Who goes there?

The Virupaksha temple in Hampi is said to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom whose capital eventually surrounded it. The Archaeological Survey puts the earliest dating of the temple to about four centuries before the beginning of the kingdom, but says that most of the structures were built by the Vijayanagara kings. There are two east facing gopura, the outer one having been built in the time of Deva Raya II, in the mid 15th century CE, the inner during the reign of Krishnadeva Raya, in the early 16th century. Armed with a quick reading of the Survey’s booklet on Hampi, I inspected the pavilion on the right of the outer gopuram; it is supposed to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom. I am no expert, so I tried to educate myself by examining the pillars whose style is evidence of its earlier age. If you are confused about which of the pavilions is older, just ask for the one called the new pavilion. That’s so obvious, isn’t it?

The outer gopuram is quite impressive. I noticed beautiful Vijayanagara style relief on its base. The lovely panel with a horse caught my eye, as did one with an elephant. The small blackstone triple Nandi just inside the gate caught my eye. It was the night of the new moon in November, and a minor festival was on. The inner courtyard was lit with diyas, and was really crowded. It was a good time for people watching.

Some people had settled down for the evening and had begun on dinner. Others were clearly here for a short time, and would go back home soon. The visitors spanned a large income range, if one was to judge people by their clothes. There were priests and pilgrims; the latter being men in black dhotis. I had opportunity for much ambush photography. Take a look at the variety of people I saw.

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 Kerala Breudher

When I first heard about a dutch-origin bread called breudher available in exactly one bakery in Fort Kochi, I was very intrigued. I noted down the name of the bakery; a very forgettable name, Quality Bakery. On Christmas Eve The Family and I walked down there to look for a loaf of the bread. Business was brisk. A warm bready smell filled the place, and hot bread was selling like, umm, hot cake. It was a while before my turn came. I spent the wait taking photos of the very creamy cakes that they had on display. It turned out that breudher is made only on weekends, or to order. Luckily they could make a single loaf. We paid an advance and agreed to come by the next day at about the same time to pick it up.

Wikipedia notes that breudher (pronounced broo-dhuh) is found in Sri Lanka, Malacca, and Kochi. Digging a little further into this story I found more information in a book on the history of Asian cooking. Charmaine Solomon, who migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka, apparently popularized this bread in her adoptive country in the 1970s. Her father’s family was Dutch, but settled in Sri Lanka in 1714. Her mother’s family was Tamil, but with Irish, Dutch and Goan blood thrown in. Her husband was a Jew from Malacca. Although Wikipedia’s description of breudher as being derived from “a Dutch cake traditionally eaten at New Year” is taken verbatim from one of Solomon’s books, the bread perhaps has a history as convoluted as Solomon’s family.

When I went to pick up my order on the evening of Christmas day, there was no other customer at the bakery. One of the brothers who ran the place (featured photo) disappeared upstairs to bring the bread while the other chatted with me about how bad business had been in the past year. Unfortunately we spoke each other’s languages too badly for me to interview him about how they came by the recipe. The breudher looked like a loaf of plain bread, smelling mildly of spices. I was a little disappointed that it hadn’t been baked in a fancy mold. But all the disappointment vanished when I bit into a slice. The yeasty, spicy, sweet bread was not a taste that I’d encountered before. Do I now have to travel to Sri Lanka and Indonesia to taste their versions of this bread? I wouldn’t mind it at all.

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.

The ginger house

I’m used to lots of different spices in my food, and I suppose I smell them whenever I walk into our kitchen, without really paying attention to it. Walking through the roads of the spice bazaar of Kochi was a different order of experience; the wonderful smell of spices permeated the whole quarter. It is seldom that you think of the smell of a city, but Kochi engages this sense more than any place I’ve been to. I was clicking photos of the warehouses and their wonderful doors as I walked along, and I stopped here because of the elaborate doorway. But my attention wandered to the workers who were unloading sacks from the truck without breaking a sweat.

They didn’t mind when I followed them into the warehouse complex. As I passed through that grand doorway a wonderfully sweet smell hit me. This was a ginger warehouse, and the large courtyard was being used to dry ginger. That was when I began to realize that the famous spice trade also included things which I don’t even register as a spice; for example, the ginger that I so often throw into a salad or all into a soup. I was to find later that slightly more than a third of the world’s ginger is produced in India, and that is a big reduction from the monopoly it held in the medieval era. Out of curiosity I tried to check how precious it would have been then, and found the answer in a lecture given in the university of Toronto. Ginger was a major part of the spice trade in the middle of the 15th century CE, but the cheapest of them. Still, it would have cost almost 25 times as much as an equal weight of salt. In Antwerp and in London the average day’s wage of a master carpenter would have bought him 300 grams of ginger! No wonder that spices drove Europe across the world.

Ginger is produced in homesteads across the country, and the truck was unloading fresh produce. I guess it would be dried here and then sold. A foreman was happy to chat with me about the daily operations, the process, and the business as he knew it. The warehouse had wonderful light. I hope you can get a feel of it from the photos above. I found over the next days that many warehouses have been turned into art galleries for this reason. As I explored the art-city of Kochi, I got to love the masala chai infused with this lovely pungent but sweet aroma of dried ginger.

Seven centuries later

I passed over a narrow stagnant canal and then did a double take. I walked back over the small bridge to take a photo, because my phone showed that this was the storied Calvetti canal (alternately Kalvathy or Calvathy). The history of Kochi as we know it starts from a massive flood coursing down the Periyar river in 1341 CE and realigning the coast around where I took the featured photo. That put an end to the port of Muziris, which had been a stop on the maritime silk route, and a center of commerce with the east and west for 14 centuries. But it was also the birth of the new port of Kochi, which would remain an important part of the Indian Ocean trade during the late medieval and early modern era. After 1341, the Calvetti canal was the channel through which an immense amount of East-West trade passed; an earlier equivalent of today’s Malacca Strait.

The proper form of the name is Kalvetti, usually interpreted to mean `a stone cutter’. But Mr. V. K. Raman Menon of Tripunittura, Cochin, who has kindly supplied an exhaustive note on the subject, writes that the name means `Hangman’s Canal or Island’ (kazhu ettuku, `to impale’), impalement, not hanging, being in ancient times the mode of execution.
— Travels in India, Jean-Baptiste Tevernier (footnote in the English translation of 1889).

The Indian Ocean trade, bolstered for a while by Ming treasure fleets, made Kochi a wealthy medieval port town, through which most of the trade of the Deccan flowed. The importance of Kochi becomes apparent from a collection of old maps of Fort Kochi in the Mattancherry Palace (an example above), one from every European trading power. Most of them show the Calvetti canal as a wide watercourse. As I stood on the narrow British-era bridge and looked at the nullah (Hindi for drainage ditch, Wikipedia has it wrong again) that it has become, I wondered when it began to be filled in. Certainly before the bridge was built. At least on this eastern side of Kochi there is a remnant of the Calvetti canal; on the western end it has been completely built over, so that Fort Kochi is no longer an island. What a difference a few centuries can make.

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.