Many years ago, a colleague who had been to Hampi told me about it. I already knew a little about Hampi: the capital of the mighty Vijayanagar Empire, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a fine example of an entire city’s worth of ruins. I’d seen photos. What I hadn’t known was the nitty-gritty: how to get there, what to see, how much time to allocate for the trip.
Three days, she told me. Four or five days, said another seasoned traveller.
And guess what I got? A day and a half (or less, considering I spent part of that half day sitting at the foot of a hill and chatting with a couple of fellow writers). And yet, though I didn’t get to see all there is to Hampi, when I left, I was pretty much sated with temples and monoliths and boulders. I didn’t yearn to stay on for another day or two. Perhaps I will go back someday and see all there is to Hampi. Perhaps this was enough.
But, to start: how I ended up in Hampi. I was at a writers’ conclave sponsored by the JWS Group and The Hindu, and part of that ten-day workshop/residency was a trip to Hampi, just 40 km from where we were staying, in Vidyanagar (Bellary District). JWS organized a day-long tour of Hampi for us, driving us there, deputing a guide for us, and pretty much pulling out all the stops.
To begin with, a very quick introduction to what Hampi is all about. This was the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire, which spread across much of the Deccan between the 14th and 16th centuries. It reached its zenith under its ruler Krishna Deva Raya, and by the early 16th century, was probably the richest city in India, with a flourishing trade that spanned several continents (it is also believed to have been the second largest city in the world at its time—Beijing being the largest). By 1565, Hampi was a ruin: in the Battle of Talikota, a confederacy of Sultanates (including the Bahmani Empire) north of Vijayanagar defeated the Vijayanagar armies. Over a period of about six months, Hampi was systematically destroyed—and never reoccupied.
What remains, therefore, is pretty stupendous. Not like other ‘heritage towns’ like the ones that dot Shekhavati, with heritage sites tucked away among modern construction. Here, the modern constructions are there, but they’re very few and far between: a small museum here, a little ASI office there. A bus stand, a toilet tucked discreetly away up a hillock. The rest is all a ghost of 16th century Vijayanagar.
What did we see?
To begin with, the Queen’s Bath, an interesting blend of traditional Dravidian architecture with Indo-Islamic elements. From the outside, this squat square building looked drab; inside, it had a sunlit beauty to it that was amazing: a sunken tank surrounded by colonnades on all four sides. These were expanded into somewhat larger sections—jharokhas—that would have functioned as dressing rooms, curtained off with silk.
The most important section devoted to the royal women was the Zenana Enclosure. Our guide pointed out something interesting here: the fortifications are made of large blocks of dressed stone, fitted together without mortar—and fitted, too, seamlessly (pretty much ashlar). Modern restorations, he showed us, can be easily spotted: the stones, while they look similar, have gaps between one block and the next. Indian craftsmanship is generally regarded as having endured for centuries, but there do seem to be some techniques we’ve slipped up on.
Nothing but the bases of the queens’ palaces can be seen in the Zenana Enclosure now, but one building which remains (and is lovely) is the Lotus Mahal. Sadly, years of graffiti-loving tourists have forced the authorities to close off the Lotus Mahal for visitors: all we could do was stand on the ground outside and look admiringly in at rows of arches.
Past the Zenana Enclosure (and surely within sniffing distance of royal noses?) stand the Elephant Stables. If you know me (and you’ve read some of the Muzaffar Jang books) you’d perhaps know of my love for elephants. I always feel upset that the Shahi Filkhana (the Imperial Elephant Stables) of Shahjahanabad was razed by the British in the wake of 1857, but seeing these stables here—which were possibly somewhat contemporaneous?—got me very excited. From afar, they look like a massive mosque, a long façade with arched entrances topped by domes…
… but when you get close (and inside), you realize that each arch leads into a huge walled cell of its own. A window in the wall at the back looks out onto the countryside, and a man-sized arched doorway leads into adjacent cells.
This, of course, is only a small part of the area occupied by the royals of Vijayanagar and their obviously considerable entourage of relatives, servitors, animals and general hangers-on. Some more of this we saw on another day (the half-day trip I wrote of, above). On that day, in the Royal Enclosure, we saw the Mahanavami Dibba, an elevated platform on which the King used to sit to view the Mahanavami processions, at Dussehra.
While the view from the top of the Mahanavami Dibba is good—you can see all around, at what are now mostly just the bare outlines or bases of buildings that once stood here—what really struck me were the fine carvings along the sides. Figures dance, hunt, pray before deities, fight. Elephants march along in processions and into war. Lions roar. It’s all pretty stunning.
Also part of the Royal Enclosure is something I hadn’t expected to find in southern India: a stepwell. Stepwells, known as baolis, baoris or vaavs in the more arid parts of Northen and Western India, are something I always associate with Rajasthan or Delhi or Gujarat, not Karnataka. Not in Hampi, at any rate (why would you want to build a stepwell—traditionally filled by rainwater and therefore acting as a reservoir during dry periods—in a city on a riverbank?)
