Colour: A natural history of the palette

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes, we miss the trees for the forest. Let me give you an illustration. Take a look at the painting below (click on the picture to see a larger view).

Source: The National Gallery, London

The painting is called “Bacchus and Ariadne”. It was painted by Titian sometime between 1520 and 1523. It depicts a tale from Roman  mythology where Bacchus (the God of Wine) sees the mortal Ariadne and falls in love with her at first sight. He is so smitten that he jumps out of his cheetah-drawn chariot towards her. The painting has captured Bacchus in mid-leap as Ariadne shies away from him in alarm.

I saw this painting at London’s National Gallery in 2009. I duly noted the story that the painting conveyed, the various characters in it, the lovingly painted animals, Titian’s trademark use of bright colours… and moved on to the next artwork. It was a nice painting, but not particularly impressive. Or so I thought. Today, I bitterly regret at only looking at the painting, but not seeing it closely enough. In only looking at the painting, I had completely failed to see the colours themselves, particularly the brilliant blue of the sky — a blue which came from the ultramarine paint made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli mined hundreds of miles away in the Sar-e-Sang valley (in present day Afghanistan).

The lapis lazuli from these mines would have travelled through ancient trade routes to the colour maker in Italy, who then transformed it into the very expensive ultramarine paint through a laborious process. First, the lapis lazuli was finely powdered and kneaded into a dough along with resin, wax, gum and linseed oil for 3 days, after which it was put in a mixture of lye and water. Then, this mixture was kneaded again, this time with sticks, to draw out the blue of the lapis lazuli into the liquid. The blue-coloured liquid would be collected in bowls and allowed to dry, leaving behind a powdery blue pigment, the ultramarine blue. The process would be repeated with the “dough” to get different qualities and shades of blue (pg.290-291). These days making the ultramarine paint is not so laborious as it is made synthetically.

I read about all this and much more in Colour: A Natural History of the Palette (2004, Random House, pp.448) by Victoria Finlay. The book can be considered as a travelogue; it can also be considered as a book on art history. But for me, it is a book on the micro-history of colour as explored through an artist’s paintbox holding the colours of the rainbow and then some more — violet (or purple), indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, ochre, white, black and brown.

In her attempt to trace and draw out the stories of how natural dyes, paints and colours were made for a European artist’s paintbox, Finlay travelled to Australia, England, China, Chile, Italy, India, Iran, Spain, Afghanistan and Lebanon. As each story, myth, legend of the colours come into life, we realise that:

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The two Cathedrals of Coventry

When I told a friend about my plans to visit Coventry, this is what he had to say:

Coventry is a rather nondescript little city in the West Midlands region of the UK. It has two universities (University of Warwick and Coventry University), two museums and a humongous Ikea. And, yes, it also has 2 cathedrals.

I didn’t really pay attention to the rest of his description as only the “two cathedrals” part intrigued me—a city has only one cathedral, and Coventry had two? This I had to see.

So are there two cathedrals in Coventry? Well, yes and no. There are two cathedrals in Coventry—the first is the ruins of the Old Medieval Cathedral, and the second is the modern, New Cathedral. But only the latter Cathedral is a place of worship today, so in that sense there is only one cathedral in Coventry. Both the cathedrals exist side by side, with the St. Michael’s porch connecting the two.

St. Michael's Porch. The glass-fronted entrance to the new Cathedral is to the right, while the steps on the left lead to the ruins of the Old Cathedral

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The Banashankari and Mahakuta temples: Examples of neglect and apathy

My recent trip to some heritage sites in North Karnataka (Aihole, Badami, BijapurHampi and  Pattadakal) was an eye-opener in more ways than one. While I was amazed to see the excellent work done by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in restoring and maintaining the sites, as well as the efforts taken by the Karnataka Tourism Board, I was appalled to see condition of heritage sites not maintained by the ASI. My visits to the Banashankari Temple and the Mahakuta Temple Complex, both near Badami, are perfect examples of this.

The Banashankari Temple site has been a place of worship for about 14 centuries or so, though the current temple building is only about 200 years old. The temple’s name is derived from its location in the Tilakaranya forest. The main deity, Banashankari is also known as Shakambari or the vegetable goddess. Banashankari was the kuldevata or the tutelary deity for the Chalukya kings of the 7th century.

Our tour group arrived at the Banashankari Temple after spending a magical and enchanted evening at the Bhoothnatha Temples and the Agastya Teertha, near the Badami Cave-Temples. And came back to earth rather rudely with a ride through narrow, dusty, potholed and dirty access road to the temple. It was an inkling to the state of the temple itself.

Outside the Banashankari Temple. The guard-cum-lamp tower at the entrance to the Harida Teertha in the centre of the photograph

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The temple ruins of Hampi – 3: The Krishna, Ugranarasimha and Ganagitti temples

The temples and other monuments of Hampi were built over 3 centuries, destroyed over a period of 6 months, and “seen” by our group over two, half-day sessions. Obviously, we could not do justice to all the monuments.

