Tucked away in a remote village in the Tungabhadra basin in Central Karnataka’s Bellary district, lies a place that captured my imagination many years ago. This summer, as the school vacations were under way, we decided to indulge in a quick three-day tour of the ruins at Hampi.
Our 7-hour drive from Bengaluru took us to a beautifully designed township of Toranagallu, where Jindal Steel Works (JSW), India’s largest private sector steel company is located, which has some very picturesque avenues of the township, with all the key amenities required by the JSW employees and their families.
Early next morning, we were on the beautiful bougainvillea-lined roads that took us past the bellowing chimneys and massive furnaces where the landscape gradually changes into a typically industrial one. On either side of the road appear countless factories and industrial estates and the terrain appears to be rough and arid. For miles at a stretch, the landscape looks bare and the only vegetation appears to be cactii and wild shrubs.
A few miles later, enormous boulders appear out of nowhere, precariously perched on the slopes of the hills, ready to topple onto the passing cars below. Minutes later, we arrive at a broken arched gateway signposted ‘Hampi’. What remains of it is a vast expanse of damaged structures, spread across a 26 square meter area, which was once the seat of the mighty Vijayanagar Empire, between the 13th and the 15th centuries.
Today, Hampi is a village that lies in ruins, where each stone has a story to tell. It has been a long wait for me, but I have finally come to discover the story for myself. With a curious ten year old accompanying me, I already have a list of questions waiting for me. Hopefully, this trip will be a discovery for all of us, since we know so little about Hampi!
There are some suggestions that Hampi’s origins may be traced to emperor Ashoka’s time. Some even suggest that a Brahmi inscription and a terracotta seal dating back to the 2nd century BC were also discovered from the excavation site.
As the story of the Vijayanagar Empire unravels, we learn of how Dravidian architecture flourished here during the early 13th century and continued to do so for another two hundred years, before the large impressive empire was attacked by the Deccan Muslim Confederacy in 1565. The most unfortunate fallout of this was the systematic destruction of the beautiful architecture in Vijayanagar – the buildings, the temples, the forts, the riverside features, royal and sacred complexes, shrines, pillared halls, mandapas, memorial structures, gateways and stables, wiping out everything.
Pillaging and plundering the beautiful city which boasted of a number of ornately carved buildings led to it being totally abandoned and its’ entire population of 500,000 people all but wiped out within a matter of six months. The destruction and damage to the entire region was so severe that an Italian scholar who visited India in the 16th century is said to have noted how he found Hampi to be a tiger-infested area with not a single human in sight, forcing him to seek shelter in the ruins.
Today, Hampi has another kind of threat – unplanned development in the area, inadequate protection of the structures and relics and seasonal flooding threatens its existence. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it therefore gets the much-needed help and support that is required, and continues to draw hundreds of visitors from all over the world everyday!
Our tour of the majestic ruins begins with the Vijaya Vitthala temple.
This is the most ornate of all the Vijayanagar temples with its’ many halls and shrines. Here, Vishnu is enshrined.
Another temple that is exquisitely carved but is now severely damaged, has halls with extraordinary pillars – a set of 56 fascinating ‘musical pillars,’ called the ‘sa-re-ga-ma’ pillars, that resonate when tapped (Unfortunately, due to restoration work, we were not allowed to set foot on this one!)
But the most iconic structure here is the huge stone chariot located in front of the main temple, with stone wheels that are shaped in the form of a lotus, that are said to move!
A few random images of the Vitthala temple complex which heighten the serene grandeur of the place.
One beautiful tree which seemed so much a part of the landscape and yet blended perfectly with the structures around.
As a way to control pollution, vehicles are not allowed in the vicinity of the Vitthala temple complex, but tourists can avail of the regular buggy services between the parking area and the temple. Humbled by the fact that even the most powerful kings and legacies must bite the dust someday, we leave the Vitthala temple complex, with a sense of awe. The scale and the extent of the structures makes one wonder how beautiful and grand they all must have been in their heydays.
By mid-day, we arrive at the Queen’s Bath. This Indo-Saracenic structure has a small garden leading onto what looks more like an indoor aquatic complex. There is also a wide water canal that encircles the building originally thought to have been designed to prevent intruders entering the building and the safety of the royal ladies.
