The cosmic site of Vijayanagara

ABHA NARAIN LAMBAH

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THE dramatic cultural landscape dotted with verdant green banana fields with the Tungabhadra river winding its way through stone gorges and spectacular rock formations of massive granite boulders, offers a spectacular backdrop to the temples and monuments of Hampi. Crafted out of the same granite, the entire complex of stone creates a breathtakingly monochromatic composition, best viewed while bobbing up and down on circular coracles, basket boats, that have plied the Tungabhadra river for centuries.

The erstwhile medieval city of Vijayanagara covers an urban footprint of nearly 25 square kilometres in the Bellary district of Karnataka.1 In 1986, the ‘Group of Monuments of Hampi’ was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List on the basis of its established cultural criteria.2 Subsequently, in 1999 with the contentious construction of a modern bridge across the Tungabhadra, the site was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in accordance with Article 11(4) of the World Heritage Convention and the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

 

From the mid-14th century to 1565, Hampi or Vijayanagara was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, arguably among the world’s greatest urban centres. The accounts of medieval travellers such as Duarte Barbosa, Domingo Paes, Fernao Nuniz and Abdur Razzak have recorded the monumental scale of this medieval metropolis with Razzak noting in his memoirs that, ‘The City of Bidjanagar is such that the pupil of the eye has never seen such a place like it, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it in the world.’

The historical associations of Hampi extend far beyond merely the Vijayanagara period. Hampi was, through successive dynasties, part of the kingdoms of the Kadamba, Chalukya of Badami, Hoysalas, Kalachuris and Yadava dynasties before it became the capital of the Vijayanagara empire.3 Linked inextricably with its growth as a city centre, is its strong sacred geography along the Tungabhadra river, the mythic association with river Goddess Pampa and her consort Virupaksha, or Pampapati. An inscription dated 1163 AD records a mahadana, a religious offering in the presence of Lord Virupaksha of Hampi by the Kalachuri King Bijjala.4

 

The region was part of the Hindu kingdom of Kampiladeva5 until 1326 when the armies of Mohammed Bin Tughlaq defeated the king and imprisoned the two sons of Sangama, Hukka and Bukka. Some years later the Sultan sent the two, after converting them to Islam, as governors of the province. In 1336 they broke free from Tughlaq allegiance, reconverted to Hinduism and established the Sangama dynasty with its capital at Vijayanagar.6

While the Islamic Sultanates were well entrenched in medieval India, Vijayanagar rose to its zenith as a mighty Hindu kingdom in the Deccan for two centuries of a largely Muslim ruled subcontinent. Three powerful dynasties ruled from Vijayanagara – Sangama (1336-1485); Saluva (1485-1505); and Tuluva (1505-1565).7 Deva Raya I and II were the greatest of Sangama rulers with Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1529) of the Tuluva dynasty as its most famous ruler.

 

After the death of Krishna Deva Raya, his half brother Achyuta Raya succeeded him, but with his death in 1542 the kingdom was wracked by internicine conflict. Rama Raya, the son-in-law of Krishna Deva Raya embroiled himself in the power politics of the Deccan states and made biter rivals of the Deccan sultanates who collectively attacked Vijayanagara at the battle of Talikota in 1565. The succeeding months witnessed unheralded plunder and wilful destruction of the grand city.

Robert Sewell describes the destruction of Vijayanagara vividly. ‘The third day saw the beginning of the end. The victorious Mussulmans had halted on the field of battle for rest and refreshment, but now they had reached the capital, and from that time forward for a space of five months Vijayanagar knew no rest. The enemy had come to destroy, and they carried out their object relentlessly. They slaughtered the people without mercy; broke down the temples and palaces; and wreaked such savage vengeance on the abode of the kings that, with the exception of a few great stone built temples and walls, nothing now remains but a heap of ruins to mark the spot where once the stately buildings stood. They demolished the statues, and even succeeded in breaking the limbs of the huge Narasimha monolith.

