New light on Hampi

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Valuable Marvels in stone: Every piece has a reason for its presence there.
Valuable Marvels in stone: Every piece has a reason for its presence there.


The oldest reference to Hampi dates back to the year 690 when it was a place of pilgrimage. Surprisingly, there is nothing much now of a religious nature.

“The pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything equal to it in the world,” wrote Abdul Razzaq in 1443. In its heyday the Vijayanagara Empire stretched from Orissa to Karnataka. The capital Hampi, covering more than 20, was built on the banks of the Tungabhadra river, on a hilly site strewn with huge boulders thrown up by volcanic eruptions lost in eons of geological time. Architecturally and scenically it was, and is, spectacular.

We flew down from Bangalore in a busy-looking propeller driven plane with plenty of leg-room, and landed at the miniscule airport owned and operated by Jindal Steel near Bellary. You didn’t have to chase a conveyor belt which seems to take a perverse delight in running away with your luggage. The bags came in on a hand-drawn trolley and were loaded straight into a waiting car. Such a civilised way to travel! The Jindal Guesthouse is a showpiece surrounded by stretches of lush green lawns, and flowering trees and bushes. A temple, a park, a cinema hall, a memorial museum to the founder of Jindal Steel, and a cricket ground where elderly gents in traditional white play out their retirement years, are part of the huge estate.

Field work at Hampi, 70 km away began more than 20 years ago, and Marg, had issued a book on the findings in 1981. Since then the site has attracted a growing number of archaeologists, art historians and budding architects, and is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The present volume incorporates recent discoveries and recreates its geography and visual impact in 113 colour plates and 17 maps and drawings. A fine DVD directed by Shyam Benegal outlining the rise and fall of Vijayanagara complements these two books. The oldest reference to Hampi dates back to the year 690 when it was a place of pilgrimage dedicated to the goddess Pampa. It grew in importance till, by the 14th century, it was the most sacred spot in the region, and was chosen by the Sangamas to build their capital. At its centre was Vitthalapura, the township which grew around the Vitthala temple complex.


Surrounding the main temple were smaller ones dedicated to various Alwar saints, and the remains of a Vaishnavite monastery with residential quarters of a secular nature. Cooking pots, storage jars, and mortars with grinding stones were dug up, and there are indications of community activities such as the playing of games, with boards engraved on boulders and temple floors, and game pieces of ceramic and stone.

Indian temples, some dating back a thousand years, have had a longer life than palaces of which none prior to the 14th Century has survived. Those at Vijayanagar from the mid-14th Century are the oldest royal structures in an urban setting. The most exciting new find was made while excavating some overgrown mounds in a corner of the Royal Centre. Eighteen palaces, 13 wells, three tanks and the ruins of several small temples were uncovered; also waterworks consisting of stone or plaster-lined channels, ponds accessed by steps, and a masonry tank on an outcrop from which terracotta pipes descended to a crevice forming a natural cistern.

The art is typical of the Vijayanagar style with an abundance of yalis flanking the steps leading from one level to another, basement friezes adorned with elephants and horses, and dancing stick figures, a favourite motif. Fragments of Chinese porcelain adorned with floral designs in vivid colours were unearthed, also local earthenware.

The Great Platform to which an entire chapter is devoted was thought to be a triumphal emblem built after Krishnadevaraya’s return from the Oriya wars. Recent research, however, indicates four phases of construction. Here the king was enthroned during festivals, particularly Mahanavami, presiding over the feasting and celebrations. The platform sides are covered with delicate relief carvings, a must-see for tourists, which faithfully recreate every aspect of life in this fabulously wealthy kingdom, with trade links stretching from China to Africa to Portugal. There are horses and riders, martial sports, parades of camels, elephants at work, and scenes of courtly receptions, music and dance. The hunting scenes are the liveliest, with startled animals fleeing from dogs and hunters, and a man fighting a tiger single-handed.


Surprisingly there is nothing of a religious nature, and only one mythological narrative showing Narasimha wooing a tribal maiden. Foreigners are depicted in large numbers, Central Asian Turks judging by their clothing, dancing while beating tambourines, leading parades, riding horses and camels, or paying homage to the ruler. We know that contingents of Turks waited upon the Vijayanagar kings, and their presence here testifies to the secularism of these enlightened monarchs.

A group of Sultanate-style buildings in the Royal Centre provides further evidence of their cosmopolitan outlook. The magnificent Lotus Mahal, for example is a remarkably synthetic structure. Laid out on a mandala-like plan and raised on a series of shallow platforms in the manner of a temple, its entrances are topped with pointed and lobed recessed arches on four planes with exquisitely delicate plaster decoration recalling the Islamic Bahmani style. The focus of research from 1987 to 1997 was the area, approximately 540 square miles, surrounding Hampi, and its transformation in the process of provisioning a huge metropolis with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. The site categories cover agricultural settlements, sacred places, and the forts and roads so essential in a militaristic culture. Parallel rows of large boulders called “horse stones” were closely laid on approaches to the city to impede the free movement of invading foot soldiers and cavalry.

From the DVD we know that the city was planned as a microcosm of the Universe, suggesting an equivalence between divinity and kingship. John Malville explores this idea in depth. The principles of Vastu appear to have been used to create a totality, with interlocking relationships between constructed and natural features. Several examples, with detailed measurements, support this argument.

For instance, the Royal Centre is divided into public and private spaces by a north-south axis that passes from the king’s Audience Hall in the east to a palace structure in the west.

Other structures such as the Virabhadra temple atop Matanga Hill are set in a precise alignment with this axis, and if the night sky is viewed from the ceremonial gateway one can see that the north pole of the rotating heavens lies immediately above the tower of the temple. This conjunction between the pole and the axis of the city indicates an astonishing degree of architectural and astronomical sophistication long before the telescope was invented.


New Light…is a seminal book, a must-buy for historians and anthropologists, but one should experience Hampi to get a sense of what it was. Only one of its magnificent temples was not vandalised and is still in use, and a small town has grown around it.

From Matanga Hill you look down on the other temples, their ruined gateways, towers, mandapas and chariot-rides desolate except for a scattering of tourists. The palaces, the Great Platform and the Queen’s Bath lie empty.

Small settlements fringe the river and coracles ply across it as they have for centuries. Jagged hills rise on the opposite bank, and somewhere out there is the site of ancient Kishkinda where Ram met Hanuman. Huge boulders glow rusty-orange in the afternoon sun and the silence is broken by occasional bird-calls. Here as nowhere else you feel the ambience of the historic past. In much older cities such as Athens or Rome it has been lost in gleaming high-rises, busloads of jostling tourists, and the unceasing roar of traffic.

New Light On Hampi: Recent Research at Vijayanagara

Ed: John M. Fritz and George Michell Photographs by Clare Arni Marg Publications, Rs. 2,250



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