Chapter 2, Part 2
In the 14th century Harihara I established Vijayanagara, a Hindu kingdom which would later become the most powerful empire in the history of South India, and Harihara II – the third king – conquered the Madurai Sultanate and vast swathes of land in the southern part of the subcontinent. Vijayanagara’s army marched on.
Two years after his father’s death, one of Harihara II’s sons, Deva Raya I, reigned the kingdom and began an era of rapid development. As the population grew, the increasingly powerful kingdom required more water to irrigate its rice paddies, therefore the urge for the new king to commission a series of irrigation works to ensure that his people, and more importantly his soldiers, well-fed. In religious affairs, he maintained a neutral position, providing justice and equal treatment to his subjects regardless their religion. In return, his people fully supported him in his military campaigns to further expand his territory.
As the society prospered, art flourished. Protected from the outside world by endless rocky outcrops surrounding the capital, as well as man-made forts, under Deva Raya I’s patronage sculptors and temple builders constructed Hazara Rama temple in the 15th century. Richly carved with scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, including images of Hanuman since Hampi is considered as the birthplace of the monkey warrior, Hazara Rama temple is also known for its distinct four polished blackstone pillars, embellished with images of characters from Ramayana, as well as those associated with Shiva and Vishnu. Vijayanagara’s early kings were in fact Shaivites (worshipers of Shiva), while the later kings were Vaishnavites who revered Vishnu the preserver.
Upon his death in 1422, Deva Raya’s sons – Ramachandra Raya and Vira Vijaya Bukka Raya – reigned for a brief period of time until Deva Raya II – the grandson of Deva Raya I – ascended the throne only two years after his grandfather’s death. The new king, however, was different from the previous two rulers who didn’t leave any notable mark to the kingdom. Deva Raya II turned out to be one of the greatest kings Vijayanagara ever had during its three centuries of existence.
Deva Raya II ruled Vijayanagara for more than two decades, during which he conquered Quilon in Kerala and Ceylon (modern-day Sri lanka), and fought against rival Muslim and Hindu powers to its north and northeast, respectively. He also commissioned the construction of Vittala temple, considered the most exquisite, ornate, and beautiful of all temples in Hampi.
Similar with other Vaishnavite temples where a statue of Garuda – vehicle of Vishnu – would sit in front of the main shrine, a structure was constructed in front of the Maha Mandapa, the temple’s main mandapa (pillared pavilion). Fashioned as a granite ratha (chariot) where an image of Garuda was enshrined, the Stone Chariot is today very emblematic to Hampi and the state of Karnataka for its unique style and elaborate reliefs.
Further additions to the temple were made by later kings, rendering Vittala temple an enduring beauty and elegance even long after its completion. One of the most unique features of the temple is Dolotsava Mandapa, the Musical Hall, named after its slender colonnettes which produce musical notes when struck with the fingers. This is caused by the different disposition of crystals that make up each pillar, not by the skill of the sculptors as some people might have guessed.
Vittala temple was only one of many jewels that adorned the capital of Vijayanagara during a period where the empire attained an unprecedented wealth and influence. Foreign explorers were intrigued by the news they heard of the magnificent empire, visited the capital themselves, and made extensive notes on the empire.
Niccolò de’ Conti, a merchant from Venice, came to Bizenegalia (Vijayanagara) shortly after the ascension of Deva Raya II. His journey from Venice to Damascus, Baghdad, Persia and Gujarat eventually brought him to the capital of Vijayanagara. He described the city to have an estimated of “ninety thousand men fit to bear arms”, and a festival where “they sprinkle all passers-by, even the king and queen themselves, with saffron water.”
Another explorer, Abdur Razzak from Persia, reached Bidjanagar twenty years after de’ Conti’s visit. Allured by the accounts he heard about the king of Vijayanagara who “has in his dominions three hundred ports, each of which is equal to Calicut, and on Terra Firma his territories comprise a space of three months’ journey”, the Persian embarked on his own journey to see with his own eyes what people had told him.
“At the end of the month of Zoul’hidjah (April 1443), we arrived at the city of Bidjanagar. The king sent an enormous cortege to meet us, and appointed us a very handsome house for our residence. His dominion extends from the frontier of Serendib (Sri Lanka) to the extremities of the country of Kalbergah (part of the Indian state of Karnataka). One sees there more than a thousand elephants, in their size resembling mountains and in their form resembling devils.”
“The city of Bidjanagar 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.”
On special occasions, including lunar and solar eclipses, the king was weighed against gold, gems and precious metals on the King’s Balance to the southwest of Vittala temple. The wealth was then distributed to the priests and those in need.
The prosperity of the kingdom not only was a boon to sculptors and temple builders, but also boosted other artistic developments, including festivals. All was made possible due to Vijayanagaran kings’ proclivity for art.
One of the most important festivals celebrated in ancient Vijayanagara was Dasara festival, also known as Mahanavami, a celebration of Durga’s victory over Mahishasura. This significant event in Hinduism was portrayed in the plethora of sculptures scattered all across South and Southeast Asia (in Indonesia it is known as Durga Mahisasuramardini). Cultural functions and performances were carried out during the ten-day festivity, and there was no place more fitting for a king and his queen to watch the festival other than an elaborately sculpted, elevated platform.
Mahanavami Dibba was constructed precisely for that reason. As one of many secular edifices in the kingdom, the three-tiered platform was decorated with reliefs of animals, hunting scenes, and Dravidian dancers, but missing the usual images of Hindu deities as well as characters from Ramayana and Mahabharata found at most ancient structures in the region.
Seated on the 12-meter platform looking to the east, erstwhile kings of Vijayanagara would gaze upon the faces of the dancers, performers, and everyone else before him with a sense of admiration and accomplishment as the sun on the west tinged them with warm, orange hue. The kingdom was at its golden period.
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