‘Nothing seemed to escape them. They broke up the pavilions standing on the huge platform from which the kings used to watch the festivals, and overthrew all the carved work. They lit huge fires in the magnificently decorated buildings forming the temple of Vitthalaswami near the river, and smashed its exquisite stone sculptures. With fire and sword, crowbars and axes they carried on day after day their work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought so suddenly on so splendid a city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full plenitude of prosperity one day and on the next seized, pillaged and reduced to ruins amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description.’8

 

Many sites within Hampi and the neighbouring village of Anegundi find mention in the Ramayana as part of the monkey kingdom of Kishkinda ruled by the monkey kings Vali and Sugriva. Sugriva was driven out by his brother Vali and fled with Hanuman to the woods of Rishimukha on the banks of Pampa river near the dwelling of the holy saint Matanga.

Rama the legendary hero, in his search for his wife Sita, visited Rishimukha to meet Hanuman and Sugriva where he learnt from Sugriva how Sita, while being forcefully carried through the air by Ravana, dropped a garment and her jewels in the vicinity. Rama, grateful to Sugriva for this help, slayed his errant brother Vali and placed Sugriva on the throne. While Rama waited at Prasarvana, a part of the Malyavanta hill close by, Hanuman searched for Sita, found her in Ravana’s city of Lanka and brought back news of her to Rama.9

 

Hampi has a strong association with the legend of Ramayana and the names of many sites within the area bear the names of places mentioned in the epic. Rishimukha, Malyavanta hill and Matanga hill along with a cave where Sugriva is said to have kept the jewels of Sita are visited by devout pilgrims. The site of Anegundi is associated with the legendary kingdom of Angad, son of Vali. The Anjaneya Parvata, a hill to the west of Anegundi, is the fabled birthplace of Hanuman, the monkey god of the Ramayana.

A Kannada inscription dated AD 1069 from Devighat about 10 kilometres away from Anegundi refers to Kishkindha. A later Chalukyan record, dated AD 1088, in a Siva temple of Somanatha at Munirabad, a village about 6.5 kilometres northwest of Hospet, mentions Kishkindha as being to the north and Rishyamuka to the east of this temple.

Apart from its association with the Ramayana, Hampi is integrally linked with the cult of the river goddess Pampa and the legend of her marriage to Lord Virupaksha. The central element of this legend is the betrothal and marriage of Pampadevi to Shiva (Virupaksha). Each year, in the month of Chaitra (March-April), this marriage is re-enacted, with the priests of Virupaksha temple devoutly performing every ritual from Phalapuja (betrothal) to Kalyanotsava (marriage) in the temple precincts.10

A set of copper plates found in a field in Anegundi in Gangavathi taluk, Raichur district bear an inscription in Kannada script assignable to 13th century. One inscription contains literary verses from Vivaha Purana and Amrit Manthana Purana, narrating the story of the marriage of god Siva and goddess Parvati.11

 

Over the next six and a half centuries up to the establishment of the city of Vijayanagar, the Pampa Tirtha grew into a ceremonial centre of significance in southern India, consisting of various shrines and monumental edifices along the course of the river – thus firmly establishing the cult of the river goddess.

Phillip Wagoner, in his research paper mentions, ‘It appears that by the opening of the 14th century, the tirtha at Hampi had become the pre-eminent ritual centre in the region, and that the Sangamas’ choice of this site for the construction of their new capital was consciously motivated by a desire to make use of the site’s ritual power to legitimise their newly instituted kingship. Thus, when the city of Vijayanagara was laid out in the 14th century, it was the unoccupied plain to the south of the old pilgrimage centre that was built into an urban zone containing the royal palace, while the tirtha itself was transformed into a sacred zone for the city by the gradual construction of a series of royal temple complexes along the river and the extension of the city walls northward to bring this zone within their ambit. Through deliberate and systematic planning, the form of the new city functioned to effect a transferral of ritual authority from the old gods of the tirtha to the king who exercised it on their behalf from his palace in the royal centre.’12

 

Though an ideal visit to Hampi would involve staying at least for a couple of nights in one of the many quaint huts or village ‘home stays’ in Anegundi village, many visitors pack in the prime sites in a day trip. The absolute ‘must see’ destinations would be the Virupaksha temple, the surviving ‘living temple’ where rituals have continued unbroken since the time of the Vijayanagara kingdom. In the month of chaitya in March-April, is held the kalyanotsav ceremony centred around the Virupaksha temple complete with a rathayatra and nuptial ceremonies signifying the marriage of Virupaksha to Pampa as per the ancient legend. A large bazaar with stone colonnades acts as the foreground for this elaborate ritual.

