Hampi – The Playground of the Gods
Hampi is located in the Hospet town in Bellary district in Karnataka. It is famous for its extensive ruins of the capital of the medieval Hindu empire of Vijayanagara. It is spread over 25 square kilometers and is a virtual museum of Hindu religious culture. Palaces, Temples, Fort walls, civil buildings, tanks, irrigation channels etc spread over in various stages of preservation dot the landscape. The remains leave no doubt about the wealth and power of the Vijayanagara Empire. Only a powerful empire could have had the resources to create what today looks like an extensive open art gallery. Though in ruins today, it is easy to understand the past grandeur of this city as one walks around the area.
With a large number of magnificently carved temples dedicated to numerous deities scattered all over, it is the ultimate religious zone for the practicing Hindu. If there be Nirvana, One should obtain it here. There are a plethora of Gods and celestial beings all over the religious and secular buildings. Ganesha, Krishna, Vishnu, Mahishasuramardhini, Rama, Shiva and Parvathy, every member of the Hindu pantheon is present here. Those days, this must have been the most happening place for Gods. One can’t touch and feel the carved idols or the beautiful pillars without experiencing a sense of awe & euphoria. Despite deliberate vandalism by invading Islamic army and ignorance by the people of the land, it is nothing short of a miracle that the temples and other buildings survived another day. There must be very few such beautiful places where the almighty might actually want to reside. If there are Gods, I am sure they might actually be quietly residing here. Hampi doesn’t fail to evoke ecstasy and agony at the same time.
Hampi & its association with incidents of Ramayana:
Hampi has been from the ancient times, closely associated with the episodes of Hindu mythology giving it the aura of a holy land. The area in and around Hampi are closely associated with Kishkindha (the monkey-kingdom). According to Hindu epic Ramayana, the area was ruled by two monkey brothers Vali and Sugriva. In a quarrel in which Vali prevailed, his brother had to flee the region with his minister Hanuman. They took refuge on the hill Rishyamuka which was close to the ashram of Rishi Matanga on the mountain called Matanga Parvatham (still called by the same name). Due to a curse placed on Vali by the Rishi he couldn’t enter the space. This made Sugriva and Hanuman feel safe from Vali.
Rama came looking for Sugriva when he heard that he had some information regarding Sita’s abduction. Sugriva tells him that he had been witness to Ravana carrying Sita in his celestial chariot and that she had dropped some of her jewels and a garment as evidence. Without possibly realising that he was being part of an epic drama, he collected them and placed it in a cave (now called Sugriva’s cave). He presents the evidence to Rama. In gratitude, Rama slays Vali and enthrones Sugriva. Sugriva and his army of monkeys go on to play the most critical role in the final rescue of Sita. The building of Rama-sethu or the Adams Bridge was facilitated by the large amount of rocks in and around Kishkindha. There is also a small pond associated with Sita called Sita’s pond nearby Sugriva’s cave. So, technically as one walks around the region of Hampi and its mountains, one would be re- tracing the steps of the personalities of Ramayana.
Like Remus and Romulus who created Rome, Vijayanagara was founded by two brothers Hakka and Bukka. Vijayanagara Empire under the rule of various kings from different dynasties reached great heights of wealth and power. Hampi was the jewel of the Medieval Vijayanagara Empire-the last Hindu military and cultural bulwark against Islamic aggressive tendencies towards the southern parts of India. One of the finest empires of the world, it lasted for more than 200 years in full glory.
Its formation and extinction formed the part of a strange cycle. The cycle begins with its formation triggered by the Islamic invasions into the south, its collapse came when the neighboring Muslim armies united to hand over the last king Rama Raya the greatest military blow at the battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi or Talikota in 1565 ending the cycle. Thus, the very set of factors that resulted in its formation resulted in the extinction of Vijayanagara.
If one needs to know a people, one needs to understand their psyche. The psyche holds lockers that conceal the underpinnings of a people’s mindset. The human psyche formation being a constant process dictates the behaviour of people and also their response-stimulus system. The locus of the human mindscape, psyche formation is a strategic process that emanates from the learnings of the past. The ruins of Hampi give us a glimpse of medieval Hindu psyche, its inner workings and responses to various stimuli both positive and negative. The dominance of religion over people’s imagination is evident in every temple, every idol & carving. The chisels of expert artisans have left the Gods and celestial beings seem like in a state of bliss.
Temples in India were not just sacred-spaces but represented the religio-political locus. The community life revolved around it. If highly evolved art be an indication of advancement of society, then the Vijayanagara society was highly advanced. With classical aesthetic sense, the figures on the walls are life-like and well proportioned.
