The Women of Ancient Hampi

Published on: 20/08/2018

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Carvings on the Mahanavami Dibba portraying women engaged in hunting – Photograph: Nicholas Rixon

Hampi is the perfect coming together of unhurried modernity and historical enchantment. The cafés and curio stalls melt away as you enter the Vitthala complex’ five-tiered gopuram (gateway). The colonnades, on either side, are intricately carved with images of the women of Hampi decked out in royal finery. The musical pillars of the Sangeetha Mandapam complex are decorated with carvings of female minstrels.

Not far from the Vitthala temple is the Mahanavami Dibba where, aeons ago, royal families and their subjects gathered for parades and other socio-cultural performances. The carvings here portray women taming wild horses, spear-wielding female hunter-soldiers, and royal attendants.

Sculptures and carvings of women adorn nearly every temple complex across Hampi. As archaeologists still work to uncover the ruins of a once glorious empire, one thing is for sure- women played a vital role in the day-to-day workings of this ancient city. Their contributions, far from being auxiliary, extended to law and order, literature, commerce and astrology. Women were not just housewives, and many of them were bailiffs, accountants and astronomers.

An inscription dating back to 1540 A.D. infers the economic independence of certain women by highlighting the donation provided by Chinnamamba, sister of a Chief Minister, for the construction of a water-tank. This implies she felt the need, and had the means, to improve community living. A later inscription tells us about a woman of the nobility, Kuppayani, who contributed to the building of irrigation channels in Tirumala.

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Women hunting from elephant back – Photograph: Nicholas Rixon

Another 1542 A.D. inscription mentions entire regions ruled by women. When Achyuta Raya was king, Mahamandalesvara Sangitapuradhisvara Chemnadeviamma was appointed Governor of Haduvalli. Chinnaman, daughter of Pratapa Ellamarasar, presented Venkyalapattu village to a Tirumala aristocrat. The Rayas trusted their administrative capabilities and the women were known to effectively rule their regions.

Domingo Paes, a 16th century Portuguese traveller, was mesmerized by the prosperity of Hampi. He makes an interesting note of how courtesans were respected and were the only group of people who were allowed to mingle freely with the Queens. The polygamy of the Vijayanagar Rayas is well documented and the treatment of female attendants was given prime importance by the monarchs.

Female guards, wrestlers and musicians would come out in great numbers during cultural events. Each queen had their own set of female guards and any message that needed to be passed on to her had to go through them. In the same way that Vijayanagar Rayas had ministers and officials surrounding them, the Queens had their own all-female posse. Being employed in a Royal Household implies that women served a variety of roles and were crucial to the workings of the palace.

It was during the zenith of the Vijayanagar empire that female artists were encouraged to contribute to literature. Krishnadevaraya, besides having dominion over peninsular India, patronized female writers and poets. His wife, Tirumalamba Devi, penned an account of the marriage of a Vijayanagar Raya. She followed her husband into the Kalinga War and appreciated poetry in her court. Madhura Vijayam (The Conquest of Madurai), by Gangadevi, is a verse narrative of her husband’s military conquest of the Madurai Sultanate. Not only is the poem a sign that literature by women was thriving in the era, it also is an important historical document of the Vijayanagar empire’s conquests.

At a time when bloody conquests were the order of the day, the Vijayanagar Empire was one of the most progressive societies in the world. It comes as no surprise that Hampi gets its name from Parvati, a principal goddess of Hindu mythology. The monolithic structures of this ancient city act as a time machine, and the carvings that adorn these stone walls an immortal reminder of the importance of women in ancient Hampi.


Nicholas Rixon

Nicholas Rixon's work has appeared in The Indian Quarterly, Scroll, The Statesman, Hindustan Times and The Assam Tribune, among others. He currently lives in New Delhi and is working on his debut collection of short stories.

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