The Queen’s Bath was actually a pleasure pool for the king and his wives, with protruding balconies all around and an open pool that used to be filled with fragrant flowers and petals for the pleasure of the royalty.
The Royal enclosure happens to be our next stop. This used to be the seat of power for the Vijayanagar Empire. The enclosed area was the place where the royal family lived. Spread across a huge area of 59,000 square metres, the enclosure once housed as many as 43 buildings, all for the use of the royal family. Today it is a sprawling wide-open ground spread across hundreds of square meters dotted with numerous relics of buildings, ruins of several palace bases, criss-crossing aqueducts, water tanks, temple.
The most famous structures here are the Mahannavami Dibba – the King’s Audience Hall, where the King used to hold his ‘durbar’ and meet with his subjects. There is a swimming pool, as well as a secret underground chamber, where the king used to hold important meetings and discussions with his trusted aides and other important people.
We now come to another iconic image of Hampi – this five-tiered stepped tank, with an area of 22 square meters and a depth of 7 meters that is very striking and fascinating at the same time. There is hardly any water at the bottom and scores of tourists pose for snapshots even as the guard watches over to ensure all are safe.
During the period when the Vijayanagara kingdom was at it’s peak, this entrance was a well-guarded place. It had massive doorways to offer protection to the royal area.
We noticed an exquisitely-carved door just outside the entrance to this place very similar to those used in temples during that period. It was carved out of a single stone – a visible evidence of the artistic talent of the workers of that era.
Hazara Rama Temple : This is the only temple that is situated within the Royal Enclosure and was in all probability a private temple of the king. The temple is special with its exceptionally carved outer walls, an unusual feature in other Vijayanagara temples.
The relics are exquisite carvings on stones, which portray processions of soldiers, elephants, horses, attendants, and dancing women taking part in the Dasara festival during that period. But the main attraction of the temple is the multitude of bas-relics decorating the walls of the temple which portray the story of Ramayana.
The story of Ramayana is impressively carved on all around the shrine walls like a comic strip on stone. Inside the Mahamandapa of this temple, there are four pillars made from black Cuddapah stone of Andhra Pradesh, where the slanting beams of light create an extraordinary effect on the carvings of Krishna and Rama.
The pillars are dark and look strikingly beautiful, their relief being accentuated against the gleaming light, falling on them.
As time was limited, we had to skip some of the other well known spots. Going by the popular recommendations, we decided to see the Krishna temple next. This temple was actually dedicated to lord Krishna in his infant form. The complex consists of the main shrine, shrines of other goddesses, the chariot and market street and the temple tank. It is said that this temple was built by Krishnadevaraya in 1513 A.D. to commemorate his victory over Prataparudra Gajapati, the ruler of Orissa.
In the centre of a courtyard, the temple possesses a sanctum, an antechamber, an ardhamandapa, a circumambulatory passage, a pillared hall with three entrances and an open pillared mandap, in addition to a number of other shrines for the attendant deities.
The pillars in the ardhamandapa are particularly striking and very eye-catching – one even has all the ten incarnations of Vishnu carved on it. There are also fine stucco figures of warriors with shields, spirited horses and elephants on it.
With the overhead sun, the mid-day temperatures forced us to make a quick exit back to the hotel as we finished for the day. I came back, filled with awe and appreciation for the workmanship that I saw everywhere in those ruined walls and stones – the scale and the beauty of the ruins were very captivating.
There is more to come in my next blog, so do keep visiting. In the next part, I shall talk about the other remaining structures in Hampi which includes the beautiful Lotus Mahal, the Elephant Stables, the giant monoliths of Ganesha and Laxmi-Narsimha and of course the star attraction of Hampi – the Virupaksha temple or the Pampapathi temple.
How to reach Hampi:
By Road: Hampi is well connected by bus services with all major cities and towns. There are private buses, tourist buses, luxury buses and state buses that run from place to place so tourists can easily reach the place without any difficulty.
By rail: The nearest railhead from Hampi is Hospet at a distance of 13 km. Taxis are also easily available from Hospet.
By air: The nearest international airport around is 350 km away. The domestic airport is Bellary located at a distance of 60 km. Taxis are also available from Bellary to reach Hampi comfortably.