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Kamal Mahal. Photos: Sobia Rafiq
Kamal Mahal. Photos: Sobia Rafiq

Between desire and empire

Samhita Arni steps into a 500-year-old building recovered from the 14th century city of Vijayanagara and sees the struggle between private pleasure and public duty

Vijaynath Shenoy tells me that the Kamal Mahal is something extraordinary. I find this hard to believe, staring at the squat orange structure before me, crowned with a simple tiled, sloping roof. It looks quite ordinary in fact, especially after he had shown me the impressive Jungam Mutt of Puchchamogaru and the intricately carved Kunjur Chowkimane, a Brahmin home from Dakshina Kannada.

Shenoy is the founder of the Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, a museum of ancient vernacular architecture. He had transported the Kamal Mahal, a 500-year- old structure, from Kukunoor, a village 40km from Hospet, and had it restored in Manipal, where the Heritage Village stands. Shenoy guides me through the Kamal Mahal, which has a large reception room leading to a smaller chamber. This was once the quarters of an army general from the Vijayanagara empire. It stood in the empire’s capital, the fabled 14th century city of Vijayanagara, whose ruins surround present-day Hampi. That this structure has survived the fall of the empire is entirely due to a stroke of luck. Shenoy thinks all the surrounding buildings that were part of a fortified complex were burnt during the destruction and defeat of the Vijayanagara empire by the Deccan sultanates. Perhaps the armies of the Deccan sultanates, like me, were put off by the unassuming exterior and thought this building was of little worth. 

The Harihara Mandir (from Kodagu/Coorg, four centuries old).
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The Harihara Mandir (from Kodagu/Coorg, four centuries old).

I’m led into a smaller chamber that confounds all expectations. The reception area I have just walked through is primarily functional—divided into multiple levels to provide seating and space for the general’s battery of soldiers, clerks and attendants, and to accommodate all those who called upon him. But this inner chamber, it seems to me, is entirely something else.

How do I describe it? It is a dream captured in teak, a trove of intricately carved columns, a space where light and air and wood blend to create something whimsical. The theme of the lotus is repeated across the exquisite carvings—some small, charming, barely opened buds, others larger and in full bloom. The largest, most elaborate lotus adorns the centre of the ceiling, and the columns that buttress the ceiling imitate flowering vines. It is as if I have entered an enclosed, shaded pavilion, but instead of being placed outdoors, this structure is indoors, a pool of lotuses in a garden wrought from wood, a secret jewel to be enjoyed in private, alone.

The Deccani Dawab Mahal.
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The Deccani Dawab Mahal.

The entire structure is composed of 10 different layers. The various components and beams of this room are held together by pegs and interlocking joints—without a single nail. It can all be taken down or put back together in the space of an hour and a half. An army of craftsmen and engineers, under the leadership of a master builder, must have worked to create, imagine and design such a room. How many more such rooms existed and were in palaces even more exquisite?

Much of what remains of the empire is built of stone—official buildings, temples and palaces, all of which served a religious or royal purpose. This room, in wood, is perhaps the only example of what a more personal use of space was like—giving us a more intimate glimpse of the lives of those who lived in those times.

The Mudhol Palace Durbar hall.
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The Mudhol Palace Durbar hall.

Was it built to be a permanent structure? Does this exquisite joinery mean that like a tent, this room could be taken down and put together wherever the general travelled to?

I imagine that this room was for the general’s personal use—perhaps a few favourites or those he wanted to impress were brought here. Its beauty seems intended to refresh and pleasure the spirit, a tranquil retreat for a man who spent his days on battlefields and—going by the size of the reception area outside—was surrounded by a loud crowd of clerks, soldiers and officials.

