The Musical Pillars of Hampi

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Is there a scientific basis to the musical notes emitted from the pillars at Hampi's Vittala Temple? Are the musical properties just accidental or were they engineered in some way by the master sculptors?

The grand Vittala Temple located at Hampi is known for its exquisite craftsmanship and architecture. This temple is one of the primary reasons Hampi has earned the UNESCO world heritage site tag. There are several interesting aspects to this temple, today we will focus our attention on the 56 pillared Ranga Mantapa, the main hall of the temple. Each of the 56 pillars in this hall are monoliths, meaning they are carved out of single stone. Each pillar in turn have multiple columns and some even have sculptures carved into them. These columns on the pillars when struck with stone or wood are believed to emit sounds, therefore more popularly known as the Musical pillars of Hampi. In this Ranga Mandapa, the temple dancers of Vijayanagara would perform with musical accompaniments as an offering to the presiding deity Vittala. 

Scholars have for long debated if these musical properties are just accidental or did the Shilpis (master stone sculptors) engineer it intentionally. We will look at some of the scientific analysis undertaken so far. We will look at what classical Indian literature has to say about using stone and our ancestors known how of it. Finally we will also look at it from the perspective of an art historian. Hopefully at the end of it all we will have some clarity or direction on the musical pillars of Hampi.

Raw Material for Pillars - The Rocks

Landscape of Hampi

One of the first thing one notices as they enter Hampi, is its awe-inspiring landscape filled with uniquely shaped boulders stacked on top of each other. These readily available rocks were used as the primary building material for the Temples in Hampi, as pillars, lintels, roof and so on. 

Hampi is located on the Deccan plateau, which is one of the oldest and most stable geographical formations in the world. Due to magmatic action older gneiss rocks were transformed into granite during the later archean period (3600 to 2500 millions years ago). What started off as large monolithic granite hills transformed into boulders, slabs with interesting shapes due to the weathering by the elements along the natural fractures in the rocks. 

These rocks in Hampi are known as Pink Porphyritic granite  due to its specific mineral composition. A team from NIAS (National Institute of Advance Sciences) led by Prof. Sharada Srinivasan examined rock samples from Hampi. Rock cross sections magnified under polarised light showed high amount of orthoclase (pink feldspar), which had cleavage plain at right angles with a monoclinic structure. Meaning that the crystalline structures of certain minerals in these rock lend themselves to have naturally resonant properties. 

Natural sound emitting properties of some rocks

A rock gong is usually a natural rock formation opportunistically adapted to produce musical tones. Rock gongs like the one shown in this video have been in use for thousands of years all around the world. They may have been used as part of rituals, to signal other people, or as a form of expression. Although they look like plain boulders, they have a hollow, metallic sound when struck due to the composition of the rock.

The rock gongs of Neolithic and Megalithic periods evolved into Lithophones in later periods. A lithophone is a musical instrument consisting of pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes. Notes may be sounded in combination (producing harmony) or in succession (melody). 
 
Here we can see a vietnamese traditional lithophone and how it is used in contemporary music. 
While Hampi is famous for its medieval city of Vijayanagara, human settlements in the area go back to least 4500 to 3000 years from current time. And interestingly enough these early residents around Hampi knew about the resonant properties of these rocks. In several sites there is clear evidence of use of rock gongs. Closest to Hampi are the rock gongs at Vanibhadreshawara temple in Mallapur. At the Megalithic site of Hire-Benakal we find dolmens (burial tombs) with resonant portholes.

What classical literature tells us

There are a variety of classical Indian literature from different periods that talk about temple building, materials and methods used. These works give us an insight into the technical knowledge of the Shilpis (master sculptors), specifically regarding their know how of rocks. 
 
For Instance, Vayu Purana (350 BCE), Vishwaksena Samhita and Narada Samhita elaborate on how to choose appropriate stones based on desired qualities. Methods to test the strength, sound quality, existence of cracks in rock are specified. Medieval period classical work like Silparathna and Ajithaagama go a step further and discuss specific shapes of pillars and the corresponding sounds they produce. 
 
