Vijayanagara is a South Indian kingdom that controlled large sections of south India during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries of the Common Era. Legend tells that two brothers, Harihara and Bukka, founded a dynasty of kings after the Tughluq kingdom gave up expanding its borders. The brothers were sent to revive the Tughluq Sultanate’s legitimacy in the region but eventually formed their own kingdom.
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A Brief History of the Empire
Harihara was crowned in Hampi in 1336 and the dynasty began its reign. A city was founded near Hampi and was called Vijayanagara, ‘City of Victory.’ For the rest of the 14th century the city flourished and expanded its borders. As the city gained influence, so did its expansion. The other brother, Bukka, sent ambassadors to Europe and China. Eventually Italians and Portuguese visited the city, but the Bahmani kingdom north of Vijayanagara proved to be loyal to the Portuguese and thus a conflict erupted. During the reign of Krishna Deva Raya in the early 16th century, Vijayanagara was able to weaken the Bahmani’s due to open economic policies. However, after the Bahmani’s folded, the vacuum of power led to a coalition of local tribes banding together to destroy Vijayanagara. The city of Vijayanagara (also called Hampi more generally) was a grand center of artistic and architectural renaissance because it was influenced by many different cultures, including existing Hindu artistic styles, Muslim and Arab styles, and also traditional southern Indian styles. The terrain of the city was split into two halves with the Tungabhadra river flowing in between the two districts, a temple district and a standard urban district. The land itself is considered sacred to Hindus because tradition asserts that Lord Rama consulted with his monkey chiefs Hanuman and Surgriva to go to war with Ravana in Lanka.
The City Layout
The entire city spans 25 square kilometers separated by the Tungabhadra river. On the northern bank is the temple district while the southern side is the traditional urban zone, where the old Hampi city once rested. The urban center fortified itself with massive walls built in a ring. The royal palaces were located on the southwestern end of the city. Also on the southern portion of the city were the unfortified farmlands which were heavily irrigated. To this day, locals use the stone canals to irrigate crops.
On the Hemakuta hill overlooking the city is the temple district. When the new kings moved into Hampi and renamed the area Vijayanagara, they fortified ithe hill and built elaborate temples. The three largest exhibit pre-Vijayanagaran style and are built on a three-shrine plan (called a trikutachala in Sanskrit). Each of these major temples has an opening stemming from the common hall, which was an open verandah. One temple is double-shrined and creates a visual impact to anyone viewing the hill from a distance. Many smaller temples also sit in the district. The general style is pyramidal roofs and ornate columns. However, the exteriors remained simple compared to other famous temples known in south India, a place where Hindu temples are known for their extravagant exterior appearances.
Architecture and Art of the Temple District
In the 16th century, the Virupaksha temple was completed. This temple houses Pampa and Virupaksha, known locally as one aspect of the god Shiva. This temple has two courts and a towered gateway to the east. The temple has nine levels and extends 52 meters into the air. Each level contains elaborate sculptures on either side of an opening. The inner sanctum (garbhagriha) is enclosed with a narrow circumambulatory path preceded by a closed hall and open hall. The main object of worship is a Shiva lingam sitting atop a stepped plinth. On each column in the sanctum are mythological creatures, a typical iconographic feature for the 16th century.
Also in the district are several pre-Vijayanagaran shrines which were used by the Vijayanagaran royalty. The Parvati and Bhuvaneshvari shrines date to the 12th century and remained largely untouched during the reign of the Viajyanagaran kings. Each has a large ornate doorway, columns and ceilings carved in schist, a Cahlukyan style. Aside from these two major early shrines, other early shrines encircle a ritual bathing tank to the north of the complex.
