The Unsurpassed Grandeur Of Hampi – Capital Of The Great Vijayanagar Empire!
Historians say that if there were a contest of excellence between the divine architect Vishwakarma and the builders of the Vijayanagar (Hampi) monuments in Karnataka, India, the latter would win hands down! So beautiful is Hampi, the capital of the stunning empire of Vijayanagar and the awesome heritage structures strewn over an area of 350 square kilometres, that their impact is absolutely unforgettable!
By Vimla Patil
A few kilometers away from the town of Hospet in the Bellary district of Karnataka, India, stands one of the world’s most admired heritage sites – the magnificent ruins and heritage monuments of the 14th century Vijayanagar Empire with its capital city of Hampi. Known for the most intricately carved sculptures and temples of unbelievable opulence, Hampi has been widely researched by Indian and international scholars and hundreds of books have been written about its golden age and finally, its destruction at the hands of the Bahamani Sultans of Deccan. Indeed, Robert Sewell’s book The Forgotten Empire throws a revealing light on the magnificence of the empire at its glorious best and describes its tragic and almost overnight ruin at the hands of the attacking Muslim hordes.
The foundation of the Vijayanagar Empire has an interesting story. It begins with the defeat of the king of a small kingdom called Kampili in 1326 CE, wherein Mohammed Bin Tughluq, the ruler of a large part of north India, defeated and killed the king. Among the many prisoners he took with him to the north, were the brothers Harihara and Bukka, both treasury officers in the Kampili court. Tughluq forced them to accept Islam and gave them official positions in his kingdom. A few years on, the Sultan sent these two brothers to expand his kingdom in the south. But the brothers, by sheer coincidence, met Swami Vidyaranya from the Sringeri Math in South Kanara and were inspired by him to set up their own kingdom to oppose the Muslim armies. Swami Vidyaranya was the 12th Shankaracharya of Sringeri. He helped Harihara and Bukka to establish the Vijayanagar Empire in 1336 CE and reportedly remained a guide to three following generations of rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire. The brothers accepted the leadership of the Swami and in 1336 CE, grabbed power and laid the foundations of Vijayanagar after reconverting to Hinduism. Another story narrates how Vidyaranya Swami, the 12th Shankaracharya of the Sringeri Sharada Peeth, himself founded the empire to oppose Muslim invasions of peninsular India. However, history confirms that the new dynasty of Harihara and Bukka began in 1336 CE with Harihara becoming the King of Vijayanagar followed by his brother Bukka in 1343 CE. As Tughluq’s rule ended in the South, Vijayanagar expanded speedily and by 1379 AD, the empire was well set to become the most opulent ever in the history of South India.
In the next two centuries, the kings of the Vijayanagar Empire not only ruled all of South India, but were also considered more powerful than any other rulers in the whole of India. However, though it remained the bulwark against Muslim invasions from the north, its wars with the sultanates of the Deccan were frequent.
By 1509, Vijayanagar was also a great trading post and Portuguese visitors came to Hampi to see and write about its incredible grandeur. Historians believe that the empire reached its zenith in the reign of Krishnadevaraya (1509-1529 AD) who conquered all surrounding territories up to Orissa. It is this valiant king who built many of the incredibly beautiful monuments of Hampi and helped to repair or rebuild many temples in peninsular India. Krishnadevaraya was the king who initiated trade between his empire and the western countries. His trade centres on the west coast of India were prosperous and progressive. A great warrior, he was also an artistic genius who encouraged artists, musicians, dancers, sculptors and writers. History describes him as a man of great charm, a kind-hearted, just king and an ideal administrator. Achutaraya followed him in 1530 AD. In the following years, Hampi became the centre for great architecture, sculpture and literature.
Krishnadevaraya himself built the famous Hazari Rama Temple, the Krishna Temple and the huge statue of Ugra Narasimha. The later kings, one by one, added their own genius to construct a huge city with palaces, stadia, elephant stables, temples, courtyards and public utility buildings which have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the modern world. The architectural wonders of Vijayanagar – spread over an area of several hundred kilometers – are considered by international historians as the perfect melting pot of many artistic styles of the ruling dynasties of the South – the Chalukyas, the Hoysalas and the Dravidas. The magnificent spread of the monuments is virtually ‘an open air museum of incredible art and architecture’ according to historians. But today, they comprise the desolate city of Hampi.
The Vithala Temple with its musical columns and the fabulous divine chariot or Ratha, the Shri Virupaksha Temple, the Kadle Ganapati, the Lotus Mahal, the elephant stables, the courtyards where the royals watched their entertainment and the entire land strewn with tiny models of temples show that architecture, sculpture and art were hugely patronized by the Vijayanagar kings. Many kings also helped to add to or actually build many other famous South Indian temples such as the Madurai Meenakshi temple, the Tanjore Shiva temple, the Chidambaram temple, the Srirangam temple and the Kanchipuram Kamakshi temple among others.
The wonder felt by all scholars who have researched the Vijayanagar Empire is well-expressed by Mulkraj Anand in these words: “In the creative work of the Vijayanagar Empire, we see the transformation of History into Myth. Every space in between the rocks was sanctified by a dominant image…The struggle for the survival of this civilization was made into permanent symbols…”
This unique book by Robert Sewell, a British officer in South India during the British Raj narrates how the Vijaynagar Empire was founded and then built by a succession of kings who were powerful, talented and cultured. Sewell follows the accomplishments of the empire until its destruction in 1565, relying on the writings of visitors and ambassadors to the Vijayanagar Empire. But his narration has been examined for his veracity by a later book by Suryanarain Rao: Vijayanagar, The Never To Be Forgotten Empire. The latter book claims to put history in the proper perspective through research and the study of various inscriptions as well as the many documents at the Sringeri Math in South Kanara, Karnataka.
