For decades, the famed ruins of Hampi which served as the capital of the 15th century Vijayanagar empire, have been an iconic heritage destination. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNSECO) considered it so important that a special body called Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority (HWHAMA) was created for the specific purpose of maintaining and protecting the ruins. Now comes the shocking news that the Brindavana (tomb) of 15th century Madhwa saint Sri Vyasaraja Thirtharu at Nava Brindavana island near Hampi has been vandalised by alleged treasure hunters. It reflects poorly on the security provided to these priceless monuments which are fast becoming an easy target for treasure hunters and miscreants. And more shocking is the fact that just six months ago, youth were seen in a video vandalising the Vishnu temple at Hampi by felling stone pillars of the temple. So have the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the state archeological department really done enough to save these monuments for posterity? Shivakumar G. Malagi examines security measures at the heritage site and finds out if more needs to be done to make sure vandals don’t play mischief and get away easily in future.
There is no dearth of funds for the security of the famed structures at Hampi— as a senior official put it, the government is spending no less than Rs 1.2 crore a year for the world heritage site’s maintenance.
Equating the vandalism at Nava Brindavana to nothing less than the destruction of the Bamiyan caves in Afghanistan by the then Taliban regime, the Karnataka government will be providing additional funds and manpower to keep a watch on the ruins 24x7. “Despite the ruins coming under the ASI control, with only maintenance of the heritage destination under state control, the government will be pushing for better co-ordination and an even more active role in protecting the monuments,” said a senior department official.
However, tourism department officials admit that the Hampi ruins, spread across 29 gram panchayats in an area of 4,100 hectares with no less than 1,600 monuments, are virtually impossible to protect with the manpower currently available. Further, fencing the entire 4,100 hectares is unlikely to happen as the ruins are a key route for locals to traverse to their fields and etch out a living at the tourist sports.
“We are planning to install more Closed Circuit Television Cameras (CCTVs) across the entire campus to keep track of vandals. We will be able to apprehend the culprits within an hour if an act of vandalism happens,” said an official. The state government will also be looking at increasing the number of security personnel at the Hampi ruins for more efficient protection, the official said.
Surprisingly, the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority(HWHAMA) has no permanent director. Over the last few years, the body has been reduced to a non-entity with no full time director. According to sources, the government is facing a serious problem in hiring people for HWHAMA and after this incident, there may be a knee jerk reaction to appoint a full time director. At present the deputy director of the tourism department is the in-charge director for HWHAMA.
And how did the vandalism at Vrindavana happen? A seven member gang of treasure hunters from Andhra Pradesh vandalised Vyasaraja Brindavana at Nava Brindavana island located in the River Tungabhadra between the ancient cities of Hampi-Anegundi in Koppal district in the wee hours of July 18.
The incident triggered intense anguish among the Madhwa Brahmin community as it happened at a time when devotees and followers of the Madhwa tradition were conducting the Ashada Ekadashi and Chaturmasa rituals. A large number of upset devotees from Hosapete and Gangavati towns rushed to Anegundi as photographs of the vandalism went viral in social media.
“The entire Brindavana was dug up by dismantling the structure and breaking the carved stones that were used as embellishment for Brindavan,” explained Vishnu Theertha, a devotee from Kamalapur.
Shocked by the miscreant’s action, Satyatma Theertha Sripada swami of Uttaradi Mutt who was in Kalaburagi on account of Chaturmasa, cut short his visit and rushed to Anegundi to be with the distressed devotees.
Nava Brindavana has the Brindavans (Samadhis) of nine prominent seers (saints) of the Madhwa tradition belonging to Uttaradi Mutt, Raghavendra Mutt, Vyasaraj Mutt, Padaraja Mutt and other prominent mutts. Until a few years, the site was in dispute and the matter is pending before the Supreme Court.
Previously tension had gripped Nava Brindavan when devotees belonging to both Uttaradi Mutt and Raghavendra Mutt staked claim over performing ‘Aradhana’ (saint worship). Devotees of both mutts claimed the right to a portion of 27.5 acres of land of the 100 acres at Anegundi surrounded by the Tungabhadra River. Both the mutts wanted to perform the rituals of Padmanabha Theertha—the first disciple of Sri Madhwacharya at Nava Brindavana.
The day after the vandalism, Udupi Pejwar matha seer Vishveshatheertha Swamiji, Uttaradi mutt seer Sathyathma theertha, Subhudendra theertha of Mantralaya Raghavendra Swamy mutt and several other pontiffs from various Madhwa mutts led the restoration work to restore the resting places and the damaged idols. The restoration was taken up under the guidance of Mumbai based architect Neeraj Kulkarni. Later, pontiffs performed religious rituals at the restored Brindavana.
Koppal Deputy Commissioner Mr Sunil Kumar is now planning to write to the Karnataka government to ask it to hand over the management of Nava Brindavana to the district administration. This comes after the administration was sharply criticised for failing to prevent the damage at the site. The site is neither with Archeological Survey of India unlike other monuments in the Hampi heritage site, nor with the state government. Since, it is private property under the upkeep of the Uttaradi mutt, only a caretaker is present to maintain the site.
The cops are now doing their bit and six people including a temple priest were nabbed within three days of the vandalism, said Koppal Superintendent of Police Ms Renuka.
Ballari IGP M Nanjundaswami told reporters that the group from Andhra Pradesh was in search of treasure adding that a seventh person is on the run. Treasure-hunters are a growing menace in the Koppal-Ballari belt where King Krishnadevaraya’s wealth is believed to be buried.
The vandalism was not an act done on the spur of the moment. The accused had visited Brindavana twice earlier and planned to dig up the samadhi on their third visit. “They started digging around 8.30 pm on July 17 after the priest conducted a puja. They dug up the samadhi till 2.40 am on July 18 and stopped after hitting a rock,” Ballari IGP M Nanjundaswami said.
Arriving in an Innova, the group took the ferry to the island and stayed back, Koppal cops said. Police suspect the gang received local help in fleeing from the island in the early hours of the morning.
“The accused are T Balanarasayya, priest of Sri Bugga Ramalingeshwara temple in Tadipatri, Andhra Pradesh; Murali Manohar Reddy, D Manohar Derangallu, K Kummata Keshava, B Vijayakumar and Sriramulu. We have launched a hunt for another accused, Srinivas Reddy,” the IGP said. He said the police zeroed in on the accused after studying the mobile numbers in operation at the nearest mobile tower. Five teams were formed which visited Andhra Pradesh to detain the suspects.
Sri Vyasaraja Tirtha was the Raja Guru (royal spiritual teacher) for Sri Krishnadevaraya, the Vijayanagar emperor. He was buried at Nava Brindavana in 1539. He was the guru of Purandara Dasaru and Kanaka Dasaru.
Iconic structures like those at Hampi can never be recreated for they belong to an age when lofty dreams and the love for grandeur guided kings and emperors who would settle for nothing but the best. Can we afford to lose these priceless relics to those consumed by greed, to those who care two hoots for history? Maybe it’s time a special force with the right kind of training is set up to make sure sites like Hampi do not become an easy hunting ground for treasure hunters. For if Hampi can be penetrated and vandalised, one dreads to think of the plight of lesser known monuments scattered across the country where it is only a chowkidar who stands between thieves and these lovely structures.