Hampi's granite carvers

Hampi's granite carvers

Geologists tell us that this is a truly ancient landscape, produced by millions of years of weathering and erosion

Credit: DH Photo/Srikumar M Menon

Vatapi and Vijayanagara. These two ancient capital cities, though set in similar, dramatic landscapes, could not be more different in character. 

Where Vatapi (Badami) presents masses of weathered and crumbled sandstone riven by a warren of deep chasms and narrow gorges, Vijayanagara occupies a stark, beautiful land with a profusion of tumbled granite boulders rising abruptly erupting over the vast plains.

The city of Vijayanagara came into existence nearly eight centuries after the first stone monuments came up in Vatapi. In this interval, the Karnata Dravida style of temple architecture, which makes a debut in Badami, spread and evolved through continuing artisanal traditions, leading to a rich repertoire of temple form. 

In the process, generations of artisans experimented on sandstone, limestone, granite and schist, and the culmination of these centuries of evolution can arguably be seen in the Hoysala tradition, before invasions temporarily put an end to temple-building activity in the region. 

When temples began to be erected again under the Vijayanagara rulers, they resorted to the idiom of another equally ancient tradition — the Tamil Dravida, which had developed first under the Cholas and later, the Pandyas.

This tradition, when infused with local building traditions of the Deccan, gave us the uniquely magnificent style which rose to great heights under the Vijayanagara rulers and the Nayakas who succeeded them.

The large temple complexes of Hampi, like the Virupaksha, the Tiruvengalanatha, the Krishna and the Vitthala were constructed in the relatively flat land between the low hills of piled-up boulders which punctuate the city. But Hampi also boasts of a multitude of smaller structures, some of which ingeniously respond to, and even incorporate the unique landscape in their scheme.

Looking at the landscape of Hampi, one could be pardoned for thinking that it is the result of some playful giant throwing huge rocks around into disordered heaps and elongated agglomerations, in the midst of which the Tungabhadra wends across in her stately way. 

However, geologists tell us that this is a truly ancient landscape, produced by millions of years of weathering and erosion. The architects of Vijayanagara dealt masterfully with this, skilfully inserting lookout pavilions, shrines, temples, as well as other structures according to the lie of the land, even using the rocky protuberances to good effect.

Idol carving 

It is especially incredible how the Vijayanagara artisans saw these clusters of boulders as opportunities rather than obstacles. A classic example is a ruined temple to Vishnu Temple near Chakratirtha. The main deity of the temple, now sadly vandalised, is carved on one of the large boulders on site, and the rest of the structure built around it.

At a later date, the temple seems to have been expanded with an image of Ananthasayi Vishnu, carved on another boulder, incorporated into the earlier structure. The manner in which the architects of the temple fitted the dressed masonry blocks of the structure into the contours of the boulders is truly remarkable.

This propensity to incorporate natural boulders on the site as integral parts of the structure seems to have become something of a fad among Vijayanagara’s artisans.

Several structures, like the Yantroddharaka Hanuman Temple and the Kodandarama Temple, near Chakratirtha, and even the large Malyavantha Raghunatha Temple as well as a small Shiva shrine behind it, are all built with this principle. 

In this technique, images are carved on the face of a suitable natural boulder and the temple is built with that as focus. 

In some cases, like the temples on the Malyavantha hill and another shrine at the former capital city of Anegondi across the river, the tower of the temple is built on top of the rock.

Torchbearers of tradition  

This technique was not pioneered by the Vijayanagara artisans; such constructions, partly rock-cut and partly structural, can be seen among even the Gupta-period shrines at Udayagiri, near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, dated to the early fifth century. Closer home, the Chalukyan architect Binjadi Ovaja seems to have pulled off a similar feat at Aihole — at the only Buddhist structure there — in the seventh or eighth century. 

This technique could have arisen from earlier practices, where an idol carved on freestanding boulders were sheltered by porches and overhangs built of timber and thatch, as evidenced from slot-holes for the wooden members found on the rock in several cases.

Later, as patronage for various deities increased, these sheltering elements themselves were carved out of stone.

It was the Vijayanagara artisans, however, who took this technique to its pinnacle. They incorporated field boulders into their architectural scheme from the very conception of a shrine, as can be seen from numerous unfinished structures which dot Hampi. An unfinished shrine near Hemakuta Hill at Hampi shows how a large boulder has been shaped and fitted into a structure with bays defined by columns on either side of it. 

Yet another unfinished structure on an outcrop on the way to the Vitthala Temple has a pavilion fronting a large boulder, which must definitely have figured in the architect’s scheme of things.

This style of construction is also evident at other sites of Vijayanagara enterprise, outside of Hampi. 

The Veerabhadra Temple complex at Lepakshi boasts of a boulder fashioned into an exquisite composition — a shrine for Ganesha at one end, and a Naga-linga on the other.

The architects of Vijayanagara possessed a heightened sensitivity to the landscape around them, just as the artisans of Vatapi had, centuries before them. Every one of their creations bear silent testimony to this, even today.

(The author is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)

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