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?

Anegundi

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.

Teetar

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.

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 wary mongoose

I was introduced to the Indian grey mongoose (Herpestes edwardsi) by Rudyard Kipling’s collection called The Jungle Book. Soon after I saw one scurrying through bushes. Over the years I’ve seen them scuttling around human habitation, while being extremely wary of humans. When I was a child I’d once seen one of them battling a snake. What I remember of that tussle is that it darts about a lot. The common story of it being immune to snake venom is not completely wrong, but its main defense is exactly what I saw, extreme agility. Its stiff gray hair and loose skin is another line of defense against a snake’s fangs. But in all these years, it was only now, sitting inside a hide in the outskirts of Hampi, that I had my best view ever of this secretive animal.

Mongooses are a very diverse group of species. The 33 known species fall into 14 genera within the family Herpestidae. The Indian grey mongoose is in genus Herpestes along with 9 others of its cousins. It is said to be of least concern for conservation purposes. Perhaps because these intelligent and inquisitive creatures have colonized the edgelands and learnt how to utilize the trash left by humans. They are opportunistic eaters, said to eat almost any animal smaller than itself. Here I saw it pluck a banana off a post where it had been kept for birds, and carry it off to one side of the clearing. It was bold when it thought it wasn’t being watched. But as soon as one of my companions snapped off a series of loud shots with a camera, it looked around warily at the noise. We were well hidden, but it still carried its food off under some trees.

But its inquisitiveness kept bringing it back. Its favourite spot was on top of a flat stone where the morning sun illuminated it well and gave me a good opportunity to take lots of photos. It sunned itself, scratched its fur, brushed out its tail with the white patch at the tip, but never settled down to some sunbathing. It is too wary and cautious to sleep in the open. Good for me, I thought, since I managed to take several shots of it in leisurely activity. I like the photo above, with a hind paw raised to scratch itself with.

Red Adavadats

I thought this was a lifer, since I would have remembered seeing such a colourful bird before. But apparently it wasn’t. The name red avadavat (Amandava amandava) or red munia rang a bell, and it turned out that we’d first seen it almost a decade ago. It is very common after all. Still, having forgotten it completely, I will consider this sighting of one resting on a cactus at least partly a lifer. For purposes of identification, one has to remember that the bill can change colour, and turns from an orange yellow to a bright red to a dark brown or black according to season. I wondered whether this is due to a changing diet. But then birds which are bright red often are sexually dimorphic, with the female a bright yellow. That is certainly true of this bird. So the change in colour could also be due to the activation or disactivation of a gene. By the time I took a photo of the male, the female had hidden itself, and came out in the open only fleetingly.

This one inspected the surroundings from its perch high up on the cactus, and then, only after figuring out that the coast was clear, did it descend to the ground. It feeds on grass seeds, and was not attracted to the grains that had been left outside the hide I sat on. I mentally cheered, because its behaviour cannot be manipulated simply by leaving grains out in the open. Why did it visit then? Random chance, or because the company of many other feeding birds can help to warn it against preddators even when it is not looking?

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.