But yes, Hampi has a stepwell, which our guide told us was found by a Vijayanagar king on a campaign in Odisha; he dismantled it and had it brought here and set up. This, in conjunction with the obvious ‘notations’ carved into each block of stone, led me to wonder why I’d never heard of stepwells in Odisha, but later research indicated that our guide may just have been indulging in one of those flights of sensationalist fancy so dear to Indian tourist guides.
A stepwell—known here in Karnataka as a pushkarni—is also present at the Virupaksha Temple, a thousand years old (or so we were told) and still a living temple. The ‘still functioning’ aspect of the temple accounts for the many monkeys roaming the precincts, the lines of devotees, and the presence of a temple elephant named Lakshmi.
We got blessed by Lakshmi (who garlanded all of us)…
And while most of the party went off to do darshan, a couple of us roamed about, trying to keep clear of the monkeys.
Talking of monkeys, just inside the main gate to Virupaksha Temple, we saw a langur seated on a statue of Nandi. And a Nandi I had never seen before: a three-headed Nandi, one head looking into the past, one into the future, and one at the present.
Temples are a big thing in Hampi, and another famous one is the Hazaar Rama Temple (literally, the Temple of the Thousand Ramas)—so named because on its walls are carved stories from the Ramayana. No, not a thousand Ramas, but maybe a couple of hundred. The starkness of the carved walls under the glare of a noonday sun was striking. Inside, the heavily carved pillars of black stone are an import: they weren’t originally from Hampi.
When it comes to temples, though, the one that takes pride of place in my Hampi journal is Vitthala. The Vitthala Temple complex is home to one of three stone temple chariots in India (the others are at Mahabalipuram and Konark). The Vitthala Temple stone chariot is a shrine to Garuda; originally, its wheels could move; they have since been cemented down to make the chariot stationary.
There are several beautifully carved temples within this complex, but the one that really impressed me was the Ranga Mantapa, the music hall. This one is adorned with 56 slim pillars, all of stone (and solid stone, too) that emit musical notes when gently tapped. A set of seven pillars each emits a different note along the scale. You aren’t allowed to touch these any more, but when dance-and-music performances used to be held in Vitthala Temple way back in its heyday, the music from these pillars could (supposedly) be heard a kilometre away.
As if that wasn’t enough, the icing on the cake was this gorgeously gnarly-trunked frangipani tree.
I’ve never see a frangipani with a trunk as impressive as this, but if the tree is (as we were told) a century old, I guess it isn’t surprising. And it seems hale and hearty, too: the branches were dotted with white flowers.
Besides these major temples, there are the monoliths. Ugra Narasimha, a statue 22 ft high, is the most imposing of the lot. Interestingly enough, though the statue looks complete in itself, it’s actually only a part of the original: the Narasimha here had his consort Lakshmi with him, though all that remains of Lakshmi is part of an arm.
Smaller, at a relatively modest 18 ft, is the ‘Peanut Ganesh’ (‘peanut’ because in relation to another nearby Ganesh, this one’s pretty big—the other, smaller Ganesh is called the ‘Mustard Ganesh’). The Peanut Ganesh sits inside a fairly large temple with a pillared terrace that offers a panoramic view of the Tungabhadra and its banks.
The Mustard Ganesh, in comparison, is a tiny 12 ft in height. The delightful thing about this particular statue—besides the fact that it’s finely carved, and the expression on Ganesh’s face is surprisingly lifelike—there’s a somewhat hidden feature to the statue. Walk around to the back and you’ll see the figure of a woman supporting Ganesh. Mummy Parvati, holding up her son. Cute!
From the Peanut Ganesh, we went down to the Tungabhadra and what was to be one of the most memorable parts of the trip for several of us: a coracle ride. These shallow, bowl-shaped boats were once used as transport along the river, but now remain exclusively as tourist attractions. Ours had been gaily bedecked with yellow marigolds, and after we’d donned life jackets,we climbed in.
The water looked uncomfortably close at first, but I got used to it soon enough—especially as the experience on the river is so fabulous.
For one, it’s quiet. Very quiet. All we heard was the swish of our boatmen’s oars, the lapping of the water, and the occasional call of a water bird. Egrets, a lapwing, and a lone darter were the only animal life we saw along the way. (And when we finally alighted, having trailed our hands in the cool water and basically been only a few inches away from the water at any given time, we saw a sign that warned us against crocodiles in the river).
And there was the view. Massive boulders, rounded and looking as if some giant child were getting ready to play marbles. Signs of long-forgotten Vijayanagar: a Nandi sitting on a flat rock overlooking the river; a temple, seemingly intact, on the other bank. Two long rows of stone pillars marching along either bank, towards each other (these, said our guide, are the ruins of a medieval bridge that spanned the Tungabhadra).
I said near the start of this travelogue that I’d perhaps go back to Hampi. But I’ve realized I will. To savour it again, and to see what I missed this time round. Not perhaps in a hurry, but sometime. Definitely.