A tale by the Tungabhadra
Travels through history in Hampi
In his 1965 historical fiction Tungabhadrar Teere (By the Tungabhadra), the Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay wrote:
Nothing remarkable has happened in the life of the Tungabhadra. No temples, pilgrimages or monasteries have been constructed on her banks. Her water has never reflected the elevated turrets of mansions. Just once, for only two hundred years, did the Tungabhadra live through halcyon days. A wall-enclosed fortress-city had grown around the statue of Birupaksha on her southern bank. The name of the city was Vijayanagar… It wasn’t so very long ago – barely six centuries in the past. But even in this short period of time, the memories of Vijayanagar’s glory have been wiped out of people’s minds. Everyone has forgotten the amazing history interred in the spread-out ruins of Vijayanagar on the Southern bank of the Tungabhadra. The Tungabhadra alone has not forgotten.
– Translated by Arunava Sinha (2010)
Bandyopadhyay, while speaking of the lack of activity near the Tungabhadra, compares the river to her better-known counterparts in north India, such as the Ganga and Yamuna. His words, though a lament, belie the fact that the Tungabhadra is the sole remaining witness of the political upheavals in the Vijayanagara kingdom.
Set in the Vijayanagara empire, established in 1336, Tungabhadrar Teere discusses the historically relevant marriage of the princess of Kalinga, in present-day Odisha, to the Deva Raya (King of Vijayanagara), while weaving a story of political intrigue and secrets within this historical backdrop. In the book’s foreword, Bandyopadhyay clarifies that it is not an entirely fictional story, but historical fiction.
Indian literary tradition is full of examples where trees and rivers have acted as witness to events. Stories related to the Mahabharata have often used time as a backdrop, and a sutradhar (narrator) to tell the stories connected with the epic. In a similar vein, Bandyopadhyay gives eyes and voice to the Tungabhadra, which narrates the historical events that played out there.
Archaeological records estimate that at its peak, the massive Vijayanagara empire hosted up to four million residents. The region’s dry climate and rugged topography is enriched by the waters of the Tungabhadra, which still benefits agriculture in the region. At the time when Vijayanagara flourished, the river also acted as a natural defence against enemies. Joined by the confluence of two small rivers – the Tunga and the Bhadra, that flow down the eastern side of India’s Western Ghats – the Tungabhadra takes on frightening proportions during the monsoon.
History is never one dimensional, and what we read in books often only prompts the imagination to recreate events and characters for ourselves. It is through such musings that history is often kept alive. Traditional history alone is not enough to reveal the dimensions that mythology and folklore add to the archive.
I caught my first glimpse of the Tungabhadra near the town of Hospet, on the way to Hampi (where the ruins of Vijayanagara are strewn) in Karnataka. During the monsoons, the river is fast and furious, sometimes reaching depths of over 23 metres. Mighty as she may be, my first impressions were of a placid body of water. It was the end of April, and though it had rained in recent days, the waters were still a shadow of what they can become.
The Hampi ruins bear testimony to a strong female presence, in the various sculptures and engravings depicting women.
Gazing at the small fishing boats that make their way down the river, I was reminded of Bandyopadhyay’s novel. I recollected the narration of the dream-like sequence, where Princess Bidyunmala from Kalinga makes her way down this very river in a peacock-headed ship, to be wed to the King Deva Raya II. By 1518, Indian naval prowess was well-established. Indian kings had trade agreements with foreign lands, meaning that traders from Central Asia and present-day Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia travelled frequently within the Vijayanagara kingdom. Sea trade flourished, as it was safer than overland travel. This is perhaps why the princesses of Kalinga took the sea route to be married to Deva Raya.
The marriage was a political alliance, contrived after the Oriya king had been conquered by Deva Raya. Such marriages were common, and Deva Raya (like his ancestors Harihara and Bukka, who founded the Vijayanagara kingdom) wanted to bring the Hindu kings of southern India together against the collective forces of the Deccan sultans. There is little mention of this marriage in Oriya literature from those times, and the common belief is that Orissa (now Odisha) did not forgive the Vijayanagara Kingdom for this insult and subjugation.