One of the largest temple complexes in Hampi is the Krishna temple, built by the Vijayanagara king Krishna Deva Raya (AD 1509-1529) for the consecration of the image of Balakrishna brought by him from Udayagiri after his victorious campaign in Orissa. In recent years, the Archaeological Survey of India has undertaken substantial archaeological digs to uncover most of the original footprint of the Krishna bazaar that created a colossal ensemble of shops, water tanks and pavilions linking up with the temple complex. Near the Krishna temple is the iconic stone statue of Narasimha, a 21 feet high monolithic granite sculpture that is emblematic of Hampi. Close by is the large Shivalinga, partially submerged in water, standing in a square stone chamber. Other famous temples are the Achyutraya temple and Hazara Rama temple, but undoubtedly, the most spectacular, with its musical columns and fantastic carvings, is the Vithhala temple with its magnificent bazaar of stone colonnades, stone ratha and sculpted stone columns that when struck with hand, play sound of various Indian classical music instruments.

 

While these can be covered on a short day trip, there are numerous other temples linked with the story of the Ramayana, reason enough to extend a trip to Hampi by at least another couple of days. Linked with the sacred geography of Hampi are the Kodandrama temple (where Rama is said to have crowned Sugriva king); Chandramauleshwara temple (a Shaivate temple standing on the island of Rishimukha where Lord Rama is believed to have met Hanuman); Anjaneya temple atop Anjanadri Hill (the birthplace of Hanuman), Chakratirtha, and Sugriva’s cave.

Beyond this realm of temples is the royal enclosure of palaces, baths, platforms, stables and ramparts that served as the political nerve centre of the Vijayanagara kingdom. The Queen’s enclosure with its elaborate carved interiors was probably a pleasure pavilion, while the Mahanavmi Dibba was probably used for the king’s public appearances during festivals and court ceremonies. The Lotus Mahal with its multi-foil arches and stepped pyramidical shikharas is a hybridization of Islamic forms with the Hindu architectural vocabulary typical to Vijayanagara. The Elephant Stables with their lofty domes and arches is another such synthesis of Hindu and Islamic forms.

 

Footnotes:

1. The larger buffer and suburban areas put forth in the Management Plan for the World Heritage Site, however, include a much larger stretch, from Anegundi in the north to modern Hospet in the south1, covering over 246 square kilometres dotted with temples, gateways, and archaeological remains that have been painstakingly mapped over a period of 20 years by scholars such as George Michell and John Fritz.

2. The criterion above recognised Hampi ‘for its outstanding universal value representing a masterpiece of human creative genius, testimony as a cultural tradition and civilization; an architectural ensemble and landscape features,’ Minja Yang and Paul Trouilloud, Advisory Mission to Hampi World Heritage Site Report, written for the Government of India, Unesco Mission to Hampi, Paris, May 2003.

3. Channabasappa S. Patil, Pre Vijayanagara Temples at Hampi, Vijayanagara: Progress of Research 1987-88, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Mysore, 1991.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Hampi Travel Guide, Eicher Goodearth Publication, supported by Department of Tourism, Government of India.

7. Ibid.

8. Robert Sewell, A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar): A Contribution to the History of India, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 2004 (first published Bombay, 1878), pp. 207-208.

9. A.H. Longhurst, Hampi Ruins: Described and Illustrated, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 2002 (first published, Madras, 1917).

10. Hampi Travel Guide, op cit.

11. Channabasappa S. Patil, ‘Anegondi Copper Platesi’, Vijayanagara: Progress of Research 1987-88, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Mysore, 1991, p. 15.

12. Phillip B. Wagoner, ‘From "Pampa’s Crossing" to the "Place of Lord Virupaksha": Architecture, Cult, and Patronage at Hampi Before the Founding of Vijayanagara’. Vijayanagara: Progress of Research 1988-91, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Mysore, 1996.

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