Hampi. A very photogenic lesson in history.
Nothing, I reiterate, NOTHING prepares you for Hampi. Sure, you’re expecting 14th century ruins of a massive empire that once captured the imagination of the entire world and stands peerless, then and now. But you’re still expecting ruins. So this oddly but magnificently, well-preserved city leaves you stumped. Hampi is hardly what you call ruins. Decade-old structures are in worse states of disrepair than this 26 sq. km stretch of temples, palaces and stunning beauty. To call Hampi a ghost town or desolate is just wrong. It’s alive and teeming with a rare quality of perpetuity and tenacity that clearly whooshes over the head of a generation accustomed to versions and renovations. A stark landscape of gravity-defying, trippy, whimsical boulders set the mood for all that extensive walking that was to become a large part of our itinerary for the next four days.
We just couldn’t get over the sheer number of monuments at Hampi, each one with its own alluring feature, leaving you with no choice but to explore them and get to know their stories. There’s a temple for every bend in the road, each one with its very own story and distinction. Countless little four-pillared monuments perch precariously on the tips of impossible-to-reach boulders, making you wonder how did anyone ever get up there, let alone build quaint little stone structures? Wall carvings tell elaborate stories of a progressive era where people were lead not by prejudiced thinking but by one of adventure and achievement. Hampi isn’t a seen-one-seen them-all kind of place. Being at the right place at the right time matters, in order to experience the capital city of the great Vijayanagara Empire like King Krishnadeva Raya once did.
For example, you simply must catch the sunrise from the Matanga Hill. All of Hampi comes alive in powdered gold before your eyes. What breath we had after the arduous climb up - and it WAS arduous (for us), the view knocked clean out of us. And dusk is the best time to be at the Vijaya Vittala Temple. The sun’s dying rays turn the entire temple complex to gold. I’m not talking in metaphors. The stone catches the light just so, that as the evening falls, it’s like the sun plays Midas, reminiscing about a time, history remembers as the Golden Era. It’s not for nothing Hampi captured the imagination of traders and poets alike. Once the place where Arab, Persian and Portuguese travellers oft dropped anchor at, to trade in silks, spices, jewels, cottons, diamonds and horses, a stroll through the now-empty bazaar stretches is a must. Hampi was defined by its seven landmark temples, each of which are flanked by their own bazaar or marketplace, where they traded in everything - the aforementioned cargo, included. There even used to be a courtesan bazaar, fancy that! And you must pay homage to the times bygone with a visit to the Royal Enclosure, which again, will take a good part of your day.
The ruins of the King’s Palace, the stepped tank, the Hazarama Temple with elaborate stories carved into its every square inch, the sheer scale and majesty of the elephant stables, the Zenana Enclosure with its lingering feminine charm and the glorious Mahanavami Dibba recount tales of favourite queens, sieges, secret chambers, eunuch guards, lotus shaped palaces, sandalwood halls and will hold you captive for a while. Hampi is also the cradle of mythical lore and is believed to have been the birthplace of Lord Hanuman, the monkey god of the Ramayana fame and was the backdrop of the Shiva-Parvati union. A kingdom that was once larger than Rome, time continues yet, its love affair with the place.
Ideally, you should give Hampi at least three days and the monsoon or winter is the best time to visit. The earlier you start your day in Hampi, the better. And don’t even think of giving the guide a miss. Their stories spin in the features, the contours, the colours, the court sessions, the triumphs, the details of a glorious past of which only the bones remain.
In the cab, our guide sketched out our itinerary. The first stop was the Queen’s Bath. Everything about the structure testifies to what it must have been like to be the favourite queen in a great empire. Built for Krishnadeva Raya’s favourite queen Tirumalambika, the bath's square-shaped enclosed structure has a decorated corridor running around an 8-ft pool, which yet again, is surrounded by a small moat on the exterior. With a measure of imagination and a share of the guide’s details, the place comes back to life.
Oil lamps hang from stone hooks, illuminating the bath’s artfully designed interiors: water, scented by perfumed oil, is supplied to the pool by a thoughtfully-designed system that puts modern plumbing to shame: music wafts from the musicians’ overhanging balconies - giving a dreamy ambience; the soft percussion of the steady tinkle of water from the lotus-shaped showers - creating a rather pleasant interlude to the queen's bath time.
The bath was the queen’s weekly spa retreat and as we rested on against the niche in the wall, which is believed to be have been the massage cubicle, we caught sight of Chandrashekara Temple, where the Queen would go offer prayers after her elaborate cleansing ritual - its gopura standing in contrast against the boulders on the horizon, as it has stood across centuries. This was our curtain-raiser to the spectacular show called Hampi - a tableaux chiselled in stone, that defiantly remains to tell the tale of an era so golden that time still cherishes it. And over the next two days, we found out that capital of the erstwhile Vijayanagara Empire, in every way, lives up to its sobriquet as the world’s largest open-air museum.