However, it is interesting to read what Robert Sewell writes about the glory and riches of the empire and describes how diamonds and rubies were heaped by the roadside for sale and how the streets were sprinkled with rose water every morning. He writes that even servants and army foot soldiers wore gold ornaments and there was not a hungry soul in the kingdom. Religious practices were conducted with dignity and young students were encouraged to learn art, architecture, painting and sculpture. Indeed, the Kannada literature of the era is held up as extremely rich with saints like Purandaradasa writing beautiful songs which are sung even today. Many authors also write about the legends of the area – with Kishkindha being the empire of the brothers Vali and Sugriva from the Ramayana. The land is described in the Ramayana as sanctified by Ram, Sita and Lakshman travelling through its expanse. The famous story of Shabari, a devotee of Ram, is reputed to have been enacted here.
Today, only the ruins of the grand empire remain as a tragic testimony to the unbelievable opulence of Vijayanagar. As far as the eye can see, huge boulders of granite lie strewn along the Tungabhadra River, among which are dotted the desolate monuments – like jewels set in rough misshapen gold. Spread over 350 square kilometers, the lonely heritage sites, comprising temples, chariots, palaces, royal baths, bazaars, courtyards, elephant stables and private quarters, stand as silent, sad sentinels of the ancient empire which was certainly the golden age of India’s medieval history.
The end of Vijayanagar was as dramatic as its beginning. Robert Sewell writes that it began with the death of Krishnadevaraya in 1529 AD. The kingdom ended on a tragic note when Ramaraya, the last king of Vijayanagar was defeated by the joint armies of the Bahamani kingdoms – Adilshahi, Nizamshahi, Kutubshahi and Baridshari. “One day, there was this magnificent empire with gold and diamonds in the hands of its subjects,” says Sewell, “And within 24 hours, the marauding armies had butchered the people and laid bare the desolate streets of the city like some burial ground. In the history of the world, there cannot be another chapter of destruction that can equal the demolition of Hampi and the massacre of its citizens by an army.”
Today, as curious tourists, scholars and visitors come to Hampi, one of the best conserved UNESCO World Heritage sites, what fascinates them is the enormous scale on which the empire was visualized and built! Each monument, which has stood the test of time, is perfectly carved and sculpted. The Ugra Narasimha with the seven-hooded Adishesha serpent, the Ganesha, the throne with its grand platform, the famous multi-stepped tank, the elephant stables and the bazaar of gems seem to be built by a genius of architectural expertise to fulfill his dream of unimaginable opulence!
Year after year, hordes of tourists, history lovers and back-packers travel to Hampi to have a glimpse into a nostalgic golden age of Indian history. They can stay in Hospet or visit the Vijayashree Heritage Village (log on to www.vijayashreeheritagevillage.com) which offers a beautiful Rajasthani ambience with excellent food. Mango Tree, a popular local restaurant, offers the typical delicacies of Karnataka. The Hampi Utsav, held in November each year, is a huge tourist attraction with the monuments lit up with myriads of lights and a dance and music festival held against the fabulous backdrop of the illuminated monuments.
Did you know?
The State of Karnataka in South India celebrated the 500th anniversary of the coronation of Sri Krishnadevaraya, the greatest Emperor of Vijayanagar on August 31, 2009. His gem-studded throne has engaged the attention of researchers for decades. Some say that it lies in the sanctum of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, which has survived the destructive onslaughts of Islamic invaders. Historians are researching whether it was used by Krishnadevaraya’s successors after his death in 1529 CE after his two-decade golden rule over peninsular India – the Vijayanagar Empire! Was it taken by the Bahamani invaders after the battle of Tallikote in 1565 CE? Dr. K. Krishna Rao, a renowned historian of the Vijaynagar Empire, believes that the throne is still in the Virupaksha Temple, where reportedly, the coronation of Krishnadevaraya was celebrated in August 1509 CE! The throne, made of silver with intricate designs, is currently used for placing the idol of the consort of Lord Virupaksha, or Shiva, say some researchers. The Virupaksha Temple is probably the only surviving complete temple in the Vijayanagar Empire after the vandalism of the invading Bahamani Muslim armies. It has been in worship for centuries. Dr. Krishna Rao wrote his memoirs and observations for the Bharat Vidya Samshodhan Mandal, Pune.
A portrait of Krishnadevaraya, (see above) allegedly done by Domingo Paes, a Portuguese visitor to the emperor’s court at the height of the empire’s glory, was also available for tourists and researchers to see. Krishnadevaraya who ruled the kingdom of Vijayanagar from 1509 to 1529, built the most prosperous and culturally rich empire of medieval South India.
Purandaradasa, one of the greatest devotees of Vithala and a poet extraordinaire at the court of Krishnadevaraya, composed exquisite songs during the emperor’s reign. His Vithala temple and unique mandapa stands on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in Hampi. Each pillar here offers the sound of one musical instrument when tapped! However, the idol of Vithala has vanished during invasions by Islamic invaders. See a video of the mandapa at:
Also, listen to his beautiful composition sung by the immortal vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi
____________________________________________________________________________Tagged with: Krishnadevaraya • Purandaradasa
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