“I visited Hampi every year from 1983 to 2001, sometimes more than once a year,” says Dr (Sr) Anila Verghese. “What is amazing about this site is there has not been even once that I have visited and not noticed something new.” That tells you all you need to know about the magical treasure trove that is Hampi, but it should also tip you off on the seemingly endless curiosity, energy and perspicacity of Sr Verghese.
In 2018, the internationally renowned historian gave us an overview of the art and architecture of the Vijayanagara Empire through the built heritage of Hampi at her Sarmaya Talks lecture. She is one of the country’s leading historians on the subject and her life’s work as a researcher and historian has produced numerous books and papers on the art history of the Vijayanagara and Nayaka kingdoms. Besides this, Sr Verghese is also the Director of Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai and chairperson of the Sophia Trust. She served as the principal of the Sophia College for Women, Mumbai between 2001 and 2012.
With the intention of gaining insights into the Vijayanagara Empire through objects from the Sarmaya collection, we reached out to Sr Verghese, who made a selection of nine objects from our archive: eight photographs and a map. In this conversation, she uses these objects to illustrate what makes Vijayanagara art and architecture unique, while also drawing our attention to secrets and stories hidden in plain sight at Hampi.
When did Hampi first come to be recognised as a site of archeological importance?
“After Vijayanagara was defeated in the Battle of Talikota in 1565, Hampi passed through various hands including the Deccan sultans, Aurangzeb, the Mughals, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. After the defeat of Tipu, the present-day Bellary district (including Hampi) was ceded to the British by the Nizam, and in turn became part of the Madras Presidency. It was only from 1800 onwards, after Hampi came under the British rule, that work on the site really began. Col. Colin Mackenzie, who made the first documented official visit to the site between 1800 and 1801, got three maps made, one of which survives and is considered the oldest map of the city.
“This map from Sarmaya’s cartography collection is from 1929, which is also fairly early, and it gives us an idea of the core area of the city. This includes everything south of the Tungabhadra river—a large area spanning 25 square kilometres from Hampi village in the north near the Virupaksha temple, to Kamalapuram in the south. This, of course, is not the whole capital, which would include a wider suburban area. When compared with the modern map of the site, you will see that it is practically the same, with its lines of fortification, an intact urban core and parts of what is known as the royal center having survived.
“Col. Alexander Greenlaw, who visited Hampi between 1855 and 1856, took a large number of photographs of the site. There are no original positives of those and the photographs themselves had disappeared—only the negatives of 1855-56 had survived. In the 1980s, these negatives were found and developed, and those would be considered the earliest photographs of the site. The earliest ones of which we have positives and prints available are those taken around 1856 by Dr William Henry Pigou and Dr ACB Neill for the publication Architecture In Dharwar and Mysore.”
Would you say the Virupaksha temple with its elaborate gopura is a typical example of Vijayanagara architecture?
“Virupaksha is a patron deity of the site and while there is documented proof of the Virupaksha cult from the 12th century onwards, it was only later that the Vijayanagara kings adopted the deity and expanded the temple complex. This is one of Hampi’s oldest temples and the only major one where worship still goes on.
“The great gopura of the Virupaksha temple is considered a landmark of Hampi. It is seen from the east in this photograph by Dr Pigou taken in 1856. The gopura looks more or less the same today except for some construction that has come up right behind it.
“Most people think this gopura is from the Vjayanagara period. Our research, however, proves that temples of the Vijayanagara period never had such big gopuras and this one has nine stories. Also, gopuras of this period never had arches while this one does. So what stands now is, probably, a reconstruction dating to the time of around Tipu, between the 18th and 19th centuries.”
Does the ‘Street of Pilgrims’ Houses’, as seen in Dr ACB Neill’s photograph, look the same today?
“This is the street leading up to the Virupaksha temple and one that Dr ACB Neill has rightly called the Street of Pilgrims’ Houses. It is also referred to as chariot street, it’s 732 meters long and 10.6 meters wide with double-storey pavilions on either side. Portuguese traveller Domingo Paes, who visited Hampi in 1520, described it as “a very beautiful street of very beautiful houses with balconies and arcades, in which are sheltered the pilgrims that come to it.”
