Ever heard of columns emanating musical sounds? And not just simple, amateur tones but resonant tones of varying frequency, and pitch. Well, such columns do exist and they contribute towards an essential feature of the Dravida temples of Southern India. These columns are the surviving testimony of the skills, both scientific and artistic.

 There are several temples under the Dravidian cult which flaunt an array of such musical columns- Vitthala temple of Hampi in Karnataka, Meenakshi temple of Madurai, Nelaiyappar Temple in Tirunelveli and many more.

However, nowhere has been these musical columns been elaborated best as has been in the Vitthala temple of Karnataka.

The Vitthala temple is located in the ancient village of Hampi in Karnataka. Hampi is the most searched site in Karnataka in Google and is a World Heritage site under the UNESCO. The Vitthala Temple Complex in Hampi is one of the oldest surviving Dravida Temples and the most famous of all other musical temples. It was built in 13th century by King Krishnadevaraya.

The vitthal temple
The Vitthala temple

The Vijaynagara temples were famous for not only the musical columns but also there are several related attributes which make the site a hotcake for tourists, historians, architects and physicists alike.

So let us look into them one by one:

The Musical columns

Now, let us take up the columns I have been blabbering about so much in detail.

These musical columns are found in the Ardha Mantapa, or the pillared portico in the front. There are all together 56 pillars. They are also known as SAREGAMA pillars.

The pillared portico held up by the musical columns
The pillared portico held up by the musical columns

The pillars or columns are chiselled out of a monolithic stone. The pillars consist of one central large column and they are surrounded by smaller pilasters. The central column is a structural one which takes up the load of the temple complex. The number of pilasters circumscribing he main structural column might be varying in number from four to twelve.

These pilasters can be tapped with the thumb and palm of the hand to produce resonant music. When one column is tapped the other surrounding pilasters also vibrate creating a musical sound. The musical pilasters produce different scales of sound. Sometimes there is lesser number of notes than seven. The most common type which has twelve pilasters has all the seven notes and additional adjacent higher and lower octaves.

The musical columns in the pillared portico
The musical columns in the pillared portico

The columns are beautifully carved with figures of dancing girls and musical instruments. The artists have moulded the pilasters into musical instruments or musical instrument in original, they bear structural load, we don’t know for real. Whatever it be, these columns are a sign of sheer excellence and unmatched talent.

The mystery behind these pilasters has not yet been solved. The kind of acoustics employed to design the pillars is still a matter of debate. The stone used is granite. The granite stone consists of a high proportion of silica.

The British had cut open two pilasters to check what was used inside. But there was nothing just empty hollows staring blank. These two cut columns can still be seen. It is often proposed that the certain columns are partially hollow and partially solid which takes care of the air column.

The musical columns produce bell like resonant sound of varying pitch and frequency depending weather the column is a wind, percussion or string instrument. However, the tourists are not now allowed to trying tapping as the columns are old and damaged and careless tapping might lead to breakage. However, there often is an expert who plays a tune for the tourists.

The musical columns were used not only to play religious tunes in the temple complex but also the music was used as a means to communicate with the common masses to convey certain emergency messages.

A bit of History

The vitthal temple
The Vitthala temple with tall Gopuram

The time when this temple existed, the northern part of India had already been annexed by the Mughals. Islamic invasions were a constant threat. The temple complexes of the Cholas flaunted temples of large heights. We see a constant increase in the height of the temple sikharas from the time of the Guptas to the Chalukyas, Pallavas and Cholas. Therefore, the sudden and abrupt decrease in the height of the temple sikharas in the Vijaynagar dynasty was sure to hold some valid reason.

The reason was that the Mughals had carried out vandalism activies in parts of India. Therefore, the temple height was greatly reduced and pushed at the back of the plot. The temple complex was fronted by Gopurams of tall heights which practically hid the temple sikhara. The lower base pf the Gopurams were stone built but the upper sikhara was a brick structure.

This was done with view regarding protection. The low roof also acted as an optimum height to resound the music and hence produce louder sounds. However, some historians also claim that the sikhara of the temple was too brick built like the Gopurams which got event 

Prior to attacks, these columns were tapped rigorously to alert the citizens.

Additional Perks

Temple Complex

The Temple Complex
The Temple Complex

The temple complex consists of the main hall of the temple or Maha Mantapa, preceded by the Anardha Mandapa and followed by the cella, which is situated in the inner part of the temple complex. It is situated on a high ornate base which is decorated with relief work of horses, warriors, swans and other ornamental designs.

The rest of the temple complex is a sprawling area circumscribed by high compound walls. There are three towering Gopurams or gateways which lead to the Central Maha Mantapa or the inner portion of the temple complex. The height of the Gopurams were way greater than the height of the inner temple sikhara. The Gopurams of the temple is too a marvel of skill. They are richly decorated with ornamental relief work.

We also have a Kalyana Mandapa- the marriage hall, the Amman Shrine which is dedicated to the female God and the stone chariot.

Stone Chariot

The stone Charoit or the Ratha
The stone Charoit or the Ratha

The stone Chariot in the Vitthala Temple complex is a stunning piece of architecture from the Vijaynagara kingdom. It copies the form of a Ratha in stone. The Ratha is actually a shrine which is chiselled to look like a chariot. It houses the statue of Garuda who was the carrier of Lord Vishnu. The chariot is fronted by beautifully carved elephants. These elephants were not carved in-situ. They were placed before the Rathas later.

The wheels of the rathas too perhaps could be rotated around the axil. Now, the wheels are fixed to prevent further damage.

The geography of Hampi around Vitthala

Hampi geographically rocky terrain
Hampi geographically rocky terrain

Hampi which is the abode of the Vitthala Temple too has an interesting geography. Needless to say it has a beautiful landscape banked beside the Tungabhadra river. This ancient town was backed with hills on three sides. The hills portray a rocky terrain and the rocks appear unstable and they might give you an uneasy feeling. The hills on the three side made Hampi a very lucrative spot for rulers as it provided a safe and secured existence.