The kingdom of Vijayanagar stood as a champion of Hindu culture and civilization in the south. Like all medieval Indian states, it was feudal organization which retained some of the ancient Hindu institutions which were suitably modified to meet the new challenges.
As Prof. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri observes in ‘A History of South India’, “The Empire (Vijayanagar) was in theory a hereditary monarchy, but the times were hard and the hostility of the Muslim States on the one side and intransigence of feudatories on the other, made it imperative that the King should be possessed of high attainments in diplomacy and war.”
The king was the fountain-head of all power and was the supreme authority in all affairs, civil, military and judicial. As supreme head of the state, he enjoyed in theory unfettered power. In actual practice, however, he was expected to act in accordance with the dharma sastra.
“Strictly speaking”, says Dr. Beni Prasad, “Hindu political theory vests sovereignty in the Dharma or law in the widest sense of the term. But administration was entrusted to the King.” A further check on the king was the custom and the public opinion. Most of the taxes were based on custom and the state could not interfere with them.
Vincent Smith’s sweeping observation that the “Vijayanagar king was an autocrat of the most absolute possible king unrestrained by any form of check” is not justifiable. The king had a council of ministers to advise him on matters of state policy and administration. But the king was not bound to accept their advice. He could appoint and dismiss any one of the ministers at his pleasure.
Besides, there was a larger council which the king was obliged to consult in the administration of the kingdom. It consisted of feudal chiefs or nayaks incharge of provinicial units, the distinguished scholars, bards and other dignitaries at the court and friendly rulers of independent or semi-independent states.
It was, however, not a regular body and its members were in all probability consulted individually or in groups whenever the exigencies of the situation required. The council of ministers comprised 8 to 10 members and was recruited from kshatriyas and the vaisyas. Some of the princes of the royal family were also associated with this body, though they might not hold any ministerial post.
The office of the minister was sometimes hereditary but it all depended on the will of the king. The pradhani sometimes known as mahasirah pradhani, the upapradhani, the dandanayaka, the samantadhikari and some others were the ministers. In the absence of the king, the prime minister presided over the meetings which were held in strict secrecy. The ministers were expected to possess high qualifications.
T.V. Mahalingam in his well-known work “Administration and Social Life under Vijayanagar” observes that “a minister was to be a scholar, afraid of adharma, well versed in rajaiti, between the ages of fifty and seventy, and healthy in body and one whose connections with the King had come down from previous generations and one who was not conceited.”
The advice of the council was, however, not binding on the king who could have his own way. There was a secretariat called rayasam attached to the king. The office incharge was rayasasvami. The traveller Nuniz calls rayasams as secretaries who were incharge of various departments.
The king had a large number of officers in his personal establishment. Some of them were sarvanayaka also called maneyapradhana (house minister), vasal kariyam (chief of the guard), and mudra karta who kept the seal of the king.