This tension between private needs and the demands of public office is reflected elsewhere, in the literature, and in the titbits of gossip, from the Vijayanagara era. In the beginning of Krishnadevaraya’s Amuktamalyada, the famous emperor of Vijayanagara’s ode to the Tamil saint and bhakti poet Andal, there appears the figure of a Pandyan king, ruler of Madurai. Earlier verses had declaimed the beauty of Madurai’s women and courtesans, and then the king himself appears, striding towards an inner lane, adorned in pearl necklaces and turbans, and followed by attendants, to meet a lover—no doubt a courtesan, for another attendant moves ahead of him carrying a betel box, containing money, on a tray. But the king, overhearing the words of a visiting Brahmin advising another to live a righteous life, forgets all thoughts of his assignation and begins contemplating how best to achieve moksha (liberation).

Shilpa Heritage Village founder Vijaynath Shenoy.
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Shilpa Heritage Village founder Vijaynath Shenoy.

This excerpt from Krishnadevaraya’s epic poem brings to mind a passage from Portuguese traveller Fernão Nunes’ account of Vijayanagara. Nunes, who spent three years in Vijayanagara, records that Krishnadevaraya, in his youth, much before he became king, had for a mistress a courtesan. He met her in secret, and was greatly in love with her, promising that when he became king, he would make her his queen. Nunes records how Krishnadevaraya became king. His half-brother, the king before him, was on his death bed and, wanting to pass on the kingship to his infant son, demanded that his minister, Saluva Timmarusu, kill Krishnadevaraya and return with his eyes as proof. But Timmarusu realized that the king’s son was far too young to rule and guarantee a stable kingdom, and instead of killing Krishnadevaraya, killed a goat and brought its eyes back to placate the dying king.

And so, on his brother’s death, Krishnadevaraya was crowned king. 

He continued to visit his beloved courtesan in stealth, until he was discovered by Timmarusu, who “rebuked him". Krishnadevaraya refused to give up his love; he married her. He went on to marry a total of 12 times, but according to the chronicles, this courtesan, named Chinnamma Devi, was one of his three principal queens, and his favourite. He is even said to have built a city in her honour. 

Is it possible that Krishnadevaraya modelled the Pandyan king in the Amuktamalyada setting, off to meet his courtesan-lover and being “rebuked", on himself? It’s tempting to believe so.

While the king in the Amuktamalyada is admonished for his pursuit of pleasure, for Andal, the saint the poem is a tribute to, moksha is attained through her expression and experience of desire.

The king, and perhaps also the generals of the empire, regarded art, beauty and the enjoyment of pleasure as not merely an idle thing, a pursuit to be “rebuked", but a necessity for the self—not merely for the senses or the body but also for the rejuvenation of mind and spirit.

While Krishnadevaraya writes of a king who is rebuked for his pursuit of pleasure, a poet at his court, Allasani Peddana, writes of these same things in the Manu Charitra, or “The Story Of Manu", in a very different fashion. 

Peddana seems to regard desire—and the pursuit of pleasure and beauty—as an imperial prerogative, essential to the lives of the kings and princes. Unlike Andal’s desire, Peddana’s desire to be epic, that which creates action, sets in motion events, seductions and amorous pursuits that lead to the birth of the first man, Manu—impelling divine courtesans, princes, goddesses and animals to action, to procreation, to the establishment of lineages, dynasties and empires. The poem itself exists because of the patron’s desire—Peddana composed the Manu Charitrato satisfy Krishnadevaraya’s desire for a poem. Peddana speaks of his own patron as “like the love god to women". Although Krishnadevaraya seems to Domingo Paes, another Portuguese traveller, somewhat unprepossessing—he is “rather fat than thin" and has “on his face signs of small pox"—Peddana seems to suggest that much like Andal yearned for her god, the women of Vijayanagara yearned for their ruler, extending the idea of bhakti to kingship. 

So while desire, pleasure and beauty can move one towards the spiritual and the divine, it can also form the grounds of conquest and empire. It is this same desire for beauty, expressed in both verse and architecture, that seems to have created an ethos that made the empire possible, driving saints, kings and generals, and cementing ties not just between the devout and god, but also between patron and poet, king and courtesan, the ruler and the ruled. 

Samhita Arni is the author of The Missing Queen.

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