Food and Food Habits in Vijayanagara Times
By Jyotsna Burde
First Published in:
Food and Food Habits in Vijayanagara Times
Abundance and cheapness of provisions
Domingos Paes and Fernao Nuniz, who visited the Vijayanagara Empire in the first half and the latter part of the 16th century respectively, describe in glowing terms the abundance and cheapness of provisions. Paes writes about the capital: " This is the best-provided city in the world and is stocked with provisions such as rice, wheat, grains, India corn and a certain amount of barley and beans, moong, pulses and horse-gram which grow in this country, and which are the food of the common people and there is a large store of these and very cheap ." Then, "to see limes that come each day such that those of Povos are of no account, and also loads of sweet and sour oranges, and wild brinjals, and other garden stuff, in such abundance as to stupefy one ". Paes was a widely travelled man. He had visited important cities of South Europe and might have come across many cities in the course of his travel from Portugal to Vijayanagara. Therefore his observation that the city of Vijayanagara was ' the best-provided city in the world' has great significance.
Paes is supported by Nuniz, who says ".....The markets are overflowing with abundance of fruits, grapes and oranges, limes, pomegranates, jackfruit and mangoes and all very cheap ." Literary works also support this view .
The Vijayanagara Kings were very liberal in granting provisions to their guests. Abd-ur Razak, the Persian ambassador who came to Vijayanagara during the reign of Devaraya II (A.D. 1419-1446), received rich daily provisions, about which he writes: "the daily provisions forwarded to me comprised two sheep, four couples of fowls, five mans of rice, one man of butter, one man of sugar and two varahas in gold ". This ration was for one individual for one day!
Staple food and dishes
Literary works of the period describe various kinds of dishes. Rice was the staple food amongst the upper classes, and the small variety of rice having a fine flavour was as popular then as it is to this day. Salyanna salyodana  is frequently mentioned. Other rice dishes were chitranna  (sesamum rice), pakvanna or paramanna  (sweet rice) and dadhyanna or mosaru butti  (curd rice).
Anyone going through the literary works of this time will be surprised to see modern dishes, condiments and methods of eating. Pickles and salt were the first to be served at a dinner. There were various kinds of pickles prepared from tender mango, lemon, fresh ginger, green pepper, myrobalan (nelli), herile (a kind of lime), ambatekai and papatekai . Ibn Battuta, who visited Vijayanagara in the reign of Harihara I (A.D. 1336-1357), describes a dinner he had with the Muslim chief of Hinawr (modern Honavar) at which a beautiful girl served pickles of "pepper, green ginger, or lemon and mangoes ". The pickles remained fresh and green at the stem even after many days. Happala (papadas) and sandige were the other important items of a dinner .
Plenty of green vegetables were used, and were usually fried in oil. The Bhujabalicharite or Panchabana (A.D. 1612) describes the preparation of Talida (cooked vegetables, or palya, of modern times) in such detail that it bears quotation.
For seasoning, cumin seeds, black-gram dal, methi (Fenugreek), mustard, black sesame seeds and pepper were used along with ghee. The vegetables were (green) plantains, brinjals, tonde, pumpkin, Heere (sponge gourd), jackfruit, drumsticks and magge (a kind of cucumber).
Raw dishes and salads such as krisara , paccadi  and kusambhari  were known. There were varieties of vegetable hotchpotch (Kalasogara)  spiced preparations (shaak, melogara)  and soups (kattogara, sargal) .
Sweetmeats and fruits formed the most important part of a dinner and were usually served in the middle. If we are to believe the description of dinners in contemporary poetry, a great variety of these were consumed. The material available relates to the dinners of kings, princes and nobles. Many of these dishes are well known even now. Payasa , resembling porridge of the West, was an important item. Kadubu (stuffed sweet) seems to have been very popular and had varieties like susala kadubu, hurana kadubu and alasande kadubu .
Hurige was another sweet pancake and its varieties were bisurige, yannurige (prepared in oil) and gullorige (puffed) . There was Sevige (vermicelli), roughly corresponding to macaroni with all its daintiness. Pheni was another much relished sweet dish prepared from wheat flour and sugar, similar to phenaka of North India and had varieties like sugar pheni, milk pheni and vermicelli pheni . Sikarane (resembling the modern fruit salad) was prepared from ripe fruits, usually mango and plantains, and is frequently mentioned . Dishes of black gram were prepared on certain occasions, and important among these were idlis (iddalige) , vade  and dose . Fried dishes prepared from wheat flour, jaggery or sugar, coconut gratings and spices were karachikai (fried puff), mandige, malidi  and sakkere burude .
Ladus (sweet balls) of different types were known. Ellunde  (known from the days of Panini, who calls them Palala) is mentioned. There was manoharadunde  and chinipalunde . There were other sweetmeats, such as suruli holige, laddige and gharige .
