Vijayanagara overwhelms you in waves. First by its scale, then by its splendour and then with grief. For what was once a site of unmatched cultural confluence, now stands as a relic of rampage and ruin.
But that grief brings with it some lessons, some cultural memories and to those who delve further, a sense of resolve.
The City of Victory!
When we reached that small town it was post noon. Still, for January, the sun was almost as harsh as though it was summer. The dusty roads with a generous amount of bumps to check, take you to a rather tasteless arch in concrete that welcomes you to the site. The paddy fields and plantations along the sides of the serpentine small road and the surrounding hills with massive boulders, create a strange sensation. Something builds up in you.
You have read about this place. In the history textbooks it was a paragraph to be memorized. In the tales handed down by grandmothers, you have heard it as the city where Tenali Rama, the brilliant court poet lived. In countless accounts you have heard of the super-human deeds of Sri Krishnadeva Raya, the famous emperor who ruled from here. In heart moving novels and accounts of history you have read about its tragic fall – because of treachery and complacency.
It was named Vijayanagara – the City of Victory.
In South India, the Vedic-Buddhist-Jain cultures had evolved together organically. Occasional conflicts, mutual innuendos, literary as well as theological, were always present but they never became religious wars. Rather, they were resolved as required differences in the natural infinite expressions of the Truth. Kings had their expansionist drives. But they were not given religious motivation to destroy the other. Then came invasions of another kind.
Destruction of temples, massacre of the population who refused to convert, sexual slavery of women and children, slaughter of cows just to humiliate the other – the dimensions of horrors unveiled by the new invaders must have made the South Indian kings to come together and fight.
However, despite the threat of total extinction of their lives and annihilation of their ways of life, they still quarreled among themselves. Every victory ensured just survival but every defeat a deluge of utter destruction and mass conversions.
Two warrior brothers, and in some accounts also tribal chieftain brothers, Hakka and Bukka, who had witnessed the horrors of these invasions, had pleaded with various South Indian rulers for a confederacy of Dharma against the aggressors. And it was here that they were inspired by the saint Vidhyaranya to establish a kingdom which would soon flower into an empire and act as not just the bulwark against invasions but as a flourishing centre for spirituality, arts and learning and a vast mercantile network.
Thus starts the history of Vijayanagara.
We start our tour of Hampi from the famous monolith carved Lakshmi Narasimha temple. Sitting on the coils of Adisesha – he sits majestic and cross-legged – with his legs slightly raised. The Goddess, sitting on His left thigh, had been destroyed, except for Her right hand. The enclosing structure had been destroyed. The temple was built by Sri Krishnadevaraya and consecrated in 1528 CE – two years after the entry of Babur in North India.
Next to the temple erected by the king himself, stands equally magnificent, a monolith carved linga, in a bed of water and bathed in rays of evening sunlight. However this temple was not commissioned by any king. According to the tradition, it was commissioned by a poor woman and hence it is called Badava-linga (Badava in Kannada means poor.)
What kind of democratic spirit should have prevailed when this city lived in its full glory, one cannot help wondering. Even if this is a local legend, with no basis in ‘real’ history, one wonders what kind of a collective mind should have created this legend where a peasant woman of humble living is remembered with equal reverence as the greatest king of their history. It seems there is an archetype here. In Tamil Nadu, there is a local story that the big boulder which became sort of a key stone in the ‘Big Temple’ built by Rajaraja the greatest of the Imperial Cholas, was obtained from an old lady. When the king was pleased with himself for having built such a magnificent house for Siva, the Lord appeared in his dream and said that He was living happily under the stone donated by the old woman.
In both the cases, there is a subtle hint that the great deeds the kings do for their ‘punya’ are not their individual achievements, but the least of their subjects contribute in their own way as grandly as the kings themselves.
