Open Essay

Hampi: Return to a Forgotten Empire

Nanditha Krishna is a historian, author and environmentalist, and director of the CPR Institute of Indological Research in Chennai
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In Hampi lies a larger tragedy of south India

ROBERT SEWELL’S APPELLATION, A Forgotten Empire, is probably the best description for the greatness that was Vijayanagara. I first visited this ancient capital at Hampi when I was in my late teens. It was a mess, with broken stones strewn all over the place. I visited it again when I was in my late thirties, with my husband and two young sons who were fascinated to see archaeological digs. My most recent visit was in March this year with an American writer friend, when I observed the wonder that was Vijayanagara, following the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) recreation of the medieval empire.

Hampi lies on the southern bank of the Tungabhadra River, formed by the rivers Tunga and Bhadra, and is the chief tributary of the Krishna River. The Ramayana identifies the river as the Goddess Pampa, the daughter of Brahma (hence the name Hampi). Identified with Parvati, she is the spouse of Shiva himself, known here as Virupaksha, and Hampi city was built around the Virupaksha temple. North of the river is Kishkindha, the kingdom of Sugriva and the Vanaras, where Rama and Lakshmana arrived during their search for Sita and encountered and befriended Hanuman. This is Anegundi (elephant gorge in Kannada), older than Hampi, where Hanuman was born on Anjanadri Hill. At nearby Nimvapuram, there is a mound of ash, believed to be the cremated remains of the Vanara king, Vali. Anegundi is one of the oldest plateaus on earth, estimated to be 3,000 million years old. Local story-tellers refer to Anegundi as the maternal home of Bhoodevi, or Mother Earth. South of Hampi is the Daroji Bear Sanctuary, home of the sloth bear, again a reminder of a Ramayana character, Jambavan, the wise bear. One cannot go far without being reminded of the Ramayana. It is a rocky region, with huge granite stones of varying tints and shades that add colour to the countryside, especially as the sun sets over the turquoise blue waters of the river. Prehistoric paintings decorate the surrounding caves, with scenes of hunters with spears and clubs, lions and antelopes, bulls and horses. Hampi lies across this unbelievably unearthly landscape. Even Emperor Ashoka left edicts in nearby Nittur and Udegolan, near Bellary.

All that remains of this ancient city described by Fernao Nuniz, a Portuguese traveller in 1535, as ‘large as Rome and very beautiful to the sight’ with a ‘king, very great and strong’ who buys ‘13,000 horses every year’ are broken temples and icons. But thanks to the efforts of ASI, Hampi is beginning to show traces of its past beauty, if not glory.

The constant depredations by the marauding armies of the north Indian Sultanate prompted two local chieftains, Harihara I and Bukka, to build their kingdom around the temple of Virupaksha in 1336, which was surrounded by tall rocky hills. The two chieftains visited the Shankara Matham at Sringeri and the reigning pontiff became their preceptor, both spiritual and temporal. Thus began the rule of the first of the four dynasties—Sangama, Saluva, Tuluva and Araveedu—that were to rule Vijayanagara between 1336 and 1565.

What was so wonderful about Vijayanagara, or rather, Hampi? To start with, the size. ‘The circumference of the city is [60 miles]; its walls are carried up to the mountains and enclose the valleys at their foot,’ says Nicolo Conti, circa 1420. ‘Seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other,’ fortified with gateways and bastions. ‘The seventh fortress is placed in the centre of the others, and in that is situated the palace of the king,’ adds Abdul Razzaq, an envoy from Herat, Persia, circa 1442-44. The extant monuments of Vijayanagara can be divided into religious and secular (palaces and military) buildings. Some structures, such as the Jain temples on Hemakuta hill, two shrines for Devi and some shrines in the Virupaksha temple complex predate the Vijayanagara Empire. The Shiva temples, with their stepped or Dravida vimanas, date back to the early Chalukyan period.

