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

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.

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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 Southern grey shrike aka Iberian 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.

Painted Spurfowls

When a pair of painted spurfowl (Galloperdix lunulata) emerged warily at the edge of the clearing in front of my hide, it was a lifer. I’d never seen these gamebirds before. The brightly coloured male with its spotted plumage, and the somewhat muted colours of the female were completely new to me. I noticed the wicked spurs on the legs. What are they used for? To battle other males for territory and breeding rights? Typically species with sexual dimorphism of this kind are not monogamous, although an authoritative book from 1928 is often quoted in evidence of monogamy. The pair advanced to the middle of the open area in front of my hide, pecking constantly at the ground. They eat seeds, grains, berries, tubers, and insects.

Another pair slunk through the grass and bushes behind, and the male jumped on to a big rock, (featured photo) leaving the female behind. That was a remarkable leap, and I wondered why it didn’t flap its wings at all to get some lift. Other jungle fowls do an ungainly flutter now and then, but apparently not the painted spurfowl. It would rather run fast than fly. A lone female ran about in the dust ahead of me, stopping to peck every now and then.

The painted spurfowl is found everywhere on the plains of India, and breeds from late winter to the beginning of the monsoon. The male shares in the rearing of the chicks, again unusual given the flamboyant colouring of the male. Given that it’s so widespread, I wonder why I haven’t seen it before. I asked The Family, and it turned out that she has seen it before, on a trip on which I didn’t go. So have I seen it earlier, or not?


Across the river Tungabhadra from the archaeological digs of Hampi is Anegundi, the oldest capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Harihara the first of the Sangama kings had his base here as he carved his kingdom out of the disintegrating Hoysala empire in the early 14th century CE. His successor Bukka Raya moved the capital to the more easily defended south bank of the river in the 1360s. We crossed the river in the northwards to see something of the remains of the early years of the kingdom.

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There is little that remains. Part of an aqueduct is all that is visible of the hydraulic engineering of the kingdom. A few temples remain as places of pilgrimage: the Anjaneya temple which perches on top of a cliff (featured photo), is the biggest draw, followed by Pampa Sarovar and the Durga temple. One of the spots worth visiting is an iron age remnant, some dolmens and cave paintings. Unfortunately the road was not driveable, and the afternoon had got pretty hot. The rest of the capital city has disappeared, and the area has reverted to modern village life. We found a little place to stop and have a chai, drove past ripening fields, crept at a petty pace behind a large flock of goats, marvelled at stacks of bananas left on the roadside to be picked up by a delivery truck. As The Family looked at some local jewellery being hawked to tourists next to the Pampa Sarovar, I took some photos of the lady who was both modelling and selling them.


When I was a child, door to door vendors would sometimes arrive at our house with Grey Francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus, तीतर) in large baskets. This was a very special treat, like quail. For a brief while these game birds were farmed. In the 80s there was a specialty shop near the Taj in Mumbai which stocked game birds including तीतर (teetar). With the increasing industrialization of food, and the homogenization of tastes that followed, these farms either shut down or turned to battery farming of chicken. As a result my memories of game birds had faded over the years.

Sitting in a hide inside Daroji Bear Sanctuary, one of the first things I saw was a bunch of these game birds pecking their way silently across the rocks. These birds are found right across the plains of India and Pakistan, and in the coastal areas of Iran, north of the Gulf of Oman. The IUCN red list classifies as of least concern for conservation. The plains of India are heavily urbanized, so this seemed a little odd to me, until I realized that their habitat are these rocky and barren scrublands, which are of least concern to developers, at least for now.

From another hide the next morning I saw more them pecking at grains left as lure. There are some species of birds and animals, which, although widespread, have extremely low genetic diverstiy. They need special conservation effort. Given the long history of domestication of तीतर, I wondered about this. I found later that the genetics of the Grey Francolin has been studied mainly in one population in central Pakistan. This population shows high genetic diversity. If this can be verified in other populations across the range of this bird, then it would be further reason to believe that the Grey Francolin is one of the lucky species not to need special protection from us.

I leave you with a video of these birds which were once a common sight in cities, but which you now have to travel far to see.

An odd bird

While birding in Hampi, I was so focused on a few new species that I didn’t remember taking these photos of the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus). It remains common in ruins and edgelands around towns, but rare in both parks and open spaces inside towns, and in dense jungle. In any case I’d seen it so often that I pointed my camera at it, took photos, and forgot about it until I went through my photos later. Then I realized that I’d caught my best photos yet of the southern variety of these birds. The shiny dark back is so much more attractive than the khaki and brown of the north Indian variety. The bird is slender in outline, and this plump shape is probably a territorially aggressive display by a male. Typically I would identify a male by a white patch on the shoulder, which I don’t see here. Perhaps it is hidden when the bird fluffs up. In any case, the bird is so common that I seldom give it much attention.

But perhaps I should, because of a long back story. Most African songbird groups evolved in the northern part, and migrated southwards in eras when forests expanded. Then, when forests contracted again, some of the isolated populations evolved into different species. Successive pulses of expanding forests led to songbird lineages populating Africa from north to south. In several of these lineages one can also trace the founding population to a migration event from Asia and India into Africa, over the Indian Ocean, through the Seychelles, and the “Lemurian” islands, which emerge in eras when the climate is dry and the ocean is low. The Indian robin is a different story. A molecular genetics study reveals that the small group of related birds in the African genus Erythropygia and their Asian relatives in genus Copsychus are odd birds indeed. These non-migratory birds have made the reverse journey from southern Africa to north, and then out of Africa to Asia. A whole clade inside Copsychus, including C. fulicatus, started with this unusual migration in the early Neogene. This is definitely an odd story, first pulished in 2014. I look forward to seeing either verification or dispute in future. In the meanwhile, I look at the Indian robin with more interest.