The palace temple

I was jaded when I walked into the Hazara Rama (or Hajara Rama) temple in Hampi, but this little jewel box instantly brought me to life. We saw it very briefly late one afternoon and decided to come back the next morning. This was one of the best decisions we’d made, because the morning’s sunlight was beautiful on the granite which was the material of choice for builders in the Vijayanagara empire. The temple is in a square enclosure in one corner of the royal palace area. As we reached the eastern entrance (photo above) I realized how lucky we were with the light.

The Vijayanagara architectural style is modest. Like all medieval Tamil temples, they are part stone and part brick. The stone structure is a flat roof supported by pillars. The Vijayanagara pillars are moderately slender, with a slenderness ratio of 12, broken into two boxy pieces joined by slender necks. The boxes are canvases for the lovely low-relief sculpture which Hampi is famous for. The roof may carry a brick shikhara (spire) decorated with clay images. The temple plans are simple: a square sanctum, with surrounding bays (ardha mandapa) and further recesses. Often, the general impression is that a circle is filled in with a series of squares. In Vijayanagara, there are always separate mandapas (pavilions) for the goddess, which may obscure this plan. This temple contains all these elements, as I discovered as I walked around it. The photo above is of the northern porch, and shows one of the side mandapas scrunched into the courtyard. Perhaps it was a later addition.

The pillars in the eastern ardha mandapa were made of polished blackstone. This was so unusual that I wondered whether it had been brought from elsewhere, but a culture which has the tools to sculpt granite will probably be able to polish the softer blackstone. A wonderfully informative booklet from the Archaeological Society of India, available with every vendor who pursues you through Hampi, tells us that Hajararama should not be confused with the Hindi Hazara Rama (which would mean a thousand Ramas), but actually comes from the Telugu Hajaramu (meaning audience hall). The blackstone reliefs show Vishnu in many aspects. The depiction of Vishnu as Kalki, seated on a horse (photo above) was unusual and caught my eye.

Elsewhere I found another unusual depiction of Vishnu, as Buddha. By the medieval period the absorption of Buddhism into Hinduism in India would have been far advanced, but finding this image here made me wonder about the dating of this temple. Strangely enough, with all the literary and epigraphical analyses of Vijayanagara that one can read about, datings of structures are remarkably imprecise. The ASI booklet points out that stylistically it is transitional, with added elements from later, and mentions an epigraph which attributes the temple to Devaraya. There are two Devarayas, the first ruled from 1406 CE to 1422 CE, the second from 1424 CE to 1446 CE. Another epigraph could be interpreted as the name of the queen of the second Devaraya.

The amazing thing about this temple is the profusion of imagery, the beautiful relief work. There are panels which tell the story of the Ramayana, including early chapters such as Dasaratha killing Sharavan Kumar by mistake and then being cursed by his father to living his life without his son. The story of Surpanakha, Rama’s swayamvara, Vali and Sugriva, the abduction of Sita, the war, and the return to Ayodhya are all laid out in carved granite. The clothing, court scenes, and arms tell us much about the times of the Vijayanagara empire. I was also charmed by the little touches: monkeys, elephants, birds. We must have spent well over an hour in this little temple.

One image that stays with me is the one above: a little decoration in a larger panel. I’ve seldom seen knots depicted in temples before. This one, with two snakes intertwined is a nicely complex shape. You can see that each snake can easily wriggle out of the knot. But the shape can be turned into a pretty problem if you imagine each snake curling to bite its own tail. Then you have two circles which seem to be hard to disentangle. Are they really? If each snake bites the other’s tail, can the resulting shape be untangled into a single circle? I spent some happy hours thinking about this, and I leave you with this puzzle, if you like such things.

The last temple

We walked up the central avenue of what is today called the Sulai bazaar to the Achyutaraya temple. During the time of Achyuta Deva Raya (1530-42 CE), when this was built, the bazaar was called Achyutapete, and the temple was called after its deity, Tiruvangalanatha. The shops in the bazaar were well-ordered, placed in cubicles that line the avenue. We reached the area by walking along a paved route by the southern bank of the Tungabhadra. The axis of the temple faces due north, to the river. To its west is the Mathanga hill, from which a path leads down, and behind the complex, to the south, is the Gandhamadhana hill.

