I went to Hampi as an aimless traveler who was merely looking for something new and it barely took a day to succumb to the charms of this enchanting medieval city. The pure beauty and grandeur of the ruins I saw took me by surprise. This exquisite artisanship surely could not have flourished and sustained in a kingdom which was at perpetual war with its surrounding neighbour kingdoms!

Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, was a city of kings who took their titles rather seriously. In most Hindu kingdoms from times ancient to medieval, kings considered themselves the representatives of God and Vijayanagara was no different in this regard. It was especially during the time of the holy period of Navaratri that kings performed their magniloquent duties as representatives of commoners in the kingdom of god. Travelers from around the world, from the Portuguese Domingo Paes and Fernao Nuniz to Abdur Razzaq from Samarqand and the Italian Nicolo Conti, who visited Vijayanagara during this period have written vivid accounts of the kingdom especially the grand festival of Mahanavami.

During this period of nine days, every person, from the subjects to the king himself became a part of an elaborate festival that was at the same time a sort of a symbolic ritual and a royal fete that eventually came to define the golden era of Vijayanagara. From majestic war elephants and horses to beautiful dancing girls, musicians and poets, everyone who was a part of the ethos that formed the empire was represented in this festival.

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Carvings depicting the Mahanavami Festival procession – Photograph: Snigdha Sharma

 

The king’s nobles and chiefs from all corners of the vast empire made journeys that took as long as four months to make it in time for the festival of Mahanavami. With them came thousands of animals and people who were to be a part of this festival of a scale beyond belief.

Razzaq in his memoirs describes how thousands of elephants wearing armours encrusted with rubies, diamonds, emeralds and precious stones stood like a tumultuous sea in front of the king’s palace. On top of them sat jugglers, fire-breathers and entertainers of various kinds. Extraordinary forms and pictures were painted with cinnabar and other pigments on the bodies of these elephants making them a sight to behold.

Further down in the royal enclosure were painted pavilions constructed with exceeding delicacy and taste. Some of them even revolved offering changing views of the stage at every instance. Huge platforms were constructed and there was a special one made for the kings and his confidants. Beautifully engraved with exquisite figures of men, women and animals, on top of this stone platform was a pillared edifice nine stories in height. The king’s throne was placed on the ninth storey from where he was able to get a view of the sprawling palace grounds buzzing with activity and vibrant fireworks. All that remains of this structure now is the carved stone base. You may know it as the Mahanavami Dibba.

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The King’s Entrance of the Mahanavami Dibba – Photograph: Snigdha Sharma

 

Dancing women who commanded great respect in the royal court, often more than the king’s own military men and chiefs, were a special part of the festival. They were invited from all over the kingdom to attend Mahanavami. Paes provides a vivid description of their attire in his account of Vijayanagara. They were clad in rich silk and had on their heads high caps embroidered with flowers made of large pearls. On their neck they wore gold collars set with emeralds, diamonds, rubies apart from multiple strings of pearls. Jeweled bracelets covered their arms and, on their waists, heavy girdles of gold encrusted with precious stones. Heavy anklets embellished with pearls were wrapped around their feet. So great was the weight of all their jewelry that they had to supported by other women who accompanied them wherever they went.

Activities in the festival included wrestling matches between both men and women, large number of animal sacrifices, poetry, song and dance recitals and elaborate pyrotechnics. The king exchanged valuable gifts with his priests and noblemen during this period.

It is hard to imagine that a festival of such grandeur could be held in what are now ruins of the royal enclosure. How did the kings of Vijayanagara protect their empire from surrounding threats and at the same time manage to shape such a rich and vibrant culture where women were considered equal, the arts were allowed to flourish and more importantly the subjects of the kingdom lived in prosperity? The lingering question remains.