We set off from Mysore in early January 2005. Our destination was going to be Tamil Nadu. We wanted to immerse ourselves in Tamil Nadu’s cultural identity with the Dravidians, and by driving the whole length of the state we were going to step in the domain of the three dynasties which by the fourth century BC ruled Tamil Nadu: the Cholas, the Pandiyas and the Cheras. In fact the Pallavas dynasty of the fourth century AD and their port of Mahabalipuram was at the top of our itinerary.
The tsunami hit Tamil Nadu a few days before we were to start our journey. We had to change our plans drastically. Instead of driving southeast, we started out heading toward the depths of northern Karnataka, crossing the intensively cultivated plains of the Western Plateau or Ghats. These northern districts are the home of the distinctive architectural styles of the Chalukyan and Hoysala temples found in Pattadakal, Belur and Halebid, while Hampi, the capital of the Vijaynagara kings, is a reminder of the brief glory of that dynasty, of the further refinement in temple architecture, and of the spread of Islam so far south.
The early morning drive took us through villages where the daily domestic rituals were already well under way. Goats and cows were led to distant pastures, women swept the ground around their huts, men and women threshed cereal crops either by beating the stocks with long wooden sticks or by spreading them wide on the road as if on a long threshing-floor . The traffic of each passing vehicle acted as an endless threshing stone; the weight of the cars separated the grain from the straw or husk. Then, they would place the husks on a shallow straw platter, and hold it high above their heads. Slowly they let the grain pour on the ground, while the breeze blew away the empty husks. The younger girls would then sweep up the valuable grain and store it at home in a safe place.
Some 93 kilometres north of Mysore, we made our first stop, at the sacred Jain site ofSRAVANABELAGOLA, which consists of two hills. On top of one of the hills, named Indragiri, and reached from the town by 620 steps cut into the granite, stands an extraordinary 18-metre tenth-century AD monolithic statue of GOMATESHVARA, a naked male figure visible for miles around. He was the son of the legendary King Rishabdev of Ayodhya. Gomateshvara had a fierce fight over inheritance with his elder brother Bharat. As he was about to throw Bharat on the ground, he was gripped by remorse and resolved to reject the world of greed, jealousy and violence by meditating until he achieved moksha, release from attachment and rebirth.
Sravanabelagola is linked in tradition with the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta, who is believed to have become a Jain, starved himself to death on the second hill in around 300 BC and is buried here. The hill was renamed Chandragiri, thus marking the arrival of Jainism in southern India. There are 14 shrines on Chandragiri, all in the Dravidian style. Every twelve years, at an auspicious astrological conjunction of certain planets, the Gomateshvara statue is ritually anointed in the Mahamastakabhisheka ceremony. The next ceremony is taking place some time between September and December 2005. The process lasts for several days. In the most recent ceremony, in 1993, the climax was reached when a helicopter dropped 20kg of gold leaf and 200 litres of milk on the colossus, along with showers of marigold, gemstones and colour powders.
About an hour away from Sravanabelagola and near the town of modern Hassan are the ancient capitals of the Hoysala Empire,BELUR and HALEBID. The Hoysalas, who ruled a large kingdom between the rivers Krishna and the Kaveri, were great warriors, but also patronized the arts. The artisans were encouraged to rival each other and even to sign their names on their artworks. Belur was the first capital of the dynasty. Its temples stand in a courtyard, the Chennakeshava Temple (1116) in the centre. The steatite soapstone gave the sculptors the opportunity to work with intricate detail since the rock is initially comparatively soft when quarried, but hardens to a glassy, highly polished surface when exposed to air. Exquisite sculptures cover the exterior with friezes. A line of 650 elephants surrounds the base, with rows of figures and foliage above. Inside the temple superb carving decorates the lathe-turned pillars, reminiscent of the wooden temples of Kerala. The detail on the Narasimha (Vishnu as man-lion) pillar at the centre of the hall is particularly fine and could originally be rotated.
The second capital of the Hoysala dynasty was founded in the early 11th century and it was named Dvarasamudra. It held sway over south Karnataka from the
eleventh until the early fourteenth centuries. It was destroyed by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate in 1311 and 1327, after which it was deserted and later renamed Halebidu or HALEBID (Old or Dead City). Fortunately the great Hoysalesvara Temple survived. It was started in 1141, but remained unfinished. In structure it is similar to the one in Belur, but its superstructure was never completed. It is no longer known which deities were originally worshipped, though the double shrine is thought to have been devoted at one time to Shiva and his consort. Half-life-size Hindu deities with minute details surround the temple, with lines of elephants, lions and horsemen relating incidents from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Of the original 84 female figures (like the ones in Belur) only 14 remain. Adjoining the temple are two linked, partly enclosedmandapa hallways in which stand Nandi bulls.