Poet Mangarasa, in his 'Supa Shastra', gives a number of recipes of dishes, of which gharivilangai, halagarige (fried cake prepared in milk) and savadu rotti  (pancake) may be specially mentioned.
Juicy fruits were eaten as part of the middle course of a dinner, the most important being mangoes, grapes, pomegranates, plantains, jackfruit, figs, dates, apples (semb or sebu?), jambu (rose apple) and oranges . The remarks of Paes and Nuniz have been already quoted relating to the abundance of fruit in the capital . Kanakadasa, who lived in the first half of the 16th century , mentions the following fruits:
Coconut, jackfruit, orange, mangoes, sweet citrus, guava, grapes, pomengranates, dates, varieties of banana, jamun, (Euginia jambolana), wood apple, inknut, berries, mangosteen, cyprus pertenuis (?) etc. For alliterations Kanakadasa has included many cultivated as well as wild grown fruits and berries offered to Lord Krishna. Some of these cannot be identified but fortunately Kanakadas has provided the wide range of fruit and berries which were found in North Karnataka during his times.
While describing the preparation himambu panaka (cold drink), Mangarasa writes that the juice of pomegranate and madala fruits should be added to water . In Jaimini Bharata we find mention of fruit juice . Varieties of milk and butter-milk drinks were common . Mohanatarangini describes a scene in a toddy shop and gives a list of salted snacks which were eaten along with the liquor. Then follows the description of the way the people drank and babbled .
Food of the common people
Apart from rice, the food of the common people consisted of pulses, vegetables, oil and butter-milk. Food habits changed from place to place. The Telugu poet Srinatha, who lived in the first half of the 15th century and was a great traveller, makes fun of the food of the people of Palnad district in the Andhra part of the Vijayanagara Empire; "The people of Palnad district subsist upon millet porridge, fermented millet, water, cooked millet and millet stuff. Excepting millet they have nothing to eat and the cooked rice of the sanna variety is unknown to them ."
Sarvajna, who belonged to this period , speaks in glowing terms of jola (millet, or jowar), which was and is the staple food of the common people in North Karnataka districts . Kanakadasa has immortalised ragi (small variety of millet) in his 'Ramadhanya Charita' . The poorer classes of the coastal districts were contented with cheaper varieties of rice. Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese traveller who visited most of the important ports of the Vijayanagara Empire in about A.D. 1512, writes about the port of Cumbola (Kumble); "Here is garnered a great abundance of very black rice, which the Malabares come hither to purchase.... to sell to the lower sort of the people who buy it readily as it is good (and) cheap ".
In the works of Purandaradasa we find the mention of kesakki , of red rice, perhaps a cheap variety. In another context, he condemns a miser for eating the common dishes of guggari and rice while there was the richer huggi (pudding) and ghee in his home. Guggari is a dish of boiled or half-boiled peas or pulses much in vogue among the poorer classes even to-day. He also mentions grits of grain and godduli (plain soup), a little oil and pickles as simple food .
Barbosa speaks of Brahmins as follows: "They eat honey and butter, rice, sugar, stews of pulse and milk.... these eat nothing subject to death ". About Lingayats he writes: "they also eat no flesh, nor fish ". It appears that meat-eating was practised by other communities. Paes speaks about the big meat market in Vijayanagara and the variety and cleanliness of meat which was 'so white and clean that you could never see better in any country ". Nuniz, writing about the food habits of the kings of Vijayanagara, says: "These kings of Vijayanagara eat all sort of things but not the flesh of oxen or cows: ... they eat mutton, pork, venison, partidges, hares, doves, quail and all kinds of birds, sparrows, rats and cats and lizards, all of which are sold in the market of Bisnaga ". To what extent he was speaking the truth one cannot say. But we have positive evidence of the popularity on non-vegetarian dishes from Manasollasa , and encyclopaedia ascribed to king Someswara Chalukya (A.D. 1122-38). In this work, methods of cooking different meats such as pork (varahapalalam), venison (sarangajam), of rabbits (sasodbhavam), sakunam (a bird)  and of other birds (paksinamapi sarvesam) , are mentioned. A special variety of field rats (kshetasambhutah musakah) and tortoise are also mentioned . Since food habits change little with time, we can fairly accept that meat of birds and other herbivorous animals (except beef) was relished by some communities in the Empire.
Fish formed part of the daily food in coastal towns. Ibn Battuta, who visited Hinawr (Honavar) gives a grand description of a dinner in which "a good many dishes of fish were served ".
Forbidden food, or food taboos
We get a glimpse of forbidden food in the works of Purandaradasa. He condemns the man who eats sour radish and onions . In another context he forbids garlic, nuggekai (drumsticks), kavadekai (?) mulangi (radishes), gajjari (carrots) and pundipalle . The guggari of avari (beans) on Ekadasi, the fortnightly day of fast, was strictly forbidden .
