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.

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.

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.

Kalyani tank

Among the group of monuments in Hampi, I came across a step tank next to the so-called Mahanavami mound. A small aqueduct ends above it, clearly meant to top up the tank. The precise geometrical pattern of this structure gives very interesting photos when the sun is about halfway between the horizon and the zenith. The well has been shaped into a square, and four sets of stairs descend from the ground to the water. The sides are inclined, so the opening at the top is larger than the surface of the well. Each set of stairs is a square pyramid in five levels. The shadows brought out this simple geometry very nicely. The excavation in 1980 was followed by a loving reconstruction.

Beyond a name, Kalyani tank (Kalyani pushkarini), I couldn’t find anything about this well-preserved structure: neither the years of construction, nor the social use. Was it somehow related to the Mahanavami mound, in which case they two might have been built at the same time? Or were they built at different times, so they are just accidentally near each other? Or could they have been built at different times, but used together when the later of the two structures was completed? Hampi became Vijayanagara’s capital in the 14th century, and probably abandoned by the end of the 16th century, so there are at least broad limits on the time during which the tank was built. The Monsoon Asia Drought Atlas shows that the climate was quite variable in this period, with two or three year-long droughts happening more than once during a person’s lifetime in imperial Hampi. A stable empire would therefore have to pay attention to water works. Still, I’m surprised by the utter lack of material on the monuments at this site.