We stopped for the night in a nature reserve near Chikmagalur, a town at the centre of one of India’s major coffee growing areas. We seemed to have the entire hotel to ourselves. At the end of the evening, as we made our way back to our room, the receptionist asked us if we wanted a magician to entertain us. So, we sat in the empty lobby and Sardar, who a few hours earlier had carried our luggage, appeared in a resplendent hat and clothes, having morphed himself from a hotel employee to a graceful magician.
He looked as if he had just stepped out of a Hoysalesvara Temple frieze, a figure from the Ramayana. Out of his beautiful red bag he produced the humble wares of his trade: a couple of tin cups, three small balls made of fabric, a bottle of water, a torn piece of cloth. He made things disappear and reappear, played tunes on a 2-string instrument, “ate” fire, produced reams of string from his mouth, spewed out dozens of 2-inch-long nails! At dawn, after a refreshing hour-long walk in the hills, we set off for the long drive to HAMPI, some eight hours to the north.
It was the harvest time for chilli peppers. The road passed along miles of fields, stooped figures of women picking peppers while the men balanced on their bicycles the sacks bursting with the crop on their way to the drying process. They dry the peppers by spreading them either on the ground or on rooftops and terraces. The otherwise arid landscape turns colourful with these brilliant patches of red, as the chillies lie in the sun. As we crossed a railroad line, we came across an even more colourful patchwork display: the women had spread their freshly washed saris to dry along the rails for a distance of half a kilometer.
After some eight hours of driving further north into Karnataka, granite boulders of varying tones of grey, ochre and pink start dominating the landscape, distributed either as hills and long ridges or as piles of rock strewn around as far as the eye can see. These hill-sized piles of rock formations, caused by some three thousand million years of erosion, conceal and dwarf the monuments, and the eye has to adjust in order to start seeing the ruins of HAMPI. It is as if the rocks still stand guard and protect the remains of the ancient city of Vijayanagar, “the City of Victory”, a more glorious name than the present name of Hampi, which in fact is the name of a local village.
Abdul Razzaq, an envoy from the Persian court of Shahrukh in Herat, travelled through South India in 1442-44, making an official visit to Vijayanagara in 1443 during the reign of Devaraya II: “The city….is such that 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 to equal it in the world. It is built in such a manner that seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other…………The kings are fond of displaying their pride, pomp, power and ploy, in holding every year a stately and magnificent festival, which they call Mahanavami.”
Nicolo Conti, an Italian traveller, is the author of the earliest known description (c.1420) of Vijayanagara by a foreign visitor. He was at the capital just after the accession of Devaraya I: “The circumference of the city is sixty miles; its walls are carried up to the mountains and enclose the valleys at their foot. In this city there are estimated to be ninety thousand men fit to bear arms. Their king is more powerful than all the other kings of India. He takes to himself twelve thousand wives, of whom four thousand follow him on foot wherever he may go, and are employed solely in the service of the kitchen. A like number, more handsomely equipped, ride on horseback.”
The Tungabhadra river flows through the rocky landscape forming cascades and rapids as it passes over the granite boulders. The river and its pools and hills are linked with ancient legends. They are associated with the goddess Pampa, the ‘mind-born’ daughter of Brahma. She married Shiva, whereby she became identified with his consort Parvati, while he became known as ‘Pampa’s Lord’ or Pampapati.
The site as a whole is connected with the Ramayana, as is mentioned in the Fritz and Michell account on Hampi: “The Hampi region is identified as the forest domain of the monkeys, or Kishkindha. According to well-known episodes it is here that Rama and Lakshmana arrive in their quest for Rama’s abducted wife, Sita. They encounter the monkey warrior Hanuman, who introduces them to his master, Sugriva”. Many of these events are identified with specific locations in the scenery around Hampi.
In historical terms the great city of Vijayanagara was established here in the middle of the 14thcentury. Its foundation was a consequence of the invasions of southern India by the armies of the Delhi sultans, who, having vanquished the existing Hindu kingdoms of the region, were unable to hold onto their conquered lands, thus creating a power vacuum. This was filled by local chiefs, such as Sangama and his five sons, and particularly the two Sangama brothers Hukka, or Harihara I (1336-56), and Bukka (1356-77), who established their legitimacy as leaders. They were so successful in recapturing lost territory, that within a few decades they had brought the major part of South India under their control, as far as Tamil Nadu.
