Images of change

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

The art of Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagar empire, celebrates a period of great prosperity and the meeting of cultures.

MEDIEVAL times saw many changes in the art and culture of India. The cosmopolitan and philosophic traditions that were integral to the Indic vision of life evolved with the changing times. Practically the last bastion in which the ancient heritage of ideas continued as a living expression, though changed, was the Vijayanagar empire.

The beginning of the 14th century saw considerable political disruption and confusion in South India and the Deccan resulting from the repeated attacks of the Khalji and Tughlaq dynasties from the north. Out of the chaos, the sons of a chieftain named Sangama built a new and powerful kingdom named Vijayanagar, or City of Victory.

Its magnificent capital was at Hampi, a sacred site with a long history in present-day Karnataka. It is a picturesque landscape on the banks of the Tungabhadra river, which has large boulders strewn across it. It is against this setting that the historic drama of this great kingdom unfolded.

At its height, the Vijayanagar kingdom controlled the whole of the Deccan and South India and included the former territories of the Chalukyas and the Cholas. It remained powerful until the middle of the 16th century and continued in a weakened state until the early 18th century.

In this period, Islamic sultanates, first the Bahamanis and later others, formed in the Deccan. These sultanates remained at constant war with Vijayanagar. However, that did not prevent interaction between the cultures. Deva Raya II of Vijayanagar had thousands of Muslim soldiers in his army. He gave the Quran a high status and donated towards the building of mosques.

A vibrant culture was created in Vijayanagar. Hampi was one of the most celebrated metropolises of medieval India, with few equals during its days of glory. From the 14th to the 16th century, it was one of the most prosperous cities in the world. People of different countries rubbed shoulders with each other in its marketplaces. Portuguese merchants brought the best horses from Arabia, diamonds came from Golconda, and textiles and spices flowed in from all corners of the world. It was one of the most thriving and cosmopolitan places in the world.

Under the enlightened rule of Krishnadeva Raya in the 16th century, the empire rose to its zenith and drew appreciation from travellers around the world. Barbosa, a Portuguese traveller, wrote: The king allows such freedom that every man may come and go and live according to his own creed, without suffering any annoyance and without enquiring whether he is a Christian, Jew, Moor or Heathen. Great equity and justice is observed to all, not only by the ruler but by the people, to one another. This continued the remarkably cosmopolitan culture that was in the Indian subcontinent since the earliest of times.

Abdur Razzak, a Persian visitor of the 15th century, wrote of Hampi 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 equal to it in the world. Portuguese visitors in the 16th century found Hampi to be like a second paradise, with no equal in the world then.

The Vijayanagar kings rebuilt the Virupaksha temple in the early 15th century at a site that had been venerated from ancient times. The main gateway, or gopura, rises to about 170 feet (51 metres). It is the largest gopura built at Vijayanagar and a fine example of late South Indian, or Dravidian, gateways. The chariot street in front of the temple was also known as a bazaar and must have been one of the busiest in the world in its time.

In the palace complex is a massive stone basement, which is all that remains of a large structure called the Mahanavami Dibba. Domingo Paes, a Portuguese traveller in Vijayanagar between 1520 and 1522, records that it was erected to mark Krishnadeva Rayas victorious military campaign in Orissa. Originally, there would have been a gorgeously decorated, pillared hall or a many-storeyed pavilion on this platform. It was here that the king celebrated the nine days of the Mahanavami festival, which marks the victory of Durga over Mahishasura: the conquest of knowledge over the confusion of ignorance. This was the occasion when kings used to review their armies and check their preparedness for battle.

The spectacular celebrations and parades left a deep impression upon foreign visitors, who described them in great detail. There are reliefs on the side of the Dibba that depict the great processions that took place. The kings armies can be seen, as can hunters and dancers. Portuguese merchants are shown displaying to royal figures the well-bred horses they brought from Arabia. The coats, trousers, hats, beards and upward-turned moustaches of the foreigners were keenly observed and represented by the artists. The different body postures and movements of Europeans have also been effectively portrayed.

It is a marvellous depiction of the festivities and of the life of the time. One can also see many details of the then local costumes and musical instruments. Unlike the art of ancient times, the focus here is on life in the world here and now. The carvings are full of vigour and expression, with an immediacy and zest in the figures.

While the subject of most ancient sculptures and friezes was the Divine, at this time it is royal themes that occupy the artist. In the early reliefs at Vijayanagar, the sculptor used a simple style without foreshortening or perspective. This seems to derive from the hero stones of folk art traditions, which were made to celebrate great deeds. As in earlier memorial stones, men and women were made with robust bodies, and quite often they are seen gesticulating. Physical power and an expressive quality are typical of early Vijayanagar art.

