Exploring Identity Constructs and Nation-building Narratives at the Hampi World Heritage Site

While critical scholarship, across disciplines, has analysed the link between heritage and exclusive group identity, how is this pairing constructed in the everyday, as an ongoing process?

I address the link between heritage and exclusive group identity in this photo essay, which is based on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork, and visual and archival research in Hampi, Karnataka. Hampi is recognised as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I observed that various identity constructs connected to the site’s heritage imagination, comfortably straddled “scale,” whether big or small, regional or national. For instance, in the colonial period, the site was “nationally” constructed as an absolute Hindu empire, while in the nationalist period, it was constructed at a “subnational” level as representing Kannada nadu. In the contemporary period, it is constructed “regionally” as north Karnataka’s heritage, and “locally” as representing Madiga inheritance (caste identity). “Nation” appears to be the key to unpicking the ease with which Hampi’s heritage imagination encompasses multiple identities.
While the link between nation, identity, and heritage is well-established, I argue that, even while the process is fraught with tensions and contested along diverse axes (religion, language, region, and caste), it is the ability of both “heritage” and “nation” to simultaneously occupy different scales (understood as size and level) that makes the pairing of monuments/sites with specific group/community identity appear natural and commonsensical, and the process harmonious and uneventful.

Introducing the Site and Principal Locations

From a rather marginal existence, heritage sites are regularly creating front-page news in India due to exclusive claims by groups or individuals, and perceived neglect of monuments or sites. The photos in the essay are telling of how the link between heritage and exclusive group identity is reproduced and reiterated visually. I will provide context and an explanation along with each photo.

Figure 1: Local area map of Hampi, loosely congruent with Vijayanagara capital region, a 236 square kilometre (sq km) boundary encompassing 29 villages. The core area of the ruins, which is about 40 sq km, is marked using a red circle. The Virupaksha temple complex and Bazaar Street (marked using a green oval) are located north-west of the inner fortifications (black shape within red circle). Within the green oval, Virupaksha temple complex (orange rectangle) is located to the west, Mathanga Parvata (grey blob) is located to the east, and Hampi Bazaar Street (green dashed line) is located in the middle. Source: Author; overlay on the base map was obtained from the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority.

Seeking the Iconic

Figure 2: The Stone Chariot at the Vithala Temple complex (left). One of the many “iconic” locations on the site, made popular through travel blogs, portals, and social media posts (right). Source: Author.
 
“I accidentally came across this iconic image, a stone chariot … [I’ve] been wanting to see it.”
“…been waiting to see this iconic location at Hampi, with [the] tree and [the] shrine.”

These are common responses by those who visit the site when asked why they are visiting Hampi. Apart from how such “iconicity” circulates, I am interested in its origin. In Hampi, the “grand” narrative appeared to be the glorious, monumental, historic, ruins representing the ancient South Indian Hindu Vijayanagara Empire (UNESCO nd).

‘The Glorious Ruins of Hampi’: Representing Ancient India’s ‘Hindu Kingdom’

Figure 3: The Virupaksha Bazaar Street (red oval) photographed by Edmund David Lyon in 1868. It shows the site’s ruined state as selectively described by Sewell and likely as observed by Alur Venkata Rao. Source: British Library Online Gallery, British Library Board shelfmark: Photo 212/7(14), Item number: 212714, reproduced with permission.
 

The narrative that characterised Hampi as ruins belonging to a “Hindu Kingdom” appears to have originated in colonial England. Glendinning (2013) argues that colonial administrators institutionalised the approach to protect monuments and sites “as-is” because they represent discrete cultures.

Moreover, the administrators believed that monuments represented India’s “lost” “glorious past” that could be reinstated by strong central rule (Guha-Thakurta 2004; Singh 2004; Stein 1989). Consequently, the ruins at Sanchi, Hampi, and elsewhere were exposed and excavated.

Challenging the Oriental Narrative and Its Contemporary Circulation

Figure 4: Front page of Bangalore Suryanarain Row’s book (left). Hoarding by a farmers’ group seen within the site to celebrate a member of legislative assembly’s (MLA) birthday (right). It reads “Best wishes to Shri Anand Singh, the ruler of Vijayanagara.” Image courtesy: Left: archive.org, Right: author.
 

Written accounts like Robert Sewell’s (1900) A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar): a Contribution to the History of India bolstered the site’s imagery as a strong centralised Hindu empire that challenged a “wave of foreign invasion.” Suryanarain Row’s (1905) book, a response to Sewell’s, challenged his claims that Vijayanagar’s contributions were forgotten and emphasised that the dynasty's contributions were “never to be forgotten.” Currently, the imagery of powerful Hindu rule continues to circulate—the MLA in Figure 4 is garbed as Krishna Deva Raya, the “iconic” Vijayanagara ruler.

Vijayanagara: ‘A Kannada Nation’

Figure 5: Alur Venkata Rao (left). Bhuvaneshwari shrine within the Virupaksha complex (right). Source: Left: cityidols.blogspot.com. Right: Unnikrishnan 2012: 161.

