Depiction of Social Life in Vijayanagara Sculptures
Jyotsna K. Kamat
Paper Presented in the National Seminar organised during Centennial occasion of Department of Archaeology, Mysore 1985.
This research paper is based on a study undertaken to identify various social customs of Vijayanagara period mentioned in Kannada classics, reports of foreign travelers, and in sculptures executed at that time. In addition to temples, memorials are also surveyed as they depict everyday life of that period. Though studies were conducted on various aspects of social life, this paper restricts itself to dress, ornaments, make-up, hair styles, furniture, swings, mode of transport, games, cultural activities, dance music, wrestling, dueling, fight with animals, popular amusements, hunting, child birth and care only. A few photographs and line drawings are illustrated and their numbers are mentioned in brackets. A list of temples that are scrutinized for their sculptural wealth is also given.
Vijayanagara kings not only constructed new temples but also substantially expanded and renovated earlier buildings. Thus, the Somesvara temple, Kolar; the Nanjundesvara temple, Nanjangud; the Channana Basti, Shravanabelagola and others, all built earlier have sculptures belonging to Vijayanagara style. Therefore, care has to be exercised to differentiate between the sculptures of different schools in order to make a study in social life of a given period. Vijayanagara sculptors have relied on the Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata for the subject. However, they did not miss a single opportunity to depict contemporary social life on independent panels on pillars, verandahs, and foundations of buildings. They have selected hard granite and not soft soap-stone like their predecessors and hence their carvings, at times, look very crude and lack luster. However, they have withstood the onslaught of rain and sun shine for centuries. Vandalism from the locals and tourists have a major share in defacing some rare sculptures throwing light on social life.
The figures in these "social life sculptures" are not over-burdened with ornaments and dresses of all types as in Hoysala style but they are represented as down-to-earth human beings. The sculptors have also taken care to make almost a photographic depiction of dresses and ornaments. Nobles and high officials are in their long elongated cap (Pl. 1), Kulai (=kulavi). It was made of velvet, satin or taffeta cloth, usually imported , and had elaborate embroidery with gold and was studded with jewels. Among commoners high (Pl. 3) and low turbans (Pl. 2) were in uses. Rural folks were bare-bodied except for cloth around their waist (Pl. 2). Urbanites used variety of coats (Pl. 41). Long coat (kabaya) of Muslim period had replaced that of Chalukyan times and continued in Vijayanagara period . These long coats (=angikas) were of different colour (Pl. 42), designs and at times embroidered. Some tight coats extended upto waist only (Pl. 43). In addition to wearing a dhoti, they also carried a uttariya (=angavastra) wherever they went (Pl.16). Leather foot-wears were common. Soldiers and horse riders wore high shoes .
Dancers wore tight breeches (=kalukuppusa) or pleated breeches (=challana), tight bodice (=molegattu), folded cloth belt (=dukula), shining frilled fan (Pl. 4) around the waist and tinkling bells adorned their ankles . The dance-master was conspicuous with his big headwear (=dodda mundasu), beard, ear rings, dhoti, belt (=nadusuttu) and held a baton (=selegolu) . There are ample illustrations of working dress of different people such as, an ascetic (Pl. 5), a drummer (Pl. 6), a soldier (Pl. 7), a hunter (Pl. 24), a servant (Pl. 25), a priest (Pl. 29), and a cow boy (Pl. 32).
Plain (Pl. 44) and coloured sarees (Pl. 45) came from Gurjara, Varanasi, Devagiri and other places in Maharashtra. There were innumerable coloured designs and borders (Pl. 46) of gold embroidery . Sprout-coloured (=talirgavi), emerald (=manika-vatte), orange-coloured (=kittalegavi) and sky-blue were considered to be modern in those days as well . White sari with blue prints or sketches (Pl. 47) (=neelibarahada bili batte) was their version of Kalamkari saris . Patte (Pl. 48), netra, cheena and dasari were silk sarees which were in great demand . Basava Purana tells about designed sarees with borders of swans, horses, serpents, elephants, musical instruments and human figures in print. For ease of hunting a huntress would wear a mini dress(Pl. 49). Rural women did not wear any blouse (Pl. 8), whereas urbanites had plain, designed or embroidered blouses. Brassieres (Pl. 11) (=kuchavastra) and panties (=ullude) could be identified in the sculptures. The sarees were worn artistically by arranging the pleats symmetrically (parivididunirividu), tugging below the navel, and draped tightly over the thighs . Transparent sarees exhibited petticoats (=angadatta or angavatta).
A sculpture of dvarapalaki is adorned with multitude of ornaments, from hair-parting to toe. If a modern lady is made to wear all these ornaments made of either gold or silver, she will stagger under their weight and probably will not be able to stand erect. Most of these could be identified on the basis of detailed description left by the foreign travelers and the poets of the period . A decorated hamsa tilaka was worn in the parting of hair. Hanegattu adorned the forehead and fastened at both ends to the upper portion of both ears . On special occasions, a net of pearls was worn over the head. Ears were decorated with rings, stars, pendants and golden floral designs (=kodankeya abharana). Koppu was worn on the upper part of the ear.