It looks like Indian stone sculptors knew about the sound emitting properties of rocks, they knew how to pick rocks based on sound quality and they knew how different shapes of pillars effect sound tonality. It is therefore not difficult to imagine that master sculptors of Vijayanagara were capable of building a Ranga Mandapa full of musical pillars that had sonorous properties. 

Art historians perspective on the Ranga Mantapa

There are a variety of classical Indian literature from different periods that talk about temple building, materials and methods used. These works give us an insight into the technical knowledge of the Shilpis (master sculptors), specifically regarding their know how of rocks. 
 
For Instance, Vayu Purana (350 BCE), Vishwaksena Samhita and Narada Samhita elaborate on how to choose appropriate stones based on desired qualities. Methods to test the strength, sound quality, existence of cracks in rock are specified. Medieval period classical work like Silparathna and Ajithaagama go a step further and discuss specific shapes of pillars and the corresponding sounds they produce. 
 
It looks like Indian stone sculptors knew about the sound emitting properties of rocks, they knew how to pick rocks based on sound quality and they knew how different shapes of pillars effect sound tonality. It is therefore not difficult to imagine that master sculptors of Vijayanagara were capable of building a Ranga Mandapa full of musical pillars that had sonorous properties. 
Saptaswara Musical Pillars of Hampi
These columns are said to emit something akin to seven basic notes of the Indian musical scale

In the Ranga Mandapa of the Vittala Temple there are several interesting musical pillars, let’s take a look at a few remarkable ones. The first set of pillars are known as Saptaswara pillars because they are said to emit something akin to seven basic notes of the Indian musical scale. This would lend itself to be described as a lithophone. 

Pillar with a sculpture of a Cymbal Player

Another interesting musical pillar is the one with damaged sculpture of cymbal (tala) player. The rhombus shaped pillars at the rear were observed to emit the higher pitched sounds resembling sounds of cymbals or Nattuvangam. Cymbals are specially played during classical bharatanatyam (dance) performances as an aid in timing & as an musical accompaniment.

Damaged Sculpture of Mridangam (Drum) Player on a Pillar

Columns of this musical pillar with a sculpture of a Mridangam player was observed to emit deeper pitch resembling a Mridangam. 

Columns of this musical pillar with a sculpture of a Damaru player can be observed. Notice the difference between a Damaru and Mridangam as shown in the sculptures. The musical tones emitted by the columns in each of the pillars also have been observed to have different qualities.

Sculpture of a Classical Dancer on a Musical Pillar - Photo by Prof Sharada Srinivasan

Lastly we have this pillar with a sculpture of a classical dancer. This is believed to be a portrait sculpture of  Chinnamma Devi, queen to Krishnadevaraya. Inscriptions at the temple credit her with constructing one of the entrance towers to the temple. She was known to be a patron of arts and a classical dancer of great repute herself. Some say that she is the inspiration behind the stunning Ranga Mandapa and Musical pillars at the Vittala Temple in Hampi. 

CONCLUSION REMARKS

Hampi’s landscape is filled with rocks that naturally possess resonant properties. It looks like earliest humans who settled in these parts were aware of these properties and used rock gongs and rock based instruments. The Shilpis of Vijayanagara would also be acutely aware of these properties. Additionally they’d have the benefit of knowledge passed on by other sculptors, on how to pick rocks, how to shape rocks for desired sound quality and how to test quality of rocks. Looking at the the layout of Ranga Mandapa, the different pillars, shapes of columns, the sculptures carved on pillars, it is abundantly clear to me that all of this was intentional. I do not believe that this is just some imaginative tale spun by an enthusiastic local guide, there is certainly more to it.  I hope that in the coming days more exhaustive scientific enquiry is undertaken that would shed some light on the wonderful musical pillars of Hampi. 

Arjun Bhat
Arjun Bhat
Travel Entrepreneur who works on curating immersive local experiences of South India. TEDx Speaker. Yoga & Meditation.

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