A Dancer Long Lost: Chinnama Devi, Queen of Vijayanagara
by Maitreyee B Chowdhury
The Tungabhadra was in spate,
the rains better than ever.
The breeze from the river, now habitual visitor.
At ten each night, the curtains would lift on a precious Zenana -
lover of the queen, the river sang.
Chinna Devi sat in abstract silence,
the red dot that adorned her hand bordered an enriched terracotta wall.
She was Sita in decadent unsettled-ness,
prisoner of her own accord -
queen of Vijayanagara, dancer at heart.
Soon it would be time for Mahanavami –
Durga would be worshiped in every possible human form,
memory brought bheebatsa!
Twenty dancers would dance on the dusty road -
with her mighty lover, this dancer would watch,
Hands moving from trishula, to anjali to swastikam.
The Dasara Dibba would come alive again.
Nine days and nine nights,
the poor would rejoice, alms be given,
kindness thrust upon, Sultans unknown.
Her legs spread, this queen sat,
a courtesan in every thigh.
The hair soaked in blood,
beggars in every papilla.
The breeze tonight sang of yesterday,
of a far away Matunga asleep.
All summer she had danced on those stones,
bare feet burnt -
as her lover in disguise,
(a future king) watched.
Purandaradasa had sung,
while the rain poured,
a hundred fifty year old Champa
in Vittala temple blossomed.
Tonight her old friend slept
with the Vijayanagara jyoti as its crown.
The Andhra Bhoja, third ruler of the Tuluva
Kṛṣṇa Deva Rāya would be awake still,
and yet he had not called her.
Just beyond the dot on her hand,
a red dirt road stretched -
The Neem had turned yellow.
From another unadorned street on another wall,
another queen sat, and then another -
Like prisoners of time,
dolls of passion gone mute,
bereft of dance, laughter and shringar -
they held court, over his highness’s groins.
The Varaha, sun, moon and dagger -
flew strong on every temple pillar,
how they mocked her tonight.
In the corridors of courtesans,
sleep is uneasy - frightening even.
Growing placid, almighty and a queen - became a morning bath, soon.
She had shrunk her feet and grown three breasts.
Fine silks moulded her thighs,
in the corner of a tiny foot,
an anklet, somehow survived-
every night, the curtains sang Raag Biraha,
the price of a crown too high.
The right thigh twitched,
desire ran down empty halls of a stone empire.
Nimble shadows ran on dusty roads,
down to the courtesan’s lane - of familiarity and songs.
Her home lay empty and lit every night, somewhere there
out in the Bazar.
The smell of Jasmine had poured into her lover’s vein,
crystallized her anklets,
kings and queens, they had become.
The Sultans came,
an empire looted, Vijayanagara died.
On moonlight nights, near empty and broken
a courtesan still dances with the Tungabhadra.
Matunga echoes her call,
a lone Krishna weeps on Shaivaite land.
* * * * *
Chinna Devi was the wife of one of the most powerful kings of the Vijayanagara kingdom (13th century- Modern day Hampi). Prior to becoming the queen, she was a courtesan and dancer, who helped the king while he was on the run. The two fell in love and the king promised to marry her once he was reinstated to the throne. But because of the fact that she was a courtesan, history and most official records don't recognise her, instead laying more emphasis on the king's first queen whom he was compelled to marry.
Tungabhadra - Name of a river that flows through the Vijayanagara empire.
Sita is a reference to the mythological epic Ramayana. Sita is the wife of Ram, the protagonist of this epic, a large part of her life was spent as a prisoner to demon king Ravana, from whose kingdom she was eventually rescued after a prolonged war.
Mahanavami - Every year, the Hindu goddess Durga is worshiped for 10 days in a festival called Dussehra. The ninth day of the worship is called Mahanavami and is supposed to be very auspicious.
Trishula, Anjali, Swastikam - Symbols expressed during classical dance.
Dasara Dibba - A stone platform within the royal enclosure of Hampi, used to celebrate the festival of Dasara (Dussehra).
Purandaradasa - A court singer in the Vijayanagara kingdom.
Champa - A flowering tree (Michelia champaca).
Vijayanagara jyoti - A fire torch kept atop the Matunga hill that was never extinguished to symbolise the power of the Vijaynagara empire.
Andhra Bhoja - King of Andhra (Andhra is a part of the southern part of the Indian territory).
Tuluva - The name of the third ruling dynasty of the Vijayanagara Empire.
Neem - Botanical name, Azadirachta indica.
Shringar - A Hindi word, used to denote a woman getting ready (beautifying herself) to meet her lover.
Varaha – Boar (refers to sign on the Vijayanagara flag).
Raag Biraha - A note in Indian classical music - Biraha denotes sense of longing.
Saalumantaps - Shops from the Vijayanagra era, still present in Hampi.
Zenana - Persian word for women (Has reference to the Zenana Mahal in Hampi).
Bheebatsa - An expression in Bharatnatyam (classical Indian dance), it is an expression of disgust.
Matunga - A Hill situated in Hampi, was part of the Vijayanagara empire.
Jyoti – Fire (reference here to the royal torch that was lit every night on Matunga Hill).
Andhra Bhoja - A title given to Krishnadeva Raya - meaning the king of the Andhra land.
Shringar - to dress up.
"lone Krishna weeps on Shaivaite land" - The Vijaynagara emperors were known to be worshippers of Shiva (Shaivaite - Hindu deity), but after the conquest of Utkala (present day Orissa) by Krishnadeva Raya, this temple was built for worshiping Krishna (another prominent Hindu deity). Till this day it is the only Krishna temple in an otherwise Shaivaite territory.
* * * * *
"A Dancer Long Lost: Chinnama Devi, Queen of Vijayanagara" was previously published at Open Road Review.
Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore based poet and writer. She has three books to her credit - Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen: Bengali Cinema’s First Couple (Nonfiction), Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras (Poetry) and The Hungryalists (Nonfiction). She may be found at https://www.maitreyeechowdhury.com/.