Reams of paper have been consumed describing the wonders of the Vijayanagara Empire, based out of their capital city of Hampi. A steady stream of visitors since the 15th Century have waxed eloquently on what was once described as the ‘the best provided city in the world’. Two hundred years of immense wealth and power were reflected in the architecture of Hampi, the ruins of which testify to the fact that it was probably the largest contemporary city in India.
However, no description of Hampi can be complete without an exhaustive account of the buildings that stand within what is now known as the ‘Royal Center’. These buildings have a distinct style that was, in all probability, inspired by the contemporary architecture of the neighboring Bahmani Sultanate. The Bahmani Sultanate was the northern neighbor and chief rival of the Vijayanagara Empire, having been founded at the same time and from the same set of circumstances that led to the establishment of the Vijayanagara Empire.
The Lotus Mahal is a perfect example of this style of architecture that could be best described as the Vijayanagara Courtly Style. Built on an elevated platform, the Lotus Mahal has a square mandala like plan with symmetrical projections on each side. It has double – curved eaves and nine octagonal shaped domes or gopurams which are all derived from temple architecture. In addition to this, it also has arches, interior domes and vaults that are clearly Sultanate in style.
The Lotus Mahal stands in an enclosed area called the Zenana enclosure. This enclosure has a series of watchtowers that are built in the same hybrid style. These watchtowers have eaves and domes (gopurams) that are derived from temple architecture along with pointed arches and interior domes that are Sultanate in nature.
These buildings are but a part of a larger number of other buildings that are similar in style featuring Sultanate style pointed arches, vaults, domes and cut plaster-work in floral patterns. This interaction with the Sultanate architectural tradition is reflective of the cosmopolitan nature of the Vijayanagara Empire and makes the ensuring Vijayanagara courtly style a unique blend of features and a delight to observe.
The interaction between the Vijayanagara Empire and the Bahmani Sultanate is usually represented in mutually antagonistic terms. The cultural interactions, as manifest in architectural styles, points to a much more nuanced relationship between the two. This should come as no surprise as both were highly evolved multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies.