The Mahanavami festival of Vijayanagar Empire was known for its display of power, culture and opulence. Nirdesh Singh visits the structures associated with the historic celebrations in Hampi
While the Virupaksha Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and his two consorts towers over Hampi, it is Lord Rama and the Ramayana that have the most associations with this evocative World Heritage Site. Anegundi, the village to the north of Hampi across River Tungabhadra, is where the story of Vijayanagar Empire began and where large parts of the Ramayana was played out. On the Hampi side, it was on the Matanga Hill that Sugreeva had taken shelter and it was on the Malyavanta Hill that Rama and Lakshmana waited out the monsoons before marching to Lanka. And it was exactly during these months of September and October when the rains subsided that the grandest festivities took place in Hampi. The festival was called Mahanavami when for nine days the capital would host the most opulent celebrations.
Mahanavami too has association with the Ramayana. Rama had prayed to Goddess Durga for victory just before the final battle with Ravana. The rulers of Vijayanagar also worshipped Durga praying for strength to subdue their enemies. Military campaigns were initiated after the Mahanavami celebrations when the display of power and wealth would make any future belligerent wary.
All tourists begin their visit to Hampi by paying obeisance at the Virupaksha Temple before they make their way to the royal enclosure. Today, the royal enclosure besides some fortifications and later excavations is bare except the dominating three-tiered platform called Mahanavami Dibba. It was on this platform that the king was seated as he witnessed the grand celebrations of Mahanavami.
On a monsoon day, you circumambulate the platform. The lower two levels probably constitute the original granite stages of the platform that was built along with the royal enclosure in the 14th century. The relief carvings here are a delight. There are processions of horses, elephants and camels. The kings are shown in their courts, on other occasions they watch wrestling matches, dance performances and then they go hunting deers and leopards. Foreigners are seen in plenty indicating that the fame of the glorious kingdom attracted foreign emissaries, traders and soldiers over the years.
Two series of stairs — one in front and one in back — bring you to the top of the platform. The view from here is quite exhilarating but you cannot but feel sad about the way the glorious empire ended in an orgy of plunder and destruction. While temples and structures elsewhere have survived, the royal enclosure bore the full brunt and everything seems to have been flattened. On the top of the platform there are extant pillar bases which indicate that wooden columns supported a grand mantapa in which the king sat watching the proceedings. In the aftermath of Battle of Talikota, everything was burned down and looted. Now along with the mantapa, almost everything in the royal enclosure is lost, including the possible 40-pillared diwankhana where the king held talks with his chiefs.
If Mahanavami Dibba is indicative of association of Lord Rama with Hampi then Hazara Rama Temple reinforces it. Built by King Deva Raya I in the early 15th century in the core of the royal enclosure, it was the royal temple of Vijayanagar kings. The temple is striking in its design and decoration. The outer compound walls are profusely decorated with similar scenes as in Mahanavami Dibba.
There are bands of relief carvings of processions of horses, elephants, military contingents and dancing women with sticks reminiscent of Gujarat’s Dandiya Raas. At the entry there is an image of Durga as Mahishasuramrdini. The main temple is situated in the middle with a mantapa. The inner compound walls and mantapa walls have scenes from the Ramayana.
Coming back to the Mahanavami celebrations, the impressed foreign visitors to the Vijayanagar Empire have left glowing accounts of the biggest annual celebrations that took place during Navaratri.
Fernao Nuniz, a Portuguese horse trader who spent three years (1535-1537) in Vijayanagar, has written rich chronicles of the life in the empire. The nine-day festival according to Fernao was the most lavish and elaborate. The days were marked with great feasts and pageantry. On the first day, nine castles — probably tents — made of rich cloth were erected in front of the royal palace for the nine principal captains or governors of the empire. During the ceremonies the king was seated on a throne made of gold and gems. This was the only time during the year when the king sat on this throne on top of Mahanavami Dibba. Nine horses and nine elephants bedecked with roses and silky trappings and accompanied by a great number of attendants saluted the king.
Abdur Razzaq, ambassador of the Persian ruler Shah Rukh, visited Vijayanagar in 1443 during the reign of Deva Raya II. He says that the Revenue Department was abuzz as all the governors and commanders descended into the capital to partake of the grand celebrations and to pay tribute and pledge allegiance, money and soldiers to the king.
Domingos Paes was another Portuguese traveller who visited Vijayanagar around 1520 during the reign of King Krishna Deva Raya when the empire was at its zenith. Domingos’s chronicles are supposed to be the most detailed of all accounts that have been written about Vijayanagar empire and he corroborates the enthusiastic account of Fernao. Domingos was dazzled by the extravagant display of opulence. It seemed everything from horses and elephants to queens and the dancing women were heavily weighed down by the huge amounts of gold, rubies and pearls they were carrying on their heads and limbs. In some cases, attendants helped them by supporting their arms.
The royal enclosure was accessible only to the captains and chiefs and was entered through a series of secured gateways. The inside of the enclosure was a grand show of handsome clothes, Mecca velvet, silks from Persia and brocades of China. Great slaughters of animals took place in the mornings after which prayers to the idol were carried out. The feast began in the afternoons. When the night descended, thousands of torches were lit turning the night into day. Festivities continued as wrestlers went about their business of disfiguring faces. And then the night sky was lit up with an eye-popping display of fireworks. The festivities continued for nine days, the intensity and scale growing grander with each day.
Standing on top of the platform at dusk, you survey the ruins around the royal enclosure. With the detailed description given by Domingos, it is not hard to go back 500 years to imagine today as one of the Navaratri days.