The footprints of Hindu-Muslim hybridity defy the received wisdom on the fall of Vijayanagara
William Dalrymple William Dalrymple | 26 Jul, 2018
IN THE FALL of 1443, a dhow bringing an ambassador from Timurid Central made landfall at the port of Calicut on the Malabar Coast of Southern India.
Abdur Razzak Samarqandi was on an important mission to open diplomatic relations between the Timurid Empire and what was then the most powerful city-state in India. Vijayanagara, the great Hindu City of Victory, was then approaching the peak of its power, and controlled almost all the rich lands of peninsula India to the south of the river Tunghabadra.
Abdur Razzak was not, however, in the best of moods. He stepped ashore after a long and gruelling land journey from Herat in Western Afghanistan through Persia to Hormuz, ‘where the heat was so intense that the marrow boiled in the bones and the sword in its scabbard melted like wax’. There followed a sea voyage through the Gulf and across the Arabia Sea to Calicut, where the agitated ambassador passed in and out of consciousness with a high fever. Then, on arrival at Calicut, the ambassador found himself surrounded by dark skinned and half-naked Malabaris, ‘a strange nation, neither men nor demons, at meeting whom the mind would go mad. Had I seen the likes of them in a dream, my heart would have been upset for months’.
But Abdur Razzak had reason to believe this voyage would be worth his while; and indeed things did begin to improve as soon as he entered the territories of Vijayanagara. Even in the border town of Belour, he wrote, ‘the houses were like palaces and the beauty of the women reminded me of the houris of paradise’. Indeed the Belour temple there was so large that he wrote that he would refrain from describing it, as he would be ‘suspected of exaggeration’.
Yet not even this prepared Abdur Razzak for the magnificence of the capital, which he reached a few days later: ‘The city of Vijayanagara simply has no equal in the world,’ he wrote. ‘It is such that the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it in the whole world… It is a city of enormous magnitude and population, with a king of perfect rule and hegemony, whose kingdom stretches more than a thousand leagues. Most of his regions are flourishing, and he possesses three hundred ports. He has a thousand elephants with bodies like mountains and miens like demons…. The Empire contains so great a population that it would be impossible to give an idea of it…’
Abdur Razzak was particularly astonished at the extraordinary personal wealth visible everywhere—especially the profusion of jewellery worn by men and women of every social class, and the sophistication of the jewellers who dealt in gems: stalls selling pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds were, he says, doing strong business, drawing in traders from across the globe.
He passed through seven concentric rings of fortifications, each with its own citadel, with walls, he wrote, made of ‘stones the height of a man, one half of which is sunk in the ground while the other rises above it’. He then found himself in a belt of beautiful gardens whose orchards were bubbling with runnels of clear water and ‘canals formed of chiselled stone, polished and smooth’. Abdur Razzak noted the magnificent elephant stables with separate stalls for each of the beasts, and the bazaars overflowing with produce filling the colonnaded streets. Eventually, he arrived at the innermost palace of the king, where he observed a vast audience hall, a vaulted hall of justice, the spacious hall of the chief minister, and a mint.
After a short wait, Abdur Razzak was taken in to an audience with the king, Devaraya II (r 1424-46) who ‘was seated in a hall, surrounded by the most imposing attributes of state. Right and left of him stood a numerous crowd of men ranged in a circle. The king was dressed in a robe of green satin; around his neck he wore a collar composed of pearls of beautiful water and other splendid gems… on which a jeweller’s intellect would have found it difficult to put a price. He had an olive complexion, his frame was thin and he was rather tall; on his cheeks might be seen a slight down, but there was no beard on his chin’. The throne, he wrote, ‘was of an extraordinary size, made of gold inlay encrusted with beautiful jewels and ornaments with exceeding delicacy, dexterity and artistic refinement… It is probable that in all the kingdoms of the world, the art in inlaying precious stones is nowhere better understood than in this country’.
