Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Chair

Department of Anthropology

University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

University of Pennsylvania

Teaching: Courses


For a city that would come to be the capital of a great empire and the locus of one of the largest population concentrations in South Asia prior to the seventeenth century, there has been surprisingly little scholarship on the regional setting of the city of Vijayanagara.  Located in an irrigable pocket along the perennial Tungabhadra river in what is otherwise a challenging landscape for agriculture, urban residents were supplied with food and other critical goods through a complex and rapidly-developed apparatus of agricultural production, animal husbandry, and trade.  A major consumer of luxury goods from around the world, more prosaic bulk commodities such as metal, ceramics, building stone, mortar, and of course food and drink used by city residents were for the most part generated within the urban hinterland itself.  While the location of the capital city has often been considered in terms of its defensive qualities, its siting also partook of an apparently self-conscious attempt to simultaneously build on existing local associations of divine power and political legitimacy while also advertising the creation of something entirely new.   Both symbolic and practical considerations lay behind the phenomenal success of this large city and the empire it both generated and was, in turn, sustained by.   
    Both the regional resource limits of the semi-arid peninsular interior and political ambition linked with military savvy almost certainly contributed to the rapid expansion of the Vijayanagara state beyond regional borders, but what is less often appreciated are the ways in which these imperial adventures rebounded locally to affect the lives of those living in and around this great city.  Responding to local environmental and political imperatives as well as the consequences of great-power politics and even international trade, farmers, craftspeople, laborers, and others adjusted their places of residence, strategies of production, and even religious practices to accommodate changing realities during the Vijayanagara centuries.  In the space of four hundred years, the area around the city of Vijayanagara saw both episodes of massive increases in population density as well as precipitous decline. In this short time, large-scale irrigation works and less dramatic dry farming significantly changed natural water flows and even landforms; quarrying, burning, the cutting of woody vegetation and animal grazing all had a major impact on the environment. So, too, were cultural landscapes transformed, with the construction of thousands of small shrines and large temples, the cutting of inscriptions, and the carving of sculptures, many of which continue to be venerated to this day.  Roads, canals, walls, and bridges built during the occupation of the city continue, in many cases, to structure routes of movement across the region.  While these regional-scale changes were neither mechanical consequences of subcontinental or global forces, neither were they purely local. On the contrary, even those actors typically invisible in conventional historical research – farmers, herders, hunters, pastoralists, and others – played a role in the successes, failures, and ambitions of the Vijayanagara state.  Their labor constituted the backbone of the polity and yet their choices seem always to have been constrained by external forces.  In some cases these forces were geographically distant, in others socially and ritually far away.
    This shortage of middle-scale analyses – somewhere between detailed architectural studies of urban monuments and text-based macro-histories – led us to establish the Vijayanagara Metropolitan Survey (VMS) project in 1987.  Over the following decade and with the generous assistance of colleagues at the Karnataka Directorate of Archaeology and Museums as well as numerous universities, we undertook a two-phase regional survey of the greater metropolitan region around the city of Vijayanagara.

    The goals of this project were directed toward understanding the city of Vijayanagara within its regional context, particularly the landscapes of production that surrounded the city within what we termed the greater metropolitan region.  While our goals initially centered on developing a sense of the forms and organization of craft goods and agriculture surrounding the city, we eventually also learned a great deal about the longer-term historical development of the regional landscape from about 2000 BCE to the present.  In particular, we have been interested in learning about the lives and work of non-elites as well as elite residents of the region and in creating a more nuanced sense of the overall social, economic, and ecological context of the city.  Our work has been helpful in addressing rural-urban relationships, including issues of political control, religious life, and the provisioning of urban residents with food, craft goods, and labor.