The granite sculpture of Balakrishna is a war trophy whose value few know.

The granite sculpture of Balakrishna is a prized possession of the Madras Museum, but it hardly gets the attention it deserves. The insipid exhibition obscures its significance and the faded labels palely describe its historic journey. The damaged features of the sculpture are not helpful either.

This seated Krishna sculpture with a butterball on the right hand – which is missing - was a war trophy. Krishnadevaraya, the most able of the Vijayanagara kings brought this image from Udayagiri in 16th century to commemorate his victory over Gajapatis, the kings of Kalinga (present day Orissa.) In the past, it was a practice to forcefully take women, slaves and treasures of the defeated kings as war booty. In this case, Krishandevaraya wanted the worshiping idol as a souvenir.

In the mid 14th century, Harihara and Bukka, two brothers, established Vijayanagara on the banks of the river Tungabhadra, about 600 km west of Madras. There was a power vacuum in the southern regions then and the Vijanagara kings capitalised on it. The kingdom grew in size, military might and glory. But to expand northward was not easy - the Bahmani sultans and Gajapatis stiffly opposed them.

Udayagiri near Nellore was a strategic fort and a site of many violent fights. Gajapatis frequently attacked the fort and heaped humiliating defeats over the Vijayanagara kings, particularly on Saluva Narashima during the 15th century. Narashima, until his death, could not regain the fort. His general Narasa Nayaka promised to fulfill his master’s last wish, but he too failed.

Krishnadevaraya, Narasa Nayaka’s second son, eventually fulfilled his father’s promise. He defeated the Gajapatis at Udayagiri after laying siege to the fort for about 18 months and took his fight to Cuttack, their capital city. The victory at Udayagiri was an important, personal moment for Krishnadevarya and he decided to commemorate it in a grand manner.

He removed the Balakrishna image from Udayagiri and consecrated it in a new temple in Hampi, the capital city of Vijayanagara. The commemorative project did not stop just with building a temple. Krishnadevaraya built a grand bazaar in front of the temple, elaborately depicted the military scenes on the gopura (entrance gateway) of the temple and inscribed the sweet victory on the walls.

There is an image in one of the columns in the front mandapa of the temple showing Krishnadevaraya worshipping Balakrishna. However, there is a difference between this image and the idol in the sanctum that was brought to the Madras Museum. The sanctum idol is a seated Krishna with a butterball while the one on the column is a crawling Krishna with the butterball.

In 1565 CE, Bahamani sultans decimated Vijayanagara kings and pillaged Hampi. People fled leaving the metropolis to ruins. Hampi remained in obscurity until the British antiquarians brought this magnificent site to limelight in the 19th century.

In 1917, A.H. Longhurst, Superintendent of the Southern Circle, Archaeological Survey of India toured Hampi to inspect the monuments and write a guidebook. In the ruined Krishna temple, he found the idol of Balakrishna with arms missing. Longhurst thought that the sculpture would be safer in a museum than in a ruined temple and brought it to Madras. Little did he realize that this move, though done with good intentions, pealed away an important layer of history from Hampi.

For further reading:

K.A.Nilakanta Sastri, History of South India, Oxford University Press, 2009 (first published in 1955)

Anila Verghese and Anna L. Dallapiccola (ed.), South India under Vijayanagara : Art and Architecture, Oxford University Press, 2010

John M Fritz & George Mitchell, Hampi Vijayanagara, Pictor Publishing Pvt Ltd, 2011

Keywords: sculptureshistory