The history of the Vijayanagar empire, ruins of which now house Hampi, is dotted with several interesting episodes, some of which were dwelt upon by renowned architect-academic George Michell during a session at the Jaipur Literature festival on Monday.
Dr. Michell, an expert on Central Asian and Indian-especially Deccan-architecture, was introduced by historian-author William Dalrymple for a session titled “Vijayanagar: the city of victory”.
Dr. Michell received his training in architecture at Melbourne University and then went on to do a Ph.D in Indian Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
He has undertaken research projects at different archaeological sites across India, including over two decades of intensive field work at Hampi. His recent publications include Vijayanagara: Splendour in Ruins, The Great Temple at Thanjavur and Mughal Architecture and Gardens, among several other books.
Dr. Michell said Vijayanagar was among the earliest and perhaps the most complete examples of magnificent imperial cities and one of the very few Indian cities that were abandoned.
“Not unlike Pompeii (the ancient Roman city) which came to a sudden cataclysmic end in 78 AD, Vijayanagar came to a cataclysmic end in 1565...This was a city that was abandoned…and there are not many Indian cities like that,” said Dr. Michell.
The most amazing thing about the place, he said, was the landscape.
“It is one of the most extraordinary landscapes to be found anywhere in Asia, not just in India…incredible granitic landscape... one question that most people ask us is what the hell is a big imperial city of one of the greatest Hindu empires in southern India doing here? Why did they build it here?
There are several possible explanations-one, this type of landscape was a very good natural defence against empires that were at war with Vijayanagar; second, a great river, Tungabhadra, runs through this place…and it loses height… ideal for taking off water channels and creating a very extensive hydraulic system…which permitted the cultivation of many types of crops,” said Dr. Michell.
He said the earliest Vijayanagar emperors-the Sangama kings-were “sort of local nobodies who seized the moment in a power vacuum…when the Delhi Sultans abandoned control of this part of India...giving an opportunity to these local people to use the Muslim threat in a sort of ideological political way…to galvanise everyone together”.
“The last feature of the landscape...is its inherent sanctity...it’s imbued with myth…and this myth underpinned the legitimacy of the Sangama brothers who began the Vijayanagar empire … the Kishkindha chapter of the Ramayana…is believed to have taken place here,” said Dr. Michell.
Another important point about the Vijayanagar Empire was the marriage of a local goddess to Shiva, he said.
He said all across south India, goddesses were linked to places (like Meenakshi in Madurai).
“These goddesses represented the power of the place......at Hampi we have a goddess called Pampa...and she did a seduction scene with (Lord) Shiva...you know it’s the wet sari stuff...like in Bollywood movies...and I think it’s a part of Indian culture...women with wet clothes...so she was very beautiful...very available and she seduced Shiva...but she didn’t become Mrs. Shiva...he became Mr. Pampa...in this part, he is called Pampapati...this is the main myth of Hampi and its still going on,” he said.
Dr. Michell presented several slides with pictures of the archaeological remains of the empire and went on to describe the several distinct styles of architecture that were used in Vijayanagar.
“This was a great imperial city…we have fortifications, gateways, palaces, pleasure pavilions, watch towers, stables…so there is a complete ensemble…range of different types of architecture,” he said.