The rulers and institutions of Vijayanagara forged a polity that drew on a two-millennium long tradition of state societies in South Asia. Political forms, sacred institutions, complex systems of production and exchange, and social institutions such as guilds and caste organizations all had a lengthy history in southern India, and any study of Vijayanagara must take into account this historical framework. While pre-existing structures did not limit the possibility for change, they did constrain the forms that changes could take and the range of choices available to individual actors and institutions. Like other domains, specialized craft production also had a long history in South India before the emergence of Vijayanagara. Producers belonged to hereditary occupational groups – castes and subcastes – that also carried enormous social and ideological weight. Many of the relations among craft producers and between producers and state institutions, temples, and merchants that we see as characteristic of the Vijayanagara thus had their roots in earlier developments. In this chapter, I present an historical overview of Vijayanagara – its dynastic history, and the political, economic, ideological, and social structures relevant to the study of Vijayanagara-period craft economies.
Throughout the history of the Vijayanagara polity, the territories that the state could claim to rule were far from stable, and often even areas that nominally acknowledged Vijayanagara sovereignty were largely autonomous of its authority.