As we came to the main gateway, the gopuram, it became clear what a grand temple this was. There were two gateways leading in, so there must have been two rectagular prakaras completely surrounding the temple. Inside the inner rectangle we could see the ornate outer maha-mandapa. One of the characteristics of the Vijayanagara style is the brick and mortar super-structure over the granite gateway. Religious architecture tries to build upwards, and the southern Indian style has been to build impressively tall gopura surrounding significantly lower temples. Although much of the upper brick structure of this temple is now gone, we could see the ruins of this style here.

Only fragments of the outer prakara now remain. The inner prakara seemed quite complete, as you can see in the photo above. Apart from the northern gate, which we entered by, it has gates to the east and west. From a path worn through the grass it is clear that a large number of people reach the temple by climbing down from the Mathanga hill, and entering from the western gopuram. Interestingly, the worn trace of human feet leads straight from the western gate to the northern. So it seems that most visitors just come for a walk, and not to see the still-beautiful ruins of this once-grand temple.

I’ve remarked on the oddities of Vijayanagara architecture before: for example the roughly dressed stones of imperial works versus the perfectly shaped blocks seen in temples. Another oddity is the change in the slenderness of pillars. The early Vijayanagara temples had pillars with slenderness ratio of 20, about the best that you can do with stone. Tis late era temple had pillars with slenderness ratio of about 6, comparable to Stonehenge! I don’t know what caused this change. But these squat pillars present a large surface for the low relief sculpture that you see everywhere in Hampi. These have a preoccupation with certain themes: yogis and dancers, elephants and cows, chimeras and ducks, celestial dancers and scenes from daily life.

One reason could be the landscape forced architects to work with granite. Granite is one of the hardest of stones, and requires corundum or diamond to work it. Vijayanagara had extensive diamond mines, so finding flawed diamonds to sculpt stone with may have been possible, but cutting and shaping it would have been hard, even with high quality steel. Materials could easily have shaped the architectural style. As I was lost in these thoughts, The Family spotted a pair of spotted owlets (Athena brama) nesting in the hollows in the brickwork of the gopura. The light was beginning to fail, but the owlets still looked sleepy. Sadly we could not finish exploring the full complex; we did not visit the shrine to the goddess at the back, preferring to go back before it became completely dark.

On the way out I paused to take a photo of the outer gopuram. Even without its top, it looked really impressive in this last light of the day. You can see the ruins of the orderly rows of shops in the Sulai bazaar beyond it. There was a guard outside, excitedly telling everyone who passed by about a leopard which he’d just come face to face with. It didn’t look like he was telling a story to hurry visitors away, and in any case we were in open country near a protected forest. Even if he had made up the story, the lack of lighting in this area was enough to drive us away.

Reflections in a flooded temple

The ruins of Vijayanagara are still being excavated in Hampi. Among the buildings which have been excavated is a structure only known as the large underground Shiva temple. A flight of modern steps leads down to the level of the temple. Since it was buried, the superstructures have disappeared, and not been recovered. Around the main corridor leading to the inner sanctum are the usual pavilions. This has been a year of heavy rainfall. So the water table was high when we visited, and many parts were not reachable. The Nandi statue which faces the innermost sanctum of a Shiva temple was partly under water, so we could not proceed. In spite of the smell of bats, the stagnant water, the gloomy light, the temple had a charming atmosphere.

The Archaeological Survey of India’s booklet on Hampi describes this as an early-type construction because of the shape of the pillars: a square base with an octagonal body. What struck me as interesting here is how slender the columns are. Engineers are fond of quoting a measure called the slenderness ratio, which is essentially the height divided by the diameter of a column. I estimated that this pillar has a slenderness ratio of about 20. This is about the same as that of Cleopatra’s Needles in Paris or London, or the wonderful late 12th century CE Chola temple of Airavateshwara near Kumbakonam. If this is indeed an early temple, perhaps 14th century CE, then it is possible that the thrid or fourth generation descendants of artisans from the Chola heartland further south came here to build this temple. To my eye it seemed that later architecture in Hampi built higher, but had lost the technique of building slender. It would be interesting to try to correlate the slenderness of columns with independent dating of structures in Hampi.

