History in stone

Published : Apr 09, 2010 00:00 IST

Photographs by Noshir Gobhai, taken from the book "Hampi" - Astory in Stone".

Ever since the late 15th century, European travellers have written about the Vijayanagara empire. Prominent among them were Portuguese travellers because of Portugals strong presence in India after Vasco da Gamas landing near Calicut in 1498. One of them, Domingo Paes, a Portuguese horse trader, wrote extensively on every aspect of Vijayanagara, especially its capital city, Hampi. Keen on trade and on forging political alliances, the Portuguese were quick to appreciate the presence of a Hindu king in a country where Muslim rulers held sway. So it was that Hampi became the focal point of an alliance between the European powers (primarily Portuguese) and the Hindu kings of Vijayanagara to stop the southward progress of the Sultans. For the far-thinking Portuguese, the alliance was a godsend. It furthered their politico-religious beliefs and gave them a monopoly on the horse trade in the area.

For men like Paes, who came in after a conquest, horse trade was probably quite profitable, but from his work, The Narrative of Domingo Paes, it would seem he was far more captivated by the life that he saw around him. When Paes visited Hampi around 1520, he was struck by the riches, the culture and the overall grandeur of the city. Paes saw Hampi at its peak, when it was under the rule of Krishnadevaraya, who is referred to as one of the greatest statesmen of southern India. Literature and the arts flourished, and the citizens apparently prospered from trade in gemstones, textiles and spices. Paes witnessed all this and wrote about everything, from the life of the people to the wars that were fought at that time.

With 2010 marking the 500th anniversary of the coronation of Krishnadevaraya, and with renewed efforts at conservation of the Hampi ruins, Paes observations are poignant. He wrote: The size of this city I do not write here, because it cannot all be seen from any one spot, but I climbed a hill whence I could see a great part of it; I could not see it all because it lies between several ranges of hills. What I saw from thence seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight; there are many groves of trees within it, in the gardens of the houses, and many conduits of water which flow into the midst of it, and in places there are lakes; and the king has close to his palace a palm-grove and other rich-bearing fruit-trees.

While this can only be seen in the minds eye, the city planning of Hampi is evident even to this day. On the marketplace, Paes wrote: Going forward, you have a broad and beautiful street, full of rows of fine houses and streets of the sort I have described, and it is to be understood that the houses belong to men rich enough to afford such. In this street live many merchants, and there you will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and cloths, and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy. Then you have there every evening a fair where they sell many common horses and nags, and also many citrons, and limes, and oranges, and grapes, and every other kind of garden stuff, and wood; you have all in this street.

Paes was clearly fascinated by all he saw. He documented the food, saying: This is the best provided city in the world, and is stocked with provisions such as rice, wheat, grains, Indian-corn, and a certain amount of barley and beans, pulses, horse-gram, and many other seeds which grow in this country which are the food of the people, and there is large store of these and very cheap; but wheat is not so common as the other grains, since no one eats it except the Moors.

Commenting on the irrigation system, he said: The land has plenty of rice and Indian-corn, grains, beans, and other kind of crops which are not sown in our parts; also an infinity of cotton. Of the grains there is a great quantity, because, besides being used as food for men, it is also used for horses, since there is no other kind of barley; and this country has also much wheat, and that good. This country wants water because it is very great and has few streams; they make lakes in which water collects when it rains, and thereby they maintain themselves.

Paes documented extensively the economic geography, the trading ports, and the social, cultural, religious, political and administrative aspects of the kingdom. Historians rely on his notes, but more than anything his notes emphasise one thing the greatness of Vijayanagara and particularly Hampi.

The name Hampi or Hampe is believed to stem from the original Pampa, the earlier name of the Tungabhadra river, on whose banks the city was built. The city predates the empire and was an important religious centre because of the Virupaksha temple, which still exists. Vijayanagara kings added to the temple; Krishnadevaraya added extensions that were completed in time for his coronation.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, Hampi was the core of the Vijayanagara empire from the early 14th century to the late 16th century. It was chosen because of its superb natural defences, with the wild Tungabhadra on one side and hills on the other sides. The huge boulder-strewn hillsides were an effective deterrent to the conventional warfare of the times with the paraphernalia of elephants and lumbering entourages.

As wars became fewer and peace prevailed, the bouldered landscape was used to create in Hampi larger-than-life statues and soaring monuments. So prolific were the artisans and so committed the royal patronage that there are historically important structures every quarter of a mile, a fact documented by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Hampi, in fact, continued to throw up glorious discoveries as recently as the 1980s when the perfectly preserved stepped tank was discovered. The ASI, the Global Heritage Fund, the World Monument Fund, the National Culture Fund and the Jindal South West Foundation are currently involved in the restoration of the Chandramauleshwar temple.

Some of this work has been documented in Hampi A Story in Stone, which was released recently. Brought out by the JSW Foundation, the book, primarily a celebratory one, makes little mention of the bureaucratic tangles, which are stumbling blocks for restorers and conservationists, or of recent conservation, which has actually disfigured the structures, as in the example of the oddly red Krishna temple an example of poor-composition stucco that has weathered badly.

The authors, John M. Fritz and George Mitchell, both renowned scholars on the Vijayanagara empire, have resurrected Hampi through their writing. The most arresting aspect of the book is undoubtedly the photographs. Shot by Noshir Gobhai, who is well known for his architectural images, the images are masterpieces of technical excellence and sensitivity to the art and the environs of Hampi. Gobhai has felt the serenity of the open spaces, the timelessness of the structures, the awesome quality of the bouldered landscape and, crucially, transferred all this on film. The photographer has, wisely, concentrated on the architecture, be it natural or manmade, by using people, cattle and other elements judiciously as reference points to highlight perspective or size.

Everything in Hampi is on a grand scale and the visuals, too, are inspired by the subconscious to depict this grandeur, both of the structures and of the landscapes. The book offers the reader a first-time-ever look at photographs shot from the air and they reveal the extraordinary nature of Hampi wild, rugged natural structures softened by manmade architecture. It is a rare combination.

The aerial photographs call special attention to the formal layout and vast expanses of the city. The photograph that shows the bathing tank and the colonnaded bazaar leading to the Vitthala temple especially highlights this aspect. Another stunning visual is the painted ceiling within the coronation mandapa of the Virupaksha temple. That the ruby reds, pale aquamarines and details of prints on textiles have survived all these centuries is as much a wonder as the art itself. The musical pillars of the Vitthala temple, the carved episodes from the Ramayana on the walls of the Ramachandra temple, the monolithic statues, the geometric elegance of the gigantic stepped well or the comfortably rounded elephant stables are all a tribute to the artisans of the time.

While much of history is determined by prejudices, beliefs, alliances and wars, there is a certain stability and continuity in art. Though wars on political boundaries, religion and trade were being fought, families of artisans created another world one that outlasted the ever-changing boundaries of state and religion. To them the battles with the Sultanates were a matter for kings. They saw the intrinsic artistic sense of the Sultanate styles the flow of the arch, the grace of the dome and incorporated these into numerous structures at Hampi. The results of this unprejudiced, pure approach to art remain obvious even today in the ruins of Hampi.

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