Historical accounts of the queens of Deva Raya, from both locals and foreign travellers, are contradictory. It is generally agreed that the king probably had three principal wives: Thirumaladevi, Chinnadevi and Jaganmohini. In keeping with travellers’ accounts, Bandyopadhyay’s novel also hints at a forced marriage, and the premise that the would-be queen wasn’t too happy about having to marry Deva Raya. The fictionalised Princess Bidyunmala voices her grievances to her stepsister, saying: “I am going there to be married, in the same way that an innocent man sentenced to death is led to the gallows.” In the novel, the princesses’ companion and stepsister, Manikankana, asks Princess Bidyunmala why the king has not travelled to the bride’s home in Kalinga to be married. This is a logical question, as in Hindu marriages the groom usually travels to the bride’s home for the ceremony. But leaving his kingdom was a security risk for the king. The affluent Vijayanagara empire was subject to the jealousy of its neighbours, and was under constant threat from the sultans of the south, who found a common enemy in this powerful Hindu empire.
In search of the feminine
My trip to Hampi was born out of a curiosity to see the characters of Tungabhadrar Teere brought to life, at the site of the ruins, and to locate the ‘feminine presence’ in the ruins of Hampi as described in various traveller accounts. Apart from facts about the queens, who seemed to play an important role in the kingdom, most traveller accounts include fascinating information about the women of the era, who are supposed to have excelled in literature, dance, wrestling, hunting and playing musical instruments.
The Hampi ruins, indeed, bear testimony to a strong female presence, in various sculptures and engravings. Ordinary activities are represented, such as the way the women took care of their children or spent time with their husbands, as well as detailed representations of the clothes and ornaments they wore during festivals. The Vittala temple complex, for example, houses sculptures of women greeting visitors. The panels in the dancing halls are decorated with the poses that women dancers performed. Buildings are dedicated to queens. The Zenana Mahal (Queen’s enclosure), the platforms used for dancing and the queen’s bath are just some of the large structures that indicate the presence of the queens and their lifestyles.
Walking by the Tungabhadra and trying to imagine its role as a spectator in the existence, growth and subsequent fall of the empire, I am convinced that its waters will reveal more, if one cares to listen. The waters have played a prominent role in the mythology of this land, and the lives within Vijayanagara. The Tungabhadra formed a natural barrier against enemies, and its waters were directed for irrigation, and the canals that ran inside the fort, enabled those within to survive for several days during times of siege.
The waters were not protection enough, however, to guard the empire against the collective wrath of the Deccan sultans. Vijayanagara, which became very powerful by the end of the 14th century and remained so until the 16th century, was constantly threatened by them. This culminated in the Battle of Talikota (1565), which led to the defeat of Vijayanagara. Troops of sultans entered the capital city and destroyed it. Men, women and children were killed. Almost everything was burnt, and Hindu idols were destroyed. This destruction continued for six months. Robert Sewell, in A Forgotten Empire (1900), wrote:
With fire and sword, with crowbars and axes, they carried on day after day their work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged, and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description.
VS Naipaul in India: A wounded civilization (1977) wrote that the fall of the great Vijayanagara was a conspiracy by the Muslim sultans to try to vanquish what he considered to be a Hindu rashtra. Naipaul’s summation, however, is problematic. Most historians and other experts are reluctant to isolate religion as the only cause for the fall of the Vijayanagara kingdom. George Michell, a British archaeologist and expert on Deccan architecture, believes that the Deccan sultans’ attack on Vijayanagara had more to do with capturing land, wealth and power than just religious zeal.
One question that arises is why no efforts were made to revive the empire. The answers in general seem inadequate. Anarchy spread after the Battle of Talikota. The vanquished kingdom did try to rebuild, with a new capital at Penukonda, but the battle had destroyed the empire beyond repair, and the political system of the south disintegrated as a result.
A bizarre topography
The riverside was almost deserted when I first walked along its banks, except for a woman with a basketful of flowers sitting beneath one of Hampi’s many holy neem trees. I sat next to her, noticing that she was holding a brass figurine. On examination I saw that it was a Bala Krishna (infant Krishna) holding a mound of butter. I asked her about it, but instead of answering my question, like a tourist guide she reminded me that the Hindu deity Ram was part of this land, and that the monkey kingdom of Kishkinda (mentioned in the Ramayana) was actually Hampi. Ruled by monkey kings Bali and Sugriva, this area is also said to be the birthplace of Hanuman, worshipped throughout the country for his loyalty to Ram. Hanuman, Bali and Sugriva have thus assumed the form of local deities, and many visitors to Hampi on the ‘mythology trail’ visit the shrines dedicated to them.