Abdur Razzak was not alone. All visitors were dazzled by the riches of Vijayanagara. Apart from anything else, the City of Victory was the location of the world’s largest diamonds. According to the first treatise on the subject written by the Portuguese natural philosopher Garcia da Orto (1501-68) it was in Vijayanagara that the world’s biggest diamonds were on display— and the richest diamond deposits were located nearby, within its territories: ‘there are two or three rocks which yield much to the King of Vijayanagara,’ he wrote, ‘The diamonds yield great income to the King of this country. Any stone which has a weight over 30 carats belongs to the King. For this guard is placed over the diggers, and if any person is found with any, he is taken with all that he has…. The Gujeratis buy them and take them for sale in the city of Vijayanagara, where these diamonds fetch a high price, especially those they call naifes, being those which nature has worked; while the Portuguese value those most which have been polished. The Canarese say that just as a virgin is more valuable than a woman who is not one, so this naife diamond is worth more than a cut one…. The largest I have seen in this land was 140 carats, another 120, and I have heard that a native of this land had one of 250 carats… Many years ago I heard from a person worthy of credit that he saw one in Vijayanagara the size of a small hen’s egg.’
This may well be the earliest extant reference to the legendary Koh-i-Noor. Yet the wonders of Vijayanagara were not just matter of gold, silver and precious stones: the City of Victory was also a major centre of South Indian culture— retaining and developing the best of that which had been salvaged from the wreck of the three greatest Empires of southern history: the Pallavas, the Chalukyas and above all the mighty Cholas of Tanjore. Perhaps the most remarkable and celebrated of the city’s intellectuals, and the principal catalyst for its rich civilisation, was also its greatest ruler.
Krishnadevaraya (r. 1509-30) ascended the throne on July 26, 1509, and ruled Vijayanagara at the height of its fame and power. He doubled the size of the Empire in less than a decade, taking great swathes of territory from his neighbours, the Deccani Muslim Sultans of Bijapur and Gulbarga and the Tamil Hindus of Srirangapatnam. He also adopted some aspects of Islamic culture that he admired in his neighbours, especially aspects of diplomatic dress and customs. He also introduced firearms and canon, importing horses, improving fortifications and creating a remarkably effective revenue department to power the workings of his state.
The epitome of a profoundly cultured courtly South Indian ruler, like a Renaissance prince he was a great patron of writers in Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu—as well as of painters, architects and sculptors, generating around him a remarkable age of artistic, intellectual and literary creativity. One of his court poets, Allasani Peddana, hinted at the closeness of the bonds that developed between Krishnadevaraya and the writers he admired:
While guards stood by,
Fearless men with terrifying swords of blinding brightness,
And tributary kings surrounded him…
His heart was moved by the sweetness
Of poetry and, from his throne,
He spoke to me with great kindness.
But he also found time to write poetry himself, some of which survives. His epic, the Amuktamalyada, or the Giver of the Worn Garland, remains one of the brightest mirrors to the wealth, beauty, sophistication and sheer sensuality of Vijayanagara at its peak. In some parts of the poem, he writes of the economic duties of kings, so encouraging prosperity:
A King should improve the harbours of his country and so encourage its commerce that horses, elephants, precious gems, sandalwood and pearls are freely imported. Make the merchants of distant countries who import elephants and good horses be attached to yourself by providing them with a daily audience, presents and allowing decent profits.
There is a celebrated opening sequence to VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, India: A Wounded Civilization, which beautifully describes these shattered ruins of Hampi. Naipaul leads the reader through the remains of the once mighty city, its 24 miles of walls winding through the ‘brown plateau of rock and gigantic boulders’
Another work traditionally attributed to Krishnadevaraya, the Rayavacakamu, or The Tidings of the King, enlarges on this. A king, he writes, should, ‘increase his wealth by means of cowherd villages and pleasure gardens, merchant traffic on land and sea, and forts, protecting them through the mere glance of his eye, which reduces his enemies to dust.’ He should
Maintain an army composed of the four divisions of chariots, elephants, horses and foot soldiers … surround himself with wealth and grain, buildings and conveyances, relatives, servants, maidservants and other such people.
The most memorable stanzas of Krishnadevaraya’s poem, however, describe the beauty of the women of the city, and while the poem is nominally set in southern Tamil Nadu during the ninth century, Krishnadevaraya is clearly describing the alluring and sophisticated city he himself ruled over:
In the gardens,
Dravida women bathe in oval ponds,
Filled with red water lilies,
After smearing themselves with Holy turmeric
They tenderly collect lotuses for their morning puja
Walking along garden paths with flowers in their hands
And water jugs swaying at their hips, their silver anklets glitter
As they happily return home singing songs of devotion
Silver fish glimmer in the pure clear water
Of sapphire-ringed roadside wells,
As noisy groups of kingfishers swoop down
From tall trees to catch their prey
Groups of temple courtesans play games on their verandas
As they shake the dice with one hand, their braids come undone
So when they lift up the other hand to fix their hair
Their tight silken blouses and perfect breasts are revealed
Like soft round pillows of the God of Love
And as they throw the dice, the mere jingle of their bracelets
Is enough to stir the hearts of solitary sages.