The poet Srinatha laments that in the Karnata country he had the misfortune of following forbidden food practices. "I consumed garlic and sesamum flour served by an unshorn widow,.... etc. ".
Eating habits, table manners, etc.
A picturesque description of the dining methods of Brahmins is given in poetical works of the time. After bath and puja, or worship, the Brahmins removed their outer garments (for the purpose of cleanliness). They then struggled to get through the door of bhojanashala (dining hall) at one and the same time and sat in two rows. Plantain leaves and bowls made of leaves (donne or patra bhajana) were placed before them, the latter being used for ghee and liquids. A variety of dishes were then served. After aposana (prayer) the Brahmins mixed the pulse soup, ghee and rice and taking handfuls threw them and caught them in the mouth . The poet Mangarasa also describes a Brahmin dinner with equal humour .
The description of a coastal dinner given by Ibn Battuta is very illuminating. After the guests were seated the server placed copper pots filled with food and then,.... "She holds a large copper ladle with which she picks up a ladleful of rice and serves it on to the dish, pours ghee over it and adds pickles....when the food placed by her on the dish is consumed, she takes up a second spoonful of rice and serves a cooked fowl on a plate and the rice is eaten therewith also. When the second course is over she takes another ladleful and serves another variety of chicken which is also eaten with the rice. When the various kinds of chicken are consumed, fish of various kinds is served with which one likewise eats rice. When all these courses are eaten, kushan, i.e. curded milk is served which finishes the meal. When this is served, one knows that no further dishes are to follow. At the close, one drinks hot water; for cold water would harm the people in the rainy season ".
The poet Srinatha writes about Marella Sime thus: "The people eat multi-coloured food and porridge carried in kavadis and drink water that oozes out (of the ground or the rocks) ". He also describes the food habits of the Dravida people: "I had to see the good and evil aspects (of the life) of the Dravidas. Colam (millet) is the staple food. Karamadi (a kind of pulse) serves for curry and conjee for supper. Butter-milk is rare and chutneys are bitter. Sugarcane juice is plenty ". He makes fun of a Tamil feast: "They serve at first caru (rasam), spiced strongly with pepper, the pungency of which penetrates like some hot vapour into the ears; the caustic odour of the mustard with which the paccadis are prepared find its way into the brain; the curry made of fried avise (flax) leaves destroys health for a period of six months; Parimela (?) tests the strength of the teeth; the sight of the powder of the dried margosa leaves is enough to cause vomiturition. The dinner in a Tamil household is a fraud. Nevertheless they praise without a sense of humour the sumptuous character of their feasts ".
Furniture, utensils, crockery, etc.
Ibn Battuta mentions chairs and tables in the above quoted description of a dinner. "Four chairs were placed on the ground and while he (the chief) seated in one of them, each one of us sat likewise in a chair. A copper table was brought up which is known as Khawanja on which is placed a dish of the same material known as talam (thali, gangala) ". We already know that a copper ladle was used for serving. Princes and nobles used plates and bowls made of gold . But in general plantain and other leaves and bowls of leaves were in vogue. The poorer classes used cheap metals and earthen vessels. The odu, which means earthen vessel, is mentioned .
Mention is made of Bhuktashalas (or dining places) in Mohantarangini. These were established along the highways in which were served panaka (cold drink) and curd-rice (kenemosaranna). Since orthodox Brahmins could not eat at the hands of others, secluded quarters (ekantanilaya) were built for them, where provisions were available . Inscriptions mention grants of provision to famous temples for feeding Brahmins . Choultries or annasatras are mentioned . About aravattiges, or watersheds, we have a lot of information from inscriptions and poetical works . It was considered meritorious to make provision for drinking-water at all halting places or cross-roads.
A sweetmeat shop, or mithai angadi, is mentioned in a poem where a great variety of sweets was available,  and a fruit-stall is described in Mohanatarangini (Panapasara).
Dry dates, raisins, sugar candy, jaggery coated coconut pieces, and all other naturally riped fruits were sold.
From this brief survey we can see the continuity of food habits from Vijayanagara days up to this day. South India was, unlike North India, on the whole very little affected by foreign influences, and some of the social habits including food are indigenous. Dishes prepared from jaggery, pulses and coconut are purely Dravidian, as their names indicate (Kadubu, Idli, Karajikai, etc.). The use of plenty of fruits, green vegetables and salads shows that our forefathers were aware of their nutritive value. The use of digestive spices such as green ginger and pepper is very significant. The practice of eating rice and soup in the beginning, sweetmeats in the middle and milk products in the end has set such a healthy convention that has continued even to the present day.
List of Abbreviations