During the reign of Krishna Deva Raya in 1513, a Krishna temple was erected to celebrate his conquest of Orissa. Today the temple is ruined, but its monumentality is clear. It once possessed large gateways but sadly they have since collapsed. The main shrine has a double row of enclosed walls providing an outer columned hall and an inner enclosed hall. The inner chamber contains an ambulatory path surrounding the main image pedestal. Outside, the shrine contains three stories and is considered to be a kutina style temple with square elements at the corner. On top of the shrine is a large shikhara. Mixed in with religious imagery is imagery of king Krishna Deva Raya’s victories in battle. Some scholars hypothesize that a domed building to the south functioned as a granary, although the lack of preservation to this area cannot fully support any theory one way or another. Also noteworthy is a large monolithic sculpture of the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu Narasimha, which dates to the early 16th century. The enormous 6.7-meter image sits in its own enclosure in the southern court of the temple district.
The Vitthala complex is an outstanding artistic achievement during the 16th century, another testament to king Krishna Deva Raya’s patronage of new architectural forms during his reign. The complex contains several buildings linked together by a large rectangular enclosure. The shrine of Vitthala, a local aspect of the god Vishnu, sits on top of a pyramidal superstructure. Before the inner sanctum is a closed hall with several porches. This shrine also has a circumambulatory path with artistic friezes. On the exterior, this shrine is capped by a large shikhara. However, on the interior, the sanctum is now devoid of a central image. Scholars point to the stepped open hall as a striking example of architecture from the period. Its granite piers, colonettes, and ceiling are all heavily sculptured with animals, riders, geometric designs, flowers, various animals, and mythical creatures. An image of Vishnu’s vehicle, the hawk Garuda, sits outside in front of the temple in its own small shrine. Leading away from the main temple is a street with ornamented colonnades.
Architecture and Art of the Urban District
While the temple district holds a great deal of rich architecture, the urban center is not without its own artistic achievements. The Ramachandra temple in the core of the royal district is one piece of religious architecture which was incorporated into the heart of the urban city. Due to the local tradition that the city sits on the spot where Rama met with his monkey army-captains, the cult devoted to Rama, and Vishnu more broadly, was strong at Vijayanagara. It is likely that the Ramachandra temple served as the official shrine of the state since it was specially designed to be incorporated into the royal quarters. The shrine sits within a rectangular compound, like the Vitthala complex, and has many artistic illustrations dedicated to the Ramayana. Additionally, the temple mixes religious iconography with local royal iconography, thus suggesting that the kings of Vijayanagara were legitimated since they were somehow related to the traditional kingdom of Lord Rama. The courtyard contains undecorated gateways but in the middle of the of the courtyard is the main shrine, a multi-stored structure with a closed and open hall. Inside, three large panels depict the major scenes from the Ramayana. Images of Vishnu in his various incarnations also abound. To the southeast of the main temple is a structure known as the King’s Palace. It has two platforms, one of which was likely the ‘hall of justice’ while the other is a multi-storied viewing stage where the kings could view festivals.
Throughout the Ramachandra temple and the royal district generally are structures dedicated to running water throughout the buildings. A primitive hydraulic system connected with wells, tanks and aqueducts. Northeast of the Ramachandra Temple complex was the residence of the king or possibly the military general. The building is a two-storied pavilion built upon a courtly stepped-platform known as the ‘Lotus Mahal.’ On the roof are nine pyramidal pylons with ornamented details. Watch towers surround the structure and possess a similar type of architectural style. Vijayanagara lasted for several centuries as one of the seats of power for a wealthy and influential dynasty that brought together old religious architectural tropes with newer ones. In between the religious forms were new kinds of secular forms that drew upon the religious architecture freely, thus representing a new type of artistic mixing between the religious and kingly spheres.
- D. Devakunjari: Hampi (New Delhi, 1970).
- G. Michell and V. Filliozat, eds: Splendours of the Vijayanagara Empire: Hampi (Bombay, 1981).
- J. Gollings, J. M. Fritz and G. Michell: City of Victory, Vijayanagara: The Medieval Hindu Capital of Southern India (New York, 1991)