The Vijayanagara Empire, 16th century A.D.
The Vittala temple that was built at the time of Deva Raya II was now in the hands of Emperor Krishnadevaraya who has set his mind to enhancing the shrine with a grandeur like no other. He used this opportunity to exhibit the dexterity and artistry of the Vijayanagara Empire and it was under this endeavor that the stonemasons built an acoustic marvel known as ‘The Musical Pillars’.
These musical pillars of Hampi or Vijayanagara, as it was known back then, consisted of 56 pillars built in 8 groups with seven minor pillars arranged on the periphery one main pillar in each group. The main pillars supported the roof of the temple. Each set of pillars represented either a percussive, wind, or string instrument, and each minor pillar represented a note from the SaReGaMa scale. When a pillar is tapped, the acoustics produce a sound that resembles the corresponding note of the instrument. Back when it was built, it was used to accompany the dance performances held at the Vittala Temple. Sadly there are only nine pillars that are still functioning today.
During the British Raj, their curiosity and lack of technological advancements lead to them cutting down two pillars to figure out the acoustics of these musical pillars but to their amazement, it was hollow!
Other than the ones in Hampi, the famous musical pillars in India are the ones in the Nellaiappar Temple, the Meenakshi Temple, and the ones in the Alwar Tirunagari Temple, all of which are located in Tamil Nadu.
Years have passed since the British. technology has advanced and researchers today used non-destructive techniques to unravel the mystery of these pillars, and it has now been solved!
The trick was simply that the sounds produced were controlled by adjusting the dimensions such as length, diameter, and thickness of these hollow pillars. Goes to talk about the virtuoso of the stonemasons of the Vijayanagara Empire who could assess acoustics of the pillars in ways more skillful than the ones of our time.
Today these musical pillars have become a major attraction among the many places to visit in Hampi. If ever you ever get to visit this wondrous town, be sure to check out the Vittala Temple where you will find these pillars, and while you are there, also check out the stone chariot, another sensation that is considered the epitome of the Vijayanagara art and architecture.