The First Photographic Record of Hampi

Published on: 18/05/2018

Krishna Temple Complex, Hemakuta Hill.

Krishna Temple Complex, Hemakuta Hill – Photograph: Colonel Alexander Greenlaw – Wikimedia Commons

Colonel Alexander Greenlaw was an officer in the army of the British East India Company with a weakness for photography. It is not clear when he developed his interest in photography, but he exhibited some of his work in an 1855 exhibition in Madras (now Chennai) and was awarded a second-class medal for his “great variety of head size portraits, half-lengths, and groups”.

Around the year 1856, he visited the recently ‘discovered’ city of Hampi and took several photographs using the newly developed calotype method of waxed paper negatives. In fact, he was well known for greatly simplifying the calotype process in order to cope with the heat of India. He was amongst the last of the original practitioners to publish on the calotype and had tuned the process to perhaps its finest potential. While he had made a name for himself, having published his method in 1869 which was reported under his name in influential manuals of the day, history had other plans for him

The photographs of Hampi taken by Colonel Alexander Greenlaw soon disappeared from sight only for the negatives to resurface in 1980 in a private collection in London. They were found by a retired British army officer, Eddie Gibbons, who bought the waxed negatives from a descendant of Colonel Greenlaw. Unable to identify the ruins in the negatives, Gibbons contacted the curator of the India section of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London who in turn referred him to the archeologist George Michell. George Michell was able to identify the subjects in the negatives.

Eastern Gopura and Lamp Column Vitthala Temple Complex.

Eastern Gopura and with the now missing Lamp Column, Vitthala Temple Complex – Photograph: Colonel Alexander Greenlaw – Wikimedia Commons

To say their discovery caused a sensation in archeological circles is an understatement. They were the only photographic records of the ruins as they stood when serious archeological work was first started at Hampi (by Alexander Rea in 1855, head of the newly created Archaeological Survey of the Madras Presidency of British India).

The photographs besides providing the first comprehensive visual survey of Hampi, also records many features that have not survived since 1856. This was clearly bought out by a series of comparative photographs taken in 1983 by the Australian photographer John Gollings who used the same angles and the same light conditions, often placing his tripod on the very same spot used by Colonel Alexander Greenlaw.

Garuda Temple Maha Mandapa and Eastern Gopura Vitthala Temple Complex.

Stone Chariot (Garuda Shrine) with the now missing brick tower, Maha Mandapa and Eastern Gopura, Vitthala Temple Complex – Photograph: Colonel Alexander Greenlaw – Wikimedia Commons

A comparative study of these two sets of photographs clearly shows the amount of destruction that had taken place over a span of just 127 years. It is left to the imagination as to what happened to the ruins over three centuries since the Battle of Talikota to the time Colonel Alexander Greenlaw photographed them.

The photographs are now being used in the conservation and restoration of Hampi with the Archaeological Survey of India using them as a reference for restoring parts of the Krishna and Vithala temples. The Greenlaw photographs, besides their connection with Hampi, are also the earliest complete photographic record of any ancient site in India.

Colonel Alexander Greenlaw passed away in 1870, his photographs of Hampi live on as a testament to the role played by dedicated amateurs, often working independently, in the recording of histories and historical sites.


Vikram Nanjappa

Vikram Nanjappa likes to be described as an interested and well-informed amateur. He draws his inspiration from the band of men called the Orientalists, most of whom were amateurs. By profession, they were soldiers and administrators. However, today, they are remembered as giants of scholarship. Like them, his field of enquiry is ‘Man and Nature : whatever is performed by the one or produced by the other’.

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