An engine of history

We dropped our bags in the hotel and walked out into the back streets of Kochi. It was late morning. We’d woken up before sunrise to catch a flight which was no longer than the road trips which bracketed it, and now we were impatient to get out into Kochi. Our hotel was in Jewtown, close to the old synagogue, and just off the old spice bazaar.

The narrow street of the spice bazaar was hemmed in with warehouses and mysterious complexes lined up cheek to jowl. I’d imagined view of the port, completely forgetting that port areas, expecially ancient port areas, seldom give you a view of the water. One interesting door was invitingly open.

I wandered in hesitatingly. There was a strong smell of spices in the whole street, and it became stronger in this narrow corridor behind the door. There were scooters parked all along the corridor. As I hesitated, not knowing whether I was trespassing, someone came along, took his scooter and went out of the door. No glance at me; apparently wandering tourists were common place here.

I looked back at the area I’d just come through. A rickety staircase led up, but there was no balcony or corridor up there. The stairs led directly into a room, presumably internally connected with others. It was an odd kind of construction; solid masonry walls and stairs, held up by sturdy wooden beams, but the rest of the woodwork looked rickety. Light did not seem to be planned; the niche under the stairs formed a kind of gloomy entrance lobby just inside the outer door.

Some of the side doors were open. I peeped in. Sacks of spices were stacked up; some were split open to reveal the stuff inside. So these were the warehouses; once the teasure house of the fabulous riches of India. In late medieval times, a handful would have been worth several months of earnings for a master craftsman in the capitals of Holland or England. Spice traders seemed to be pretty careless about such fabulous riches. I could have picked up a couple of handfuls there; enough to last me a few months. I moved on instead, leaving these riches behind.

The handcarts in the courtyard ahead presented a nice photo op; strong diagonals to go with the horizontals of the offices behind. The colours were muted, so perhaps monochrome would be good. As I stood in that narrow space wondering how to compose a photo, a woman came out of the archway ahead of me, carrying a bowl of water. It was too good an opportunity, and I shot without further thought. Later, as I walked past the archway and came to the gate in the sea-wall (featured photo) I realized the logic of this building.

When it was built, small quantities of spices would be carted along the road, through the outer gate and into the warehouses. A set of office buildings above the landward gate would track the incoming dribs and drabs of spice. Material from the filled warehouses would leave by water; and the inner offices would monitor this outward flow. Boats would wait outside this last gate to be loaded, and they would transport the sacks to ocean-going ships waiting at anchor further out. I stood at the heart of an engine of history.

Later years

The Family had seen a temple complex when she walked up Mathanga hill in Hampi the previous morning. Now we took a path along the Tungabhadra river and reached the usual late Vijayanagara layout: an enormous avenue leading to a temple, lined with a bazaar complex, and a tank in the center. The looked at the deserted ruins of the Sulai bazaar. Few people come here in the evening, but we could hear a crowd on top of Mathanga hill. A couple was vlogging from the ruins of the bazaar. In the middle of the bazaar is a large tank, and I squatted to take the featured photo as The Family walked around the periphery. As luck would have it, an egret came flying down to the spire of the mandap in the middle of the tank just then. The peak behind the tank is the Gandhamadhana hill.

When you read about the Deccani empire of Vijayanagara, you might get the impression that the empire fell after the death of the warlike king Krishna Deva. In actual fact the kingdom lasted another 137 years, and fell only in 1646 CE. Achyuta Deva, who succeeded Krishna Deva in 1529, had a thirteen year long reign, waging war to the south against Travancore and Ummatur, to the east with Odisha, and to the north with Bijapur and Golconda. Additions made to the capital during his time lie close to the Tungabhadra river, due north of the central palace complex. We walked on towards the temple named after Achyuta Deva Raja. The path would have been paved five centuries ago; we could still see the paving stones. The place looked picturesque in the fading light.

Victory celebrations

The Vijayanagara empire was one of the major medieval kingdoms of India, with its eastern boundary a source of friction with another major empire: the Kalinga or Odisha kingdom. Hampi, then called Vijayanagara, had been briefly occupied by an invading Kalinga army in the late 15th century CE. In that war the eastern part of the kingdom, west of the Krishna river, was annexed by Kalinga. The retaliation came a generation later, when Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara laid siege to the Kalinga fort of Udayagiri. The two-year siege ended in 1514 CE with the capture of the fort. After another five years of war, the Odisha kingdom, which was also busy fighting the Bengal kingdom to its east, agreed to a treaty marking the Krishna river as the border of the two kingdoms. Krishnadevaraya counted this as a major victory, having captured the son of the king of Kalinga, married his daughter, and brought back several famous temple idols from Kalinga as booty.