Next we enter the Krishna temple. Beautiful carvings mutilated with a rage. Gods and Goddesses stand regularly decapitated. Maidens mutilated with their noses and breasts gone. All exquisitely carved elephants had their trunks destroyed. And all temple towers destroyed to imply to the onlooker a deep sense of humiliation. For more than two centuries after stopping the deluge of expansionist fanaticism, Hampi fell to the fury of the same fanatic invaders.
But then the fall is not just because of the religious fanaticism of the invaders alone. The fall of Vijayanagar is because of the fundamentalism of its own leaders – the fundamentalist belief that secular human kindness can win over sectarian fanaticism. When Krishnadevaraya gave 40,000 pagodas to Siddi Mercar to buy horses from the Portuguese he dutifully got the money and fled to the Bijapur Sultan. But that did not stop the kings of Vijayanagar from employing members of alien faiths to high posts in army. So, decades after Krishnadevaraya, under his son-in-law Rama Raya, when in 1565, the decisive battle was being fought on the banks of river Krishna, as the armies of Vijayanagar neared victory, ‘the tables were turned by the treachery and desertion of two Muslim generals in the Hindu army.’, or so informs the Archeological Survey of India’s book on Hampi published in 1970. Rama Raya was promptly decapitated and his severed head as well as his body were subjected to every sort of ignominy. Then the victorious hordes marched into Vijayanagar.
Around us are guides with broken English, the boards horribly misspelt and with bare minimum or almost nil toilet facilities, which when present are unhygienic and with the least respect for the ambience of the surrounding architectural atmosphere. Pilgrims still come here from all over India. With no alternative, they use the ruins for defecation.
We look at the ruined temple tank. The inlet for water is the stone carved the head of the mythical sea creature; there is a raised central ‘mandapam’ (a little hall) for the float festival. This mandapam has an interesting carving of a big fish eating a small fish – Mastya Nyaya. In the pillar sculptures of the entrance to the temple tank is carved the Matsya Avatar of Vishnu. The connection is suggestive of the Puranic narration of Vishnu as a small fish asking the king Manu to save Him from bigger ones. There are rows of stone mandapams in a spacious enclosure – a typical ‘Bazaar’ or shopping street.
We cross the sculptured pillars lying down, carefully avoiding human and cattle excreta that lie around. We find a group of North Indian pilgrims squatting in the area, cooking and resting after what should have been a long and arduous journey.
The Virupaksha temple is dedicated to Shiva. On the banks of river Tungabhadra it stands majestically. Though vandalised by the ‘invaders’, it is still a living temple. The original small temple was adopted by Hakka as one housing his family deity and later it was developed by Bukka. Subsequent Vijayanagara kings added features to the temple. The temple carvings and statues, also badly mutilated, speak of the Shaiva-Vaishnava syncretism that had been evolving over centuries. The mandapams inside have elaborate paintings on their ceiling depicting scenes from the epics and puranas in a very interesting way.
We watch the sunset from the Hemakuta hills which abound in Siva and Jain temples. Vijayanagara kings though belonging to the Vedic stream of Indic spirituality also patronised with equal fervour the so-called heterodox Indic spiritual traditions like Jainism and Buddhism. As the sun choses to retire beyond the horizon and dusk takes over, we too head back to our hotel rooms. The thought of the tyranny of those ‘invaders’ who laid their feet on this land only to kill, demolish and destroy throughout their stay here, leaves us feeling quite heavy.
Nothing has changed for us. Even as we see lament over these ruins, a similar tale may be unfolding in some parts of Bangladesh, in the Sindhu province of Pakistan, or near the Kurdish province of Iraq, a pagan village may be undergoing the same fate as once did Vijayanagar. The village may not leave such impressive ruins like Vijayanagar and may disappear with no trace. But the suffering shall be the same. The agony of Vijayanagar echoes across time in the sub-human ‘immigrant’ camps of Kashmiri Hindus, displaced Hindu-Buddhist tribes of Bangladesh and Yazidi sex slaves of ISIS.
