Paleontologists with infinite patience microscopically scour patches of the Earth and put together entire skeletons of long lost dinosaurs. From these bones, with a little bit of help from DNA analysis and some smart detective work, they are then able to accurately recreate what the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex must have been like in the flesh. Paleontologists with infinite patience microscopically scour patches of the Earth and put together entire skeletons of long lost dinosaurs. From these bones, with a little bit of help from DNA analysis and some smart detective work, they are then able to accurately recreate what the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex must have been like in the flesh.
Paleontologists with infinite patience microscopically scour patches of the Earth and put together entire skeletons of long lost dinosaurs. From these bones, with a little bit of help from DNA analysis and some smart detective work, they are then able to accurately recreate what the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex must have been like in the flesh.
At the peak of its 300-year history, it stretched from present day Cuttack in Orissa to Mahim in Maharashtra, all the way down the southern Indian peninsula. And it was ruled by the peerless Krishnadevaraya.
Unlike the lonely work of the paleontologists, the efforts of the archeologist are made easier by the numerous first-person accounts written by foreign travellers to the court of Krishnadevaraya. From these, we get a vivid picture of the King and his beloved city.
Domingo Paes, a Portuguese horse-trader who first visited Vijayanagaram between 1520 and 1522 AD, wrote that Krishnadevaraya was “of medium height and of fair complexion and good figure, rather fat than thin.”
“ …[H]e is a most feared and perfect king that could possibly be, cheerful of disposition and very merry;” this particular account continues, “he is one to seek to honour foreigners and receives them kindly, asking all about their affairs, whatever their condition may be. He is a great ruler but subject to sudden fits of rage.”
Paes’s description also testifies to the King’s love of riding and his immense physical strength; a result of a tough daily exercise regimen. By all accounts, Krishnadevaraya was a fearless and strategically sound military ruler who loved the arts, had scholars visit his empire from distant lands and was fond of triggering debates.
The flesh and living tissue of the Vijayanagaram empire are also indicated by the numerous inscriptions in Kannada, Tamil and Sanskrit scattered all over the empire.
The ruins themselves sing of a time where the days flowed normally, where people, like us, lived and worked and worshipped. They raised families, worried about their children, worried about their livelihoods. And they waited patiently to allow royalty to pass through their broad city thoroughfares before they could themselves get on with their work, much like we do today.
And it appears they, too, worried about money and social standing.
Problems like dowry existed in Vijayanagaram; to the point where an irate Krishnadevaraya blasted out an inscription on February 7, 1526 AD:
‘…[A]ll the Brahamanas of Padaividu-rajya comprising the four linguistic communities of Kannadigar, Tamilar, Telungar and Ilalar would conduct hereafter marriages within their own communities as a simple kanya-daana only, that is, without the bridegrooms’ family giving money (dowry) to the bride’s family. If, against this decision, money is exchanged for bride (sic), it will incur royal punishment and it will considered against Brahminical norms (emphasis added).
From inscriptions like this one, the form of the Vijayanagaram empire – and the astonishing city that bears the same name – shimmers into view as a giant living, thrumming city state; the vibrantly-throbbing heart of a massively successful empire that had diplomatic links across the globe in Europe, the Near and Middle East, and across the Bay of Bengal with the kingdoms of South-east Asia.
Stories, wraithlike, float into view from every granite column, from every temple and every broken and vandalised statue.
One of the most astonishing is the damaged statue of Lord Narasimha, the fierce lion-headed avatar of Lord Vishnu. Hewn out of a single boulder that lay at the southwest corner of the Krishnaswami Temple, and commissioned by a victorious Krishnadevaraya as he returned from one of his last military successes, the statue inspired awe and wonder among the citizenry due to its sheer size and workmanship.
And it still does today, even though shortly after the death of the King, it was vandalised by neighbouring states who ripped through the city, suddenly free from the iron rule of Krishnadevaraya.
To a historian who loves alternate histories, the haunting and evocative ruins of Vijayanagaram at Hampi provide an intriguing glimpse into what an unbroken Hindu Empire might have looked like had it continued for another couple of centuries; a what-if history of what might have been.
In any event, the hazy outlines of a living empire glimmers like a mirage in the distance. Sounds of a city long gone echo. And a glimpse of another world tantalises.
Welcome to Vijayanagaram.
All photos by Asha Thadani.
Asha Thadani is a photographic artist based in Bangalore.
Ramesh Ramanathan is a writer living in Kodaikanal.
Note: Two dates pertaining to Domingo Paes’s visit and Krishnadevaraya making an inscription have been corrected after publication after a reader pointed out inaccuracies.
This article was first published on The Wire.