The woman looked down at the figurine in her hand and told me that the river had washed it down. As a Bala Krishna figurine being washed down the Tungabhadra would hold substantial archaeological value, I was inclined to treat her story as one of magic and belief, as is often shared by the locals in places associated with mythological traditions. However, listening to the old woman, I realised that I was in the mythical land where Ram is supposed to have stopped during his journey to Lanka, in his search for Sita. I let myself be drawn into the oral tales.
Seated near the bathing ghats and looking across at the many gigantic boulders on the opposite side of the river, it is obvious why the Vijayanagara kings thought this site was a perfect defence against enemies. Rust-coloured and enormous, the boulders dominate the hills around the ruins. In most places, the boulders appear to be standing without any support.
One question that arises at Hampi is why no efforts were made to revive the empire. The answers provided by history seem inadequate.
The ruins, which stretch for about ten kilometres around Hampi, are now still and peaceful. Temples were razed and looted, and in most places only the stone structures survived. Taking into account the fact that most insights into medieval Indian history are dependent on temple architecture, Hampi is particularly remarkable in the comprehensive nature of its historical revelations. Here, the ruins are varied: palaces, streets, market places, granaries, elephant and horse stables, baths, watchtowers, stone pipes that carried water down the mountains, secret chambers, punishment pillars and more. Excavations are ongoing, and new discoveries still lead to new insights into the Vijayanagara kingdom. Walking around, I found soldiers’ plates lying by the water trough as if the owners had just been called away for duty. The bazaar – where gold, rubies and diamonds were once sold – lies quiet. Rows of stone pillars demarcate the long bazaar. Large stone elephant stables are richly carved. The stables used by foreign traders are clearly demarcated and wall carvings depict horse traders wearing flowing robes. Lifelike statues of dancers, hunters, soldiers, mythological figures, the king and his wives are visible everywhere. Except for occasional children and large langurs that jump from one tree to another, the atmosphere of the ruins is largely forlorn on most days. Despite the archaeological work still underway, no attempts to fence off the site are evident. Visitors can wander freely.
I reflected on how Bandyopadhyay was right about the whispers from another time that are audible here. After spending the day wandering around the dilapidated royal palace and erstwhile capital city, I visited the Vittala temple complex, in the hills. The temple is situated within a well-maintained complex that includes a marriage hall, stone chariot, musical pillars, pavilions, courtyards and a 150-year-old flowering tree. It is often called the architectural jewel of the Vijayanagara kingdom, due to its detailed sculptures and intricate planning.
The climate is dry, but the area is surrounded by paddy fields, banana, sugarcane and coconut plantations, as it would have been centuries ago. Just north of the Vittala temple complex is the Pushkarani, or water tank, which is estimated to have served nearly half a million people. The tank’s water comes from collected rain water and the natural ponds nearby. It was used by the king and his family before worshipping at the Vittala temple.
Beside the road leading to the temple, small hills act as a natural fortification. The Tunghabhadra flows alongside. Almost 29 villages are situated in and around Hampi, and they use the Tungabhadra’s waters in their agriculture, channelling them for irrigation, as the inhabitants of the Vijayanagara kingdom would have done.
In search of myth
It was almost dusk by the time I returned to the centre of town, and I was drawn to the river again. A breeze guided the way. I found a small by-lane by the massive Virupaksha temple, where the Archaeological Survey of India is still conducting excavations near the Manmantha tank. Because of the intermittent rain, the large tank was low on water. Children played on the white-and-red steps leading to the tank. Some of the small temples alongside the tank are said to be older than the Virupaksha temple, dating to the eighth century.
The power of the Tungabhadra is palpable, yet the river is not as often lauded in literature or history as the Ganga or the Yamuna. I walked to the raised ghat looking into the water and I remembered what my guide had told me, “When the rains are here, the waters shall flow higher than your head. The statue of Nandi that you see in the middle of the river shall be covered.” The thought is frightening, but reflects the river’s potential. A small path along the southern bank presents a clear view of the Purandara mantapa (pavilion). This small monument is built entirely of stones, and honours Purandaradasa, the great classical singer and poet who lived in and toured Hampi during the reign of Krishna Deva Raya. The site on which the mandapa is built is where he sang most evenings. During the monsoon, the building is often submerged by flood waters.