“When I first visited Hampi in 1983, there were shops along this street built in front of the arcades. In 2015, government authorities decided to break the shops down in order to reveal the original arcades. In the process, however, they also broke down some of the original arcades. This is what happens with some of these conservation efforts (laughs).”
What can you tell us about this photograph of Hanuman?
“Hanuman is also an important deity of the site because Hampi is believed to be the Kishkinda of Ramayana—there are a few other places also identified as Kishkinda, Hampi being one of them. The Anjenadri hill, located to the north of the Tungabhadra river, is believed to be the birthplace of Anjaneya or Hanuman. Numerous sculptures of Hanuman are found all over the site.
“This is a very early photograph depicting a local form of Hanuman called Veera Anjaneya or heroic Anjaneya. Here Hanuman strides out in a heroic pose to protect the city and Rama. He is almost always carved in profile with his right hand raised and left hand at the waist holding a lotus flower. His tail is curled over his head and sometimes there is a demon below his feet.”
What stories do the figures carved onto the walls of the Hazara Rama temple represent?
“Rama is also an important deity associated with the site because of the Ramayana connection. The cult of Rama came to the fore in the 15th century when a Vijayanagara king, who I have identified as Devaraya I, built a temple to Rama in the royal centre. The entire story of the Ramayana is carved twice in this temple, and one of these is on the inner face of the enclosure wall. Here it begins with the story of Shravana Kumar and the curse on Dashratha and the story circles around the wall in five tiers ending with Rama, who having defeated Ravana, has merged into the divine Vishnu and around whom Hanuman, the monkeys and Garuda are standing in worship. The second carving of the Ramayana in its entirety is found on the walls of the enclosed mandapa of the main shrine of Rama, where it is carved in three tiers.
“In Lyon’s photograph you can see the outer face of the same enclosure wall carved with scenes of royal pageantry. In Hampi, you will notice secular, non-iconic scenes depicting processions of elephants and horses, soldiers and dancers coexisting with stories of gods, making Vijayanagara sculpture rather unique. On this particular wall are carved figures of men and women celebrating the popular Vasathothsava or Holi festival—they are shown scooping water out of large vats, throwing it at each other, some of them are also holding syringes. I once refuted historian Irfan Habib’s claim that the Mughals brought syringes to India, pointing out to him that Hampi has sculptures of syringes dating back to the 15th century.”
As one of Hampi’s most famous temples, what secrets does the Vithala temple harbour?
“The east gopura of the Vithala temple, as seen in this photograph taken in 1865 by Edmund Lyon, was built in 1513 by the queens of Krishnadevaraya, Tirumala Devi and Chinna Devi. This is the earliest structure in the Vithala temple that we can identify with dates—how old the Vithala temple itself is, we don’t know. It is interesting that the first donation to this temple is not by the king, but by these queens.
“Edmund Lyon’s photograph from 1856 shows a lamp pillar in front of the gopura. Lyon was a freelancer commissioned by the Madras government to take photographs of Hampi. If you visit today or compare it to present-day photographs, you will notice that the lamp pillar is missing. So when did it disappear?
“Well, it was blasted with gunpowder by treasure-seekers sometime around 1900, as reported in the Archeological Survey’s annual report. It is assumed that all the destruction at Hampi took place when Vijayanagara was captured by the Allied Sultanate armies. This is not the case. A lot of the destruction happened over time thanks to treasure-seekers, vandals and forces of nature.”
The stone chariot is one of Hampi’s most recognised (and most photographed) structures. What can you tell us about it?
“This structure was built as an idol car—a shrine to Garuda. The idol of Garuda is carved inside the chariot, facing the now-absent Vithala Temple murthi. Photographs by Dr ACB Neill and others from the time show that there was a superstructure or vimana above the chariot, as you have over temples, to signify that it was a little shrine. If you compare it with the present-day photograph you will see that the vimana is missing. So what happened to it?
“Reportedly the vimana was pulled down by the then-Collector of Bellary in the late 19th century because he saw cracks develop on its lower part, which he attributed to the weight of the vimana. This concern was ill-founded as the vimana was made of only brick and mortar.
“If you visit the chariot today, you will also see little elephants in front of it and everybody presumes that these are original. The elephants are, however, absent in Dr Neill’s photograph, which means they were placed there later. If you look closely, you will also notice a tail and a leg of a horse right behind the elephants. It probably was a horse-drawn chariot, a common feature in Chola architecture, which in turn greatly inspired Vijayanagara architecture.”