Four dynasties in total ruled the Vijayanagara empire in its brief span of just over two centuries. It reached the climax of its power and extent under Krishnadevaraya (1509-29) and his successor half-brother Achyutaraya (1529-42). The fortunes of the empire turned when the regent Ramaraya antagonized the Deccan sultans, which led to the catastrophic battle of January 1565, fought about 100 kilometres north of the capital. The city was abandoned to sultanate forces, and judging from the destruction of most of the important buildings in the city, the conquering troops must have spent months pillaging, looting and burning. The fourth and last Vijayanagara dynasty, that of the Aravidus, ruled over a steadily diminishing kingdom for another hundred years.
Excavation and restoration work have been in progress for 18 years. As one wanders in the silence of the ruins, there is a yearning to be able to experience the space as it must have been, a city which was enormously wealthy, with a market full of jewels and palaces plated with gold, having held a monopoly of trade in spices and cotton. What remains of the architectural masterpieces blend with the rocky landscape and are evocative echoes from the past: in the Royal Enclosure there is the elegant Zenana or ladies’ quarter screened off by high walls and ruined watchtowers, the domed stables for 10 elephants, and the exceptional excavated system of aqueducts, tanks, sluices and canals leading to the attractive stepped tank. Once-world-famous market places or bazaars lead to temples, such as the beautiful Vitthala Temple, a World Heritage Monument dedicated to Vishnu, its 56 slender pillars producing musical notes when struck.
At sunset we climbed Malyavanta Hill. At our feet the megaliths turned to reddish-gold, and apart from a shepherd returning with his goats to the village, the palaces and temples prepared for the evening in the empty spaces. We read the words of another traveller, Burton Stein, and the buildings below filled with people once more: “What was viewed was a combination of great durbar with its offerings of homage and wealth to the King and return of gifts from the King………darshana and puja of the King’s tutelary (the goddess) as well as his closest kinsmen, and a variety of athletic contests, dancing and singing processions……..and fireworks display. The focus of these diverse and magnificent entertainments was always the King as glorious and conquering warrior, as the possessor of vast riches lavishly displayed by him and his women (queens and their maids of honour) and distributed to his followers.”
We ended our journey in Karnataka with the capitals of the Chalukya Empire, which ruled much of the Deccan between the fourth and eighth centuries. The Chalukyan kings extended their empire from the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra in the north, the Konkan coast on the west and the whole of what is now Karnataka. Now quiet villages, BADAMI, AIHOLE and PATTADAKAL (a World Heritage site) display an astonishing profusion of temples. In fact Badami and Aihole’s cave temples are related stylistically to those at Ellora. It is possible to see both northern (nagari) and southern (Dravidian) architectural styles next to each other. The earliest cave and structural temples date to the period of the Chalukya rise to power in the mid-sixth century, and are mostly Hindu, with a few Jain examples as well as evidence of Buddhist activity.
Badami’s sixth century four cave temples are cut into the hill’s red sandstone, each connected by steps leading up the hillside. The largest of the group has a façade measuring 21m and is considered to be the finest for the quality of its sculptural decoration. In Aihole there are some 125 temples (sixth to twelfth centuries), some of them remarkably well preserved. They lie in clusters within the village, in surrounding fields and on rocky outcrops. One of the most unusual and elaborate is the Durga temple, a series of pillars—many featuring amorous couples—forming an open ambulatory continue from the porch around the whole building. Pattadakal served as the site of Chalukyan coronations between the seventh and eighth centuries. The main group of monuments stand together in a pleasant, well-maintained compound. In this small area alone it is possible to see examples of temples built in the ‘Nagari’ principles of North India and six temples built according to South Indian ‘Dravida’ lines. The Virupaksha temple was considered to be the largest and most elaborate in India at the time, along with the Kanchipuram temple in Tamil Nadu.
The tsunami stopped us from visiting the cultural heritage of the Coromandel coast or Tamil Nadu, a state that boasts of a language and poetry more than 2,000 years old. We discovered, however, the richness of Karnataka and its role as a border territory, where north India temple architecture grew alongside the development of the Dravidian temples. In Hampi, the Vijayanagara kings advanced temple and palace architecture to blend with the rocky landscape, and one of their greatest kings, Krishnadevaraya (1509-29) was also a poet in Telugu and Sanskrit. In fact, relative to the size of India, the diversity of landscape, culture and history of the small area we visited is astonishing and more than one visit would be necessary.
John M Fritz & George Michell: Hampi (India Book House Pvt Ltd).
Alain Danielou: A Brief History of India (Inner Traditions India 2003).