The circles of my life

One exposure lasts about a hundredth of a second. Maybe ten times longer. Perhaps ten times shorter. But the objects that are captured by the motion of electrons in the sensor may have lasted a century. That is 300,000,000,000 times longer, give or take a zero. Does it matter if the thing you are photographing is a thousand years old instead? Or only a decade old? Just give or take a zero at the end of those 11 others.

I saw a bubble released by a child, undulating across the sky, trying to achieve that perfect spherical shape in the short life time that it had. Was its shape more important than the shimmer of colour across its surface?

A scatter of painted oil drums outside an artist’s studio was a work in progress. Did I steal his work, misappropriate it by taking a photo before he could pin down his own vision? Would it have been morally different if I’d waited a few years and then taken a photograph which imposed my vision over his?

Catherine Opie said that sunsets and sunrises are the biggest cliches in photography. Ansel Adams said that a good photo is knowing where to stand. Henri Cartier-Bresson said sharpness is a bourgeois concept. David Lynch said that no matter what you mean, everyone is going to get something different from it.

Is an eclipse the shadow of one sphere passing over another? Or is it a rabbit being swallowed by a snake? In your imagination does it matter which is true? Nothing is written in stone, is it?

These photos were taken over three years and six thousand kilometers: a fraction of my life. They share one quality. They are inanimate circular objects which seemed beautiful to me at the time I took the photos. Now I wonder what I captured, the object, or the state of my mind?

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.

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?

A gnarly champa

I sat on an extremely comfortable stone bench on the porch of Hampi’s Vitthala temple. It was just past noon, and the day had got really warm. But a cool breeze blew through the porch. I didn’t feel like getting up. In the courtyard in front of me a gnarly champa tree had been planted too close to the temple, and had grown out at an angle before reaching out for sunlight. The almost bare tree made a pretty picture in the afternoon, and I craned to catch the tree and its shadow together.

This was the Plumeria obtusa, once a native of the Caribbean, but now so well established in Asia that you will surprise most people if you tell them that it is not native to this continent. This particular tree was probably very young; they grow fast. But I wondered whether the Vijayanagara kingdom ever saw the Champa. It could not have come here before Europeans landed in the Caribbeans. But who brought it to India? The history of southern India is so much more complex, gnarly, and branched than that of the north. It could have come from the west, carried by the Portuguese, or even before them by the Arabs. Or it could have come from the East, carried to China first and then diffusing through the continent. In the months after I took these photos I’ve searched on and off for the answer, without finding any. If you have some snippets of information it’ll be great if you leave a comment.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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