The langurs jumped unperturbed between the neem trees, beside the riverbank where I walked. In the dark, I felt that the river, like the land, has seen so much. Ferocity, strategy, love, hate and treachery have been as much a part of this landscape as Hampi’s boulders.
Taking into account the fact that most insights into medieval Indian history are dependent on temple architecture, Hampi is particularly remarkable in the comprehensive nature of its historical revelations.
Visitors to the river can ride on a coracle, which take them slowly past the temples along the riverbanks. I selected the sturdiest-looking coracle, as my guide had warned me of strong currents, crocodiles and treacherous waters. It was a shared ride, and the boatman made the passengers sit in such a way that the vessel wouldn’t topple. As the water is low during this time, the ride is slow. The boatman points out small caves, a statue of Nandi in the middle of the river, and small, unused Vijayanagara-era temples.
I watched the swirling waters from close proximity and was reminded of a story that took place on the banks of this very river. It is said that Krishna Deva Raya, along with eight of his court poets, a few soldiers and courtiers, walked down to the riverbank one evening. Mesmerised by the beauty of the river in the evening light, the king decided to walk across it, but unwittingly walked into the kingdom of arch rival King Gajapati. When informed of this intrusion, Gajapati took the opportunity to attack Krishna Deva Raya, because he did not have many soldiers with him. He ordered his commander, Pasaram Govinda Raju, to capture Krishna Deva Raya. The few soldiers who had accompanied Deva Raya fled in fear. Left alone, the king continued to fight, and seeing his fearlessness, Govinda Raju’s soldiers fled. The enraged commander fiercely fought by himself. Seeing this, Tenaliraman – one of the wittiest poets of the Vijayanagara court – stepped forward to recite a poem to the commander, which reminded him of the proper conduct of warfare: never attack an unarmed soldier. Hearing the poem, the commander fell dead.
The queens in the land of Kishkinda
Like other places in India with mythological significance, many of the locals in Hampi believe in folklore. Folk stories can reveal much about history and local culture. The coracle boatman sang songs and blended tales of history and mythology. History and mythology are kept alive by the people through their stories. Most of the stories are aimed at reminding the visitor of the Kishkinda and Ramayana angle of Hampi, and reinstating the town’s importance in the cultural context of India.
The stories from the Ramayana that I had heard as a child, and those I revisited with the boatman, encouraged me to visit the Hazara Rama Temple. Dedicated to Ram, this temple was used by the king and his family as a private chapel. The carved reliefs covering the outer face of the compound walls show the impressive processions of the Mahanavami festival –elephants, the military, horses, dancing women – which were described by foreign travellers in their accounts. Scenes from the Ramayana (108 in total) are carved on its walls. The temple is a part of the royal palace enclosure, and is surprisingly well preserved compared to the other buildings here. The sculpture is different from elsewhere in Hampi, too. Prominent among them are scenes featuring Ram giving his ring to Hanuman before the latter flies off to find Sita. The scene from the epic is supposed to have happened in Kishkinda.
I walked to the nearby Zenana Mahal, the ladies’ quarters. With watchtowers at every corner for eunuch guards, it is easy to imagine queens seated here, watching the procession of elephants go past for a Dussehra function. Like in other parts of the palace enclosure, here too one hears stories about the rivalry between the legitimate and supposedly illegitimate queens of Deva Raya. The presence of separate leisure chambers at a distance from each other, but within the same complex, add fuel to such stories.
Influences of the illegitimate courtesan Queen Chinnamma Devi can be seen in structures of the royal enclosure. Since she was a dancer herself, there are raised platforms for dance spread throughout the royal palace enclosure, as well as carved figurines depicting the queen practicing her passion here. Chinnamma Devi is supposed to have been the king’s lover before he married her. Travel records suggest that she was the favourite queen of the king. However, legend has it that the marriage was not well-received by the Queen Mother. Great care was taken to ensure that the queens lived in comfort. Huge spaces for bathing, beautiful gardens, walls for strict security, chambers for relaxation, and pavilions from where they could watch processions – all these form the ruins, which adds strength to this belief.