The Great Platform looks very different in Dr ACB Neill’s photograph of 1856 compared to what it looks like today…
“This is what the great platform looked like in 1856 and until the mid-1970s when the Archaeological Survey of India declared Hampi as a heritage site to be conserved. This is when it was put back to look like it does today. The original structure was constructed in four levels using granite and chlorite schist. Today it is missing several pieces and I am not sure they have been put back in the correct order.
“A photograph of a particularly lovely chlorite schist carving from the great platform of a prince celebrating Vasanthotsava with some women was published in the Guidebook to Hampi by AH Longhurst, in 1917. Between 1917 and the first time I visited Hampi in 1983, this piece, along with many others, had disappeared.”
What makes the art and architecture of the Vijayanagara empire unique compared to its contemporaries?
“It is not possible to compare Vijayanagara architecture to its contemporaries because at this time, the major contemporaries were Muslim kingdoms including the Bahamanis and the Mughals, and their art traditions were vastly different. Also, the genius of Vijayanagara art and architecture is not just in their built heritage but also in sculpture and painting, although very little of the painting of this period has survived.
“In the later part of the 14th century, Buka Raya II sent his son Vira Kampila Raya to conquer Tamil Nadu. Prior to this, Hampi had its own architectural tradition borrowed from the Deccan, featuring fairly plain temples with step-pyramidal style vimanas or superstructures. Upon conquering Tamil Nadu, Vijayanagara rulers were impressed by and sought to emulate the grand, elaborate, architecture of the region developed from the 8th century onwards by the Pallavas, the great Cholas and the Pandyas. They also must have brought artisans and craftsmen to Vijayanagara from Tamil Nadu.
“While traces of later Chalukya architecture can be found in Hampi, it is interesting that they chose to not borrow architectural styles from Karnataka traditions of the early Chalukya and Hoysala period. Instead, the Vijayanagara emperors looked to Tamil architecture for inspiration.
“In Tamil temples, the main focus of the architects was on the vimana which sported the best sculptures and the most detailed work. Interestingly, in Vijayanagara architecture, the best work is usually found in the pillared halls and not on the vimanas. There are also certain set themes you expect to find in a Chola temple—for instance idols of Durga and Brahma in the north and those of Ganesha and Dakshinamurthy in the south. Vijayanagara architecture, while borrowing the style, ignored these iconic themes and in their place created new imagery and iconography interspersed with secular structures.”
“Vijayanagara took from the Tamils, created something new, then spread it throughout the kingdom. Much of it lasted well into the Nayaka period (which came immediately after) and eventually became what we call the South Indian style of temple architecture continuing till today in India and overseas.”
What do you remember of Hampi when you first visited the site in 1983?
“My first trip to Hampi was in 1983 before there was a direct train connection or broad-gauge line to the city. There was no place to stay really, except a PWD guest house and a couple of other guesthouses near the Tungabhadra dam. Or you had to stay in Hospet 13 kilometers away. I visited Hampi every year from 1983 to 2001, and sometimes more than once a year. Even after that, I visited once every few years and my last trip was in 2017. When I was doing documentation for my PhD between ’85 and ’89, I went from pillar to pillar, structure to structure, inspecting and making notes.”
Are there sculptures at the site that continue to puzzle you?
“What is amazing about this site is there has not been even once that I have visited and not noticed something new. In the Hazara Rama temple, there is a relief of a figure that is obviously Vishnu and he is resting on what looks like a tree. What is he doing on a tree? This puzzled me to no end. Post 2001, I have been traveling extensively, visiting temples in Vijayanagara and post Vijayanagara sites across South India, and I don’t think I have ever come across this particular image or sculpture. After decades of research, I finally seem to have the answer and I am going to be writing about it, so I won’t reveal the secret here.
“Then there is the sculpture of what looked like a man grappling with an elephant of which there are about seven reliefs scattered all over the site. It was only much after my PhD and my third book that I found out that this sculpture references the local story of the son of Veerabhadra, Madivelaiah, who is a patron of the washermen. The first time I saw it must have been in the late ’80s and by the time I made the connection, it was around 2005-2006. This is why I say you cannot visit Hampi in a day.”