This meant that while we spent more time at the Hazara Rama Temple, the Vittala Temple, as well as the monuments of the royal family, we breezed through the Krishna Temple, the Badavilinga Temple, the Ugranarasimha or Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, and Kadalekalu Ganesha and Sasivekalu Ganesha Temples. We could not visit some monuments at all—the Hemakuta group of monuments, the Ganagatti Jain Temple, the octagonal water tank, Bhima’s Gate, etc., were pointed out to us by our guide in passing.

So, while I cannot write a detailed post on these quick visits here, I will compensate that with some photographic impressions of those “breeze in, breeze out” visits here.

Carved pillars at the Krishna Temple, depicting stories from the Bhagavatham. The Krishna Temple was consecrated in 1513 and is a complex with many sub-shrines and halls.

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The temple ruins of Hampi – 2: Vittala Temple

If Hampi was the showpiece of the Vijayanagara Empire, then the Vittala Temple is undoubtedly the showpiece of Hampi. Everything about the Vittala Temple is designed to make a statement—right from its settings and surroundings to its architecture to the temple complex itself. Everything. It is for this reason that the Vittala Temple is the most visited monument in Hampi, thereby making it the most talked about or written about or photographed monument. It is also the reason why our tour group was standing outside the Vittala Temple complex at 8.00 am one Saturday morning last month. Doreen, our tour organiser, was insistent that we visit the Vittala Temple before any other monument that day to avoid the tourist hordes. It was a good thing too, as the tourists started arriving in waves as we were leaving.

Located on the banks of the Tungabhadra with Anegundi on the opposite river bank, the approach to the Temple is through the stone ruins of a bazaar. We also passed a water tank and some manadapa-like monuments.

Bazaar outside the Vittala Temple

I also saw what looked like an enormous, narrow gateway, sans surrounding walls/ fortifications, a misconception that was clarified as I got nearer. The stone beam placed on two carved pillars was not a gate — it was the remains of a giant scale or a tulabharam. The ruling kings of Vijayanagara used to be weighed against gold, precious stones, food grains, etc., which would then be distributed to the poor and needy. At least this is what our guide told us, but I think that the gold and precious stones would have gone to the temples and the food grains to the poor and needy.

The stone frame of the King’s Balance or Tulabharam is all that remains of the original structure

As one nears the Vittala Temple, the burnt entrance tower captured my attention. The rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire were quite open to experimenting with building materials and styles. While experimenting with building styles seemed to be reserved for their royal buildings, their temples were experimented upon with regard to building material — at least for the temple towers. Brick towers replaced the heavier granite towers seen in the Virupaksha Temple at Hampi. While this made the temple towers easier to build, it also made them vulnerable to destruction by fire. Which is what happened when Hampi was sacked after the loss of the Vijayanagara Empire at the Battle of Talikota.

Entrance to the Vittala Temple

When I entered the Vittala Temple complex, the first thing that struck me was the geometric precision of the layout of the various structures within.

Inside the Vittala Temple Complex

Inside the Vittala Temple Complex. Part of the Mahamandapa is visible on the right, while part of the Kalyana Mandapa is visible on the left. One of the burnt temple towers is also visible in the background

It was difficult to concentrate on the guide’s orientation talk, as my eyes kept straying all over seeking details and delighting in the beauty around me. Once his talk was over, I set out to explore the Vittala Temple complex in greater detail, making the most obvious and best known structure there—the Stone Chariot—my first halt.

The Stone Chariot is built on a rectangular stone platform and its inner chamber once enshrined a Garuda idol. The Stone Chariot was originally drawn by 2 stone horses (now destroyed), and are currently drawn by 2 stone elephants brought from some other place. The Stone Chariot looks so amazingly real, right down to its stone wheels, that I felt all it needed was a tap or two with a magic wand for it to come alive! I’ve got goosebumps on my arm even as I am typing this out.

The Stone Chariot at the Vittala Temple

The Vittala Temple complex is also known for its hall of musical pillars. When I first heard about the musical pillars in Hampi, I imagined a long, seemingly endless, hall along which tall pillars would be lined up. These pillars would resonate with musical notes when struck gently. Nothing was further from this imagined structure of mine!

The Mahamandapa of the Vittala Temple, which contains the hall of musical pillars, is a many angled structure. Like the Stone Chariot, this too stands on an ornate platform, decorated with bas reliefs of traders, animals and floral motifs. There are 5 halls within this Mahamandapa corresponding to the four cardinal directions and a central hall, which does not have a roof, thereby leaving it open to the elements.

The temple pillars are composite pillars, with each individual pillar made up of many smaller and slender pillars (see photo below). The Eastern Hall of the Mahamandapa is the Hall of Musical Pillars. Each of these pillars are carved with figures of musicians, musical instruments, and dancers.

Details of the pillars of the Mahamandapa

A miniature temple on the walls of the Mahamandapa

Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the pillars, we could not test out the musical quality of the pillars. Over the years, too many people had tested the musical prowess of the pillars culminating in one of the pillars actually breaking a few years back. This resulted in the Mahamandapa being kept out-of-bounds for tourists. Eagle-eyed and strict guards are posted in the Mahamandapa to prevent tourists and tourist guides from testing the pillars. You can see one such guard lurking behind a pillar in photograph above.

