Technical and Literary Education in the Vijayanagara Empire

Technical and Literary Education in the Vijayanagara Empire

The second and concluding episode of this series provides some glimpses into the technical and literary education in the Vijayanagara Empire.

TRUE TO ITS FOUNDATIONAL PROMISE of maintaining Pūravāda-maryāde (customs and traditions of the past), the Vijayanagara rulers nurtured and nourished and patronised technical education in the way it was always done:  communities and guilds and trades and professions imparted this education. 

When we examine this system, we notice the profounder side of the so-called caste system. In the context of this essay series, this can be called the professional side. What is incorrectly called castes were actually professions. Skill, competence, excellence and expertise in each profession was cultivated generationally, often at home. The boy started very early under his father’s tutelage. For hours each day, he patiently learned the techniques and nuances of the particular craft or profession. But the real emphasis was absorbing the spirit of the profession, which transcended these external, mechanical aspects. The spirit elevates the profession and can’t be taught in a classroom. The training was rigorous, intensive and prolonged. But once it was complete, it wouldn’t leave the student. The ultimate goal was the acquisition of mastery, a word that has all but disappeared today. Today’s generalist sees only the forest but can’t identify the trees. Today’s specialist sees only a few trees in isolation forgetting that they form small components in a larger ecosystem. 

DVG gives us a brilliant glimpse into the exalted nature of this professional mastery in his ennobling profile of Sivapicchai Mudaliar. A mason by profession, Sivapicchai could spot discrepancies in the alignment of DVG’s door with a single glance without the aid of any equipment. And could fix them in a matter of minutes. Sivapicchai Mudaliar was among us just eighty years ago.  

Given this, we can only imagine the quality and standard of professional and technical excellence that Vijayanagara had touched. Every foreign traveller who sojourned in its domains has left behind glowing accounts testifying to this truth. An incredible list of professions and trades are mentioned. Architecture, sculpture, bed-making, carpentry, smithy in gold, silver, bronze etc., decorators, gemologists, weapon-makers, ornament-makers, garland-makers, potters, tailors… The Dharma Dispatch has already published an essay on the Vipra-Vinodins, a special class of Brahmana jugglers who were the pride of the Vijayanagara Empire. 

Here is Abdur Razak describing the splendour of Sri Krishnadevaraya’s throne: 

The throne, which was of an extraordinary size, was made of gold, and enriched with precious stones of extreme value ; the whole workmanship was perfect in its delicacy and ingenuity. It is probable, that in all the kingdoms of the world, the art of inlaying precious stones is no where better understood than in this country.

We can clearly count at least five professions and crafts in the aforementioned description. 

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Technical and Literary Education in the Vijayanagara Empire
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Technical and Literary Education in the Vijayanagara Empire
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The Wonderful World of Vipravinodins: The Forgotten Brahmanas of Vijayanagara
Technical and Literary Education in the Vijayanagara Empire

Sacred and Literary Education

The literary accomplishments in the Vijayanagara Empire don’t need much elaboration. It is well-known that all the Rayas were devout patrons of piety and literature. The Mahāmaṇḍalēśvaras (governors), Nayakas, Palegars and wealthy businessmen in the Empire vied with one another to earn fame as the patrons of literature. Literature and literary education witnessed a zesty and vigorous renewal and rejuvenation in the Vijayanagara Empire. Some of the styles and innovations that the luminaries of this era produced — chiefly in Telugu literature — have stood the test of time till our own day. 

In this context, literature can be broadly classified into two categories: (1) sacred literature (2) familiar literature. 

One of the pioneering contributions of Vijayanagara to Hindu sacred literature was the publication of Sāyanācārya’s mammoth and invaluable commentaries on the Veda. 

The Rayas personally encouraged litterateurs to compose works in Sanskrit and other Bharatiya-Bhashas. Kumaravyasa’s epic Karnāṭabhāratakathāman̄jari blossomed in the regime of Devaraya II. Telugu literature witnessed its golden era under the rule of the Rayas. Sri Krishnadevaraya’s literary Aṣṭa-diggajas is now the stuff of legends.  

Literary education in the Empire received extraordinary sustenance from the munificent bestowals of aristocrats and merchants as well. Mahakavi Srinatha extols his numerous patrons in his several works dedicated to them. 

Agraharas were specifically created to foster learning and literature. Entire villages were bestowed upon temples and Mathas. Individual scholars, poets and artists were invited to royal courts and generously rewarded. We have the example of the barber Kondoja who had acquired great clout in the Vijayanagara court, and how he used it to make the literary career of a struggling poet, a goldsmith named Rudrayya.   

The literary education and excellence of women in the Vijayanagara Empire is an overlooked portion of its history. Bukkaraya’s daughter-in-law, Gangadevi’s name tops the list. Her Madhurā-vijayaṁ after being eclipsed for some years, has evoked renewed interest in recent times. Tirumalamba Devi’s Varadāmbikāpariṇayam is also hailed as a poetic work of some merit. Then we have the name of Ramabhadramba, an Aṣṭāvadhāni who could compose poetry in three languages. Her epic poem, Raghunāthābhyudayam, apart from being a literary work, is also a valuable primary source of history. Among other things, it mentions the presence and literary prowess of several poetesses in the court of her husband, Raghunatha Nayaka. 

Overall Assessment

CLEARLY, THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM IN THE VIJAYANAGARA EMPIRE produced prolific, prodigious and invaluable fruits in all walks of life. The most noteworthy element of this system is the fact that it was entirely a private enterprise. It was underscored by the ageless Sanatana ideal of a deep reverence for Saraswati. This ideal was fused with high culture, shared community values, and above all, a genuine veneration for learning for its own sake. That is, education was pursued as an end in itself and not merely for its utilitarian value. 

But even on the mundane plane of utility, we have a wealth of evidence that shows how the civil and military apparatus of the Empire depended upon a constant supply of talent drawn from various fields. Because of the great demand for their services, a large number of apprentices underwent arduous training to qualify themselves for state patronage.

The visible markers of what this educational system accomplished can still be seen in various parts of South India. The humongous literary corpus, the architectural and sculptural remnants at Hampi, the paintings in Lepakshi, Kanchi, Thanjavur and elsewhere prove that the educational system of Vijayanagara was perfectly tailored to the genius of the people. More importantly, even in the absence of deliberate state patronage, it served to develop and sustain high standards in all branches of learning of that unsurpassed era.  


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