| Ode to the gods
To travel from Hospet village to Hampi, a distance of a mere 13 kilometres, is to leave behind the prosaic, familiar scenes of rural Karnataka. As you come upon Hampi, the ruins of what used to be Vijayanagara — or the city of victory — the landscape turns stark and powerful, as if it is holding out a challenge. Your first image of Vijayanagara is a vast spread of boulders, like cryptic clusters of words that have to be decoded. These gargantuan boulders of odd shapes and sizes balance precariously on one another, casting deep, sharp-edged shadows. The routine world and its mundane demands vanish from view. You are face to face with a rock-hewn enigma, the splendid ruins of Hampi on the southern bank of the Tungabhadra river.
This scene of visual power, the site of an ancient city, incorporates a progression from plains (suburbs) to flat land ringed with hills (the royal centre) to mountains with the river flowing around and between (the sacred centre). Spread over 26 square kilometres is an array of fortification walls, temple complexes, stables, palaces, baths and watch-towers; but Hampi offers only a part of itself to the naked eye. The rest — stories that reconstruct the heaps of broken blocks, the crushed masonry and fragments of sculpture — reside in a place accessible perhaps only to the imagination.
Vijayanagara, fabled capital, was described as a wonder-city by medieval travellers such as the Persian Abdur Razzak, and the Europeans, Conti, Nikhitin, Nuniz and Paes. They wrote of the lofty stone-built dwellings of royals, nobles and merchants interspersed with the squalid habitations of the poor; the elaborately built aqueducts which watered the rich gardens and woods lying side by side with luxurious crops of rice and sugarcane; the wonderfully carved temples of Hindu deities, the renowned Brahmin colleges and schools; the colourful festivals, the bazaars heaped with pearls, emeralds and roses; the community of poets, philosophers, musicians, dancing girls — all the glitter of Hindu medieval court life. But even familiarity with these literary accounts does not prevent the modern traveller from being stunned by the scale of Hampi’s ruins.
In 1343, the newly built city of Vijayanagara became the capital of the kingdom it gave its name to. Harihara, a local prince taken to Delhi as a prisoner of Sultan Muhammed bin Tughlaq, was sent back to restore the authority of the sultanate. He did that, but the temptation to found a kingdom of his own proved irresistible. And the site chosen for this new, aggressive kingdom was already sanctified through its links with the ancient epic, the Ramayana; the riverside was holy ground, setting for the goddess Pampa’s marriage to Shiva. What would follow was one of the greatest urban expressions of the relationship between men and gods; through the media of war, worship and the rituals of power, the ancient Hindu ideals of kingship were resurrected. Vijayanagara grew, an impenetrable fortress city, with wealth and fame in its protective embrace.
The kingdom grew into an empire; conquest extended its borders. There were many enemies: the kings of Andhra, the coastal kingdoms, and most of all, the permanent northern enemy of the Muslim kingdoms. A permanent enemy meant elaborate defence arrangements; and the necessity for revenue. The cavalry was improved by importing horses (first from the Arabs, then from the Portuguese traders in Goa) and drafting Turkish mercenaries. Vijayanagara’s wealth was based on a control of the lucrative spice trade of the south and cotton trade of the south-east, and administered by an able bureaucracy. Forests were cleared, new land settled, large irrigation tanks built, and dams constructed across rivers, involving considerable hydraulic engineering.
The city was the nucleus of what was to become the Vijayanagara Empire, the dominant power in south India for two centuries; and under the rule of Krishnadeva Raya (1505-29), the empire reached the pinnacle of its power and glory. Much remains as witness to this past: columned halls; monolithic sculptures; the king’s balance, where kings are said to have been weighed against gold or grain, which was then distributed among the poor; the queen’s bath with its lotus-shaped fountains spouting perfumed water; the huge platform from which the king presided over festivities: all these tell a familiar tale of epic proportion — where beauty is inseparable from wealth and power. The rulers of Vijayanagara were committed builders. Their love of display went beyond their palaces. Royal patronage embellished existing temples and built new ones that celebrated timeless myths, whether of Rama’s triumphant return from Lanka, or Krishna’s life, or scenes from the epic Mahabharata.
The temples bear the weight of royal ambitions to immortalize their powerful devotion; but they also evoke, as in a palimpsest, other layers of experience, other lives. These temples maintained gifted artists so that music, art and poetry were given patronage side by side with the more formal authority given to institutionalized religion. But the court philosopher and yogi, Vyasaraya, was also the guru of the singer, Purandaradasa, who composed exquisite songs of piety in colloquial language, songs that travelled easily and were retained in the popular oral tradition.
But as always, official beauty and grandeur have a dark and ugly underside; the end was inevitable because there was an intrinsic lack in the kingdom’s foundation. A history of relentless violence underlay the courtly splendour of the Muslim Deccan kingdoms to the north as well as that of the Hindu Vijayanagara kingdom to the south. Vijayanagara had survived for years with playing off one enemy against the other, but it was unprepared for an allied onslaught of the five sultanates. A year after Purandara’s death, in 1565, the fields of Talikota saw merciless “wasting with fire and sword” on both sides, but the forces of Vijayanagara broke and fled; were pursued across the river; 100,000 men were slain, and the rout was complete. Within a few hours of their return, the surviving princes of the royal house left the palace carrying whatever treasure they could on 550 laden elephants. The city that remained behind was defenceless; the plunder by people from outside and within went on for months. The city never recovered; anarchy led to decay. Vijayanagara was in ruins forever.
The city remained a scene of desolation and ruin, but life reasserts itself in unexpected ways. The oldest temple in the ruins, the Virupaksha temple, which celebrates the cosmic marriage of Shiva to Pampa, predates the Vijayanagara Empire. This is the sole living monument among the ruins, a temple still used for worship. Here heroes of the Hindu pantheon continue to be born, to marry and reign, impervious to time and change. Pilgrims still throng the courtyards of this temple, making their simple offerings of prayer and flowers. They will (thankfully) never build cities of victory, these modern pilgrims. It is unlikely that they are either poets or philosophers. But the words of the Kannada medieval poet, Basavanna, may not be strange to at least some of them: “The rich will make temples for Shiva. What shall I, a poor man, do' My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold.”