There were various strategic considerations that went into choosing Hampi as the capital of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire. It was a secure location with rugged hills on one side and the mighty Tunghabadhra River on the other. Apart from this the association of the area with mythical episodes of Hindu scriptures must have also played a vital role. The rulers rightly expected legitimacy for their rule by associating themselves with this holy land. This association reflects on the symbiotic association between religion and politics. By further creating temples for the convenience of its subjects, the king took a valid place among the pantheon of gods. The temples are numerous. Some of them are Hazaara Rama temple, Virupaksha temple, Vithala temple, Achutharaya temple, Chandrashekhara temple, Ananthashayin Vishnu temple, Badavalinga temple, Kadalekalu Ganesha temple, Laxmi Narayana monolith, Prasanna Virupaksha temple, Sashivekalu Ganesha temple, Ranga temple & the Yellamma temple. The list goes on. Hampi thus offers a deep insight into the Hindu mindscape of the times.
In Hampi, the two important factors that influence a people and dictate their lives- Religion & Architecture are in abundance.
Religion is one of the most popular, easily understood and widely accepted concepts. We can trace the origins of religion to the pre-historic development of man between 500,000 and 100,000 years B.C. By means of prayers and alleged miracles religion was the placebo that provided a sense of security and comfort in this life and held the promise of splendor after death for the believer. An ideal two-way transaction between the gods and man, religion has endured for many centuries. Death is the biggest fear of mankind due to its unknown nature and it was religion that provided comfort and answers to the great mystery.
Despite the fact that no empirical evidence available to endorse the basics of religion, what Karl Marx has described, as the opium of the masses, has continued to hold the masses across the world in thralldom. Religious process is based on reverse engineering-the more one tries to prove otherwise, the harder the belief becomes. One of the world’s most enduring & powerful ideas, it has shaped civilizations & dictated the destinies of nations. Religion by nature is a dichotomous concept. While its original function is to be inclusive, its intolerant nature makes it divisive. Membership drives a religion and the presence of other strong ones are a threat to an existing one. Most of the wars have been fought for religious considerations. The motivation of fighting on behalf of god has sent many soldiers to kill mercilessly and die willingly on the battle field. As Basil King writes “Few of us do see a connection between strength of spirit and strength of limb; but it is there”. It would be apt to say that all the happenings in the world thus have been influenced by man and god acting in tandem. As history shows, religious faith & belief can often prove to be a much stronger force than considerations of pure self interest. Man is incurably religious although the form and object of this religious feeling may change over time. Man is a compulsive mythmaker. Myths have served as the ambrosia that has helped man cope with uncertainties apart from being a release mechanism. Ancient culture represented Gods, Goddesses, angels & demons and symbols that arose from the collective consciousness as myths.
India as a geographical entity has always been fascinated and mesmerized by religion and its manifestations – Gods and Divine beings. It has always been a land of religion with its thoughts and life always been guided by it. Hinduism has been creative & at the same time fragmentive enough to generate offshoots of itself like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism that ultimately became separate religions by themselves. Divisiveness being the fundamental character of Hinduism it created bifurcations of it into Vaishnavism and Shaivism and also creation of many cults.
Indian religious system is characterized by plenty. It is an amalgam of god, religious writings and enormous philosophy, legends and superstitions. As in the case of all people, religion has played a primary role in shaping the Indian psyche. In a veritable divine hypermarket, everybody had the choice to choose the god that they wanted to worship designated as Ishta Devata. Gods seek total devotion and do not take kindly to the presence of others. The believers also found themselves divided on the basis of the gods that they worshipped. This fragmentation of the belief system also possibly contributed to the lack of political unity that stopped us from presenting united fronts to invaders and resulted in slavery for more than 800 years commencing 1192 with the victory of the Afghans over Prithviraj Chauhan in 1192 at Tarain and ending with the transfer of power by the British on the momentous night of 15th August, 1947.
Architecture-Human Aspirations in stone
Architecture has always had special place in the human mindscape. It is nothing but aspirations of personalities or people in durable materials. In monumental scales, it is a demonstration of power and undertones of desire for immortality. It is apparent that a lot of resources both money and manpower have gone into making Hampi the playground of the Kings and Gods. It’s a lethal mixture of passion & political ambition. As the first capital of the mighty empire, Hampi turned into a symbol of power. Thus, every ruler irrespective of the dynasty he belonged to added his piece of dream to the jigsaw enlarging it and adding to its aura. Like religion, architecture continues to have a hold on our imagination.