VIJAYANAGARA WAS FOUNDED in 1336 by two young Hindu princes, of uncertain genealogy, Harihara and Bukka. There is contradictory evidence about the exact circumstances. But the brothers soon received the blessings of the influential mahant of the important temple of Shringeri, and this, and the war that had broken out between the different sultans of the Deccan, allowed them to lay the foundations of what rapidly became a hugely successful Hindu-ruled Empire in a part of the world that had for over a century been dominated by a succession of Islamic dynasties. By only 1352, the second king of Vijayanagara was calling himself ‘the prosperous great tributary, punisher of enemy kings, Sultan among Hindu Kings, vanquisher of kings who break their word, lord of the eastern and western oceans, the auspicious hero’.
It is a simple and attractive vision, and one that at first sight looks entirely plausible. Naipaul’s musings are eloquently and brilliantly written, and are a key to understanding his view of India as a country whose ancient civilisation was ‘mortally wounded’ by invasion, and which is still stultified by the effect of centuries of ‘defeat’. The problem is that these ideas rest on a set of assumptions which recent scholarship has done much to undermine
For a location, the brothers chose a stunning natural fortress, an amphitheatre formed of a rock-strewn basin of the Tunghabadra river, and here they planned a mighty city in the shape of a mandala or cosmic diagram. This was probably already a sacred landscape—after all, the boundaries between the divine and material worlds are notoriously porous in India.
The actual soil is thought by many rural Hindus to be the residence of the divinity and, in many villages is worshipped and understood to be literally the body of the Goddess; the features of the landscape—the mountains and forests, the caves and crevices and outcrops of rock, the mighty rivers—are all understood to be her physical features. This landscape is not dead but alive, and littered with tirthas, crossing place between different worlds, linked with the tracks of pilgrimage. The pilgrim who climbs to a hilltop Hampi shrine or swims in its sacred river enters a ford between different states of perception, where you can cross from the world of men to the world of the Gods as easily as you might cross a stream in the dry season.
Certainly the fabulously otherworldly quality of these stone-strewn, monkey-haunted Hampi hills, and its mighty river dotted with sacred islands and holy groves, soon came to be associated with a variety of divinities. Some spoke of it as Kishkindha, the kingdom of the monkey king Surgiva who settled beside the hermitage of the great sage Matanga. It was in a cave here, so it is said, that Sugriva hid Sita’s jewels when she was abducted in Ravanna’s aerial chariot. It was nearby, on an adjacent hill, that Lord Ram anxiously waited while Sugriva’s great general, Hanuman, travelled to Lanka to find Sita.
This picture of Hindu-Muslim hybridity, of Indo-Islamic intellectual and artistic fecundity is important, for it comes in such stark contrast to the received wisdom— articulated most elegantly by Naipaul— that for India the medieval period was a long tale of defeat and destruction
Others preferred to remember this sacred landscape as the abode of Pampa, from whom the modern name Hampi derives. Pampa, the personification of the Tunghabhadra, was said to be the beautiful daughter of Matanga, who was above all deeply devoted to the great God Virupaksha Shiva. Such was her love for the God, and so great her attentions to the sages who gathered around his shrine, that they bestowed a boon on her that Virupaksha would fall in love with her. When he saw her bathe in the Tunghabhadra, the God found her irresistible. Their marriage is still celebrated in the Virupaksha shrine every Spring.
Sanctified and charged with immense cosmological and religious significance by these myths, the city grew with great speed. The Sangama dynasty which ruled Vijayanagara for its first hundred years built at first relatively modestly, and the Ramachandra temple of Devarya I (1406-22), the biggest of the temples seen by Abdur Razzak, is actually a fairly small building by later standards, drawing heavily on Chola and Chalukya models.
The Sangamas divided the city into two main zones: a sacred enclosure, which contained temples conservatively built in the most traditional Dravidian styles; and a Royal enclosure, where there was much more stylistic exploration. Here palaces, tanks, baths and elephant stables were designed with great imagination, employing a number of intriguing and often very successful attempts to fuse the old Dravidian methods with the new styles of Vijayanagara’s Islamic neighbours.
