Vijayangara Army - A tale of incredible and impossible numbers and blatant propaganda.
Updated: Sep 26, 2020
It is often repeated by historians that the Vijayanagara army at its peak numbered over 1.1 million men. In the famous battle of Raichur, Krishnadevaraya was supposed to have deployed an army of 730000 fighting men. If such numbers had been reported for an European kingdom, even one as powerful as the Holy Roman empire, the historians would have dismissed it immediately as an exaggeration. Since many times such numbers are obtained from ancient and medieval poets and historians, there is certainly an amount of bias especially when describing the enemies of their patrons. Modern historians recognise that and thus have revised the numbers of a great many encounters of ancient and medieval times. For example, the famous battle of Thermopylae, it was reported that the Persian army numbered anywhere between 2.5 million fighting men to 5 million fighting men by different ancient historians. However modern historians have dismissed these numbers and have revised it to 200000 to 500000 men, which included both soldiers and support staff. So the actual soldiers would only be a portion of it. Why, you may ask, the answer is one word Logistics.
Having large population did not always translate to soldiers since the size of an army depended on great many factors with population size being simply one. The most important however, was supplies and a means to procure and deliver them to the men during campaign. It cannot be stressed how important logistics was for an ancient army as there were instances of armies surrendering when their baggage was captured by their enemies. A large army will do you no good if at the end of their ten day march, they will reach the battlefield, hungry and tired due to lack of food and water. You can imagine the result of a battle fought by such a weakened body of men. I will give you a hint, it definitely not the result that their general would wish for. Hence the armies always left a very strong detachment to protect their baggage train before each battle.
The problem with analysing Indian armies is we are always told that they simply possessed hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Even minor kingdoms were supposed to put forth at least a hundred thousand men into battle. The reasoning is always given that the India possessed massive population so it was not inconceivable to field so many soldiers. Since I am not an 'Indian historian', I will try to be a bit more analytical with the facts and see if the numbers reported actually add up. We will consider the battle of Raichur for this analysis. First let us see where Raichur is located with respect to Hampi
The two places are roughly 164 kms apart. During the medieval times, an army would maybe march 10-20 kms a day. Considering the massive size of the Vijayanagara army, it would have probably much slower. Still let's say they took 10 days to reach Raichur and then subjected the city to a siege of 3 months before the actual battle was fought. Now according to Nunez who is considered the primary source of the numbers, the army had 732,000 fighting men, composed of infantry, cavalry, elephants and cannons. The army had 32000 horses and 550 war elephants. Such a massive number of men would require a large amount of supplies. Let's try to guess roughly how much.
A normal person eats roughly 1 - 2 kgs of food throughout the day. For a man doing physical labour, this will much greater. Still let's say 1kg per person per day. Similarly for water, a healthy man drinks 2.5 to 3 litres of water a day. At least twice that when you working hard in a sweltering heat outside where one would lose a lot of water due to evaporation. Once again let's take roughly 5 litres.
So the soldiers the daily consumption would be
732 tons of Food (732000/1000)
3660 tons of Water (1 litre = 1 kg)
This does not take into account the fact the nobles probably ate more so had their own special supplies.
An average horse eats maybe 5% of its body weight in food. The horses which Vijayanagara armies used according to all sources were light riding horses weighing around 450 - 600 kgs. So let us round it off to 500 kgs and 10 kg of fodder per horse. Water consumption once again is roughly 38 - 45 litres under normal load. So let us consider 40 litres.
So the daily consumption for horses will be
320 tons for Food
960 tons for Horses
As described, elephants eat roughly 10% of their body weight as food. The link describes the requirements for a 3500 kg female elephant. The armies of Vijayanagara would have used males which were considerably larger and heavier than females weighing between 4 - 7 tons. Let's take it as 4 tons. Similarly they may end up consuming almost 200 litres of water every day especially during hot season.
So the daily consumption will be
220 tons of food
110 tons of water
The grand total will be 6002 tons of food and water in a day. Mind you this is just the fighting men and does not include servants or camp followers. Let's say we have on average a 1 to 1 non combatant to soldier ratio ( Which never occurred in any of the medieval armies as number of non combatants usually was greater than actual soldiers). So maybe 12000 tons in total.
The question then comes how will these supplies be carried?
Has anyone seen these on the roads recently?
The most common means of transportation in medieval India just like in many places of Asia was a bullock cart. The modern versions of these with rubber tyres and paved roads, might carry somewhere between 500 kgs to 1 ton. The medieval ones with their wooden frames and over uneven ancient roads probably carried much lesser. But still let's say half ton each.
So we would need 24000 carts to carry just a single day's worth of food and water. That seems like a lot of carts doesn't it. But wait, we forgot to account for the carts, oxen and cart drivers themselves
Once more for the men it is another 24 tons of food, 120 tons of water.
For the oxen which are 48000 in number, lets say about 10 kgs of fodder (again this is for a milch cow and not ox which would require a much greater amount of food) and water roughly 3 - 30 gallons depending on age and weather with the hotter temperature leading to greater consumption of water. Lets go with a lower end maybe 5 gallons which is around 22 litres. Let's round it off to 20.
So the daily consumption will be
480 tons of food
960 tons of water
The total supplies now will be 13600 tons (rounding off again). The carts will be 27200 carts (I will not go one more round to include the extra carts and men for the extra carts themselves).
As we can see already this appears to a massive amount of supplies. But this is as I said only one day's worth of food and water. We have not considered supplies of weapons, siege equipment, ammunition, utensils and all the other supplies that the army would have carried during march. Adding all of them would maybe double the number of carts if not many times more. Let's say we ignore them for now. It is inconceivable to assume that the Vijayanagara army marched with only one day worth of supply. Even if we make an argument that they had supplies in pre built storage sites along the way, it is unlikely that they would have marched without at least week's worth of supplies. So that will be what? 19000 carts. And 95000 tons of food.
The siege lasted for 3 months before Bijapur army arrived with reinforcements to relive the defenders. So the army of Vijayanagara would have consumed what? 1224000 tons of just food and water. At this point the more rational among us are probably beginning to accept that these numbers simply cannot be true especially for a pre industrial kingdom. Indeed no other contemporary empire is ever noted to have deployed so many men, not the Safavids or even the Ottomans even though they possessed resources and populations much greater than Vijayanagara. Yet we are supposed to accept that only Vijayanagara managed to do it. Fun fact, the Normandy Landings involved mere 150000 men in the first phase and this was centuries later after we had invented locomotives, motor vehicles and mechanisation of food production.
This leaves us with only three explanations.
1. The Vijayanagara logistics was so advanced that they were singularly capable to achieving feats impossible even to modern armies. Since the later Indian armies, especially the Marathas and Mughals mysterious shrink in size compared to their ancestors despite possessing the same if not greater resources we can only wonder if these skills somehow disappeared with the fall of Vijayanagara.
2. All the Vijayanagara soldiers were capable to travelling great distances without food and water. Maybe something like this?
3. It was simply a lie, a propaganda perpetuated to give an impression that the Vijayanagara armies relied solely on numbers for victory.
As you can see, the third options looks more and more likely. But unfortunately a great many of our Indian Historians seem to be content with just repeating these lies, so much so that a great many of us believe that the ancient Indian armies were somehow extremely massive and that was their only strength. No effort is put forth to actually understand these their organisation or their capabilities. Sadly study of the army of Vijayanagara suffers from the same chronic bias. Hopefully in the future we might learn truly how it functioned and shed greater light on its organisation.