The phrase “military innovation” is not often associated with India. We tend to have a notion that the subcontinent’s kings were passive observers of the brilliance of the rest of the world, lolling about in perfumed courts and waiting for foreign conquerors to bring technology to them with flame and sword. Nothing could be farther from the truth. From as early as the 15th century, well before Europeans were even aware of direct sea routes to India, we have evidence that the battlefields and forts of the subcontinent resounded with the boom of gunpowder, that Indian rulers proactively hired specialists from across the world, and even that Indian weapons were sought after in the rest of the world.
By exploring the violent world of the South Indian empires of Vijayanagara and the Deccan Sultanates, we’ll see just how innovative premodern India was, and what it teaches us about technological change.
The twilight of the warhorse
South India in the 14th century was in flux, with powerful, innovative new states emerging, including the Bahmani Sultanate and Vijayanagara.
Vijayanagara, learning from the Bahmanis and their Delhi predecessors, poured enormous resources into dominating the battlefield with cavalry — what, to them, was a tried-and-tested military technology. More successfully than earlier South Indian polities, Vijayanagara used its economic muscle to monopolise the seaborne trade in horses; evidence from contemporary historians and visitors informs us that it hired Turkic mercenary cavalrymen with deadly composite bows; scholar Srinivas Reddy has shown that it also maintained a corps of Indian cavalrymen armoured in steel, riding towering Persian steeds.
In response, the Bahmani Sultanate and its successor states, the Deccan Sultanates, tried to make impregnable fortifications studded with artillery, importing the basic concepts from Persia and Central Asia. Historians Richard Eaton and Philip Wagoner have shown that by 1460, fortresses were being designed with polygonal bastions bristling with small cannons. Larger siege guns were also known. In 1510, when the Portuguese attempted to conquer Goa from the Bijapur Sultanate, they reported being bombarded by Indian cannons on the shore. After finally seizing what is now Old Goa, they found an enormous arsenal of gunpowder weapons, including Indian-made pieces as well as samples from Mamluk Egypt, Ottoman Turkey, and even a few Portuguese weapons captured from them during a previous naval encounter in 1508–1509. In 1513, Portuguese Viceroy Afonso de Albuquerque sent a Bijapuri gunsmith home to King Manuel I, with a letter declaring that the Bijapuris were producing better guns than much of Europe at the time.
Despite all the innovations of the Sultanates, it was still unclear whether they were more militarily effective than the Vijayanagari warhorse. In 1520, the Vijayanagara emperor Krishna Raya used his highly mobile cavalry to annihilate the army of Ismail Adil Shah of Bijapur at the Battle of Raichur, striking while the ponderous Bijapuri cannons were reloading; immediately after, he used Portuguese snipers with sophisticated muskets, coupled with waves of pickaxe-wielding Indian infantry to overwhelm the Raichur citadel. The fort’s cannons could not be angled to fire at attackers at close range. From the perspective of the Vijayanagara strategist, it was still the age of the warhorse, even if gunpowder had some limited use.
Guns, blood, and bronze
With Vijayanagara growing ever-more aggressive through the 16th century, the Deccan Sultanates threw more and more resources into military innovation: Eaton and Wagoner even describe this, tentatively, as a “military revolution”. The Ahmednagar Sultanate now recruited Turkish masters to produce cast-bronze cannons; Bijapur produced cannons of wrought iron, made of staves of metal held together with loops. Their bastions were re-engineered to carry heavier artillery. They even pioneered the use of height-adjusting screws and swivel forks on bastions — these allowed mounted cannons to be rotated and angled up and down, something that was unknown in Europe at the time.
Despite all this, Vijayanagara still remained the dominant power of the Deccan until the Battle of Talikota on 23 January 1565, where it faced a coalition of four Sultanates. Vijayanagara had tremendous numbers of matchlocks, light cannons, and rockets at the battle — 50,000 are recorded as being fired off as it started, terrifying the Sultanate cavalry. This emphasis on debilitating the enemy’s horses suggests that Vijayanagara strategists still imagined victory as coming on horseback. But the Sultanates’ artillery, having developed considerably since the disastrous Battle of Raichur in 1520, decided the day.
The centre of their line was essentially a moving fortress, cannon mounted on wagons and packed with bronze coins that exploded outwards as shrapnel — a predecessor to the artillery that would dominate 19th-century European battlefields, wiping out hundreds of Vijayanagara soldiers in minutes. As the Vijayanagara army was routed in chaos and the city sacked soon after, it was clear that artillery had decisively crushed cavalry for the first time in the region. The age of gunpowder had dawned on the Deccan.
The eventual victory of the Deccan Sultanates would show us that Indian polities can and did innovate in response to the world, once we look beyond the limited perspective of North India and see what we can learn from the cosmopolitan Sultans of the South. Very often in history, it pays to ride the wave of global technological change and train local experts. In our own world, we see plenty of examples of new superpowers whose arms and civilian industries have grown together because of investments in importing, localising, and then developing technology. Yet examples of this from India’s own past lie utterly ignored.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a writer and digital public humanities scholar. He is author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. Views are personal.
This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.