Tag Archive: Hampi


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By Sharon St Joan

 

On this planet, as we all know, life began in the sea, with the fish and other sea creatures; then came reptiles like the turtles, as animals began to adapt to life on land. Great sea turtles still swim in the sea, but they lay their eggs on the shore. Then the land animals, like the boar, appeared. And of course, much, much later humanoid beings appeared, including the several species of early humans.

 

In Hindu tradition, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu is Narasimha, who is half-man, half-lion. Preceding Narasimha are three Vishnu incarnations that have an animal form: Matsya, the fish, Kurma, the turtle, and Varaha, the boar. The incarnations that follow Narasimha are all human in form: Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Ballarama (or in some sources, Buddha) and Kalki.

 

Interestingly, this progression throughout time corresponds to the theory of evolution: first a fish; then a reptile; then a mammal; then a half-mammal half-human, followed by the human forms.

 

An eighteenth century painting This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.808px-Narasimha_oil_colour

 

How did ancient Hindu seers know about the theory of evolution—which was only “discovered” by Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century? Well, they seem to have known quite a lot of things. Ancient Sanskrit writings are filled with scientific treatises on mathematical and scientific topics, especially astronomical knowledge, a lot of which was only “discovered” many centuries later by Europeans, yet this knowledge was there all along, and was written down in very early Sanskrit texts.

 

We are so used to thinking that only modern humans, within the past few centuries, have possessed any real knowledge about the world, that we remain ignorant of all the thousands of years of human history in which there is evidence that humans knew far more than we give them credit for.

 

In any case, Narasimha stands on the threshold between the animal and the human forms of Vishnu. He is an intriguing figure.

 

Author Adityamadhav Narasimha at Simhachalam Temple in Visakhapatnam

 

Many stories in Hinduism and in legends all over the world, portray the great battle that takes place between the self-absorbed forces of darkness and the beings of light who defend the innocent from wrongdoing. Narasimha is a defender against injustice.

 

Once upon a time, so one of these stories goes, there was a demon named Hiranyakasipu who didn’t like Vishnu very much because in a previous incarnation Vishnu had killed his younger brother. This had happened because one day the brother, Hiranyaksha, had brutally attacked and then tried to drown Mother Earth at the bottom of the sea. In his role as protector of the innocent, Vishnu had saved Mother Earth from the sea, and killed the demon brother.

 

The demon Hiranyakasipu, who was perhaps afraid because his brother had been killed as a consequence of his evil deeds, feared death and wanted to live forever.

 

So one day, he approached Brahma to ask for the gift of immortality. Brahma replied that that gift was not within his power to bestow, but, at Hiranyakasipu’s insistence, he agreed to do the next best thing. Brahma granted him a boon – that he would not die either inside or outside, neither during the day nor the night; also that he would not be killed by any weapon, or by any human being or any animal. Hiranyakasipu was quite happy with all this and felt pretty certain that he would now live forever.

 

A few years passed, and Hiranyakasipu had a son named Prahalada. Unfortunately for Hiranyakasipu, his son became an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. This upset Hiranyakasipu no end because he saw Vishnu as his mortal enemy. One day just as the sun was setting, Hiranyakasipu came upon his son Prahalada, who despite all his father’s objections, was still praying to Vishnu. He even said to his father that Vishnu is all-powerful and is present everywhere. Thoroughly exasperated, his father shouted at him, “Look at that pillar; is your God Vishnu inside that pillar?”

 

Prahalada replied, “Vishnu is inside every pillar and even every twig.” Losing his temper completely, Hiranyakasipu picked up his heavy mace and smashed the pillar into pieces. Out jumped Narasimha. By this time Hiranyakasipu was swinging his mace wildly, and his son’s life was in danger. To save the boy Prahalada, from the wrath of his father, Narasimha lifted the demon Hiranyakasipu up off his feet and killed him with his bare hands.

 

As it turned out, Hiranyakasipu was after all subject to death, despite the boon granted by Brahma, because he was killed at twilight – neither in the day or in the night; by Narasimha’s powerful hands, not by any weapon; in the doorway, and therefore neither inside nor out, and he was killed not by any animal or any human, but by Narasimha, who was part man, part lion. Perhaps the lesson is also that no matter what kind of deal one tries to strike with fate or with the Gods, one cannot evade one’s karma.

 

As an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Narasimha is a fierce and powerful, magical being who protects those who call on him from harm and danger.

