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.

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.

A hot winter afternoon

Walking in the ruins that dot Hampi during a hot afternoon, I stopped to see an Indian bushlark (Mirafra erythroptera) putting on its spectacular aerial display. This consists of it flying up to a good height, and then diving with its wings and tails held out. This told me two things: first that it was a bushlark (generally I’m very confused about larks), and second that early winter is the mating season, at least in the middle of parched Karnataka. I managed to get a few photos of it as it paused between displays. The Family and others spotted the female that it was trying to impress while I was busy taking photos. Unlike a skylark, it didn’t pour on us a flood of harmony. Its call was melodious but simple.

On the other side of the path, three horses waited patiently under a tree, ready to be photographed. This looked almost like they were deliberately posed there with a motorbike. It wasn’t a shot that you could let go. Something nagged at me while I took the photo. As I reached into my backpack for a bottle of water, the spark connected. This looked like a scene from the sets of Sholay, the half-century old blockbuster. The incongruity of a motorbike and horses, and the parched landscape. That movie had been shot in Ramnagar, just a five hour drive away.

Upupa epops

I’ve only seen Hoopoes (Upupa epops, aka Eurasian Hoopoe) around human habitation. Apparently waste land around towns is an ideal ecology for this striking bird. It needs broken ground in which to forage for insects and small reptiles, and broken vertical spaces for nesting. One should be able to see it in the wild around broken cliffs, but I can’t say that I’ve ever spotted one near a cliff. I haven’t seen any Hoopoes nesting either, but that may just be because I haven’t looked. They are skittish, so to take a good photo you have to sneak softly and carry a big lens. I’d already practiced sneaky photography on yellow-wattled lapwings, so when I saw this Hoopoe in another part of the same field, I was ready. It turned its back to me, ready to fly, and kept two eyes on me. But I guess the ground it was on provided good food, so it didn’t quite take off.

I’ve never really seen anything else which is similar to a Hoopoe. As a child, I would lump it with woodpeckers, but a little observation tells you that it is totally different; it pecks on the ground and never drills into wood. There are three or four species of Hoopoes, largely in non-overlapping ranges across Africa, Asia, and Europe, but they are the only birds in the genus Upupa. There seems to be an emerging consensus that their closest relatives are the hornbills. Most hornbills evolved in Asia, but a dearth of fossil Hoopoes makes it hard to tell where they evolved. A first search led me to around 15,000 papers on this species, which I’ll try to skim before my next birding trip. I guess I’m not the only one who’s puzzled and fascinated by Hoopoes.

Two bulbuls

One of our targets in Hampi was the yellow-throated bulbul (Pycnonotus xantholaemus). We had our sighting early one morning near a cliff face to the east of the ruins of the 16th century CE Krishna bazaar. The birds sat in the middle of heavy foliage, so that we could hear its melodious chatter long before we could see the crestless bulbul. There was one pair in the tree that we were looking at, and maybe a couple of pairs in the bushes near the top of the cliff.

This is possibly the westernmost population of this bird, which exists in fragmented habitats across the eastern part of the Deccan plateau. It has been suggested recently that range fragmentation makes it more susceptible to local extinctions than its IUCN label of vulnerable might lead us to believe. With the major climate variability that we are going through, I was happy that I have spotted them in a fairly accessible location.

The range of this species completely overlaps that of the more common white-browed bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus). In the din that the yellow-throateds had set up, I was unable to distinguish the call of the white-browed. Fortunately, we were with a really experienced birder, who noticed the song, and pinpointed the bird. I could get off a bunch of shots in wonderful light. Although P. luteolus is said to be of least concern, I hadn’t seen one before. It has a touch of yellow near the base of its beak. Both this and the P. xantholaemus are said to have a yellow vent (I didn’t manage to see that), but otherwise they are easily distinguished. In particular, the P. lutelous has the characteristic bulbul’s crest, though a small one. It was a happy morning, with two lifers.

Lunar eclipses

A lunar eclipse will be seen from Mumbai starting at 10:37 PM Indian Standard Time today, and will last till 2:42 AM tomorrow. The maximum will occur at 40 minutes past midnight. The eclipse will be visible from most of India, and will occur at about the same times. The prediction of eclipses is a routine task today, done with high precision. But positional astronomy is an ancient subject, and was done accurately for millennia all over the world, even when the causes behind them was obscure. In India computations of eclipses involved two entities, which were named Rahu and Ketu, which moved in a cycle which is known as the saros. In modern day terminology of positional astronomy, Rahu and Ketu correspond to the points on the celestial sphere where the apparent paths of the sun and the moon coincide. As a result, these are the only places on the celestial sphere at which eclipses can take place.

