In Vithalapura, an important area of religious activity in Vijayanagara city, there is an unusual monastic establishment (Fig. 1). Vijayanagara, the "City of Victory", present-day Hampi, is in the Hospet ma of the Bellary District, Karnataka. From the mid-fourteenth century to 1565 it served as the capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom which, in its heyday, encompassed a large part of southern India. The core of the city, situated on the south bank of the Tungabhadra river, extended over some 25 square kilometres while the outlying suburbs covered a much larger area.
As the capital of a large Hindu kingdom, Vijayanagara witnessed intense religious activity, with the state consciously promoting religious institutions. Various Hindu sects and subsects, and cults with their different divinities, were absorbed in the life of the city. In addition to innumerable Hindu temples and shrines, Jaina and Muslim religious establishments were also founded there (Verghese, 1995). Religion in Vijayanagara was propagated by gurus and ascetics of the various sects. Mathas, ashramas and other religious institutions also flourished as centres of religious life.
A matha is the official seat of an ascetic, who is the spiritual teacher whose followers may be numerous or few. Mathas were established by the heads of the different schools of Hinduism, propagating their own particular philosophy. Mathas or monasteries provided hospitality to resident or itinerant monks, ascetics, pilgrims and poor travellers and played a significant role in contemporary religious life. In a matha the mathadhipati, the head of the matha, was the central figure.
The matha, as a teaching institution, served not only the residents but also visiting students. Many mathas maintained libraries as well as chattrams for free meals, while some provided medical facilities (Verghese, 1995, p. 115).
Literary and epigraphical data reveal that in Vijayanagara city there were Advaita or Smarta mathas, Shaiva mathas connected with the different Shaiva sects, including the Virashaivas, and Vaishnava mathas of both the Shri-Vaishnavas and the Madhvas. Unfortunately, local archaeological data regarding mathas is meagre, as the majority of them were built of perishable materials and no longer exist. However, there are remains of a couple of Advaita mathas and a few Shaiva ones (Verghese, 1995, pp. 115-116). There are only two examples of Vaishnava monastic or ascetic dwellings at the site. One is in Vithalapura, and the other nearby. This is not surprising, as this area was a major centre of Vaishnava activity in the city. To the north of Vithalapura, by the river, is an unusual structure, probably a temple-cum-hermitage. The temple consists of a pillared hall and a sanctuary. Adjacent to it is a large rectangular room. Both open to a common, open, pillared verandah. More significant than the above-mentioned structure, both because of its location in Vithalapura, near important temples and other structures, and its elaborate arrangements, is the monastic establishment discussed in this paper.