 

The twenty feet high, beautifully carved statue of Narasimha at Hampi, however, was not immune to the violence done by the invading army which destroyed the city in 1565. His legs and hands were cut off, and they lay nearby on the ground for several hundred years until significant restoration work was done in the 1980’s by the Archeological Survey of India. Now he looks down, once again an imposing presence, ready to spring into action to bring about justice and rid the earth of evil.

 

© Sharon St Joan, 2017.

 

Top photo: Sharon St Joan. Narasimha at Hampi.

 

Second photo: An eighteenth century painting of Narasimha. Wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.”

 

Third photo: Author: Adityamadhav83 / CC BY-SA 3.0, Narasimha at the Simhachalam Temple in Visakhapatnam.

 

 

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By Sharon St Joan

 

The now deserted site of Hampi, in Karnataka, in south India, covers 25 square miles, of stunning ancient ruins – the temples, palaces, and bazaars of this ancient city.

 

Knocking on the pillars of the beautiful Vitthala Temple is no longer allowed; but when they used to be struck, each pillar would produce a unique musical tone.

 

The main temple features 56 columns – each of the columns is made up of a circle of musical pillars — long, slender, and graceful. The rock that resonates contains large quantities of metallic ore, including silica. Other temples in India also feature musical pillars, including some at the Chidambaram Temple on the east coast and at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. They produce a clear, bell-like sound, with each pillar sounding its own unique note. In some cases, when one pillar is rung, others in the same circle will also ring.

 

Begun in the Fourteenth Century, the Vitthala Temple was expanded later on by the great Vijayanagara king, Krishna Deva Raya in the Sixteenth Century.

 

Vitthala is a traditional name by which Krishna is known in this area.

 

The structures at Hampi, as is typical of old temples, are constructed in two sections, the bottom part being built of heavy stone, and the top section made of clay bricks which are much lighter, so the structure is stable with the heavier stone on the bottom. The clay bricks tend to wear away easily over the centuries, while the stone sections, less affected by weathering, remain much as they always were.

 

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In front of the Vitthala Temple at Hampi stands a great stone chariot. The stone wheels of the chariot are made to be able to turn, just as they would in a real chariot; however, to prevent damage to them, they have been fixed in place in modern times and no longer revolve. Inside the chariot is the icon of Garuda, the winged being, part man, part eagle – or part brahminy kite, who is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu.

 

Where, a few centuries ago, two stone horses were placed in front to pull the chariot, now there are two stone elephants instead. The horses were destroyed by the invading army that leveled the city of Vijayanagara (Hampi) in 1565. The topmost part of the chariot, made of bricks is also gone; the great carved stone section of the chariot remains.

 

A powerful, magical being, Garuda is seen as one who has access to mystical knowledge and insights. Ferocious and fearless, he targets evil with his keen eyes and sharp claws. He is particularly an enemy of snakes.

 

This does not mean, however, that snakes are evil. Like all the animals of the earth, snakes are innocent beings. The nagas, who are mythical snakes and serpents, possess great knowledge of the earth; after all, snakes live within in the earth so they know it well. (Even in western mythologies, dragons guard the hidden treasures of the earth.) Snakes, however, are also likely to eat eggs, which does not endear them to birds.

 

It may be said that eagles, hawks, and all birds, have an opposing worldview from that of snakes – the birds’ domain is the sky, the realm between heaven and earth, so their perspective is opposite to that of snakes, but neither one is evil (There are, in fact, a few birds that do make their homes in caves in the earth, but only a few.) In many mythologies, among the peoples of South America, for example, there are tales of feathered serpents – who, one supposes, must have an affinity with both snakes and birds.

 

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In any case, Garuda’s realm is the space between heaven and earth; his home is the skies, which he traverses to carry Lord Vishnu from his heavenly home down to the earth. Whenever unrighteousness holds sway over the earth (which seems to happen quite a bit), Vishnu descends to the earth, where he incarnates as an earthly being to overcome injustice and set things right again.

 

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The number of avatars of Vishnu varies from one source to another, but most commonly is said to be ten; of these, the ninth is Krishna. These are described in Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s beautiful “Book of Vishnu,” where she writes, “Vishnu means all-pervading: he is the all-pervading sun, whose rays envelope the earth, who protects the sacrifice and sends forth the rain and is the final abode of the pious dead…Benevolence, goodwill, and willingness to help his devotees whenever they call upon him are characteristics that made Vishnu popular in an increasingly material world and which brought him into the world in several incarnations.”

© Text and photos, Sharon St Joan, 2017

Photos:

Top photo: The Vitthala Temple, with its musical pillars.

Second photo: The stone chariot of Garuda.

Third photo: A flowering tree in the courtyard.