Today Vijayanagara is a lovely tourist monument, a town of temples, palaces and exotic baths; a mere memory of her heyday when she was the capital of a mighty empire

The city was divided into four quarters: Hampi around the Virupaksha temple; Krishnapura around the Krishna temple; Achyutapura around the Tiruvengalanatha temple; and Vitthalapura around the Vitthala temple. Each temple was approached by a street flanked by bazaars consisting of stone shops on either side; bazaars of gold, jewellery, silks, flowers, perfumes, fruits and vegetables, horses and much more. Each quarter was linked by roads and gateways through which our car drove sedately. Once upon a time, it saw soldiers on horse and elephant backs; dancing girls and temple processions during Mahanavami, Deepavali and Holi; and the king’s cavalcade itself, as the many visitors’ tales describe. The festivals were grand displays of imperial power and magnificence and dazzled the viewers, which included visitors from all over the world. ‘In this city you will find men belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it has, and the many precious stones there... the streets and markets are full of laden oxen without count... and in many streets you come upon so many of them that you have to wait for them to pass, or else have to go by another way,’ writes Domingo Paes, a Portuguese visitor between circa 1520 and 1522.

A detailed description of the beautiful temples—even in their present destroyed form —would require a whole book. So I shall merely describe those that have been restored to some extent.

The largest and sole temple under worship is the Virupaksha, dedicated to Shiva and Pampa Devi. It has an imposing elevation and was reconstructed in the 19th century, nobody knows by whom. There are two courts accessed by gateways surmounted by gopurams, with a third gopuram surmounting the main entrance and facing the bazaar street that extends for one kilometre to a monolithic but mutilated statue of Nandi. The only genuine Vijayanagara structure inside the temple complex is the coronation mandapa, built in 1510, of King Krishnadevaraya, the greatest of the Vijayanagara emperors. Apart from the sculpted pillars, the ceiling contains lovely paintings of the marriage of Virupaksha and Pampa Devi and Rama and Sita. Vidyaranya, Shankaracharya of Sringeri and adviser to emperors, in procession, forms one of the many panels.

Hazara Ramaswamy temple is a little gem, with three rows of friezes encapsulating the whole temple and narrating the story of the Ramayana and a few episodes of the Bhagavata, visible as one circumambulates the temple three times. In the central hall of the temple, there are four chitrakhanda pillars of alternating blocks of cubes and many-sided bands, made of polished black stone. In the outer prakara of the temple are carvings of Arabs with horses, apart from elephants and their riders, soldiers with different kinds of weapons, dancing girls and Holi celebrations. The Vijayanagara Empire was a big market for horses, traded by Arabs and Portuguese, while they maintained a standing army of 90,000 soldiers. Needless to say, the icons in the main and sub-shrine for Devi were destroyed and removed. The beauty has been restored in part by the ASI. According to inscriptions, the bazaar street of this temple was known as the pan-supari bazaar.

Unlike many ancient Hindu cities which have left us with no idea of how people lived, we know Vijayanagara was a well-planned city with quarters for all who lived there

But the most beautiful temple is that of Vitthalanatha, which existed in the 15th century, to which Krishnadevaraya contributed much in his brilliant but short reign. I have a soft spot for this temple. According to an inscription discovered during the excavations, my husband’s ancestors—the Vitthaladevni family of Pandharpur—were brought to Vijayanagara for the consecration of this temple. All around the hall are massive pillars with musical pillarets, although most have been destroyed. An ornate kalyana mandapa, used for the wedding of the gods, is decorated with long friezes on the plinth, of Portuguese with sharp beards, wearing tunics and trousers, leading horses. Krishnadevaraya bought guns and Arab horses from the Portuguese merchants. The competition between the Arabs and Portuguese to supply horses to the empire was severe. The bazaar outside the temple was used by horse traders to stable their horses. Inside, there is a Chola-style stone chariot, a shrine for Garuda, with stone wheels that could once rotate although they have recently been embedded.

There are several remnants of temples in Hampi. The temple of Krishna once enshrined an image of Balakrishna from Udayagiri in Orissa. The bazaar here was held every Monday, for groceries. Achyutaraya temple faced a bazaar of courtesans. Kodanda Rama, Varaha, Vishnu, Hastagiri Ranganatha, Saraswathi, Chandrasekhara and Kunthanatha Jain temples are some of the many temples that dot Hampi. The Narasimha temple is among the oldest (1386 CE) in the city. The Prasanna Virupaksha (underground Shiva) temple is well below the ground level and obviously much older than the others.

But the temples were not the only beautiful structures in this City of Victory. A huge (6.7 metres high) monolithic sculpture of Lakshmi Narasimha carved by Krishnabhatta in 1528 is an outstanding work of art. Narasimha is seated on a coiled seven- hooded serpent, in front of a makara torana. An image of Lakshmi on his shoulder has been badly damaged and only one arm remains. All the four arms of Narasimha have been chopped off and the superstructure destroyed. I have seen it earlier, in worse condition. The restoration effort has been tremendous.