Most of the stories are aimed at reminding the visitor of the Kishkinda and Ramayana angle of Hampi, and reinstating the town’s importance in the cultural context of India.
Travel writing from this era mentions the popular belief that virgin queens transmitted energy to the king. This, apparently, induced the kings to take many queens. Dominic Paes, medieval European traveller to the Vijayanagara kingdom, wrote that the Zenana Mahal enclosure housed up to 12,000 women, who were guarded by eunuchs. Outsiders were completely restricted from entering. Twelve principal queens were housed in the individual chambers within this enclosure, and no men were allowed to enter these chambers. According to Paes, the king gave equal attention to each queen, sequentially:
The king lives by himself inside the palace, and when he wishes to have with him one of his wives, he orders a eunuch to go and call her. The eunuch does not enter where she is, but tells it to the female guards, who makes (it) known to the queen that there is a message from the king, and then comes one of her maidens or chamber women and learns what is wanted, and then the queen goes where the king is… and so passes the time as it seems good to him without any of the others knowing.
While a large part of the royal women’s lives revolved around the whims and fancies of the king, the women of Vijayanagara were well respected and educated, as is evident from the different travel records. In the same vein, different accounts of the kingdom – such as those of Alpana Pandey and V K Agnihotri – mention the high regard in which the courtesans were held, the bravery of the female wrestlers, the education that women received and much more.
Finding continuity in Hampi
On my last morning in Hampi, I walked through Betelnut Avenue. Most travellers’ accounts described this as the liveliest part of the city. Despite its name, the bazaar is supposed to have been a market for traders selling precious stones, gold and diamonds. It was here that large mansions of important people and courtesans where built. Walking through the ruins you realize that many of Hampi’s secrets perhaps still lie buried within the ruins, and while archaeological surveys are an important way of unearthing some of these secrets, some others can also be found in the continued local traditions one sees in the lives of those who still inhabit the place. With the declaration of Hampi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, there has been much political involvement in recent years, and a decision was reached to remove the local people who had made homes in parts of the ruins. This is an unfortunate decision, as the locals have helped the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the restoration process.
Rapid urbanisation in developing countries has resulted in intense pressure on the fabric of many cities. It has resulted in problems of planning and urban management, as well as confusion and tension over heritage governance. In adhering to the UNESCO stipulations, not all changes to sites given World Heritage status have been positive. This is primarily because the protection and conservation of heritage sites often clash with the commercial and economic development of those living in and around them.
It should be understood that one rule cannot fit all heritage sites. Their management and conservation should be sensitively handled to suit different environments and their present conditions. In this regard, parallels can be drawn between Argos and Hampi. Argos is believed to be one of the oldest city-states of ancient Greece. Much like Hampi, Argos had a many natural resources, and was well-known for its heroes. It played an important role in Greek mythology, just as Hampi did in the Indian context. But unlike Hampi, the present-day village of Argos is alive: inhabitants live in what has been built over the old city.
Most restoration experts now believe that unlike the restoration practices of the past, restoration work today should focus on letting the old thrive with the new. Mohan Rao, who has worked extensively on sustainable architecture and specifically with the ASI in Hampi, says:
Heritage sites such as Hampi should be seen not merely as romantic remains of the past but as living labs. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of historic settlements across the world that have an immense treasury of sustainable practices to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.
Following the Karnataka High Court’s directions to clear encroachments around the ancient monuments in Hampi, local people living in the ancient saalumantaps (shop outlets) were shifted to nearby villages. The continuity of the life around these ancient ruins has been cut short.
As I wandered around the Hampi bazaar before leaving, I encountered a small boy dressed as Hanuman. Since it is quite common to see people dressed as mythological characters in such places, my gaze idly followed him. There was nothing Hanuman-like about this boy. He looked quiet and desolate, much like the ruins themselves. He pointed to Tenali Raman’s mandap atop the hill. Largely forgotten, only the winds now caress Raman’s mandap. I wonder if Raman still looks out for Vijayanagara. I leave Hampi hoping that this place becomes more than a forgotten ruin; that its present can be as beautiful as its past.
~ Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore-based writer. She is a poet who also writes on mythology, travel, cinema and social issues. She can be found at http://www.maitreyeechowdhury.com/