Unplanned. Unexpected. Unforeseen.

Walking through certain parts of Mumbai you come face to face with once unforeseen histories. For example, in the early 20th century CE, when most of the buildings in south Bombay were planned, the British empire seemed rock solid. Even the first world war yielded benefits. The end of the Ottoman Empire meant more profit in West Asia. When Japan attacked Russia and invaded China, it occupied a rival which had designs on central Asia. The empire advanced in Africa too. Bombay and Calcutta were fast becoming rivals for the second city of the Empire (G. B. Shaw wrote a play in which the capital had moved to Calcutta). Those wonderful Edwardian structures lay neglected for decades after the Empire fell due to overreach. The sandstone carvings in the featured photo seem to have come alive in these years. Now I see a slow restoration of buildings in south Mumbai as India’s economy makes a fitful start after the pandemic.

The story of Vijayanagara is another such. When Colin McKenzie discovered the first ruins in the modern day village of Hampi in 1800, he didn’t know that he had chanced upon a city which rivalled Beijing in the heydays of the Mings. The kingdom had its beginning as usual: a general realizing that the empire he served had weakened enough that he could carve a portion of it out for himself. When Harihara took parts of Karnataka from the Hoysala empire in the 14th century, the startup could have flamed out in a couple of generations like many others. Instead, his descendants discovered diamond mines, built up military prowess and industries like iron smelting, took the surplus, both iron and steel, and carefully bred horses, into trade and expanded. You can see the growing prosperity in the ruins of palace architecture as it progressed from post-and-lintel to elaborately carved arches within three centuries. Then, in the mid-17th century, when a neighbouring kingdom obtained a new steel-making technology, it could build cannons which overpowered the final remnants of Vijayanagara. All of this was a series of accidents, on which some people gambled and won.

Some years ago as I passed through Meghalaya, I saw the pristine jungles being torn apart by illegal quarrying. The limestone goes into the construction industry as the rest of India builds its infrastructure. A then-unforeseen consequence was this haphazard mining. In the last decade there has been an attempt to regulate this, and preserve this natural heritage. But one unexpected effect has been the discovery of a cave in which stalactites have preserved the evidence of a climate shift about 4200 years ago which may have destroyed Civilization 1.0. This change would not only have been unexpected, but also unrecognizable, to the people of Akkad, Mohenjodaro, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and the Aegean, as they struggled with failing agriculture and supply chains.

Sometimes changes can be foreseen, but its direction still remains hard to predict. As the infant drooling over The Family in the photo above grows up, he stops drooling, becomes picky about food, and bounces between walls when kept in quarantine. All entirely predictable. But what will he become later in life? We can plan as much as we want, but watching a child grow can be both alarming and happy. But absolutely unpredictable.

And this? A clear lesson that we do not deal well with change. It is entirely predictable that some things will outlive their use. Why can’t we possibly design them to decay quickly? The rusting jeep will probably disappear relatively soon, its metals taken up and dispersed through the environment by bacteria which happily chelate heavy metals. The little plastic discards heaping up around this rusting hulk may well outlast Civilization 2.0.

The marriage hall

Most major temples in the Vijayanagara kingdom have a pavilion outside the main temple which was used for the ritual marriage of the deity and the consort. This kalyana mandapam in the Vitthala temple is quite as impressive as the main temple. When you climb a set of stairs to the east, you see a wonderful open pavilion with 32 pillars. As outer set of 20 make up a square with six pillars to a side (including the corner), and there is an inner square with 12 pillars, 4 to a side, including the corners. These are beautifully decorated.

The Vitthala temple was built in the first half of the 15th century CE during the reign of Devaraya II, with many additions made during the reign of Krishna Devaraya in the early 16th century. I don’t know which period this kalyana mandapam comes from. The Family and I spent a long time here, examining the pillars in detail. The gallery above contains a selection. Many of the sculptures represent couples from the Ramayana, or stories from the 12th century poem about Krishna and his affairs with gopis. Others depict musicians and dancers, and the festivities surrounding a wedding. Several still have traces of paint; I saw a green pigment for the first time in the featured photo. Imagine, if you can, all these sculptures bright with mineral and vegetable paint, lit with oil lamps at twilight. It would have been a sight.