In the nationalist period, the label “Kannadiga” was added to the grand narrative. Alur Venkata Rao (1880–1964), popularly Kannada Kula Purohita, High Priest of the Kannada people, visited the Virupaksha temple. Upset to see the “Kannadiga” empire’s ruins and “lost glory” spread across five administrative divisions, he was inspired to write the “Kannada nation’s” history (Ellakavi 2007; Khajane 2015; Srinivas 2012). His 1917 work Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava (the glory that was Karnataka), gave impetus to Ekikarana, the Kannada unification movement. Rao propounded “Karnatakatva,” a “unifying ideology for Kannada-speaking people in terms of territory and culture” (Gavaskar 2003: 1114). Rao also symbolically linked the movement to goddess Bhuvaneshwari, whose shrine is located within the Virupaksha complex,  by proclaiming her to be the state’s “mother goddess” (Unnikrishnan 2012).

‘Subnational’ Imagery Continues to Circulate

Figure 6: Puja at the Bhuvaneshwari shrine on 1 November 1973. RHS, which is the eve of the day Mysore was renamed Karnataka (left). The Department of Information’s float at the 2016 Utsav shows Bhuvaneshwari holding the state flag (right). Source: Left: Unnikrishnan 2012: 161; right: author.

Rao’s narration portrayed the classical heritage of Karnataka as “exclusively Hindu, and Islam continue[s] to be [seen as] external to Karnataka's history” (Nair 1996: 2813). This is how the state’s religious linguistic identity—as signified by Thayi (mother) Bhuvaneshwari—continues to circulate.

North Karnataka’s Hampi Utsav: ‘Regional’ Celebration

Figure 7: An image of Bhuvaneshwari is placed in the centre of a map of Karnataka in a 2016 Utsav float. Images of Krishna Deva Raya and the Vijayanagara emblem are placed above and the accompanying text reads “Hampi.” An image of M P Prakash, a regional political leader instrumental in initiating the Utsav takes pride of place (right). The float is wrapped in the colours of the state flag. Source: author.

In the contemporary period, regional identity gets added to religious and linguistic identities. The state’s linguistic re-unification was not an unequivocal success; this and many other fault lines are well-documented (Gavaskar 2003; Patil and Shastri 1994; Rajasekhariah et al 1987). M P Prakash was a vocal critic of the neglect of North Karnataka’s social, political, and economic spheres. He initiated Hampi Utsav annually to shine a light on Vijayanagara as symbolising the north’s ancient glorious culture. He scheduled it for November, just after Rajyotsava (state unification day). He sought to counter south’s Mysore Dussehra, celebrated as the nada habba (state festival). Moreover, the Dussehra procession originated in Vijayanagara (Ahiraj 2005; Shobhi 2011).

Figure 8: This is the state government’s Department of Information’s float. The map traces the five administrative boundaries that were unified to form the state. Source: author.

Continued Circulation of Hindu Religious Identity

Figure 9: An advertisement that promotes Hampi Utsav by the Government of Karnataka’s Department of Tourism (left). Political leaders, elected representatives including the chief minister, local officials, and Virupaksha temple priests, perform puja to Bhuvaneshwari’s Utsavamurthi during the inauguration of 2014 Utsav (right). A similar puja was performed during the inauguration of the 2016 Utsav as well. Source: left: Times of India 2016a. right: Deccan Chronicle 2014.

Although the Government of Karnataka promotes the Utsav as a spectacle for tourists, in reality, it is celebrated like a regional religious festival where most of the proceedings are conducted exclusively in Kannada.

‘Local’ Claims: The ‘Ancient’ Mathanga Parvata as Madiga Legacy

Figure 10: Looking towards Mathanga Parvata (left). M P Prakash Vedike (stage) being erected at the foot of Mathanga Parvata during the Utsav. The same location is used for Mathanga Jayanti celebrations as well (right). Source: Left: Kuili Suganya, reproduced with permission, Right: author.

Currently “local” caste-based claims are also getting ascribed to parts of the site.
“The hill and temple are both ours! We will reclaim it! Manu Brahmins called it Veerabhadra temple and started worshipping. It’s not theirs! They were close to kings and controlled history; their version got recorded," were the remarks by an organiser of Mathanga Jayanti. It is celebrated on site since 2014 by certain Dalit groups at the same location where the main Utsav stage is set up. Mathanga’s identity is disputed: Madigas (Dalit community) claim him as their guru while a “Sankritised” version equates him to the musician Brihhadeshi.[1]

Constructing the “Iconic” 

Figure 11:  An advertisement inviting business officials from the information technology sector to visit the Hampi site. The site continues to be selectively represented as grand ruins amidst a rocky landscape devoid of life. The gopuram fore displayed is of the Virupaksha temple (left) The same gopuram during Jathre (when thousands of pilgrims visit the venue) (right). Source: Left: Times of India 2016b. Right: author.

The various “iconic” and “nationalist” constructions of identity continue to circulate. The problem, however, is not the dynamic nature of the site’s many identities, but the disaggregated state that sees them as static and inherent cultural attributes of the site that circulate at different hierarchical levels. The state also does not recognise how dynamic interconnected sociopolitical constructs call on each other. The consequences, on the ground, include polarisation, displacement and alienation of local people when they are excluded from the imagined identity. I discuss the process of this alienation and its consequences in detail elsewhere (Rajangam 2020).

Ed: This article was updated on 20 April 2021. 

The author would like to thank all the respondents and participants she interacted with for making her research possible. Specifically, she would like to thank Bishnu Mohapatra for a fruitful discussion on politics, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage for a partial fieldwork grant, and the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) for their doctoral fellowship. An early version of this essay titled “Shifting meanings, mutable materiality: material culture in nation building narratives at Hampi World Heritage Site” was presented at the NIAS National Conference titled “Nation, Community, and Citizenship in Contemporary India,” which was held in January 2017 in Bengaluru.

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