Neck ornaments (=saras) were worn in several levels starting from close to the neck and extending to belly button (=nabhi). Five strings of pearls of gold beads (=panchasara) had a prominent pendant (=padaka). A necklace of gems (=ratnahara or chintaku) was worn in the middle . Then followed three strings (=tisara). A single string of big pearls (=ekavali) was flown upto the waist . Shoulder ornaments (=bhujavali and bhujakirti) were attached to upper garments. A beautiful broad belt of gold, studded with gems (=kanchidama) was adorned with silk tassels. The commoners' belt was made of silver. Armlets (=bahuvalava or tolgadaga) were of one or two rows of pearls, precious stones or just a band of gold. Bangles (=kadagas) were of gold, silver, ivory, shells and glass. They were studded with gems, semi-precious stones and beads. Rings (=ungura) were worn on all the fingers. Some of them had very large pearls or gems and were fastened with chains (=elegal). Large size signet rings (=mudrike) were also in use. The palms were decorated with chains studded with diamonds (=heeravali). Anklets (=anduge or hansaka) were of silver and gold. They had unique locking system which was full-proof. For ordinary people there used to be a simple band of metal and for rich they had very elaborate designs, broad and fitted with screw (=payavatta or keelagadaga or kataka). On special occasions the kings used to bestow honour on the elite of the court by presenting them a pair of anklets (=pendeya). Rings were worn on all toes and specially designed rings (=mantige or pille) were confined to first two toes.
Men's ornaments were not very different from those of their wives. In fact ekavali and kataka were common for both the sexes. Only nose ring (=mukuti) and hair ornaments distinguished women and men. Musk, saffron and srigandha were used for the purpose of tilaka and hence they were of different colours. Probably men and women changed the colour of their tilaka to suit their blouse and saree colours, as modern women do. Pearls, diamonds and emeralds were also used as tilakas. To get them fixed to the forehead, with wax, they used plain or convex mirrors (Pl. 11). Bharatesha Vaibhava  gives a pen-picture of queen Kusumaji who adjusted her tilaka, hair, pleats of the saree and tassels of waist-band (=novalada gondegal) in front of a huge mirror.
Make up was usually preceded with a bath (Pl.10). A housewife used to take bath by sitting on a stool, assisted by a maid servant. The head of the family and the children had the pleasure of getting a massage of medicated oil from the housewife. Royalty and nobility employed scented oil for the purpose . On special occasions the men used to get an elaborate bath from the women folk (Pl.9). Scented warm water, and a paste of grains and herbs were used to remove the grease. The servants were ready with towel to drain off water from hair. Beauty aids were widely known, prominent among which were, hair-oils, face-powder made of dried sandle paste, camphor, musk. Collyrium (black) and alta (red) were used for eyes and feet respectively.
After drying the hair was woven into a pleat. The thick, long hair when made into a pleat resembled a long black snake . Pig-tails among girls, single and double hair-buns and coiffures were common among grown-ups. Hair was fastened with silk tassels and bodkins  which could be seen in the hero-stones of the period. Modern women can learn more hair-styles by observing the sculptural wealth of the period. They used to insert false buns (=sekkundurubu), have loose knot and hanging bun (=soramudi or jolmudi). The use of bodkins, nets and artificial hair helped women to exhibit a variety of hair decoration which suited their whims and fancies (Pl. 12). Men also grew long hair (Pl. 13) and women had to help them to pick up lice (Pl. 14). Grown up boys had their own hair styles, while adults rolled turbans with their wives' assistance (Pl. 15).
The rich and the nobles used a variety of furniture. Just for relaxing, there used to be long benches (Pl. 50). For a quick nap wooden cots were available (Pl.52). For night's rest drinking water, pan box, and peekdani (davake) were kept below the bed (Pl. 54). People with artistic taste went in for elaborate cots (Pl. 51). Mattress, bed sheets and cushions were used liberally (Pl. 53). In certain sculptures the cots appear to be made of metal (Pl. 56). Basava Purana describes, a luxurious apartment of a courtesan with a big cot (Pl. 55), thick mattress, cushions, clean blankets, sofa (=gadduge), ceiling morror (=malagugannadi), fan, water-jug, scented water-container, covered-box etc. Abdur Razaak  noticed chairs and settees in front of the quarters of courtesans; he also observed beautifully embroidered sofas in the royal palace. Low stools (Pl.57) and high stools with cushions were in use (Pl. 58). The commoners were contented with charpoys, stools and low benches. Almost every house was provided with a swing (=tugumancha) of one type or the other. Children, men and women enjoyed themselves on these swings (Pl.17). In some cases they were so spacious that they appeared to be swinging cots.