The next day we stand before the Viṭṭhala temple. The temple is considered the ‘gem’ of Vijayanagara architecture. The temple was probably built by Viṭhappa a minister of Harihara-II, son of Bukka. The magnificently carved stone chariot is today the iconic symbol of Vijayanagara and is featured in all tourist literature.
The chariot on one side shows Prahlāda
The maha-mandapam has along its sides the dasāvatāra within miniature vimāna enclosures. The mandapam base reliefs show Portuguese and Chinese merchants selling horses. The ardha-mandapam is ruined. Throughout the temple the pillar sculptures show scenes from Ramāyana and Bhāgavatha; Infant Krishna sucks the milk and life out of Pūtanā, the pride of Ravana in his throne is humbled by Hanuman who sits on a higher platform formed by coils of his tail, Rama kills the demon disguised as a deer, Narasiṃha fights with Hiranyakasibu. An interesting sculpture on a pillar is seen in which Rama is seen resting under a tree in the lap of Lakshmana with Hanuman standing in front of them, humbleness personified and a monkey is seen on the branches of the tree, either showering Rāma with flowers or plucking and throwing fruits. ‘Enough’ or ‘Stop’ signals Lakshmana. Perhaps a local legend.
Another interesting depiction one repeatedly finds in the pillar sculptures is a maiden with a bow and a lad either taking a thorn out of her feet or drawing some delicate design in her feet. Who is this maiden and who is this lad? On a hot afternoon amidst the ruins and still standing grandeur, one tends to speculate.
It is said that Krishnadevaraya met Chinnadevi, who was then a temple courtesan, while he was living incognito. Chinnadevi was also a good archer. Since tradition dictated that the king could not marry a temple courtesan Krishnadevaraya married a royal maiden. However after his coronation he married his first love Chinnadevi and made her a queen. In fact, she was his favourite one. Perhaps the scenes show the temple courtesan who could wield the bow and the incognito wanderer – before they became the royal couple or an allusion to that event, or perhaps just a long lost tale of love?
Treasures are many in this city of victory and so one may tend to miss a few. Like we did, but this was one that not many locals knew of either.
An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) book told us of a small Vishnu temple to the north-west of the Viṭṭhala temple. Inscriptions on the walls of this temple mention that this temple of Tirumangai Azhwar, the famous Tamil Vaishnava devotee was built by Sadāsiva Rāya in 1556 CE. It is really saddening for a Tamil to have missed this temple. But so much for arrogantly believing that you know a lot about Hampi, and not doing enough pre-visit homework.
Swarajya Heritage tour organisers gave away participants a nicely translated copy of Madhura Vijayam by Ganga Devi, the verses of which speak of Kampa, the crown prince of Vijayanagar liberating Madurai from the clutches of the Sultan with the sword that was given to the Pandya kings by Shiva Himself, which in turn was given to Kampa by Sage Agastya. I remember Kalburgi the ‘rationalist’ interpreting the linguistic diversity of Vijayanagar as anti-Kannadiga. Only in Nehruvian India can such cultural illiteracy and racism pass for rationalism. Vijayanagar was multilingual and transcended the narrow linguistic barriers. Krishnadevaraya himself composed in Telugu the legend of Äṇɖāḷ, Tamil Vaishnavaite poetess. 'I would not hesitate to call him anti-Kannadiga' roared Kalburgi, 'He suppressed our language by patronising Telugu poets in his court. Plus he encouraged Tamils too. Today if you find large pockets of Tamilians living in Bangalore, it is because of Krishna Deva Raya.'
Given the volatile situation of anti-Tamil sentiments ever ready to erupt into violence, one can only pity those who call this person a rationalist. It was actually the support which Krishnadevaraya gave to the movement of Vyasatirtha which enabled the voice of his disciple and one of the foremost architects of Carnatic music, Purandara Dasa to live right in the capital city and compose his songs. And his voice rose against that despicable manifestation of social stagnation – untouchability.
Yet Krishnadevaraya is vilified; just because he set an example the Nehruvian Lilliputians can hardly comprehend. I have seen the same amount of vilification of Telugus in Tamil Nadu with the same venom. We are destroying the wonderful multi-lingual fraternity that Vijayanagar created for the whole of South India.