It was really Krishnadevaraya who revolutionised the look of his city, transforming it as Augustus had transformed Rome. It was he who created a new Vijayanagaran temple style, first with his magnificent additions—halls, courtyards and gateways—to the city’s central Virupaksha temple, then in his new Vitthala temple, the most delicate and beautiful of them all. He also commissioned several magnificent new megalithic sculptures to adorn his capital. Several have survived intact, including the spectacular carved granite monolith of Vishnu Narasimha, showing the ferocious lion-headed God sitting in state of uncharacteristic peace, resting cross-legged in a yogic position with his legs bound with a yoga-band. Krishnadevaraya also provided a remarkable irrigation system, with water being brought to the city by a network of viaducts.
It was during Krishnadevaraya’s rule that the city was visited by the observant Portuguese traveller, Domingo Paes. Paes, like Abdur Razzak before him, was almost lost for words at the wonders he saw, and describes a city now significantly grander even than that which had awed Abdul Razzak: ‘I cannot possibly describe it all,’ he wrote, ‘nor should I be believed if I tried to do so… For I went along with my head so often turned from one side to the other that I was almost falling over backwards off my horse with my senses lost… Truly, it seemed as if, that what I saw was a vision, and that I was in a dream.”
Paes gave an alluring pen portrait of Krishnadevaraya, describing him as ‘of medium height, and of fair complexion and good figure, rather fat than thin… He is the most feared and perfect King there could be, cheerful of disposition and very merry… so gallant and perfect is he in all things.’
Paes was as clear as previous visitors about the city’s fertility and wealth. ‘It is stocked,’ he wrote, ‘with provisions such as rice, wheat , grains, Indian corn, and a certain amount of barley and beans, pulses, horse gram and many other seeds which grow in this country and which are the food of the people… Then you see the loads of limes which come in every day, and the loads of sweet and sour oranges, and wild brinjals and other garden stuff in such abundance as to stupefy one…’
The fecundity did not stop at fruit: Paes estimates that Krishnadevaraya enjoyed the pleasures of between three to five hundred wives, and altogether employed about twelve hundred women as dancers, singers, musicians and astrologers. Each wife, he says, ‘has her own house to herself, with her maidens and her women of the chamber, and women guards and all other women servants necessary; all of these are women, and no man enters where they are, save only the eunuchs who guard them.’
Today Hampi remains much as it was left: almost deserted, a strange, haunting and otherworldly landscape of massive boulders, dusty red-earth fields and sudden lush green banana plantations
Paes says he was unable to estimate the size of Vijayanagara’s population ‘because it cannot all be seen from any one spot’. But he acknowledged that ‘the people in the city are countless in number, so much so that I do not wish to write it down for fear that it should be thought fabulous… What I saw… seemed as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight; there are many groves of trees within it… many orchards and gardens with fine trees… many conduits of water which flow in the midst of it, and in places there are lakes’. He concluded that, ‘This is the best provided city in the world.’
AFTER THE DEATH of Krishnadevaraya, the city began a period of decline. Its rulers, particularly the usurper Ramaraya, grew arrogant and not only succeeded in falling out with all their neighbours, but actually managed to unite them in hatred and envy of the largest and richest of the South Indian kingdoms.
The end came in 1565—230 years and 60 rulers after the city- state’s founding. An alliance of Muslim principalities gathered a mighty force and on January 26, defeated the army of Vijayanagara at the Battle of Tunghabadra about 100 km to the north of the city. Ramaraya was killed almost immediately. When his head was raised on a stake, the remains of the royal army withdrew in panic to the impregnable fortress of Penuokonda, one hundred kilometre to the south of the city, and the massed troops of five sultanates fell on the undefended capital and put most of its men to the sword, leading the women and craftsmen off to slavery. The sculptures were smashed and the buildings of the city were set on fire. Even so, the work of destruction took five months; some say a year.
Today Hampi—as Vijayanagara is now known—remains much as it was left: almost deserted, a strange, haunting and otherworldly landscape of massive boulders, dusty red-earth fields and sudden lush green banana plantations. Through all this can be seen the mighty remains of walls, gateways, watchtowers and spectacularly carved temples. This is the reality so beautifully caught as never before by Bharath Ramamrutham’s brilliant photographs.