In this wonderful low-relief sculpture at the entrance to the Sri Krishna temple in Hampi, Rahu and Ketu are represented as snakes, ready to swallow the moon. As for the rabbit, I looked again at a photo of the full moon I’d taken in March in Mumbai, and with a little squinting I could imagine that the dark patches of the lowlands on the disk look a bit like a leaping rabbit. You can take a look for yourself tomorrow and decide. In any case, I found the gate beautiful. How deeply astronomy is imbedded into all of world’s cultures!

Yellow-wattled lapwing

In an open field in Hampi, surrounded by buildings, we saw a flock of skittish yellow-wattled lapwings (Vanellus malabaricus). I hadn’t seen one for years, although the IUCN red list calls it a species of least concern. They are said to be common over the whole of India and Sri Lanka, but birders talk of it as having become harder to spot in the last decade. They were wary of us, and would not let us approach closer than about 50 meters. Photographing them was a sneaky affair: inching jeeps close, getting off from the far-side door, and shooting from behind cover.

Grounds such as the one we saw would be the usual breeding ground for the birds, which lay well-camouflaged eggs in nests scratched into the ground. It was half a year past breeding season. The flock held many juveniles. They can be told by the fact that they have a brown cap instead of black. I suppose that proximity to humans brings dangers to the breeding grounds. Cows or goats could accidentally trample eggs. Rubbish dumps attract crows which also aggressively seek out and eat eggs of other birds. Human-animal conflict can come well-disguised.

The richest kingdom in the medieval world?

The profusion of reliefs in Hampi showing horse traders seems to bear out a factoid that I’d heard repeatedly: that the Vijayanagar empire was the richest in the medieval world during its century of dominance, from the mid 15th to the 16th century CE. This probably has to be qualified slightly, since this was also the heydays of the Ming dynasty in China. But comtemporary records seem to indicate that the medieval city of Vijayanagara was not much smaller than its contemporary Beijing. It exported diamonds and imported horses. Its capital was a market which attracted Arab traders, and eventually Portuguese and Dutch travellers.

From various sources we know today that the most productive diamond mines were owned by the king. Workers were paid wages, but no other incentives. Based on the recorded wages paid to workers in the diamond mines, Pande and Raviteja wrote “Thus it may be constructed that the labourers in the mines probably led a miserable life.” The incredible difference in the quality of life of kings and commoners was noted by several travellers. It is likely that horse traders were far better off than the masses.

Iron, bronze and copper were mined and used. Iron was smelted in charcoal furnaces to make steel. In his influential book on the Vijayanagara empire, Robert Sewell wrote in 1900 that irons and steel was largely used to make weapons, but there was sufficient surplus to be turned into common household objects. The construction industry was dominated by temples and palaces, and employed a large number of masons, master builders, sculptors and various other artisans. Records of donations to temples show that artisans were well-off. Stone walls in temples (see photo on top) are dressed with precision, blocks sized and matched perfectly to sit on top of each other. So the lack of precision in the dressing of stone blocks in public works like the aqueduct of Anegondi (photo above), or the Mahanavami Dibba, cannot be attributed either to the lack of metals, or the lack of trained artisans. If this has not already been investigated by historians, then here is a mystery to be solved.

A late breakfast

Birdwatching can stress your biochemistry. We woke before sunrise, had tea and biscuits, piled into cars and drove out in the countryside outside Hampi. We had packaged snacks in our backpacks, but you know how healthy packaged food usually is. We got to breakfast almost four hours after that tea.

It was a little shack by the road and I would have easily gone past it if it hadn’t been for the crowd of people waiting outside for their morning fix of starches and fats. The reason for this popularity was instantly clear once I peered into the shack. A lady was busy frying up chilis dipped into a batter. Next to it was an instrument which I would have identified as an idli steamer if it wasn’t for the fact that it was greasy. It turned out to be a paddu pan, and was used to make the delicious gullyappa paddu that you can see in the featured photo.

Across a narrow strip of floor, a man, presumably the cook’s husband, was doling out food to the madding crowd. Rural south India has a common culture when it comes to serving food. A plate or a table will have a strip of banana leaf over it: clean, biodegradable and single use renewable. The leaf will be put over a steel plate, long-lasting and therefore not resource hungry.

The gullyappa paddu is made out of a batter of rice and dal, slightly different in proportion from that used for dosas. The fermented batter is mixed with onions and herbs, put into an oiled paddu pan, and cooked closed, so that it steams and fries. It is delicious with the sambar and chutney that you see the man doling out. Some fried chili, some utthapam, lots of yoghurt, many cups of strong and sweet south Indian filter coffee followed. A late but great breakfast was the consensus.

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.