Recently the news flashed in The Hindu of Chennai attracted global attention since it is of international as well as historical importance: “Tourists can no longer get too close to the iconic stone chariot in front of the Vijaya Vittala Temple in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hampi in Karnataka. Hampi is 350 kms from Bengaluru and can be reached via road, rail or air. The architectural marvel has been cordoned off by a protective ring by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). ASI has put up the barrier aimed at preventing people from touching or climbing the monument, causing damage in any way.”
Stone Chariot is an iconic monument located in front of Vijaya Vittala Temple in Hampi, central Karnataka. Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stone Chariot is a shrine dedicated to Garuda, the official vehicle of Lord Vishnu. Stone Chariot in Hampi is one of the three most popular stone chariots in India. Other two are in Konark (Odisha) and Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu). Built in Dravidian style, chariot has carvings depicting mythical battle scenes. Standing on two giant wheels, two elephants are seen pulling the chariot. Stone Chariot is made of multiple smaller stones assembled to perfection.
Stone Chariot was partially damaged by invading army towards the end of Vijayanagara Empire. Stone Chariot was built in the 16th century by the orders of King Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara Empire. The emperor is said to have been impressed by the Sun temple of Konark during the war with Kalinga and wanted to recreate a similar one in Hampi. Recently released INR 50 currency notes of India have stone chariot images.
The chariot inside the temple complex is a shrine dedicated to Garuda, but the sculpture of Garuda is now missing. The Hampi chariot is among three famous stone chariots in India, the other two being in Konark, Odisha, and Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. The delicately carved chariot at Hampi, art historians say, reflects the skill of temple architecture under the patronage of the Vijayanagara rulers who reigned from 14th to 17th century CE.
Srinivas Reddy’s latest biography of Emperor Krishnadevaraya, whom he likes to describe as poet-king reveals so far hidden aspects of his life: “Unlike the royal-blooded Prataparudradeva of the Solar Lineage, Krishnadevaraya was by all accounts a shudra, the unplanned offspring of a low-caste general and a dasi (servant woman). One story tells of an auspicious falling star that flashed across the sky at the moment of Krishnadevaraya’s conception. On that night his father Narasa Nayaka lay with a maidservant who had come to light the evening lamps. According to Narayana Rao, in his own locality, Krishnadevaraya was only a peasant and, if legends are to be believed, a low-caste peasant at that.”
According to oral tradition, Prataparudradeva looked down at Krishnadevaraya with contempt. He felt it below his high stature to engage with a son of a servant, a low-class upstart with no social standing. Prataparudradeva only saw Krishnadevaraya as a dasi-putra who had grafted himself on to the royal Lunar Lineage. Clearly, this was a major point of tension, but Krishnadevaraya seems to have made every effort to live up to the ideal of a righteous Hindu king, regardless of (or perhaps because of) his humble origins. In their personal devotions, Krishnadevaraya and Prataparudradeva were both staunch Vaishnavas. At the same time, they were inclusive and tolerant in supporting state patronage of various other deities, sects and religious movements.
And although both kings worshipped the main god Vishnu, they supported two separate traditions of Vaishnava theology: Krishnadevaraya was a Sri Vaishnava, a follower of the Tamil saint Ramanuja, while Prataparudradeva was an ardent Gaudiya, having converted to this new faith after a profound encounter with its celebrated founder, the Bengali saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Krishnadevaraya represents a critical transformation from ancient king to modern politician. And in that sense, he was India’s first global leader. He had to confront very modern problems such as building international alliances and negotiating overseas trade deals while grappling with the challenges of globalism and multiculturalism. The Deccan of his time was a place where Hindus and Muslims, north Indians and south Indians, Persians and Portuguese, all intermingled as they made their lives and fortunes. In the eyes of the world, Vijayanagara was the epitome of oriental opulence. It was a cosmopolitan metropolis, the best provided city of the world, more magnificent than Rome, and so exceedingly rich that diamonds were traded in the streets by the basket load!
The epicentre of Vijayanagara literary production was a great hall called the Bhuvana Vijayam, or World Conquest, designed to host poetry readings and contests of literary wit. According to Paes, the hall was built when the king returned from the war against Orissa. It was a wide open space with lofty walls covered from top to bottom with crimson and green velvet and other handsome cloths. The magnificent structure was metaphorically held up by the king’s ashta-dig-gajas, or Elephants of the Eight Directions, great poets of the land whom Krishnadevaraya had invited to grace his court.
In Hindu cosmology, the mythical eight elephants support the entire universe on their backs, and so it was only fitting for the king to bestow this lofty title upon the celebrated poets who sustained the empire by memorializing the king’s fame. To be sure, there was a deep and sustained connection between political power and literary production. The king’s royal poets not only crafted words, but they also helped shape whole empires.
Historian Manu S. Pillai records in his “Rebel Sultans: The Deccan From Khilji to Shivaji traces the history of Deccan India from 13th to 18th century”: Krishnadeva, the Raya of Vijayanagar, was a man who breathed magnificence. Poets heaped praise on him by the dozen, but the kingdom’s Diamond Throne was never meant to be his. To begin with, he was born to his father from an inferior wife, whereas his predecessor and half-brother emerged from a purer vessel. When that brother was on his deathbed, the story goes, he made his minister promise to blind the ambitious Krishnadeva so that any threat to the royal prospects of his own children might be thwarted. The minister nodded at the disabled king, produced, it is said, goat’s eyes as evidence of the deed being done and then proceeded to merrily install Krishnadeva on the throne anyway. All rivals who lived were parcelled into a prison fortress far away, and soon Krishnadeva commenced his conquests (also finding time to compose half a dozen literary works on the side).
Emperor Kerishnadevaraya’s biographer Reddy digs out some interesting stories. In an interview he is quoted as saying: “I’m an admirer of Krishnadevaraya because after years of studying his life, he remains a great source of inspiration to me, and hopefully now a whole new generation of leaders and thinkers. As the book progresses, I’m also critical of Raya’s actions at the end of his reign, particularly his growing megalomania and the unfortunate incident with his beloved minister Timmarasu. As the story goes, Raya, in a fit of rage, blinded the man who he always called a father. A sad story indeed, but one that also serves to humanise this larger-than-life king.”
Photo Lines: (1) The statue of the great king Krishnadevaraya who ruled during 1509 to 1529 (2) The stone chariot at Hampi