There is a celebrated opening sequence to VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, India: A Wounded Civilization, which beautifully describes these shattered ruins of Hampi. Naipaul leads the reader through the remains of the once mighty city, its 24 miles of walls winding through the ‘brown plateau of rock and gigantic boulders’. These days, he explains, it is just ‘a peasant wilderness’, but look carefully and you can see scattered everywhere the crumbling wreckage of former greatness: ‘palaces and stables, a royal bath, a temple with a cluster of musical columns that can still be played, the leaning granite pillars of what must have been a bridge across the river’. Over the bridge, beyond the river, there is yet more: ‘a long and very wide avenue, with a great statue of the bull of Shiva at one end, and at the other end a miracle: a temple that for some reason was spared destruction four hundred years ago, is still whole, and is still used for worship’.
Naipaul goes on to lament the fall of this great centre of Hindu civilisation, ‘then one of the greatest [cities] in the world’. It fell, according to Naipaul, because already the Hindu society it embodied had become backward looking and stagnant: it had failed to develop, and in particular had failed to develop the military means to challenge the aggressive Muslim Sultanates that surrounded it. Instead, fatally, Vijayanagara was ‘committed from the start to the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and culturally and artistically it [only] preserved and repeated; it hardly innovated… The Hinduism Vijayanagar proclaimed had already reached a dead end’.
The origin of Naipaul’s understanding of Vijayanagara has its roots in the thinking of the British Empire. The Muslim invasions of India tended to be seen by historians of the Raj as a long, brutal sequence of rapine and pillage, in stark contrast— so 19th Century British historians would have it—to the law and order brought by what they saw as their British ‘Civilising Mission’. In this context, the Fall of Vijayanagara was written up in elegiac terms by British historians such as Robert Sewell, whose 1900 book A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar, first characterised the kingdom as ‘a Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests’, a single brave but doomed attempt at resistance to Islamic aggression. This idea was eagerly picked up and elaborated by Hindu nationalists in the early 20th Century who wrote of the Empire as a Hindu state dedicated to the containment of Islam and to the preservation of the traditional, peaceful and ‘pure’ Hindu culture of Southern India.
It is a simple and attractive vision, and one that at first sight looks entirely plausible. Naipaul’s musings are eloquently and brilliantly written, and are a key to understanding his view of India as a country whose ancient civilisation was ‘mortally wounded’ by invasion, and which is still stultified by the effect of centuries of ‘defeat’. The problem is that these ideas rest on a set of assumptions which recent scholarship has done much to undermine.
AN ESSAY PUBLISHED in 1996 by the American scholar, Philip B. Wagoner, was an important landmark in this process of reinterpretation. The essay, entitled ‘A Sultan Among Hindu Kings’—a reference to the title by which the Kings of Vijayanagara referred to themselves—pointed out the degree to which the elite culture of Vijayanagara was—perhaps surprisingly—heavily Islamicised by the sixteenth century, its civilisation ‘deeply transformed through nearly two centuries of intense and creative interaction with the Islamic world’.
By this period, for example, the kings of Vijayanagara appeared in public audience, not bare-chested, as had been the tradition in Hindu South India, but instead dressed in quasi-Islamic court costume—the Islamic inspired kabayi, a long-sleeved tunic derived from the Arab models, and the kullayi, a high conical cap of brocaded fabric , derived from Perso-Turkic headwear—all part, according to Wagoner, of ‘their symbolic participation in the more universal culture of Islam’. It was this dress that Abdur Razzak describes in his account of his audience with Devaraya I—and which he compared to the half-naked appearance of the king of Calicut. There was a reason for this: the kings of Vijayanagara wanted good relations with their Muslim neighbours, knowing the benefits of being able to draw technology, military techniques and commerce from them.
As scholars are now realising, far from being the final, stagnant, backward-looking bastion of Hindu resistance imagined by Naipaul, Vijayanagara had in fact developed in all sorts of unexpected ways, taking on much of the administrative, tax collecting and military methods of the Muslim sultanates that surrounded it—notably stirrups, horseshoes, horse armour and a new type of saddle, all of which allowed Vijayanagara to put into the field an army of fearsome horse archers who could hold at bay those of the Delhi Sultanate, then the most powerful military force in India. Indeed Devaraya II is reputed to have employed 10,000 Muslim horsemen. Only a short time before the Deccani Sultanates turned on Vijayanagara, the Hindu Empire had been a prominent part of a different alliance of Muslim armies that had sacked the Sultanate of Ahmadnagar, when Hindu and Muslim armies stabled their horses in the mosques of the plundered city. Vijayanagara was in reality a victim of shifting alliances in Deccani power politics, not a concerted communal campaign by Muslim states intent on wiping out Hinduism from the face of India.
