The empire's economy was largely dependent on agriculture. Corn (jowar), cotton and pulse legumes grew in semi arid regions, while sugarcane, rice and wheat thrived in rainy areas. Betel leaves, areca (for chewing), and coconut were the chief cash crops, and large-scale cotton production supplied the weaving centers of the empire's vibrant textile industry. Spices such as turmeric, pepper, cardamom and ginger grew in the remote Malnad hill region and were transported to the city for trade. The empire's capital city was a booming business center that incorporated a mushrooming market in large quantities of precious gems and gold. Prolific temple building provided employment to thousands of masons, sculptors, and other skilled artisans.
Salt production and the manufacture of saltpans were controlled. The production of ghee (clarified butter), which was sold as oil for human consumption and as a fuel for lighting lamps, was profitable. Exports to China deepened and included cotton, spices, jewels, semi-precious stones, ivory, rhino horn, ebony, amber, coral, and aromatic products such as perfumes. Large vessels from China made frequent visits, some captained by the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho, and brought Chinese products to the empire's 300 ports, large and small, on the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The ports of Mangalore, Honavar, Bhatkal, Barkur, Cochin, Cannanore, Machilipatnam and Dharmadam were the most important.
Ship building prospered and keeled ships of 1000-1200 bahares (burden) was built devoid of decks, sewing the entire hull with ropes rather than binding them with nails. Ships sailed to the Red Sea ports of Aden and Mecca with Vijayanagara goods sold as far away as Venice. The empire's primary exports were pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, myrobalan, tamarind timber, anafistula, precious and semi-precious stones, pearls, musk, ambergris, rhubarb, aloe, cotton cloth and porcelain. Cotton yarn was shipped to Burma and indigo to Persia. Cloth printed with coloured patterns crafted by native techniques was exported to Java and the Far East. Golkonda specialized in plain cotton and Pulicat. The foremost imports on the east coast were non-ferrous metals, camphor, porcelain, and silk and luxury goods.