For the poor and the rural population, walking was the only mode of transport. There were labourers who assisted the rich in transporting their belongings (Pl. 28). Palanquins (=andana or dandige) were used by well-to-do people. They were made of wood, bamboos or cane  and were spacious enough to keep one's personal belongings and a mattress to sleep on. A variety of palanquins (=dolis or menas) are depicted in the hero-stones of the period. This popular mode of transport was borrowed by the Portugues in toto in Goa. They used to visit the churches almost in identical fashion as nobles used to visit temples in the Vijayanagara times. The princesses ornamented and well dressed, travelled in a palanquin and a parasol (decorated with pearls) was also carried; the attendants carried makeup box, vanity bag or purse, mirror, perfume box, flowers, slippers and accompanied the princess to temple . In Portuguese Goa, a rich lady was dressed in gold embroidered clothes, wore gold and diamond ornaments and slippers and went in a palanquin, accompanied by a host of servants, carrying small carpets, chair, fan, vanity bag and kerchief .
House-wives used to attend to all the domestic duties. These are well-depicted in the sculptures. In one, a lady churns curds (Pl.30), and in another she is busy in cleaning an utensil (Pl.31). Chatting with the husband (Pl.16) or neighbour gave her relief from monotony of everyday life. Vijayanagara kings organised games and cultural activities, puppet-shows, dance performances, acrobatics of jugglers and fire-works, were carried throughout the night in huge arenas, constructed for the purpose . The foreign travellers were so impressed by a dance performance as to exclaim, 'wisdom lost its sense and soul and intoxicated with delight over the movements of the beautiful dance' . Quite a variety of dances were performed out of which kuravanji, snake and peacock dances were most popular . Music lessons were given by the Guru appointed for the purpose (Pl.19). Women musicians were expert in playing on flute, vina (=lute), and drum (=maddale), beating on bronze tala (kamsala) and blowing horn (=kahale). Sixteen types of string instruments (Pl.20), seventeen types of drums (Pl. 21), and six types of wind instruments (Pl.6) were in use. Some of them could be identified in the sculptures.
Wrestling was a popular sport in villages and cities (Pl. 22). Women wrestlers were not uncommon . There were groups of wrestlers who entertained the public and collected donations (Pl. 26). Similarly acrobatic teams were the chief entertainers to rural populations. An epigraph of early 17th century tells about the tragic death of female acrobat, Yellakka, who, while performing some feet on a pole fell and died on the spot . Jugglers and snake charmers (Pl. 38) provided entertainment to villagers by various feats. Duelling with swords (Pl. 23) was very popular but the king's permission was required for this sport . Fight with an elephant (Pl.37), buffalo-fight, ram-fight, cock-fight were other popular amusements. In a beautiful sculpture an elderly lady inviting her young friend for quail fight is depicted (Pl.2). Various phases of hunting of beast (Pl. 24) and birds, implements used, hunting dogs, mode of carrying prey (Pl. 27) can be identified in the sculptures. Kolata was a popular game and sculptures of Hampi and Lepakshi provide glimpses of the game and the feats the players could show in between the game.
Child-birth was considered a very important event in a woman's life. A midwife, relatives and neighbours supervised safe delivery (Pl. 33). Rural women from Canara attended their normal chores soon after delivery . However, in the upper strata, this might not have been true. A beautiful pen-picture of motherly care and affection bestowed by Bijjavve on her baby is mentioned in Basava Purana . She breastfed the child and gave him butter and sugar. She sang lullabies when the child cried and covered him with pallu of her sari, caressed and guarded him against cat. The sculptors have given enough prominence to infants in their creations. A child helps itself to its mother's milk while she is busy in checking pulse-rate of another women (Pl. 8). In another sculpture a child is shown in its father's lap (Pl. 14) while mother is busy in picking lice. A rare sculpture depicts a father kissing his child sitting on its mother's lap (Pl. 34). In a wrestling team, child entertainers are also included (Pl. 26). Bathing a child was an elaborate process. First, it was smeared with oil and gently massaged. Then it was seated or made to lie on the out-stretched legs. Warm water was poured, keeping watch all the time that water did not enter its nose, eyes and ears. After a year's growth the youngster was made to sit on a short stool and water was poured from a copper vessel.
Husbands expected that their wives should be above all suspicious. In a down-to-earth sculpture, a worrier is shown punishing his wife's paramour. In another, a woman's hands are tied above her head and a male is engaged in beating her with a stick (Pl. 40). Kicking one's wife seems to be common practice (Pl. 39). However, there is no sculptural evidence of wife-burning for dowry.
Notes and References
List of Vijayanagara Temples scrutinised
List of Illustrations
Merchandise and Link Suggestions