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The early life of Bukka as well as his brother Hakka (also known as Harihara I) are relatively unknown and most accounts of their early life are based on various theories (see the Vijayanagara Empire article for more extended descriptions of these). One such theory states that Bukka and Hakka were born in the Kamma clan and were commanders in the army of the King of Warangal. After the King of Warangal was defeated by Muhammad bin Tughlaq, Bukka and his brother were taken prisoners and sent to Delhi. Both were forced to convert to Islam. Bukka and his brother eventually escaped and retained their Hindu traditions and founded the Vijayanagara Empire under the influence of the Brahmin sage Vidyaranya. Another account says that the brothers were instead in connection with the Hoysala Empire and were born from present day Karnataka near the Hampi territory, and they were the successors to the Hoysala territory by natural process. Though the exactness of both theories are still debated upon, either way Bukka and his brother were praised for their success in battle as well as the first rulers of the Empire.
Under Bukka Raya's 21-year reign (37, according to Nuniz) the kingdom prospered and continued to expand as Bukka Raya conquered most of the kingdoms of southern India, continually expanding the territory of the empire. He defeated the Shambuvaraya Kingdom of Arcot and the Reddis of Kondavidu by 1360 and the region around Penukonda was annexed. Bukka defeated the Sultanate of Madurai in 1371 and extended his territory into the south all the way to Rameswaram. His son, Kumara Kamapna campaigned with him and their efforts were recorded in the Sanskrit work Madhuravijayam written by his wife Gangambika. By 1374 he had gained an upper hand over the Bahmanis for control of the Tungabhadra-Krishna doab and also took control of Goa, the kingdom of Odisha (Orya) were also captured and Bukka forced the Jaffna kingdom of Ceylon and the Zamorins of Malabar to pay tributes to him.
During his reign Bukka would also have clashes with the Bahmani Sultans. The first was during the time of Mohammed Shah I and the other during the time of Mujahid. It is said that Bukka also sent a mission to China during his reign. Bukka died in about 1380 and was succeeded by Harihara II. It is also notable that under Bukka Raya's reign the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire established itself at Vijayanagara, on the south side of the river, which was more secure and defensive than their previous capitol at Anegondi. Even with the wars and internal conflicts, Bukka still managed to help support internal improvements for the city. Important works of literature were also written during his rule. Dozens of scholars lived under the guidance of Vidyaranya and Sayana. Sayana's commentary on the Vedas, Brahmanas and Aranyakas was written under the petronage of Bukka.