The Game Boards of Vijayanagara

by: Shreyas Baindur
instructor: Prof. Jigna Desai
30 July 2016

The city of Vijayanagara, popularly known as Hampi (the inhabited village that lies within the ruined capital), is a well-documented ancient urban settlement. While taking a leisurely stroll through the ruins of Hampi, one is immediately struck by the immense scale of what the people of the city and the empire of Vijayanagara left behind. They stand in varying degrees of preservation under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

But one thing that most people end up overlooking are the fantastic array of board games that were once played by the people of the city of Vijayanagara. Archaeologists estimate around a 1000 game board engravings that can be located among the ruins. When we actually start becoming conscious to these, we start to notice that they are all over the landscape, from temples to palaces and then also in the rough and unforgiving landscape that surrounds these magnificent structures.

 

This study explores the connection between these game boards and the way the spaces within the temples were used and experienced by the locals at the time of their use. These games represent a unique opportunity to examine the role of temple architecture in the day-to-day lives of the people of the city and how they perceived the sacred nature of these temples. They also serve as the physical remnants of the daily social interactions that occurred within these temple complexes.

This type of examination of the game boards would determine what these have to tell us about the social interactions that occurred in the temple complexes on a daily basis, to examine the temples as public spaces rather than just religious or spiritual spaces. The correlation between the locations of the game boards shows how the people of the city appropriated the spaces within the sacred landscape of the city itself and the temple complexes, serving a dual function in the society – also becoming spaces of social inhabitation.

These games demonstrate the ‘publicness’ of the temple complexes and the gradation of the sacred nature of space. They tell us as to where specific stones found on site would belong. They speak of a unique manner of appropriation that occurs all throughout the landscape surrounding the Vijayanagara capital, an association between man and his/her surroundings that is not only spiritual in nature, but also powerfully human in its existence. Though these game patterns can still be classified as acts of vandalism, they served a greater purpose of allowing people access into the powerful, politically significant spaces so that they could inhabit the spaces. Even if the game patterns did start of as acts of vandalism, they ended up becoming an integral part of the temple ambience.

By populating the spaces that the people of the city inhabited, such as temples and shaded areas of the landscape around, the built environment became more accessible to individuals and a mode of social interaction was given a physical existence. By examining the games found within the temples and their locations, it is possible to see the temples in light of their significance to the social history of a community along with their political and religious history.

Even if these games ended up being carved after the fall of the Vijayanagara city, they still form a significant part of the temples and the story they tell us.