Festivals Heritage

History of Mahanavami in Vijayanagara

Shows the procession route of Dasara at Vijayanagara
Illustration by Dr. Chaluvaraju of Karnataka University Hampi

Dasara / Dussehra / Mahanavami / Navaratri 

Dasara is one of the most popular festivals of India celebrated in diverse ways all across the country. In parts of North India the festival celebrates victory of Lord Rama over 10 headed demon King Ravana. The composite of “Dasha” meaning 10 and “Hara” meaning killing or defeating forms Dasara or Dussehra. As part of the celebration you will see re-enactment of the story of Ramayana on stage as Ram-Leela.  In rest of India it is a celebration of victory of Mother Goddess or Devi over the shapeshifting demon Mahishasura. The goddess takes nine forms on nine days to defeat the demon and on the 10th day we celebrate Vijaya Dashami. Celebrations take different forms in different parts of India. In the southern city of Mysore there is a grand procession with tableaus and elephants.  In the East there is Durga Puja where pandals are setup with decorations, food stalls and variety of rituals on each of the days. In western state of Gujarat there is daily puja and celebration through Dandiya and Garba dances.  This festival truly showcases the diversity of this nation, one festival celebrated in so many different way based on the local ethos and tradition. The core idea behind the festival is to celebrate victory of good over evil

Antiquity and Evolution of Celebrations in South India

The celebration of Navaratri as a Goddess festival pre-dates the Dasara celebration of Ramayana. In southern India Kadamba Dynasty of Banavasi are known to have celebrated the festival starting as early as 5th Century CE. The tradition was carried over by the Chalukyas of Badami in 8th Century CE.  In this era however the celebration was mostly ritualistic and happened indoors within temples and residences.  The festival took a more celebratory form with pomp and show during the reign of Vijayanagara in 15th and 16th centuries. The Vijayanagara Kings used the festival as a social and political tool to display strength to all the noblemen within the Empire and his enemies outside. Feudal lords and Noblemen from across the empire gathered at the capital city of Vijayanagara, with them they brought their finest artisans, dancers, musicians, entertainers, warriors to take part in the King’s Mahanavami procession.  After the fall of the empire in mid 16th century , the epicenter of celebrations shifted to Mysore.  Even to this day the dasara procession in Mysore is held with great pomp and show by the Royal family.   

Hampi Group Walking tour
Mahishasura Mardhini - Bas-Relief sculpture on the riverside in Hampi

Mahanavami celebration in Vijayanagara

The newly born empire started pouring in money and resources in building a grand capital and named it Vijayanagara, the city of victory. In the new capital their victory and domination was celebrated during the Mahanavami festival. It is by no chance or accident that they chose this festival, it was a well thought out political strategy. By making the capital epicenter of Mahanavami celebrations in the world, they proclaimed to be the protectors of all that is good in the world from the the evil. They were divinely ordained for this role. The King displayed his military might with different warrior clans and their best fighters taking part in the procession and games of Archery, Wrestling, Hunting, Javelin throwing. They also wanted to portray the city as a place where diverse art and cultural traditions flourished, on display were dancers, musicians, artisans, entertainers from every corner of the empire. There was spirited competition amongst all the participants, the best of the lot got rewarded with wealth and an audience with the King. 

walls of hazararama temple 2
Relief Sculptures on the outer wall of Hazara Rama Temple - Depicting the Mahanavami Procession

Today if you visit the ruins you will see the living evidence of this celebration in the Mahanavami Dibba and Hazara Rama Temple. These two structures served as the start and end point of the great procession in the capital on the day of Vijaya Dashami. On the outer walls of both these monuments you can see extensive bas-relief work representing sculptures of Wrestlers (Garadi or Kusti), Hunters, Horse traders, Camel traders, gymnasts, street acts jugglers, conjurers and illusionists, dancers, instrumentalists, singers, Kings, Door attendants, army chieftains and the great majesty of the Mahanavami celebrations. The picture on the top of this page represents the route the procession took through the citadel of the capital city. 

As part of our Hampi Heritage Tour we take the participants to Mahanavami Dibba and the Hazara Rama Temple. Here we explain the various festivals celebrated in the capital city and medieval foreign travellers account of their experience. We walk you through the archeological evidence and teach you to interpret relief sculptures depicting Mahanavami celebrations. So if you’d like to learn more about the way this festival was celebrated then signup for our tour! 

Festivals Heritage

History of Holi Celebrations in Vijayanagara

Holi is a  Hindu spring festival celebrated all over India. It signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, end of winter, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships. In Hampi we celebrate Holi with much enthusiasm. Travellers both foreign and domestic celebrate along with the locals. Sweets, colour powder, pichkaris all are part of the celebration.

We were curious to find out if Holi was celebrated during the Vijayanagara period and here is what we found.

  1.  Nicoli Conti, an italian merchant who visited Vijayanagara in 1420 -1421 CE talks of 4 important festivals that were celebrated by the entire population of the city back then.  The first when men and women, having bathed “clad themselves in new garments, and spend three entire days in singing, dancing and feasting,” the second when inside and outside the temples “innumerable number of lamps of oil” were fixed, the third “which lasts nine days” and the fourth “during which they sprinkle all passerby, even the King and queen themselves with saffron water … This is received by all with much laughter”.
  2. The sculptures on the outer enclosure wall of the Ramachandra Temple in the Royal Center illustrate a scene similar to what Nicoli Conti describes. On the fifth row (top) of illustrative sculptures there is one notable scene that depicts a man and some women throwing (coloured) water on each other; tubes for squirting are clearly discernible in hands of some the women. Such scenes are found elsewhere, too. On the Mahanavami platform there are reliefs showing figures playing with water. Relief sculptures are also present in the Vishnu temple in Royal Center that depict similar scenes in great detail. Here there are eight panels of reliefs of women, occasionally with a man in the center, engaged in playing with water; a water squirt is shown in the hands of one of the women, while others are taking water out of big containers with small cups or seated in a tub is shown. The presence of a male musician, a female dancer and of a hunchbacked clown holding a water-squirt highlight the lighthearted fun and merriment that marked this festival.  The sculptures mentioned here range from 14th century to 16th century periods, which means this spring festival was celebrated in similar way throughout the reign of Vijayanagara empire.


It is clear that the spring festival was celebrated with much gusto in the Vijayanagara era much in the same way as we celebrate Holi today.  Author Anila Verghese suggests that the fourth festival described by Nicoli Conti and represented in above described sculptures is Vasantotsava, that fell on the full moon of Chaitra (March – April) rather than Holi, which is celebrated on the full moon of Phalguna (February – March). The literary and archaeological data available points to the celebration of Vasantotsava. Vasantotsava is associated with the worship of Kama (or Madana or Manmatha), the god of love. Kama is also the demi-god of the spring season, thus also called as Vasantha. In course of time the worship of Kama or Madana died out and the great festivity connected with it was transferred to the spring festival of Holi.

So this year when you celebrate Holi remember that the celebration associated with it has a long history of merriment and fun.

HAPPY HOLI to you all!