Some accounts say that the grandiose platform of Mahanavami Dibba was built in celebration of this grand victory, and from then on served as the focus for the imperial celebration of the ten days of Dasara. There is extensive research and writing about the history of Vijayanagara, so the lack of precise dating troubled me a little. If the platform was indeed made after the Kalinga war, or one of the battles during the war, then it could not have been seen by visitors before 1512 CE.

The high walls are extensively decorated with the low-relief sculptures that I found was characteristic of Hampi. Elsewhere they function as a narrative, like a medieval graphic novel. Here there are few stories (unless we have lost them, which is not impossible) but many illustrations of some parts of regular life. I spent time looking at the panels which showed horse trainers and traders, elephants and lions being used in war, women dancing, sometimes with sticks in hand, scenes of hunting. Hidden amongst these was the delightful chimera with the body of a horse, head of an elephant and the tail of a lion, which you see in the featured image. Like elsewhere in Hampi, the stone blocks were roughly shaped, as if care was needed to dress only the face on which the reliefs would be sculpted.

Why are the stone blocks so irregular? Does this say something about the lack of either tools, manpower, or funds? It is not clear to me from my reading whether the Kalinga war had renewed or drained the Vijayanagara exchequer, so I can’t tell whether the king had money to pay for a better wall. The capital was still expanding in the early 16th century, and the skills of builders would have been in demand; so lack of trained manpower seems unlikely. Perhaps the problem was with tools. But stone has been worked in India for millennia, and Indian steel was famous across Eurasia at this time. This lack of expertise in shaping stone blocks is intriguing enough to make me want to explore the literature in more detail.

Kalyani tank

Among the group of monuments in Hampi, I came across a step tank next to the so-called Mahanavami mound. A small aqueduct ends above it, clearly meant to top up the tank. The precise geometrical pattern of this structure gives very interesting photos when the sun is about halfway between the horizon and the zenith. The well has been shaped into a square, and four sets of stairs descend from the ground to the water. The sides are inclined, so the opening at the top is larger than the surface of the well. Each set of stairs is a square pyramid in five levels. The shadows brought out this simple geometry very nicely. The excavation in 1980 was followed by a loving reconstruction.

Beyond a name, Kalyani tank (Kalyani pushkarini), I couldn’t find anything about this well-preserved structure: neither the years of construction, nor the social use. Was it somehow related to the Mahanavami mound, in which case they two might have been built at the same time? Or were they built at different times, so they are just accidentally near each other? Or could they have been built at different times, but used together when the later of the two structures was completed? Hampi became Vijayanagara’s capital in the 14th century, and probably abandoned by the end of the 16th century, so there are at least broad limits on the time during which the tank was built. The Monsoon Asia Drought Atlas shows that the climate was quite variable in this period, with two or three year-long droughts happening more than once during a person’s lifetime in imperial Hampi. A stable empire would therefore have to pay attention to water works. Still, I’m surprised by the utter lack of material on the monuments at this site.

Treaty Port Hankou

When I walk down the streets of China an old song comes to my mind “And you of tender years, can’t know the fears that your elders grew by.” During the time that the Taiping revolution had weakened the Qing dynasty, European powers forced China to open up the heartland of the Yangtze to foreign powers. One result was the establishment of treaty ports, like the one whose remnants I walked through in the Hankou district of Wuhan. The customs house, which you see in the featured photo, is now the backdrop for wedding shoots.

I crossed Yanjiang Avenue through the zebra on which you can see the couple and walked along it to take photos of a few of the old buildings here. Construction of the neoclassical HSBC building started in 1914, and as held up for many years because of the First World War before it was completed in 1920. The most recent renovation was in 1999. I was quite impressed by the ten two-storey tall Ionic columns of the facade. Another striking neoclassical structure on the road is the old Citibank building. I couldn’t find much information about it. Neoclassical was mixed in with neo-Georgian here, as you can see in the third photo above. I have no information at all about this building.

