Hampi – Poetry in stone

The ruins of Hampi are a testament to the grandeur of the glorious Vijayanagara Empire and its unsurpassed architectural brilliance.

Hampi – Poetry in stone

Perched on a copper-colored boulder on Matanga Hill, Hampi, I flipped through a slim volume of “Vijaynagar Empire: Chronicles of Domingo Paes”.  The big drop of sun, the color of pressed grapes, lingered on the horizon. A few dreadlocked foreigners and backpackers like me had gathered on the peak to see the day off.  From where I sat, I could see the ruined colonnades of the ancient Hampi bazaar below. “In this street is sold (publicly) all sorts of rubies and diamonds and emeralds and pearls and seed-pearls and cloths and citrons and limes and oranges and every other thing there is on earth!” wrote Paes, the medieval Portuguese traveler, on his visit to Hampi in 1522 C.E. Images of a magnificent past beckoned, and without struggle, I gave myself up to them.

The glorious empire of Vijaynagara was founded in 1336 C.E.  Prior to its founding, the whole of Northern India was firmly under the rule of the terrible Moslem despot, Mohammad-Bin-Tughlaq. Of his despotism, Firishta, the Persian chronicler, recorded thus: “… he (Mohammad-Bin-Tughlaq) was wholly devoid of mercy or consideration for his people. The punishments he inflicted were not only rigid and cruel, but frequently unjust. So little did he hesitate to spill the blood of God’s creatures that when anything occurred which excited him to proceed to that horrid extremity, one might have supposed his object was to exterminate the human species altogether…” Stories of Tughlaq’s terror, intolerance and unbridled lust for blood circulated among the inhabitants of the south, and left them shaken.  When Moslem rule threatened to advance southwards and annihilate the Hindu provinces, their religion, their temples, their culture — all that the Hindus held most dear— a massive wave of fear swept the Peninsula.

Indeed, in 1326 C.E., Mohammad-Bin-Tughlaq entered South India and defeated Rajah Jambukeshwara, the king of the southern state of Anegundi. Now, in the service of this Rajah were two brave and courageous Hindu brothers, Hakka and Bukka. Filled with horror and disgust at the conduct of the marauding Moslems, these brothers pledged themselves to the cause of their country and their religion. In secret, they sought the help of the able Vidyaranya, and under his direction, they recaptured Anegundi without bloodshed and founded the great empire of Vijayanagar in 1336 C.E.  Vijaynagara Empire offered a formidable check to the advance of foreign invasion, and for 250 years, Southern India was saved.

Lost in thoughts of an era bygone, I’d failed to notice the thick blanket of silence that had descended upon us.  I looked up at sky— now a show of fierce colors. In no more than a few moments, the last streak of fire died on the horizon, and all of us, locals and tourists, burst into a loud applause. The sunset was uniformly spectacular and we uniformly showed our appreciation. Before the first stars slid into their places, I trekked downhill and reached ‘Mowgli Guesthouse’. That night, we hikers gathered to share stories and hookah, and soon, the day, like any other, slipped quietly into the silence of the mountains.

In the lemony light of early morning, I walked to the famous Virupaksha Temple situated in the center of a bustling Hampi bazaar. With a nine-tiered, 165-ft high gopuram guarding the entrance, Virupaksha Temple stands tall, majestic and unscathed among the crumbling ruins of this ancient hamlet. Parts of this temple are older than the Vijayanagar kingdom itself.  Its bells called Hindu worshippers in the 7th century, and continue to do so today. Inside the large temple complex, devotees had lined up with an offering of coconuts or rupees for Lakshmi, the temple elephant, who returned the favor with a blessing and a tap of her trunk on their heads. Cows and goats roamed free, their foreheads smeared with auspicious vermilion. Musicians played devotional music on a stone pavilion, and I joined the sacred chaos.   

More than an hour later, I walked out into the crowded bazaar and into a little café around the corner. After a quick breakfast of puris and coffee, I decided to go to Vittala Temple Complex which, I found out, was at least 4 kilometers from the café. Renting a scooter from a shop next-door, I quickly rode to the temple.

[The famous stone chariot at Vithala Temple Complex]

Vittala Temple Complex is probably the most extravagant, the most splendid temple built during this period. In the words of Fergusson, “it shows the extreme limit in florid magnificence to which the style (of Vijayanagara) advanced.” I stood at the entrance before the world-famous stone chariot and examined it in wonder. Silhouetted against a severe blue sky, it was, without doubt, the most ornamented, the most beautiful ratha, I’d seen. In truth, this fanciful structure is not a ratha at all; it is a shrine to Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, and is perhaps the most original feature of the Vittala Temple Complex. Intricate, delicate carvings adorned the surface of this chariot-like shrine, and two elephants, sculpted in the front, struggled to drag it along.