This period is characterised by long bands of narratives made in shallow relief. The effect is pictorial rather than sculptural and is reminiscent of the format that paintings were beginning to take in this period. Granite, which was quarried at the site itself, is the medium out of which these were carved. However, they were covered with a fine plaster and painted. The plaster that remains on the parapets and gateways displays the quality of the original workmanship.

This is the first time in India that royal pavilions were made with basements of stone. Previously, all palaces were made of ephemeral materials. The permanence of stone was reserved for structures dedicated to that which was eternal and beyond the illusory and passing personalities of the material world. Here, in this time, significant changes were taking place. A large number of remains of palace structures and pleasure pavilions survive at Hampi.

The Ramachandra temple was most probably made towards the end of the 15th century and had additions made to it in the 16th century. The enclosure wall of the temple continues the themes seen in the friezes of the Mahanavami Dibba. The carvings here are finely finished and have a more controlled and formal presentation than the earlier ones. The liveliness of the Dibba carvings is not found here in this courtly style.

The lowest panel shows elephants, the second has horses with grooms and the third has parading soldiers. Above these are dancers and musicians, and the top register shows the festivities of the Vasantotsava, or festival of spring. All the figures move in a clockwise direction towards the eastern gateway of the temple.

In the lower four panels, a seated royal figure can be seen to whom rows of men, women and animals are coming to pay homage. These registers display the power of the king, his wealth, his military forces and his queens. The upper-most register, that of the Vasantotsava celebrations, takes one to a world of celebration and the joy of life.

On the inner face of the enclosure wall and on the walls of the rangamandapa of the Ramachandra temple are depictions of episodes from the Ramayana. These friezes have the vitality that can be seen in the Mahanavami Dibba carvings.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the robust style of the Vijayanagar carvings was replaced by a somewhat elongated, yet elegant, figural type. This style can be seen in the basement of the mahamandapa of the Vitthala temple and in the gopuras of this and later temples. These more refined and nimble forms were developed further by the Nayakas in the 17th century.

On the southern bank of the Tungabhadra river is a great Vaishnava complex, which can be approached through a bazaar and chariot street. There is a tank to one side of the complex. Boat festivals of the deities were once held in it. The hub of this complex is the Vitthala temple, made within a large, walled enclosure. This 16th century temple is one of the finest made anywhere in India in that period.

There is a stone ratha, or chariot, modelled on the wooden processional carts of the temples, before the mandapa. It had a superstructure that was visible until the 19th century. It is not a monolithic structure but is made of carved stones. The four solid wheels can move on their axles, imparting a sense of movement to the structure.

There is a fine relief of Portuguese travellers with their horses on the plinth of the temples main mandapa. However, by this period, the focus of attention had shifted from plinth reliefs to the many pillars within the halls.

Complex pillars with central shafts and clusters of subsidiary ones were made, often with three-dimensional, rearing animals carved on them. These leogryphs with riders, emerging from pillars, became the hallmark of Vijayanagar art and a source of inspiration for the Nayaka period to follow.

The Vijayanagar pillars are carved with a rich variety of forms drawn from mythology and from daily life. Many of these are very clever compositions. The squatting lion, seen from the front, is a common pillar motif.

The Tiruvengalanatha temple is typical of late Vijayanagar structures. Its original grandeur can be discerned from the ornate pillars that are still standing. The chariot street before it is even broader than that of the Virupaksha temple and speaks of its former glory.

The monolithic Lakshminarasimha sculpture symbolises the spirit and power of the Vijayanagar empire. This is Vishnu in his part-human and part-lion form, which represents his majesty and power. The magnificent depiction is over 22 feet (6.6 m) high and inspires awe in the onlooker. It was established by Krishnadeva Raya in 1529. This was one of his last great acts of patronage before he retired from active life as a ruler. Another impressive monolithic sculpture of the Vijayanagar period is the massive Nandi to the north-east of the Virabhadra temple at Lepakshi.

In the medieval period, clouds of war spread across the subcontinent. The powerful Vijayanagar kingdom and its valiant kings drew a line across the Deccan beyond which northern armies could not penetrate. Vijayanagars great armies remained most important, and this changed focus of attention is constantly visible in the art. The great capital of the Vijayanagar empire exhilarates the visitor. The structures and its art speak of vigour and a zest for life.

Hampi celebrates a period of prosperity and the meeting of cultures. The permanency of stone is for the first time accorded to the basements of palace structures and to pleasure pavilions. Though the divine themes of earlier sculpture are continued, it is the attention to life in the world, to the present, that characterises the art of this exuberant period. It expresses the prosperity and military power of the kingdom as much as the glory of the Divine. The ancient themes are presented in the art but without the sublime grace of the earlier periods.

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