, which documents, when viewed as state papers, seldom yield
us more than a few names and dates. The two chronicles, however, translated and printed at the end of this
volume, will be seen to throw a flood of light upon the condition of the city of Vijayanagar early in the sixteenth
century, and upon the history of its successive dynasties; and for the rest I have attempted, as an introduction to
these chronicles, to collect all available materials from the different authorities alluded to and to weld them into a
consecutive whole, so as to form a foundation upon which may hereafter be constructed a regular history of the
Vijayanagar empire. The result will perhaps seem disjointed, crude, and uninteresting; but let it be remembered
that it is only a first attempt. I have little doubt that before very long the whole history of Southern India will be
compiled by some writer gifted with the power of ”making the dry bones live;” but meanwhile the bones
themselves must be collected and pieced together, and my duty has been to try and construct at least the main
portions of the skeleton.
Before proceeding to details we must shortly glance at the political condition of India in the first half of the
fourteenth century, remembering that up to that time the Peninsula had been held by a number of distinct Hindu
kingdoms, those of the Pandiyans at Madura and of the Cholas at Tanjore being the most important.