I walked back to the pedestrian area which starts from the customs house and noticed a lovely old Art Deco building. There was no information about it. A few local photographers were standing around taking photos of various buildings here. This is clear evidence that an awareness of the architectural heritage of this part of the city is growing. I discover interesting things which I hadn’t noticed earlier each time I walk in this area. I will be back again for another walk, I promised myself as I took a metro from the Jianghan Road station.

The Emperor’s Tomb

The final decades of the Mongol reign over China were turbulent: dissident religious sects revolted, peasants were restless, military adventurers calling themselves the successors of ancient dynasties rose. A penniless orphan from Anhui province, Zhu Yuanzhang, was adopted by one of the Buddhist sects (the Red Turbans) and rose to become a successful warlord, and eventually the founding emperor, Huangwu, of the Ming dynasty. 1368 CE is taken to be the beginning of his thirty year reign.

He established his capital in Nanjing, and, in 1381 CE, began constructing a grand tomb for himself in the Purple Mountain (Zijin Shan) to the north east, just outside the walls of the city. I walked down part of the imperial Spirit Way in the company of many of the descendants of the emperor’s subjects and reached this stgone archway at its end. The only thing I can read in the calligraphy above the gate is the word “gate”. When I compare this gate to the weathered stone of the statues along the Spirit Way, it is clear that this is a recent structure.

The Ming Xiaoling is still a little way down the beautiful sun-dappled road. In 1382 CE the Empress Ma died and was buried in this tomb. Her name Xiao Ling, is now part of the name of the tomb. The Ming part of the name Ming Xiaoling refers to the emperor, who was also buried here. The weather was perfect. I’d walked for about an hour, and I sat on one of the benches along this road and sipped some water. I could hear some birds, but my eyes were too dazzled by sunlight to see them properly as they hopped around in the shadows under nearby bushes.

The road rose a little, and then there was a little brook, with a bridge over it. From the bridge I took the photo that you see above: my first view of the major structures remaining of the tomb. The feng shui was perfect: water in front, mountain at the back, on a perfect north-south axis, facing south. You don’t expect an emperor to cut stint on his spiritual eternity, when a little bit of geo-engineering can fix it.

The great triple-doored gate, Wenwu Fangmen (文武方门 pinyin: Wénwǔ fāng mén) is a great attraction all by itself. There was a queue of people waiting to take photos, of themselves or friends, in front of one of the impressive doors. I was happy to have this opportunity for ambush photography. The imperial yellow of the roof, the line of tiles just below, and the honour guard of guardian figures at the ends of the roof (featured photo) were all worth pausing to see.

Just after Wenwu Fangmen was a lovely area which was in full use by photographers. This was my idea of heaven: so many opportunities for ambush photography! It seems that fallen maple leaves, perhaps fallen leaves of any kind, have become important cultural objects. I wonder whether this is just modern day photo posts, or is there an older resonance to it? When you start photographing photographers and their subjects, you start noticing the tropes that are local favourites. Another obervation: one of the wonderful things that a truly ancient civilization realizes is that people need to use toilets. The Zijin Shan area has many, and there’s even one inside the tomb complex.

Just beyond this was a Tablet Hall with a stele bearing an inscription by the Kangxi emperor of the Qian dynasty attesting to the greatness of the Ming. The turtle which bear the stele is in great demand by photographers, so I moved out to take a photo of the structure. This one has a slate roof with finials in the form of a fish. The fish finial is very common in Japanese architecture, but I haven’t noticed too many in China. An emperor uses the dragon and its sons as motifs, so maybe the combination of the fish and a slate roof seemed to indicate that this structure was not built by an emperor.

Beyond this was an area desolate in terms of architecture, but converted now into a beautiful garden. I understand that there were old structures here which have fallen into ruin. A few small structures remain: like the altar in the photo above. A gusty breeze had set in, shaking leaves off trees. It was a charming sight, to stand under these tall trees and watch showers of brown leaves. Unfortunately, you need a wide-angle and a zoom simultaneously to capture the feel of such a place, so I downed my camera and stood there magicked into stillness.

You exit this area through another triple gate. The shadows of trees on this great wall somehow captured, for me, a sense of this magical square: the crisp weather of a late autumn, the sunlight, the beautiful tall trees slowly losing their leaves, and the calmness of a constantly visited tomb. I was happy to have chosen to take a long walk on such a beautiful day.