Fourth photo: Traces of painting still present on one of the sculptures.

The Book of Vishnu, by Dr. Nanditha Krishna, is available on Amazon –www.amazon.com

 

 

 

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By Sharon St Joan

 

Centuries ago, as today, travelers waited at crossing points to go across the Tungabadra. Nearby are stone platforms no longer in use where the heat of the Indian summer was broken by leaves overhead as they rested in the shade waiting for their turn to cross the great river. Round boats called coracles would carry them to the island just across the way.

 

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A few yards downhill was a small shrine to Ganesha where they could ask the God’s blessing for their trip.

 

From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, Hampi was the great capital of the Vijanagara dynasty, which ruled all of south India. Many of the citizens had leisure time; they were well off, and their city, estimated to be three times the size of Paris at the time, may have been the largest and wealthiest city in the world.

 

The British economic historian, Angus Maddison, has described India as the richest country on earth for well over a thousand years, possessing from one quarter to one third of the entire global wealth – until the advent of the British.

 

How short our memories are that some of us do not even think of the ancient lands of Asia, Africa, and South America in any way other than as “developing” countries struggling to catch up.

 

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The Tungabadra is a broad, pale, blue-gray river, wide, as many Indian rivers are, nearly a mile across, it winds its way along the border of Hampi, narrowing and deepening, as it runs through a gorge with spectacular huge boulders on either side. These boulders, scattered throughout the area, are a distinctive feature of Hampi. Some are as big as houses; looking for all the world as if a giant hand has swept them up and dropped them again in great heaps; they line the roadsides, as well as the horizons, in towering piles.

 

 

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A beautiful river with many small green islands, the Tungabadra, along with the amazing boulders, forms natural defensive barriers that helped protect the city for hundreds of years — reasons that this site was originally chosen to be the capitol of south India.

 

The line of the Vijayanagara kings who ruled this area began with two brothers, Harihara I and Bukka Raya I. It is said that, as boys, they were enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam, in 1327, when their father was taken prisoner by advancing forces.

 

The two boys grew up, took back their freedom, and in 1336, they set up their capitol city at Hampi, and spent the rest of their lives staging a firm resistance to the Moslem intruders who were sweeping down the western regions of India from the north. The line of rulers and the empire they established held its ground against repeated incursions for around two hundred years.

 

Even though the city of Vijayanagara, or Hampi, was eventually overrun, the brave centuries-long stand of the Vijayanagara kings and their people meant that regions of India’s far south, like Tamil Nadu and Travancore (which was divided up later in the twentieth century), were able to retain their freedom, and unlike the central and most of the northern states, were never taken over and ruled by invaders.

 

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Since the sacking of Hampi in 1565, the city has never been rebuilt. No one lives there now, but the area has many people all the same. Tourists visit, especially from all over India. Guides offer their services, there are cold drink stands, and young boys, some clearly destined to be future entrepreneurs, sell guide books.

 

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No small family houses remain at Hampi, but hundreds of fascinating stone structures still stand in the approximately two mile by three mile area south of the river, which is a UNESCO heritage site.

 

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Many of the temples have been excavated in recent years, and archeological work is ongoing. One can walk up sloping rock hills to visit palaces, giant sculptures, and beautiful sites of worship, peering into the windows of the past. Long stone bazaars now stand empty – once they thronged with crowds where merchants sold diamonds, rubies, and gold; others fruits and vegetables, or simply trinkets and bangles.

 

An impressive 162 feet high dam has been built on the Tungabadra River to provide electricity and irrigation to the region around Hampi. Completed in 1953, it creates a large reservoir and the dam itself is lit up at night with colored lights. Despite the dam and the seemingly huge quantities of water, the area is suffering from a severe drought.

 

Trees dot the hillsides, some with leaves faded from the lack of rain. There are many date palms too, not originally native to south India.

 

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In the fading light of the sunset, one can sense the presence of ancient spirits among the immense sculptures and temples; in them the glory and majesty of this great empire lives on. There is a gentleness in the beautifully carved sculptures and a lingering memory of the heroic strength of those who fought well to defend their land.

 

Top photo: The Tungabadra river where people can cross by boat to an island.

 

Second photo: A Ganesha shrine.

 

Third photo: Huge boulders, a natural feature of this region.

 

Fourth photo: The Tungabadra where it widens.

 

Fifth photo: Boys selling guide books.

 

Sixth photo: Tourists and a toppled pillar.

 

Seventh photo: This used to be a row of shops.

 

Eighth photo: Palms around a little shrine.

 

 

© Text and photos, Sharon St Joan, 2017