There are two large Ganeshas. The first is the monolithic sasive kalu (mustard seed) Ganesha, who sits in an open pillared mandapa, 2.4 metres tall on a huge pedestal. Seen from the front, this is a mere Ganesha, but seen from the back, Ganesha is seated on his mother Parvati’s lap, a unique sculpture. An inscription tells us that merchants from Andhra Pradesh sponsored its carving. Another 4.5-metre-high monolithic image called kadale kalu (gram seed) Ganesha has a beautiful slender pillared mandapa in front of the sanctum.

Among the other amazing sights are the Koti linga, a number of small Shiva lingas on a flat sheet near the Kodanda Rama temple. A huge stone balance, consisting of two tall pillars supporting a cross beam with a shikhara in the centre, stands witness to the king’s practice of weighing himself against precious gems and metals on important days. One of the pillars depicts a king and two queens, possibly Krishnadevaraya and his two queens, Tirumaladevi and Chinnamadevi.

Unlike many ancient Hindu cities which have left us with no idea of how the kings, noblemen or common people lived, we know Vijayanagara was a well-planned city with quarters for all who lived there. The Royal Enclosure houses the king’s apartments; a terraced platform called the Mahanavami dibba for the king to sit and watch the Dussera procession; an ornate stepped tank made of schist; the octagonal Queen’s Bath in Indo-Islamic style; and the mint or Rangamahal are among the secular buildings of Vijayanagara. The palace of Harihara II (1377-1404), the zenana, Lotus Mahal or Chitrangi Mahal which housed the king and his wives, the stable for elephants and the guard house are in Indo-Saracenic style, with stucco ornamentation. There were separate quarters for nobles and soldiers, Jains and their temples and quarters for Muslims, including a Sunni masjid.

The provision of water was made through stone aqueducts, a network of irrigation canals that connected temples, palaces, tanks and agricultural lands. Bukka’s aqueduct is massive, built of rectangular dressed rock blocks making up a tall bridge-like structure, which suggests that water was lifted to a higher plane. Krishnadevaraya utilised Portuguese expertise to improve water supply to the city of Vijayanagara.

Coracles are still used to ferry people across the river, as they were in the heyday of the Vijayanagara Empire. Domingo Paes, a Portuguese traveller (circa 1520-22) mentions them carrying about 20 persons, horses and oxen across the river. There was a gateway with rest houses for travellers, and a customs house to tax merchants.

The destruction of Vijayanagara was horrible. The last emperor was Achyuta Raya’s son Sadashiva Raya, a minor who came to the throne in 1542. Krishnadeva Raya’s son-in-law Aliya Rama Raya appointed himself the regent and kept him a virtual prisoner. Rama Raya appointed two Muslim commanders, the Gilani brothers, who were earlier in the service of Sultan Adil Shah, as commanders in his army. This was a terrible mistake which cost him his life and empire at the Battle of Talikota. This battle, which could have been an easy victory for the large Vijayanagara army, became a disaster following the surprise capture and beheading of Rama Raya by the Gilanis, who held up the severed head on the edge of a sword. Seeing this, the soldiers ran away in fright and the sacking of Vijayanagara began.

Between 100,000 to 500,000 people (depending on who you ask) were massacred when a confederation of five Muslim Bahmani states of the Deccan— Bijapur, Golconda, Ahmednagar, Bidar and Berar—plundered and destroyed this beautiful capital of an empire that stretched from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Orissa in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south. Many ran away anticipating the carnage. Of those who remained, all were killed: men, women and children. ‘The city of Bezenagar is not altogether destroyed, yet the houses stand still, but emptie, and there is dwelling in them nothing, as is reported, but Tygers and other wild beasts (sic),’ wrote Cesare Frederici, circa 1567.

Vijayanagara was a beautiful and well-planned city. Today, she is a lovely tourist monument, a town of temples and palaces, exotic baths and a sophisticated water supply system, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and listed as the ‘Group of Monuments at Hampi’; a mere memory of her heyday when she was the capital of a mighty empire. But she is a forgotten empire. Our history books contain reams of information about north India, where there were few kings worth mentioning. Vijayanagara is relegated to a mere paragraph, as are most things south Indian.