This is probably a good thing as tourists can look at the beautiful carvings on the walls and pillars of the Mahamandapa, instead of only tap-tapping the musical pillars. I saw some particularly stylish carvings of miniature temples with a deity, on almost every side of the temple (see photo on the left). The Vittala Temple complex also has other attractions like the Kalyana Mandapa or the ceremonial marriage hall, a many (100?) pillared hall, as well as another mandapa whose name I forget now. Photographs of these attractions are given below.

The perfectly proportioned Kalyana Mandapa

A sampling of carvings from the Vittala Temple. Clockwise from top left: Krishna, with traces of the original painting still evident; a rare carving of Ravana; armed men on a mythical creature with a tiger’s legs, horse’s body, hare’s ears, and lion’s head; a drummer is rapt in his music.

One of the last things we saw at the Vittala Temple is the inner sanctum, which used to have an idol of Vittala (a form of Krishna). The idol is no longer there and our guide was not sure as to where and when the idol had disappeared from there. I wondered if it was destroyed during the sacking of Hampi or if was it shifted to another temple.

The Anjanedri Hill as viewed from Vittala Temple Complex

As we leave the Temple, I take one last 360° look around the complex and spot the Anjanedri Hill at Anegundi. From my explorations earlier in the day, I know that the Tungabhadra and the submerged Purandara Dasa Mandapa is somewhere close by. This was place where the saint-composer Purandara Dasa spent his last years in Hampi singing and composing songs dedicated to Krishna. More specifically, he composed songs dedicated to Vittala and signed all his compositions with “Purandara Vittala”.

And some things suddenly became clear to me. Purandara Dasa’s Vittala was the Vittala of this temple, and not the Vittala of the Pandharpur temple (in Maharashtra) as I had thought for all these years. At that point, I felt really blessed to be at the place that was an inspiration for the compositions of Purandara Dasa, one of my favourite composers. His simple, fresh and timeless compositions appeal to me like no other. Though most of his compositions are in Kannada, a language I can just about comprehend, I can somehow understand his compositions (you can listen to one of his compositions here).

I left the Vittala Temple with the hope that some of the inspiration rubs off on to my own creative pursuits.

P.S.: This visit was part of a tour organised by Doreen D’Sa of Doe’s Ecotours. She can be contacted at does_ecotours@yahoo.co.in.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Read more about my trip to Hampi through the following posts:

The temple ruins of Hampi – 1: Hazara Rama Temple

The simple and elegant entrance to the Hazara Rama Temple

For me, the Hazara Rama Temple is right on top of the list of temples I liked in Hampi. This is not one of the biggest or the grandest of temples in Hampi, but it is certainly the most intimate temple, a temple which felt like my own personal space. It is also the temple with the most intricate carvings, which begin with the outer walls of the temple complex itself.

Inside, the temple is no less ornamental. It is full of bas reliefs from the life of Rama or Krishna, both avatars of Vishnu. I was very proud of myself for being able to recognise the various characters in the panels and reliefs and the stories that were trying to convey. All thanks to the stories that my grandmothers and my mother narrated to me in my childhood. And of course, Amar Chitra Katha!

Carving above the entrance to the Hazara Rama Temple

This wall panel at the Hazara Rama Temple depicts hunting scenes, foreign traders, and dancing women

Sculpted friezes on the walls of the main shrine at the Hazara Rama Temple

All monuments in Hampi have been built out of granite, the local stone. Only in two places have other stones been used and that too for decorative purposes, rather than as a building stone per se. The first instance is at the Mahanavami Dibba where a green schist has been used as a cladding stone. The second instance is at the Mahamandapa of the Hazara Rama Temple, where 4 pillars made from black Cuddapah stone—brought all the way from present day Andhra Pradesh—have been installed. The carvings on these pillars are also from the lives of Rama and Krishna and are simply awesome. The gleam of the black pillars in the cool, dim light of the Mahamandapa is indescribable.

Intricately carved pillars made of the black Cuddapah Stone in the Mahamandapa of the Hazara Rama Temple

The Hazara Rama Temple is located somewhere between the Royal Enclosure and the Zenana Enclosure, and historians consider that this temple was built for the exclusive use of the royal family.

I do not buy this theory simply because of the nature of the bazaar outside the Temple. Like all the main temples in Hampi, the Hazara Rama Temple too had a bazaar outside its premises—the Paan-Supaari Bazaar. Now tell me, why would a bazaar outside the so-called Royal Temple, be selling paan (betel leaf) and supaari (betel nut)? If the bazaar had been selling precious stones and gold and silver items, I might have been willing to consider the fact that the Hazara Temple was exclusively meant for the Vijayanagara Royal Family.

The Paan-Supaari Bazaar outside the Hazara Rama Temple

What do you think?

P.S.: This visit was part of a tour organised by Doreen D’Sa of Doe’s Ecotours. She can be contacted at does_ecotours@yahoo.co.in.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Read more about my trip to Hampi through the following posts: