After our recent trip to Hampi, Anusha and I became quite curious to know more about the history of the Vijayanagara empire. Our high-school text-books on history barely touched upon the rise and the fall of this great empire that ruled over almost all of southern India for about three centuries beginning in the 14th century. We picked up Burton Stein's “The New Cambridge History of India: Vijayanagara” mainly because at about 150 pages it looked like a more manageable read than the other such books. It was also far more recent than the other books and therefore had a much better chance of incorporating the findings from recent research into this aspect of Indian history.
The book turned out to be a serious study of the history of the Vijayanagara empire as well as a commentary on the published literature on this topic. It seems therefore to be better suited for students of history than the general public and it does get dull at times. That does not mean that it does not have fascinating information for the patient lay reader. This is especially true for those in India since the history generally taught to us in our schools is quite lopsided.
The main focus of the author is on the economic, political and social factors affecting the rise and the fall of this empire. Reliable collection of taxes over such a vast and disparate region coupled with the pressure on the treasury by the need to maintain a full-time professional army made for tricky economics. Since this empire was ruled over by three separate dynasties coming into power via means such as usurpation, there is plenty of politics to go over. An empire like this that ruled over a diverse population speaking Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Tulu spread over the entire Indian peninsula meant that local chieftains were both necessary as well as threatening for running the empire. Finally, the empire was constantly threatened by bordering kingdoms. It was therefore quite amazing that the empire survived and thrived for as long as it did. Quite remarkably, the book shows that the very factors that enabled the empire to form and sustain itself ultimately led to its downfall.
To fully appreciate the book, you should have some familiarity with the other main dynasties that ruled over parts of southern India like the Chalukyas, the Cholas and the Pandyas. There are extensive bibliographic references in this book for the serious student of history. Having visited Hampi is not a pre-requisite for reading this book, though it definitely helps in appreciating the few plates that are there. There is not much information about the flourishing of art in this empire as is evident from the ruins of Hampi - you will have to look elsewhere if you are interested in that aspect of the empire.