The destruction of Hampi still continues. Every time linguistic chauvinism beats the Tamils in Karnataka, humiliates stranded Kannada pilgrims in Tamil Nadu and invents conspiracy theories of Telugu domination, the destruction of Vijayanagar, the city of victory continues. When it crumbles to the last stone, we all shall stand defeated.
As we walk along, we see some activity in a stone Mandapam on the banks of the river. Purandaradasa's songs reverberate inside. We come to know it is Puranadaradasa Punyadinam ( 27 January 2017). It is not planned. We even took this path by chance. It is a coincidence (or is it?) that we see Dharma live as the river flows on. It does not live by divine intervention, but by the inner strength of the simple mild Hindu so abused by expansionists. It is through the sacrifices done by generations of the same mild Hindus, so naturally that they are not even considered by those who do them as sacrifices that the Dharma lives. And those who sacrificed their lives for Dharma, did it not desiring heaven, not desiring their salvation, not even a better rebirth; they gave their heads to protect Dharma, because for them that was the most natural thing to do. And here we are - the Hindus the last living Pagan culture in the world.
We move on, more ruins, more deserted temples and then some activity.
On the rocky banks of the river Tungabhadra where people take the coracle and go in the Chakra Tirtha, one sees miniscule Shiv lingas carved out of the rocks. When water is poured on the linga it slowly runs back to the river. Pilgrims stand there and in the hot sun, pour water lovingly atop the lingas. Carved also on the rocks are images of the royal figures prostrating before the lingas, so that they may eternally feel the dust of the feet of the pilgrims – what a royal privilege!
despite slaughter after slaughter,
despite the horrible destruction,
because someone someday
to love of Dharma over the threat of death.
that someone was my forefather;
that someone was your great great grandmother.
the water that flows from these hands today
which come from across all India,
the water that bathes the Sivalinga
to mingle into the river here,
the same tungabhadra
into which once the blood of massacred Hindus
can you feel
in that water
from across eternity
the tears of fulfillment
of the slain martyrs
as Dharma lives, for which they died...
We go to the museum in Hampi. There stands an array of statues after statues of deities and devotees, beheaded, mutilated, numbered, and today, simply museum artefacts. A strange feeling crawls within. Not every race is blessed to have a glimpse of its own future if business as usual continues. The Archaeological survey reports are a real treasure; that too given at a 50 per cent discounted price.
In the report of 1988-91, there is a paper by Nancy J. Malville, titled 'Report on Human Skeletal Remains from Enclosure XIII of the Royal Centre'. It is horrifyingly easy to reconstruct what might have taken place from the cryptic words of the reports. They decapitated the males - not soldiers, just ordinary citizens, perhaps nobles and relatives of the royal family. The decapitated heads were then brought to the families, whose women and children were then slaughtered. What makes one shudder is that the cruelty involved here has a remarkable sinister continuation in what happens to Yazidi families.
Hazāra Rāma temple is called so today because of the numerous Rāmāyana bas-reliefs on its walls. However the real name was Hajāra-Rāma temple because it was the palace-temple. Many a kings prior and upto Krishnadevaraya had contributed to the architecture of the temple. Panels depicting Ramayana in the temple start with Shravana being killed by Dasaratha and the subsequent curse on him before the usual Puthrakameshti Yagna panels.
The story itself is a reminder about the limits of royal power and what the anguish of an offended powerless innocent individual can do to the structures of power, however mighty they be. That the king could have easily told the sculptor to start with the birth of Rama but he CHOSE to start the panels with the curse on Dasaratha by a totally powerless old blind couple, shows the value system that makes Indic monarchy more democratic and less despotic compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the world. The same sentiment is reflected in the verse from Amuktamalyada of Krishnadevaraya, 'The people of a country wish the welfare of the king who seeks the progress and prosperity of the people.'