Beyond the chariot-shrine stood the Vittala temple like a three-dimensional vision, like a mirage in the dust and haze of Hampi. Drawing up to it, I found it mounted on a raised platform adorned with exquisite figurines of horses. The steps leading up to the front hall or the Maha-Mandapa had two large disfigured stone-elephants for balustrades. I stepped into the magnificent hall crowded with gigantic ornate pillars. Dramatic! Carved from monolithic slabs of granite, each of these pillars consisted of a central shaft, and arranged around it were miniature pillars that the renowned art critic Percy Brown called “slender, mystical and dreamy, like gothic nook-shafts”. Some of these miniature pillars had an instrumentalist – frozen in mid-concert – sculpted at the bottom, and some others had miniature shrines sculpted into them. Of the 100 pillars in this hall, 56 of them were “musical”. When tapped, these solid, granite pillars produced musical notes of some of the most sophisticated musical instruments— the veena, the jaltarang and the mridangam! In and out among the gorgeous columns, I wandered round and round, testing their notes, their pitches, dazzled by their beauty. What wizard sculptor had designed them?  A. L. Basham’s words stood justified: “For brilliancy of decorative imagination, the Vijayanagara style of architecture was never surpassed in Hindu India.” After spending four beatific hours among all the parts of these evocative ruins— the Kalyana-Mantapa, the Utsava Mantapa, and the Narasimha Mantapa— I decided to step out and lunch somewhere.

[Utsava Mantapa and Kalyana Mantapa at the Vittala Temple Complex] 

With the strong October sun on my back, I rode along the dusty country road. A stretch of banana plantations ran on one side, and on the other, double-rowed columns of the ancient Hampi bazaar. While a soft wind blew, I pictured the market that was: the silks and spices that must have been for sale here, the jewels glinting in the sun, the exotic fruits and vegetables, the people from as far as Rome, Venice. I could imagine the rugs, the perfumes that must have been for sale in 1519. I closed my eyes and saw in technicolor the merchants, the women in elaborate saris and jewels, the opulence, the noise, the smell… But there were no scents now in Hampi. Just rugged boulders and stunted trees.

I made a quick stop at the “King’s Balance” or the tula-purushadana monument. It is a simple granite structure standing almost 15-feet tall, and supporting a beam that is approximately 12-feet in length. It rather looks like a guillotine and is provided with 3 loops on the underside to hold weighing-pans. According to records, this balance was used on festivals to weigh the king of the Vijaynangara Empire against diamonds and precious stones which would then be distributed amongst the poor. Festivals were, apparently, a grand affair in the empire of Vijaynangara. Abdur Razzaq, the Persian chronicler who visited Hampi during Krishna Deva Raya’s reign, wrote: “… (during festivals), the vast space of land magnificently decorated — in which enormous elephants congregated together— presented the appearance of the waves of the sea… Over this magnificent space, were erected numerous pavilions, to the height of three, four, or even five storeys… The roof and the walls were entirely formed of plates of gold enriched with precious stones. Each of these plates was as thick as the blade of a sword and was fastened with golden nails. In the front of this place rose a palace with nine pavilions magnificently ornamented, and in it, was the king’s throne. The throne, which was of extraordinary size, was made of gold and enriched with precious stones of extreme value…. Before the throne was a square cushion, on the edges of which were sown three rows of pearls. During the festival days, the king remained seated on this cushion. Between the palace and the pavilions … were musicians and storytellers. Girls were there in magnificent dresses, dancing behind a pretty curtain opposite the king. There were numberless performances given by jugglers, who displayed elephants marvelously trained. During these days, from sunrise to sunset, fireworks, games, and amusements went on, and the royal festival was prolonged in a style of the greatest magnificence.”

[Underground shrine in Royal Enclosure]

