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Updated: June 6, 2013 14:13 IST

New insights into an old empire

A. Srivathsan
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For 300 years, until the Deccan Sultans decimated them in the mid-16th century, the writ of Vijayanagara kings ran over the entire south India. Art and architecture reached ‘exquisite' proportions, and literature witnessed a ‘glorious epoch' during this period. It was “the last glorious chapter in the history of independent Hindu South India,” summed up Nilakanta Sastri, the eminent historian.

However, scholars who followed only partly agreed with this assessment. They acknowledged the importance and contributions of Vijayanagara Empire, but challenged the ‘communalised version and nationalistic bias' entrenched in the earlier historiography.

Starting from the mid 1970's, the focus and methods of research changed. Unlike earlier works, which depended mostly on literary evidence, the recent researches have been interdisciplinary and focused on archaeological and material evidences. This approach has produced a nuanced and complex understanding of one of the most important periods of Indian history.

The book in review, South India under Vijayanagara, an edited volume by Anila Verghese and Anna L. Dallapiccola maps the shifts and illustrates the new insights gathered over the last three decades.

Architectural style

Research papers in this volume have adopted new survey methods, probed hitherto overlooked archaeological evidences, and closely scrutinised sculptures, painting and iconography that developed during the Vijayanagara period. The book unravels the landscapes of production within the capital city of Hampi, looks at the relationship between architectural style and polity, points to the assertion of local rulers in the far periphery of the kingdom, and describes the changing notion of god-king relationships evidenced through sculptures. This collection of 24 interesting papers together makes for an interesting reading and is a handy volume for scholars and discerning readers alike.

The pick of the papers are Kathleen Morrison's insightful work on Hampi metropolitan region; Phillip Wagoner's absorbing essay on the stepped tank; Anila Verghese's informative discussion on the development of gopura (temple gateway) architecture; John Rice's interesting analysis of temples in the Kanara region; Richard Shaw's rich description of Saivitie ascetic iconography and Crispin Branfoot's important research on portrait sculptures. The essay by S. Rajasekhara on inscriptions relating to the monuments at Hampi would specifically help architectural historians studying the development of temple architecture.

The book is organised in two sections; first part, with 12 essays, focus on the capital city Hampi, and the second part deals with the “wider areas of the empire.” This structure though convenient in one sense comes in the way of making crucial connections to central issues of the book.

For instance, one of the intriguing questions has been why did Vijayanagara kings chose the architectural paradigm of the far-flung Tamil region and not the Deccan style, which is geographically closer. Readers wishing to find answers to these questions have to scurry between the sections of the book. Wagoner's analysis in the first section explains that Vijayanagara kings wanted “to represent themselves as inheritors of the Chalukyan imperium” and hence relocated a stepped tank from Deccan area to Hampi. However, Anila Verghese in her essay on temple gopuras, in the second section, shows that the “Tamil-Dravida paradigm” was the natural choice and widely deployed by the Vijayanagara kings. Related to this point is Rice's analysis of the temples in the Kanara coastal region, which appears much later in the book. He posits that the local rulers did not take to the paradigm preferred by the emperors and maintained a distinctive style of their own. They asserted their autonomy through architecture.

Unfortunately, this interesting discussion about the architectural choices loses the spotlight because the editors had decided to organise the book in terms of city and region, which is too broad to be useful.

In this context, it would have been worthwhile to look at the differences between the urban pattern of Tamil towns that concentrically grew around the temples and their absence in Hampi.

Kathleen Morrison's insightful paper clearly shows that the boundaries between sacred and profane spaces were blurred in the capital city. The interesting map that accompanies the text shows the religious structures spread across the landscape and produces a picture of a hybrid city. This important observation is in contradiction with the other papers including the one on sacred topography, which persists with the idea that Hampi was organised into three key exclusive zones: religious, urban and royal. It would have been helpful to the readers if this significant point about the urban structure was pursued and clarified in either the comprehensive introductory essay or in the various papers. The absence of any discussion on the bazaars of Hampi, which have an iconic presence in the city, is conspicuous.

SOUTH INDIA UNDER VIJAYANAGARA — Art and Archaeology: Edited by Anila Verghese, Anna L. Dallapiccola; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1450.

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