I was almost at the heart of the tomb now. I was boxed into a narrow open space with the final Spirit Tower, called the Ming Lou. As I took a photo of the two-story tower, a dry leaf slowly dropped in front of me: close enough to be clearly visible in the final photo, far enough to be in focus. Chance favours the prepared camera. It was now time to climb.

It was a warm time of the day. After climbing up to the huge parapet of the Spirit Tower I rummaged in my backpack for the little package of oranges I’d bought the day before. I love these little juicy oranges. Eating oranges in the mild sunshine of an Indian winter are some of my best childhood memories, and sitting on that sunny parapet on this autumn day, finishing off the oranges brought me to a happy place. The northern side of the Spirit Tower faces the mound under which the Emperor Ming Taizu, ie, the Hongwu Emperor, and his consort Empress Ma, called the Xiaoling Empress and buried. I walked around to take a photo of the mound.

The light was good enough for me to try to take a photo of the top of Ming Lou. I like the intricate woodwork of the roof, and I must sit down and educate myself on this some day. Nothing about imperial tombs are accidental, and there must be symbolic meaning to each detail. I wondered how often this tower and its roof have been renovated. Certainly once after the Taiping Revolution, but perhaps several times again since the century and half after that.

On our first visit to China, The Family and I had taken a guided tour to the tomb of the Yongle emperor, son of the Hongwu emperor. On that tour, near Beijing, the guide told us many things which we would not have otherwise known. Among them is the ancient custom that when you leave a tomb you take a side path, and you don’t look back. Following that custom, I discovered a lovely thing which I would have missed otherwise: a forest of steles carried on the backs of Bixi. A bixi is the son of a dragon and a turtle, has the qualities of a dragon, and also the life and strength of the turtle. One of them looks like it could be a Ming-era sculpture. The other looks like a modern concrete replacement.

The Spirit Way

When I made up my mind to try and visit the tomb of the first Ming emperor on the Purple mountain (Zijin Shan) of Nanjing I knew that I would not be alone. My experience in China is that parks are a magnet for families on Sundays. I expected crowds, and family photographs to be taken.

There was a lot of digging and replanting on the mountainside, and many roads were closed. The marked path led me to join the great Spirit Way to the tomb in the middle. I saw a pair of animal statues flanking the road, facing each other. What were they? Lions? No, they had scaly bodies. Maybe the Suan Ni, the offspring of a lion and a dragon? Wrong again. A plaque told me that they were Qilin. That made cultural sense: this mythical creature is seen at the passing of a great ruler. The Hongwu emperor would certainly have built a few on his own Spirit Way. But these are without the single horn that they normally sport. The young man you see in the photo had already been photographed by his father, but seemed to like the beast too much to leave. I thought I would take the two of them together.

After the Qilin come the horses; two pairs of them, one pair kneeling, the other on its legs. It is possible to photograph these statues without people if you wait long enough. But this was a popular set of statues, and it would have taken a long time. I might as well do some ambush photography, I thought, and took the photo that you see above.

After the horses the road turns (the featured photo shows the pillars at the turning). This is deliberate, and is supposed to deter demons who travel only in straight lines. Autumn is a lovely time to visit this place, as you can see from the photos here. The road is lined with beautifully spreading trees which threw dappled shadows across the path. Old postcards that I’ve seen show a bare hillside stretching to the tomb. The trees are then recently planted, and quite likely after 1984.

The statuary on this second segment of the spirit path probably represent officials. The first pair wore swords and carried maces. An ordinary soldier would not come so close to the tomb of the emperor. These had to be generals, I decided. They were less popular with families, so it wasn’t so hard to take photos of these. I liked the dappled light and the autumn colours. Perhaps spring would be equally nice in a different way. Walking up the hill in summer would be uncomfortable, I think.

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The last set of statues before the gate of the tomb were probably bureaucrats. This seemed to be popular with young men. I think the statue of the mandarin looks quite happy to pose with this young man. I’ve taken a photo with and without the youngster so that you can decide which one you prefer. The Hongwu emperor started building his tomb in 1381, and died 18 years later. I thought that this early Ming artwork has stayed remarkably untouched by the many upheavals that China has gone through.