Large grey babblers

From inside a hide outside Hampi I saw a group of these large grey babblers (Argya malcolmi), noisy as babblers always are. I’m pretty much a beginner at identifying birds, otherwise the yellow eyes, large size, or the pale colour of the tail, even a single one of these characteristics would have told me what I was looking at. I suppose that more experienced birders could also have listened to their call, supposedly more nasal than the other five babblers commonly seen in India, and identified them with their eyes closed. But it is precisely because I’m not very good at identifying birds that I find photography useful. I can come back home, and, when I have the time, I can go over the photos in detail to figure out what to look for the next time I see it.

Interestingly, although its range is restricted to India, its nearest relative, the ashy headed laughing thrush has been reported only from the southern part of Sri Lanka. I wonder how this differentiation happened.

The Vitthala Temple

The Vitthala temple was built by Devaraya II who ruled over the Vijayanagar kingdom in the first half of the 15th century CE. By his time the elements of the kingdom’s temple architecture were all in place, and they can all be seen in these ruins. The main area of the temple, the maha mandapa, stands on a plinth which is about one and a half meters in height. The outer pillars are made of single blocks of granite carved to resemble a group of more slender pillars. You can see a few examples of these in the featured photo.

The plinth is highly decorated. There are lines of horses (Vijayanagara was a major center of horse trade, you may recall from some of my earlier posts, with merchants bringing horses all the way from Arabia), of ducks (the hansa, with its multiplicity of meanings), and of the avatars of Vishnu. I spotted Balarama, Narasimha, and, of course, Krishna in many aspects (as the youngster stealing cream in the photo in the gallery).

From inside the mandapa I could get a closer view of the fired brick superstructures which make up all the shikhara in Vijayanagara. The bricks I saw here looked like they had a long square base, with a height which was about 2/7 of the sides of the square. That’s quite a different shape from the bricks that we use today. It would have been interesting to look more closely at more than a couple of the bricks to check whether these were standardized dimensions, and whether the dimensions changed over the centuries. I’m sure some historian of art and architecture has written about this, and I just need to dig a little deeper to find more about medieval Deccan’s brick-making.

The sanctum itself contains nothing any longer, but you can descend into a dark corridor that circles it. Above and around it are the more interesting things. The boxy pillars of the Vijayanagara style were designed to carry relief sculptures. We saw again the typical examples of Vijayanagara art- the studies of animals (the monkey was special), gods and goddesses, and purely decorative elements. The profusion of images takes time to absorb. I had begun to get the familiar numbness of mind that comes on you when you walk through a museum: too many beautiful things to see in too short a time. I walked out and sat on a bench at the entrance to the mandapa.

The doorway I’d just come out of was beautifully carved, with traces of paint still lingering on it after nearly six centuries of exposure to the weather. I got up to admire the sculpture around it. The door was topped by a wonderful relief of Gajalakshmi, Lakshmi flanked by two elephants. A cool breeze blew through this porch. I leant back on the stone backrest of the bench. It was an engineering marvel! The granite back had been carved just so, and was a relief to lean back on. This granite bench was unbelievably comfortable. Why is there no mention of this marvel in guidebooks?

Entering the temple of Vitthala

We reached the ruins of the Vitthala temple in the late morning. The day was building up to be hot, and I was very happy that there were golf carts which would take you along the long, dusty, and shadeless road from the parking lot to the entrance of the old temple complex. The entrance did not give you immediate confidence in the declaration on the information board which said “The Vitthala temple is the highest watermark of the Vijayanagara style of art and architecture.”

The massive gopuram, the gateway, was in the usual south Indian style- intricately carved stone pillars and a stone lintel above it holding up a towering shikhara of terra cotta, decorated with stories from the life of Krishna. Most of the temples in this vanished city were dedicated to aspects of Vishnu. I looked at the shikhara and tried to imagine it painted and colourful as it must have been in the early 16th century CE when it was added to the complex during the reign of Krishna Devaraya. It would not have been painted in modern colours, and until I found more about the pigments that were used, it would be hard to imagine.

There were handy guides to other customs of the era. On the flagstones at the gate were carved signs which told you where to stand and genuflect. There seemed to have been separate lanes for families and single people visiting. I was struck again by the coincidences which determined the technology of the kingdom. The abundance of granite in this area meant that it would always have been used for construction, no matter what tools the civilization developed. The coincidence of diamond mines being discovered and worked meant that tools could be developed to carve granite. Without this combination Vijayanagara’s art would have taken a different form.

