Organisation of the Army of


An extract from Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 2
by Ian Heath

This South Indian state was founded in 1336 by two Hindu officers of Mohammed ibn Tughluq of Delhi, these becoming its first two kings (Harihara 1336-56, and Bukka I 1356-77) with the city of Vijayanagar as their capital. Throughout its existence this Hindu kingdom was almost continuously at war with its northern neighbours, the Bahmani sultanate and its Deccan successor states.

Details of the country's military organisation are not overwhelmingly abundant, and most of what information we have belongs to the 16th century rather than the 14th-15th. However, all the sources seem to agree on two fundamental points, which are (a) that a standing army was maintained, and (b) that it allegedly numbered in the region of one million men. (Incredible though this seems, it has to be borne in mind that by the end of this period the population of India was about 25% greater than the entire population of Europe.) Domingos Paes, for instance, writing of c. 1520-22, reckoned Vijayanagar's army as 'continually a million fighting men, in which are included 35,000 armoured cavalry; all these are in his pay, and he has these troops always together and ready to be despatched to any quarter whenever it may be necessary.' Ferishta, writing of 1366, gives figures of 30,000 cavalry and 900,000 infantry, while Abd-er-Razzak, visiting the country in 1442, records that its troops amounted to 11 lac, or 1.1 million men. However, Duarte Barbosa, who visited India c. 1500-16, wrote in his chronicle only that 'between both horse and foot the king of Vijayanagar has more than 100,000 soldiers continually in his pay', while Fernão Nuniz, another early-16th century traveller, says that 'the king has continually 50,000 paid soldiers', amongst whom were 6,000 cavalry (the palace guard), 20,000 spearmen, 3,000 elephant-keepers (doubtless including their crews) and 1,600 grooms; these certainly seem more probable figures for the strength of the standing army, even though a million men may certainly have been available in all. Paes in fact states that 2 million men were actually available, the nobility being obliged to supply contingents according to the revenues of their domains. Fernão Nuniz says that the king's nobles were obliged to maintain 600,000 infantry and 24,000 cavalry, and that there were 200 of these nobles who are 'obliged always to be present with the king, and must always maintain the full number of soldiers according to their obligations'. Most Hindu armies would have included in addition many kaijitagandru, i.e. 'drawers of weekly (or daily) wages', in other words men hired only for the duration of a campaign rather than on a full-time basis.

For a campaign of 1522 Nuniz recorded the following individual contingents:

The chief of the guard30,0001,0006 (or 16)
6 provincial governors50,0002,00020
3 eunuchs (‘favourites of the king’)40,0001,00015
The page of the betel15,000200-
Kumara Virayya of Mysore8,00040020
The king (Krishna Devaraya)40,0006,000300

573,00028,600551 (or 561)

The proportions of these figures are particularly revealing, confirming the overwhelming predominance of infantry in Hindu armies alluded to by innumerable contemporary chronicles. The proportion of infantry to cavalry is in fact something like 20 to 1, or even as high as 30 or 40 to 1 in a few instances, though there is - fairly inevitably - a far higher proportion of cavalry in the king's own contingent (these being the palace guard referred to elsewhere, of whom 200, or 500 according to Paes, constituted the royal bodyguard); the king's contingent also has far more elephants than any of the others - 1 per 20 cavalry, as opposed to the average of 1 per 100 cavalry (or 2-3,000 infantry) apparent in the other contingents. The kingdom could muster about 1,000 elephants in all (Barbosa says 'more than 900', Nuniz mentions 800, and Abd-er-Razzak says 'more than 1,000', though in one passage Ferishta mentions as many as 3,000). Overall, the ratio of infantry to cavalry and elephants for the entire army is on the lines of 1,000:50:1.

The disproportionately small number of cavalry resulted from a scarcity of horses in South India as is explained in the note to figure 160 (page 180). Barbosa and other authorities explain how the king regularly imported considerable numbers of horses at great expense and distributed them among his principal ministers and the nobility, who were subsequently expected to maintain them 'and continually give him accounts of them. In the same way he gives them to other noblemen. To the cavalry soldiers [i.e. of the standing army] he gives one horse each for his own riding; a groom and a slave-girl as servants; and a monthly allowance of 4 or 5 pardaos as the case may be [paid every 4 months according to Abd-er-Razzak]; and daily rations as well for the horse and groom'. Domingos Paes adds that 'some who are of higher rank have 2 horses or 3, though others have only one.' All in all it is clear that only about 30,000 cavalry were normally available to the kingdom, this figure frequently occurring in the sources, and from Nuniz's description it is clear that four-fifths of these were provided by the nobility. Surprisingly, some of them were Moslem mercenaries; Moslem mercenary cavalry had been employed in the kingdom since Devaraya I's reign (1406-22), and by the time of Devaraya II's accession in 1430 there were as many as 10,000. The only larger number of Moslems to be found in Hindu employ in this period is that of 20,000 recorded by Ibn Battuta in the army of Vira Ballala III, raya of Hoysala (d. 1342, upon which the kingdom was annexed by Vijayanagar).

Organisation was fairly certainly on a decimal basis, and multiples of 50, 100 and 200 are often encountered. Nuniz in one passage records 2,000 men under 40 or 50 captains. The smallest recorded unit now, as in Alexander the Great's time, was called a padi or patti, commanded by an officer variously called a padinayaka, padiraya, padalu or padavalu. In ancient times this had theoretically comprised a chariot, an elephant, 3 horsemen and 5 infantry, and though its size in the mediaeval period is unknown it was clearly larger, but nevertheless remained a self-contained unit of infantry, cavalry and elephants (chariots having fallen out of use by the 7th century); the Bahmanis seem to have copied this type of all-arm unit from the Hindus, calling it a lashkar. Next unit in size was called a dala, meaning a 'part' or 'fragment' of the army (i.e. a division), and its commander was called a dalavayi. An army commander was called a dandanayaka or dannayaka, the word nayaka indicating a military chieftain.

Catapults are often mentioned being used in the defence of cities, and gunpowder artillery, largely crewed by Moslem renegades, was certainly in use by the end of the 15th century. Indeed it may have been in use even in the 14th century, several authorities rendering an unclear passage in Ferishta's history as a reference to the king of Vijayanagar fielding '3,000 cannon and darb-zan' (or '300 gun-carriages' in Briggs' translation) in 1365/6; however, the reference is in fact probably to grenades or fireworks rather than artillery, since elephant crews were frequently, if not usually, equipped with such devices (and interestingly Ferishta records 3,000 elephants in the army on this occasion 3,000 being his favourite figure). Varthema, writing of 1506(?), records that 'this race of people are great masters in the art of making fireworks', which were used with considerable effect against elephants.

Vijayanagar Illustrations and Articles