August 4, 2003

The kingdom of Vijayanagar was founded in the 14th century as a union of several south-Indian Hindu states. Its capitol (also called Vijayanagar) was established in 1336. The remains of Vijayanagar city are located in central India, on the banks of the Tungabhadra river, near today's small village Hampi.

From the very beginning, the Vijayanagar kings were capable and successful rulers who were continuously strengthening and expanding their kingdom. During the rule of the king Krishna Raya in the 16th century, Vijayanagar incorporated the entire southern India. His kingdom was a Hindu counterpart to the Islamic sultanates that were  ruling over most of the northern India at the same time. Vijayanagar owes its early success to the fact that in the 14th century the northern Muslim states were not unified and were competing with each other. However, success led to overreaching confidence and unacceptable arrogance towards the Muslim states. Muslim ambassadors were shown little respect. Hindu armies were making ruthless raids in the north and showed no respect to Islamic holy places. This behavior was sufficient to make the old sultanate rivals unite and send an army against their common enemy. 

The decisive battle took place near the river Kistna in January 1565. During the battle, King Rama Raja was captured and immediately beheaded. His death caused panic in the Hindu army, its soldiers fled and did not even attempt to reestablish defense positions around their close-by capitol. The defenseless city was then entered and occupied by he winning army for the following 5 months, during which its inhabitants were terrorized and the beautiful buildings systematically destroyed.

Fortunately, the destruction was not complete. Even today, one can find  remains of beautiful temples and palaces reminding us of the past glory of Vijayanagar in the scenic country around the river Tungabhadra. Historical records show that Jain community had lived at the place were Vijayanagar was founded in 1336 (Jainism is a religion that developed from Hinduism in the 6th century BC). Several Jain temples already existed in this area. The Vijayanagar buildings then show the influence of several religions and its architectural styles.

Clearly, Hindu buildings are the most prevalent. However, at many places one can find Islamic styles which show the influence from the neighboring rival states. The most important Hindu temples are Pampapati, Vitthala and Achyuta Raya. All the temples are beautifully decorated with stucco or stone carvings. The decorations mostly show scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana or depict Hindu gods. Pampapati is the oldest temple in Vijayanagar. It is also the most dominant structure, since an eleven-tiered tower raises above its eastern gate. Vitthala is clearly the most important temple and is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Its architecture and beautiful carvings are stunning. It is also known for its "musical pillars" - thin stone pillars that reverberate when tapped.

Other important buildings are in the Royal Palace area. The throne platform originally supported an open structure in which richly decorated gold and diamond throne was placed. Here the king used to welcome ambassadors and observe various ceremonies and celebrations. The most important festival was Mahavani, grandiose nine-day celebration taking place towards the end of August. Mahavani was also the time for all the subordinate rulers to pay their taxes to the king. The Queen's Bath is a building with clear Islamic influence. Lotus Pavilion is the best example of the interconnection of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles. Close-by are the Elephant Stables. The King used to travel on elephants. His arrival to 4km distant Pampapati Temple for prayers must have been a sight to see.

Hampi Bazaar and Soolai Bazaar are rows of connected shelters facing each other. In front of them merchants used to sell their goods. The Hampi Bazaar leads directly to the eastern gate of Pampapati Temple. The Soolai Bazaar housed royal dancers. An interesting structure is the King's Balance. It is a religious structure that was used for a ritual during which the king would weight himself against gold coins to be afterwards distributed among the present Brahman's priests. This was a very popular ritual and apparently even some 20 years ago the living Maharaja of Mysore underwent it. 

However, palaces, temples and other monumental buildings are not the only things that can be found in Vijayanagar. Even though the material that was used to build dwellings of common people did not survive over the centuries, other reminders of their lives exist. For example, one can find flat stones with carved images of cobra. Those relate to an old Hindu custom. Virupaksha - the snake god - has the power to grant a child to a woman. A childless women that wished to conceive had to fast the forth day after the first summer full moon night. The same day, she had to pour milk over an anthill, where cobras were believed to live. When her wish was fulfilled, she would show her gratitude by creating a "snake-stone". A flat stone was carved with a cobra image and then placed into a river for six months. Afterwards, to make it come alive, various prayers were said over it and the stone was sat under a sacred fig or margosa tree.  Another reminder of an old Hindu custom are small stone memorials of sati (sati is the custom to burn a widow alive on a cremation pyre together with her deceased husband). This - for us unconceivable - custom has deep roots in the Hindu society. A wife is supposed to "leave" with her husband, so that she can accompany him to the next life. Even though this custom was officially forbidden in 1829, it is still being occasionally practiced. 

The history of Vijayanagar reaches even further than 1336. According to Brahman scholars, the place where Vijayanagar was founded witnessed one of the major events described in the Ramayana epic. Here, Rama meets the monkey king Surgiva, who later helps him find and free his wife Sita, who was kidnapped by a ten-headed demon from Ceylon.  

Today, while strolling along the calm Tungabhadra river and glazing over the ruins scattered on the surrounding hills, one can only dream about the long-gone history and glory of this city and about the uniqueness of the Hindu civilization and its customs.