The first thing that you see in the immense forecourt inside the walls is the iconic stone chariot of Garuda. This is apparently a reproduction in stone of an older wooden processional chariot. Images of this chariot appear in the fluorescent blue currency note for fifty rupees which was released in 2017. The image on the note does not do justice to the actual chariot. It was amazing that this had been carved out of granite. This single object could well represent the “highest watermark” of the kingdom’s art.

If you look closely at the details, you realize that the chariot would have been brightly painted when the temple was in use. The red mineral pigment still clings to surfaces which are not protected from rain. If I hadn’t bent to take the photo you see above, I would have missed the line of warriors carved into the sides of the slab of stone on which the whole chariot rests.

The whole thing is enormously decorative of course, and you can spend a long time looking at it. But once I bent down, I realized that it was also a good idea to bend, kneel or sit near the chariot. The lower part was as exuberantly decorated as the rest of it, and also retained some of the original pigments. I suppose that as usual the colours that were used would have been white, black, red, yellow, and green. The lower surface retains red, some of the yellow, and traces of green.

There is a recess in the chariot on the side which faces the main temple, and I looked inside. An image of the Garuda, Vishnu’s vahana, is carved into this recess; hands folded in prayer to the reigning diety of the temple outside which the vahana waits. Colours have lasted much better in this niche, and you can see the predominant red and yellow natural dyes. The dark patches seemed to be either a moss or a fungus. We had this chariot to ourselves for a while now, but more people were coming to look at it. It was time to move on.

A medieval swimming pool

After a surfeit of temples in Hampi it felt good to walk into any other type of building. The first one we entered was a swimming pool. This is in the middle of the main citadel and is called the Queen’s Bath. Medieval Europe didn’t have swimming pools, heated baths having disappeared with the Romans. I found two things remarkable about this structure. The first was the size: it was a square 15 meters to a side and 1.8 meters deep. This is a sixth of the volume of a modern olympic sized swimming pool, but large for a small group of people.

The second thing which seemed remarkable was the profuse use of arches and domes. Temple architecture did not seem to have advanced much in Hampi, except in the slenderness of pillars. The simple pillar and beam construction may have been in a state of arrested development precisely because it was a temple, and its construction had to follow set patterns. The medieval advances in architecture were visible here, where fashion could triumph over tradition. The result was a profusion of arches, stucco work, and balconies. Unfortunately moss has begun to crumble the plaster into a grainy black.

Wide galleries ran along the sides of the pool, with arches supporting domes. Stairs led down from the galleries into the pool. One side of the pool contains the water channels which once brought water into the pool from a reservoir. Filling the pool would have required 400,000 liters of water. The channels were not wide enough to allow the pool to be filled fast. I wondered whether medieval Hampi had invented some sort of water filtering and purifying system to allow the water in the pool to be used over and over again. Or did the queen come here seldom, and time could be given to cleaning and refilling the pool between visits. There is definitely history waiting to be written here.

I looked up at the inside of the domes. They were not large, and they sat on simple octagonal bases. There seemed to be no particular specialty there, except for the lovely decorations on the inside of each dome. The lotus, the leaves, and the ducks all carried the theme of water. This city was founded in the late 14th century CE and lasted till the 17th century. Within this period, there doesn’t seem to be a dating of this building. At one time you could enter the gallery from all sides, but modern crowd control requires a single opening. I had completed my circuit of the gallery, and back at the southern opening, I stepped out again into the hot afternoon sun. A modern swimming pool would have been very welcome.

Garden day

Between chasing birds and scoping out animals on holidays, and traveling on work otherwise, I don’t get to spend much time in gardens. So when the opportunity does come, I lose no time in relaxing. Instead I’m up and about with my camera, until I come to a nice empty bench on which I can sprawl.

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I managed a long sprawl in this tiny garden in Hampi while others were visiting some small and insignificant forestry museum. I think it was time well spent. You decide.