A sumptuous South-Indian thali and a big glass of cool ginger-lemon lassi later, I rode to the Royal Enclosure. Within this enclosure were the king’s audience hall, the underground shrine, the pushkarni and the Mahanavami Dibba. Once a palace of sandalwood corridors and bejeweled pillars, it was now a series of platforms and underground chambers. But even stripped of its facings, stripped almost down to the same dirt across which I rode, it had an elegance to it. The Mahanavami Dibba was a stupendous platform, about 5000 square feet, rising in a series of sculpted terraces. From here, the king, with his foreign guests and favorite nobles, watched the Dussera processions and festivities. The walls of this platform had exquisite engravings that depicted the daily life of the Vijayanagara Empire— oriental traders, lady hunters, caparisoned elephants… The pushkarni or the stepped tank— a symmetrically designed tank of five tiers culminating in green depths— stood as an attestation to the elaborate, sophisticated system of irrigation in ancient Hampi. According to records, this tank once served as one of the main water reservoirs. Apart from this pushkarni, Hampi also boasted of canals like the Raya Canal, the Basavanna Canal, the Turthu Canal and Kamalapuram tank. Of the complicated, advanced system of water-supply in Hampi, Domingo Paes wrote: “…the tank…constructed with the help of a Portugese engineer, Joao della Ponte… seems to me, has the width of a falcon-shot… all the water which comes from either one side (of the hill) collects there; and, besides this, water comes to it from more than three leagues by pipes which run along the lower parts of the range outside. This water is brought from a lake which itself overflows into a little river. The tank has three large pillars handsomely carved with figures; these connect above with certain pipes by which they get water when they have to irrigate their gardens and rice fields. In order to make this tank, the said king broke down a hill which enclosed the ground occupied by the said tank. In the tank, I saw so many people at work that there must have been fifteen or twenty thousand men, looking like ants, so that you could not see the ground on which they walked, so many there were; this tank the king portioned out amongst his captains, each of whom had the duty of seeing that the people placed under him did their work and that the tank was finished and brought to completion.”

[Stepped Tank or Pushkarni]

Continuing in wonder, I walked on to the Zenana Enclosure situated close to the Royal Enclosure. Inside the Zenana enclosure were the Lotus Mahal, the Elephants’ stable and close to it, the Hazara Rama Temple. On the walls of the Hazara Rama temple were lines and lines of exquisite carvings of scenes from the Ramayana— rather like comic strips! The beautiful elephant-stable housed a long row of curved stone walls, and each of its domes roofed a huge round room where, presumably, each elephant had had a kingdom to itself. Close to the Zenana Enclosure was also the Queen’s bath — a large rectangular tank lined with precisely cut stone, magnificent in its proportions. It had stately balconies and arched corridors running around it, and an inlet water channel running on one side. I could almost picture the Queen wading in with her ladies to this jewel-lined tank!

The Zenana Enclosure is believed to have been the royal women’s quarters or the antahpura. The king often had multiple wives, and each one of the wives had a house to herself, with maidens and women of the chamber. Paes writes, “Within (the women’s quarters)… there are twelve thousand women… women who handle sword and shield, and others who wrestle, and others who blow trumpets, and others pipes, and others instruments… women as bearers and washing-folk, and for other offices inside their gates, just as the king has the officers of his household. It may be gathered from this what a large enclosure there must be for these houses where so many people live!” Indeed, women held a high position in the Vijayanagara Empire. Fernao Nuniz, the Portuguese traveler, wrote, “… (the king) has women who wrestle, and others who are astrologers and soothsayers; and he has women who write all the accounts of expenses that are incurred inside the gates, and others whose duty it is to write all the affairs of the Kingdom and compare their books with those of the writers outside; he has women also for music, who play instruments and sing. Even the wives of the king are well versed with music. … he has judges, as well as bailiffs and watchmen who every night guard the place, and these are women.”

Ruled by four commanding dynasties— Sangam (1336-1485AD), Saluva (1485-1503AD), Tuluva (1503-1509), and Aravidu (1569-1572)— and reaching its zenith during Krishna Deva Raya’s rule, the Empire of Vijayanagara is said to have been one of the greatest Empires in the annals of Indian History. Because no single kingdom could face the might of this Empire, five Muslim kingdoms— Ahmednagar, Barar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda— formed an alliance against it, and on 23rd January 1565, this allied forced attacked Vijayanagara. After one of the bloodiest wars, the Empire was conquered. The aftermath? The city was pillaged and plundered for over a period of six months before being abandoned! Robert Sewell in his book “The Forgotten empire” writes, “With fire and sword, with crowbars and axes, they carried on day after day their work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city, teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full plentitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged and reduced to ruins, and scenes of savage massacre and horrors begging description.”

The austere, grandiose ruins of Hampi were a part of a glorious, an almost-mythical city, the “City of Victory”. I spent one idyllic week there— one flawless, gorgeous span of time—and I still carry the traces of its magic with me: photos and memories! 

Banner Image: Virupaksha Temple (Source: Amazing Ancient)

About Author: Manjushree Hegde

Manjushree is a Mechanical Engineer who decided to make a crossover to a serious study of Sanskrit and Indian culture. She has a post graduate degree in Sanskrit and is now working as a research scholar.

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