Thus as A.H. Longhurst writes, “It is a mistake to isolate architecture from its surroundings, because the main points of the physical geography, social progress and historical development of any country require to be understood by those who would study and comprehend its particular style”.
“The leading influences that may be expected to shape the architecture of any country or people are: (1) Locality with regards to its geographical, geological, and climatic conditions; (2) Religion; (3) Social and Political; (4) Historical; Important as all four of these are, the strongest is undoubtedly the influence of religion. In almost all countries and in India in particular, we find that the chief buildings are the outcome of the nation’s religious beliefs. Nothing reveals the character of the nation so clearly as its religion, and nothing has more permeating influence upon its architecture”.
Even in the present times, the desire to create the tallest tower has dominated the race for excellence among the most prosperous cities; be it the Taipei 101, Petronas tower or the Burj Dubai (to be the largest tower in the world once completed). Architecture is about power projection. It is about prestige and it is about pride. If the need to dominate the masses and enthrall them with minimal military action was the need of ancient and Middle Ages, then the desire to impress & overwhelm seems to fuel the building activities of today. While some cities position themselves as business centers, some as cultural epicenters and others as holy lands-in all these cases the most common denominator is the presence of buildings. The buildings may broadly be divide into two-Religious and Secular. The religious building enveloping the sacred spaces of a people and the idols in them were considered the source of power of the ruler. This was one of the reasons why sacred places were the first targets for destruction. Destruction of the temples destroyed the spirit of the people directly affecting their ability to resist.
Destruction and construction are two sides of the same coin. Lot of resources going in the construction process, equal amounts go into destructing it. Both are aimed at making powerful statements of power and invincibility, no wonder the invaders spend in excess of six months focusing on destroying what had stayed as the enduring symbol of the Indian freedom and prosperity. The fear psychosis generated was so high that despite repeated attempts to repopulate it, Hampi remained nothing but destroyed symbol of a by gone era.
Religion has played crucial roles in both construction and destruction. Somebody’s fundamentalist is others infidel. The view is different depending on which side one stands on. Expanding ambitions have resulted in destructive wars and when fought under the banner of religion has a scintillating effect. It can turn the most docile person into a motivated soldier of god. The power of religion becomes apparent when common ideology formed the strong adhesive that brought even the bitterest rivals together towards the execution of a common objective. The Islamic states of Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmednagar and Bidar though were bitter rivals for political acquisitions, got together to form the Islamic sword arm against the Hindu shield.
In The battle of Talikota in January 1565 when the last Vijayanagara king Rama Raya was symbolically beheaded, it overturned the leaves of History. Soldiers at both ends were brave and motivated. What possibly added to the lethality of the Invading soldiers was a powerful ideology that bound them as one. With the defeat, the destruction of Vijayanagara had just begun. The anger and frustrations of the Islamic army did not seem to have abated despite the convincing victory over the strongest unitary Hindu empire. When the victorious invaders marched into the prosperous towns of Vijayanagara, apart from loot, pillage and rapine, one of their core focuses was to destroy the beautiful buildings predominantly religious ones. An empire whose beginnings have been ascribed to the Islamic invasions, thus met its end again with the Islamic invasion.
Hampi is a metaphor for the passions, follies and limitations of the human mind. It doesn’t fail to remind one of the extremities of human capabilities. Comparable to Pompeii, Giza or Mesopotamia at varying times, Vijayanagara was the victim of the toxic fumes of the unholy amalgam of religion & politics. The amalgam continues to exist and leaves its venomous effects on the people. They continue to inhale it without attempting to make a difference. Many secular institutions turned into ruins and our fractured mental planes continue to accept them. Many years of invasions and destruction have naturally left deep the scars in our psyche. More than ever, we are divided by numerous religions. Physically tolerating each other, mentally we stand divided.
Even today, centuries after deliberate destruction that was possibly the norm of the time, Vijayanagara continues to be damaged by ignorance and neglect-by its own. By us. Hampi is not about the past-It is about the present and our continued negligence of our history. When it comes to History we believe -Ignorance is bliss. As a contradiction to our deep religiosity, close association of Hampi with Ramayana & Mahabharata hasn’t prompted the majority of us to understand, explore or protect what is rightfully ours-heritage.
Salvaging heritage is not an easy job. It requires the involvement of the common people that needs a change in mindset. There are many such sites in India that will benefit from a little attention and resources. It’s a part of the corporate social responsibility to help regain and retain out past for the future. It is indeed our dharma to play a role in saving our heritage-Sanjai Velayudhan.
© Sanjai Velayudhan
Endnote: The author would like your feedback-both bouquets & brickbats. Write to me- [email protected].