Some common birds in Hampi

Spotted owlet

This is a day when I need to keep my cool as I do some intense traveling to meetings. Just think of all the nice times spent in Hampi watching birds. Don’t dwell on the strenuous spotting, just recall the old familiars who appear when you least expect them. Some of them are dear to my heart because they are the first ones whose names I learnt, or ones which I have slowly got to be able to identify at a glance. That’s what my experiences friends call the jizz of the bird.

In the gallery above you see a white-browed wagtail aka large pied wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), which wags its tail as it feeds, but runs quite fast when it thinks a human is close by. The spotted owlet (Athena brama), which you also see in the featured photo, is a familiar across most of India, although it seems to be unknown in the north-east and north-west. The laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is a familiar across the villages and small towns of India, but sadly invisible in the cities. The red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), seen here hanging upside down to eat molasses, is a true survivor, being found even in large cities. The little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis) is my familiar; crowds of these spectacularly coloured birds hang about in wires around my flat, making short forays to grab an insect out of the air. They give me a lot of practice with my camera and binoculars when I’m home, and I’m always glad to see a familiar swoop when I’m away. The great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor lahtora), formerly called the Southern grey shrike,  Lanius meridionalis, is the odd one out. It should be a familiar, but it is not. I hope that I will be able to recognize it in the field more often now that I’ve spent so much time with it in Hampi.

A rose by any other name

A common rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae) flew round a patch of flowers in the sunlight. I find them maddenning. They fly fast, settle very briefly and seem to move so randomly that it is hard to get a bearing on them. At least I got this one in the frame. Identifying this one can be a little tricky, since the female of a common mormon (Papilio polytes) mimics it. The only way to tell them apart is to note that the rose has a red body, whereas the mormon is black-bodied. The rose is common in South and South-east Asia, and I’ve seen it everywhere in India. It seems to reach peak activity late in the morning, around the time I’ve finished a morning’s birding on an empty stomach. Just about when I would like nothing better than to settle down with some chai and large breakfast, one or more of these will put in an appearance. At such a time would you really feel up to chasing them from flower to flower? I do it reluctantly, which is perhaps why I don’t have a single fabulous photo of this butterfly.

Sunset at the river

Our last walk in Hampi was along the Tungabhadra river. The previous afternoon in the museum I’d looked at a scale model of the capital city of Vijayanagara and noted some structures which we hadn’t seen. Now, looking carefully at the map I found a walking route to them along the river. The heat of the day had dissipated when we reached the calm river. There were people about, but it wasn’t crowded, and the walk was pleasant.

In this part of the old capital, the only things still standing seem to be some temples. The first one as we turned in towards the ruins of the Sulai bazaar was one dedicated to Lakshmi. Next to the entrance was a lovely carving of her consort, Vishnu, lying down with the Seshanaga coiled protectively above him. The temple interior was too dark for a good photo of the main idol. In any case parts of it had been chiselled off by thieves a century or more ago.

Still at the foot of the bazaar was another temple, blocky and square. I peeped in. I had had my fill of temples for the day. We’d started with the Hajaramu temple, gone on to see the remains of Anegundi north of the river, with its temples, and now we were back for more. On another day I would have walked in.

This is called the Varaha temple, because of the boar carved on the walls next to the entrance. The usual relief sculptures of Ganga and Jamuna flanked the door with water cascading down on them in picturesque whorls. The woman who you see in the photo above represents Ganga. I turned back and walked through Sulai bazaar and into the grand temple at the other end. That’s a story I’ve written about earlier.

On our way back we saw two people on a haragolu in the river. This is a coracle made of woven reeds with a tarred cloth stretched over the bottom to make it waterproof. They resemble the Vietnamese coracles in shape and design so much that I wonder whether there is some cultural exchange here. The Champa kingdoms of Vietnam were intermediaries in the trade between India and China in the 10th and 11th centuries. So it is not unlikely that the Hoysala empire, which held this area before Vijayanagara, and Champa had cultural exchange. I’d seen coracles in the area around Da Nang, which is the region where the Champa capital of Indrapuri was in those days. Are these haragolu that old? And if they are, then which way did the coracle technology go?

It was getting dark, and the path had no lights. A crowd was now streaming past me, going back towards Hampi. I wondered where they had been all this time. During the evening I’d seen few people. I took a last couple of photos of the river and rocks. It was time to go. Our train back to Bengaluru would leave in a few hours.

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