A comprehensive survey of Vijayanagara’s monuments and archaeology conducted by historians George Michell and John Fritz over the last 25 years has confirmed the thrust of Wagoner’s thesis. The survey has emphasised the degree to which the buildings of sixteenth century Vijayanagara were inspired by the architecture of nearby Muslim sultanates, dropping the traditional trabeate architecture of the Hindu South in favour of the arch and dome of the Islamicate world as well as borrowing such specifics as ground plans and vaulting, plaster-coated masonry and arabesques. Some of Hampi’s most beautiful monuments, such as the Lotus Mahal, are built in this hybrid style.
Moreover, this fruitful interaction between Hindu and Muslim ruled states was very much a two-way traffic. Just as Hindu Vijayanagara was absorbing Islamic influences, so a similar process of hybridity and mutual influence was transforming the nominally Islamic Sultanate of Bijapur. In both imperial British and Hindu nationalist historiography, Bijapur has traditionally been seen as one of the violent and iconoclastic Muslim sultanates which united to wipe out Vijayanagara. The mediaeval reality, it seems, was again very different.
For Bijapur at this period was dominated by an atmosphere of wild, heterodox sensuality, with its libraries swelling with often heretical texts produced on the intellectual frontier between Islam and Hinduism, much of which leaned heavily on the esoteric scholarship of Vijayanagara. Under the influence of these texts, Bijapur’s ruler, Ibrahim Adil Shahi II, gave up wearing jewels and adopted instead the rudraksha rosary of the Hindu sadhu. He visited both Shaivite temples and the monasteries of the Nath yogis, and knew Sanskrit better than Persian. Ibrahim’s preferred Sanskrit title was Jagatguru, ‘World Teacher’. According to the art historian Mark Zebrowski, ‘it is hard to label him either a Muslim or a Hindu; rather he had an aesthete’s admiration for the beauty of both cultures.’
The same syncretistic spirit also animates Bijapuri art whose miniature portraits of princes show, according to Zebrowski a ‘noble gravitas which upholds the humanism of the Indian figural tradition especially apparent in the Gupta sculpture of one thousand years before’. More remarkably still, for a nominally Islamic art, one finds ‘girls as voluptuous as the nudes of South Indian stone sculpture’ and, as in so much of the art of Vijayanagara, ‘we sense the warm breezes, luxuries and languid pace of a tropical world’.
This picture of Hindu- Muslim hybridity, of Indo-Islamic intellectual and artistic fecundity is important, for it comes in such stark contrast to the received wisdom—articulated most elegantly by Naipaul—that for India the medieval period was a long tale of defeat and destruction. Today most historians of Vijayanagara tend to emphasise the perhaps surprising degree to which Hinduism and Islam creatively intermingled and ‘chutnified’ (to use Salman Rushdie’s nice term).
We read, for example, of mediaeval Hindu texts from Vijayanagara where the Sultan of Delhi is talked about as an incarnation of Vishnu and the holder of one of the three dharmic ‘Lion Thrones’.
It is significant that all this surprises us quite as much as it does: we are so used to the idea of heavily fortified frontiers between different religions—especially Hinduism and Islam—that a pre-modern attitude that sees a porous interaction across these frontiers takes us aback. Certainly, the history of Vijayanagara raises huge and important questions about faith and personal identity in pre- modern India, about how far these were fixed and immutable—or how far they were in fact flexible, tractable, negotiable. The evidence presented by the new work of scholars studying Vijayanagara through many prisms—archaeology and art history as well as documentary and inscriptional evidence—suggests that the borders between Islam and Hinduism in this period are far less clearly defined than we have been conditioned to expect.
It also shows that in many ways Vijayanagara was surprisingly like modern India: a melting pot of many cultures which came together to form something far richer and far more remarkable than its component parts—and that its multi-faith, multi-ethnic, multi-cultured whole is the actually the source of its richness, and its strength.
(William Dalrymple is an essayist and a historian. This is the foreword he has written for Hampi: Of Gods and Kings by George Michell and John Fritz, with photographs by Bharath Ramamrutham | JSW/Graf Media | 310 pages))
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