The Vijayanagara Courtly Style

The Lotus Mahal — Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

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 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 inspired by the contemporary architecture of the neighbouring Bahmani Sultanate. The Bahmani Sultanate was the northern neighbour 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 relationship between the Vijayanagara Empire and their northern neighbours-the Bahamani Sultanate and its successor states — were complex. Often seen as antagonistic and through the lens of religious rivalry, it was in actuality far more nuanced with a steady flow of traffic between the two. Often at war with each other, especially over the control of the fertile Raichur Doab, there was nevertheless a large amount of cultural give and take between the two. This cultural exchange did not prevent either of them from conspiring to defeat the other and they remained bitter rivals till the very end.

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 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 plasterwork in floral patterns.

The Elephant Stables, the best-preserved and largest building in the Royal Center, is another fine example. Built to house the Royal elephants, it is an elaborate rectangular structure with a row of eleven doomed chambers each built to house two elephants. Lofty arched doorways, chambers roofed with plain or fluted domes that alternate with twelve-sided pyramidal vaults, a central chamber with a flat roof on which sits an open gallery gives it a distinct look. Though it fits the general description of the Vijayanagara Courtly Style, it is an original creation that testifies to the creative spirit of the Vijayanagara builders.

Another building of note is the Queen's Bath which has a simple exterior and an ornate interior. It is a rectangular building with a large sunken bath in the centre surrounded by beautiful arched pillared corridors and projecting ornate balconies with windows. Each arched bay surrounding the bath is decorated with intricately carved stucco ornamentation on the ceilings and the vaults placed above the arched bays.

The Vijayanagara Rayas employed a large number of immigrants from the middle east and Persia, especially in their cavalry. The Vijayanagara cavalry tactics were heavily influenced by their northern neighbours and staffed by immigrants due to their superior knowledge of horses and prowess in horse mounted warfare. These immigrants were housed in separate quarters complete with homes, baths, mosques and tombs all of which are representative of the courtly style.

As mentioned earlier, the interaction between the Vijayanagara Empire and their northern neighbours is usually represented in mutually antagonistic terms. The cultural interactions, as manifest in architectural styles, point 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.

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.

Described as an interested and well-informed amateur, Vikram’s field of inquiry is ‘Man and Nature: whatever is performed by the one or produced by the other’.

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Vikram Nanjappa

Vikram Nanjappa

Described as an interested and well-informed amateur, Vikram’s field of inquiry is ‘Man and Nature: whatever is performed by the one or produced by the other’.

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