Alpha women of Hampi

SANDHYA RAO N. SHIVA KUMAR | Updated on November 15, 2017

Herstory at Hampi: Demon slayer Mahishasura Mardini. - Picture by the Authors

A woman as dwarapalika or doorkeeper.- Picture by the authors

Exquisite sculptures stand testimony to the power they wielded.

History is largely about kings, princes, and other men and their deeds. Rarely do women find mention in these hoary narratives. However, women power appears visibly to the fore during the reign of the powerful and popular King Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagar dynasty (1509–1529), as recorded in the exquisite ‘city of victory' hewn out of stone on the banks of the Tungabhadra river in Hampi.

We spent four fruitful days exploring the ruins of this ancient city, examining nearly 70-odd monuments under a sizzling sun and unexpected drizzles.

The empire reached its zenith during Krishnadevaraya's rule. Efficient administration and vigorous overseas trade brought new water management systems for irrigation. Fine arts and literature reached new heights in Kannada, Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil. Famous travellers such as Nicolo Conti from Italy and Abdur Razzak, an ambassador from Persia, described the magnificence of the city and how its women enjoyed ample freedom.

We started our exploration of this World Heritage Site at the Vittala temple complex. Its five-storied gopuram (gateway) is richly carved with sculptures on all four sides. Images of splendidly decked women greet you from the arcades. The highlights of this temple include a finely-sculpted chariot at the heart of the complex and the Sangeetha Mandapam, with its intelligently chiselled pillars that produce melodious notes when tapped. Corresponding to the note it produces, each pillar is adorned with sculptures of women holding a particular kind of musical instrument. We learn that women occupied a respected position in Vijayanagar society. Besides accomplished musicians and dancers, women excelled as astrologers, soothsayers, judges, writers and eminent litterateurs, and many were actively involved in matters of administration and trade.

Krishnadevaraya, an accomplished poet, who wrote the acclaimed Amukthamalyada in Telugu, encouraged women to take up writing. Tirumalamba Devi wrote Varadambika Parinayam, the story of the marriage of a Hampi king, in Sanskrit. Gangadevi wrote Madhuravijayam, a poem that describes in detail the invasion and conquest of the Madurai Sultanate. Tallapaka Timmakka and Atukuri Molla were Telugu women poets who gain popularity during this period.

Our next stopover was the Mahanavami Dibba, a few kilometres from the Vittala temple, which is a mammoth, elevated square platform in stone. Its sides are embellished with carvings of elephants, horses, camels and soldiers in procession, as well as hunting scenes, dancing men and women, royal attendants and other ritualistic pageants.

Mahanavami Dibba was the vibrant venue for a host of army parades, war games, sports, dramatics and music performances, with the king in attendance. The carvings show prancing horses with women riders, as well as women taming rider-less horses, as elephant mahouts, practising archery, sword fighting, hunting, wrestling and so on. A stunning panorama awaits those who make the effort to ascend the steps to the top of the massive platform. We did, just as twilight approached and the perfect saffron in the sky drenched the ruins in a golden hue.

On day two, we visited the Virupaksha temple, a perfect specimen of the Vijayanagar style of temple architecture.The outer tower is packed with terracotta images of gods, demigods, and men and women in bold depictions of nudity and a host of mythological themes. These images are believed to reflect the Devadasi system, under which girls were “married” and dedicated to a deity or a temple. The courtesans of the Vijayanagar era were said to be highly educated and sophisticated, enjoying a life of privileges, with no social stigma whatsoever.

The following day was spent closely examining the fearsome deity Ugra-Narasimha seated on the seven-hooded snake Adisesha, the monolithic Badava Linga, Lotus Mahal, Queen's bath, royal elephant stables, the King's balance and the gigantic Ganesh — all hewn gloriously in stone.

On the final day, we first stopped at the Hazara Rama temple, the private worship place of the Vijayanagar kings. Enclosed by tall walls, the temple's entrance is flanked by sculptures of women welcoming the royal family.

The bas relief on the outer walls depict processions of elephants, horses, soldiers, dancers and musicians. There are also carvings of women in the royal harem, who were well versed in music, literature and other fine arts.

Research, surveys and excavations are on even today to learn more about the glorious past of Hampi. But one aspect of this golden era remains undisputed… the predominant position enjoyed by its women.

Published on February 09, 2012

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