Imperial Legacies in Early-Modern South India. Dynastic Politics in the Vijayanagara Successor States


L.P.J. (Lennart) Bes MA



This research deals with the royal houses of the Vijayanagara Empire and four of its successor states: Ikkeri, Tanjavur (under both the Nayaka and Bhonsle rulers), Madurai, and Ramnad. This study is thus concerned with dynastic politics and imperial legacies in south India between the 14th and 18th centuries. The main questions are what the empire and its successors had in common with regard to several related aspects of political court culture and which factors determined the extent to which Vijayanagara’s legacies lived on in its successors.

Since these successors manifested themselves when the empire reached its zenith in the early 16th century, the courts of Vijayanagara and its offshoots were politically and culturally closely related. Nevertheless, all states differed from one another in fundamental ways, for example with regard to their political origin and socio-ecological nature. Whereas some dynasties were formed as a result of usurpation (most of Vijayanagara’s consecutive houses), conquest (Bhonsle-ruled Tanjavur), or secession (Ramnad), others gained power by rising up the imperial military ranks and attaining increasingly autonomous governorships (Nayaka-ruled Tanjavur and Madurai) or arose from local chiefs incorporated into the expanding empire (Ikkeri). Likewise, while some kingdoms encompassed densely populated riverine areas, comprising rather stratified societies (Tanjavur), others were situated in arid (Ramnad) or upland (Ikkeri), sparsely inhabited zones, supporting more fluid social relations, or in regions combining these characteristics (Madurai). At its height, Vijayanagara naturally held sway over all these regions.

During this period, south India went through a transition of militarisation, commercialisation, and extensive influences from northerly Islamic courts. The question is then to which degree dynastic politics in Vijayanagara and its successors were shaped by the legacies of political forebears, by dynastic, geo-political, and societal particularities, and by regional and pan-Indian developments. In order to study these spatial and temporal differences and commonalities, this research makes a comparison between the courts of Vijayanagara and its heirs and also contrasts the successors with each other.


The various related aspects of political culture under study are each discussed in a separate chapter. The following paragraphs briefly describe these aspects. The first concerns FOUNDATION MYTHS. The question here is how dynasties legitimised their rise to kingship in their origin stories. Elements found in such myths include claims to exalted descent, divine interventions, real or imagined links to earlier dynasties, military feats, the employment of wealth, and reclamation of land. Each royal family would employ those elements that best suited their own circumstances.

Central to the analysis of DYNASTIC SUCCESSIONS is the tension between concepts of legitimacy and ideal kingship on the one hand, and the reality of struggles between rival claimants and the enthronement of illegitimate or puppet kings on the other. Belonging to the royal family was generally a prerequisite to becoming king or (occasionally) queen, but otherwise successions proceeded differently at each court. Under most dynasties, rulers changed frequently and usually under turbulent circumstances, often with toddlers, widows, and bastards ending up on the throne. But some houses chiefly saw smooth and infrequent transitions, largely following the limited principles of succession that may have existed.

Closely linked to dynastic succession was the influence of COURTIERS. This group comprised numerous non-regal contenders for power: commanders-in-chief, dynastic in-laws, governors male and female, tax-farming Muslim magnates, and even Indian and European envoys, who could all lay weight on the court’s (and kingdom’s) power balance. Legitimacy being of less relevance here than for monarchs, several other factors played significant a role, including one’s formal position in the political system, patronage networks, personal skills, and mere luck.

Next, RITUAL and ETIQUETTE as performed at the courts may be considered manifestations of efforts to sustain or alter relationships. Pertaining to all relations described above and below (between rulers, relatives, deities, courtiers, envoys, servants, etc.), these customs shed more (and a different kind of) light on such facets as the balance of power, legitimation, geopolitics, and the like. Relationships may have appeared friendly or ‘courteous’, but certain protocol—or the very departure from it—could in fact hint at the opposite. Here, the focus lies with how ritual and etiquette were employed to forge or strain relations within and between courts.

With regard to ISLAMIC INFLUENCES from other polities, the central question is whether Vijayanagara’s remarkable receptivity to Islamic political culture was maintained by its successors. As they often bordered states with Islamic rulers, became tributary to the Mughal Empire and its various offshoots, and harboured substantial and influential Muslim populations, the successor states also acquired something of what has been termed a ‘Sultanist overlay’. Three aspects of Islamic influence are discussed here: dynastic titles, royal dress, and the role of the archetypical Sultan in court literature.

Finally, the aspect of INTER-STATE RELATIONS concerns the relationship between the various Vijayanagara successor states, and how their dynasties perceived one another. The emperors and its successors were sometimes instrumental in the downfall of each other’s dynasties but could also be involved in keeping one another on the throne. In their literary works, the houses often referred to each other in hierarchical terms. Did they therefore consider themselves collectively forming some kind of politico-cultural unity because of their common past?


With regard to primary sources, two main bodies of materials are used for this study. The first group comprises literary texts produced at and around the courts themselves, written in no less than five different languages. While some of these works have been published, many others were collected and translated in manuscript form by the British around the turn of the 19th century. They are now available in the mostly unstudied ‘Mackenzie collections’. In addition to these indigenous sources, the second set of primary materials consists of the largely unexplored records of the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch maintained close and long-lasting relations with all the polities in question, regularly exchanging embassies and correspondence with these courts and frequently sending detailed reports of local political developments back home. Combined, the used sources thus provide both internal and external views of dynastic politics in early-modern south India.

Mural in the Ramnad palace depicting the king receiving European envoys, who were one of the many contenders for power at South Indian courts, thus partaking in local systems of honour and protocol and occasionally even playing a role in succession struggles and royal legitimation.

Mural in the Ramnad palace depicting the king receiving European envoys, who were one of the many contenders for power at South Indian courts, thus partaking in local systems of honour and protocol and occasionally even playing a role in succession struggles and royal legitimation.

Selected publications

* ‘Toddlers, Widows, and Bastards Enthroned. Dynastic Successions in Early-Modern South India as Observed by the Dutch’, Leidschrift, 27/1 (2012).
* ‘The Setupatis, the Dutch, and Other Bandits in Eighteenth-Century Ramnad (South India)’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 44/4 (2001). 
Dutch Sources on South Asia, c. 1600-1825, 3 vols (New Delhi: Manohar, 2001-2012), with Jos Gommans and Gijs Kruijtzer. 

Last Modified: 03-09-2014