A little further down from the Queen’s Bath is the Royal Enclosure. Right outside the walls were two massive symmetrical rectangular stone structures that looked much too heavy to have had a functional role in everyday life, despite their elaborate carvings. To my limited imagination, they looked like they’d lain there since the beginning of time. Our guide informed us that they were the stone gates to the Royal Enclosure, which were once opened and closed by elephants. That was the first among many instances, Hampi had us dumbfounded. Dussera was celebrated here long before Mysore became the official host of the nine-day festival. The Mahanavmi Dibba literally translates into nine days programme platform and it's from its still-intact, awe-inspiring heights that the king once greeted his subjects and watched the Dusara festivities.
Built to commemorate Krishnadeva Raya’s victory over Pratap Rudra Gajapati of Orissa, it's also known as the house of victory and gave us a good vantage of the entire royal quarters. Far on the horizon, tall boulder hills rose, guarding the city as they have for millennia. Hampi’s natural fortification made it just the place for the capital of the golden empire that once reached from coast to coast. The interior passages and the base of the platform are a veritable gallery, with engravings that depicted the day-to-day events of a progressive society. Oriental traders, lady-hunters and caparisoned elephants shared space with scenes from the myths and religious iconography.
A little away is the Pushkarni or the stepped-tank. Made of polished black schist, its symmetrically designed five tiers culminating in green depths is if not anything else, psychedelic. Its water source used to be the Roman-styled aqueduct that runs right across most of the complex. The King’s Palace is a complex that leaves much to the imagination. Once a place of sandalwood corridors and bejewelled pillars, it’s now a series of platforms, underground chambers, intricate water systems made of mud that supplied fresh water to the palace chambers. Vijayanagara did not falter in the details. As the story goes, the invasion left Hampi burning for six months, till only what we see today was left standing. As we clambered up and down stone steps and stone boundaries, our guide told us a rather recent legend of the Secret Chamber, a rather exciting place which included going down a steep staircase and walking blindly in pitch black darkness, hoping and praying you won't bump into anything from the past.
The Secret Chamber which was the empire’s equivalent to the CIA headquarters was presented to many a tourist as the place where the king went to have a smoke! An unlicensed guide could have you believe that the Secret Chamber is in fact the Cigarette Chamber. A licensed guide would cost you around Rs 1000 a day during the off season and up to Rs. 2000 in the season. But it’s worth the money - the licensed ones know their history and chart out your trip smartly and sometimes even hold the water bottle as you pant and wheeze across Hampi’s uneven terrain.
Just ask them for their license when you’re approached by them. From atop one of the platforms in the King’s Palace, you have a view of the Hazarama Temple juxtaposed interestingly with the Mint Area, with its obvious Indo-sarenscic overtones. This is just one of the many pieces of evidence of Krishnadeva Raya’s fair rule, during which every religion was given its due respect and was well-represented in the franchise of daily life.
The Royal Enclosure took a good part of our morning, which began early enough - like I said, Hampi isn’t a place for late mornings. And by the time we reached the Hazarama Temple, our legs were protesting, and rather vehemently at that. But obviously, the King’s very own temple commands nothing less than absolute attention. With a million stories literally built around it, this 15th century temple is often etymologically misinterpreted as Hazara Rama, the temple of a thousand Ramas - and believed to have gotten its name from the bas reliefs depicting scenes from the Ramayana running across its exteriors.
When in truth, it’s a misinterpretation of Hajara Rama, ‘hajara’ being the Kanada word for corridor leading to a palace. Its friezes predated books and were used to teach the temple’s royal visitors the Ramayana. Just outside the Hazararama Temple is the pan-supari bazaar. The capital was once the epicentre of teeming enterprise, which again, was predominantly centred in and around the seven temples that define the geography of Hampi.
If the king’s palace is all about imagined grandeur, the elephant stables are all clear and present majesty. Massive in every respect, the enclosure that could house 11 elephants has to be seen to be believed. The early noon sun killed the pictures a little - late afternoons are better for photography. The same goes for the adjacent Zenana Enclosure or the queen’s quarters. Though the main palace met with a similar fate as the King's Palace during the invasion, the Lotus Mahal still blooms graceful, especially in the evenings.
But this is high noon and we were mind numbingly hungry. A headache was threatening to cut my day short and we were not in the best of spirits. That’s when a lunch stop at a dreamy joint in a mango grove proved to be nourishment for the famished soul. The trees here are old and fat and very, very comforting. After an interlude of tucking away good portions of a South Indian thali, a plateful of spaghetti, downing several glasses of lemon soda and drinking in the ambience of the restaurant - a green hollow, with a stream running through it, wild rice preening at their reflection, buffalo herds going about their business of grazing and cool breeze - we were ready for Hampi again.
Vijaya Vittala Temple
Our next stop was believed to have been too grand for a god himself. Legend has it that, when Lord Vishnu came to reside at the Vijaya Vittala Temple, he found it so ornate that he returned to his humble abode. This temple is perhaps the most renowned among Hampi’s many temples. An electric shuttle takes tourists back and forth from the temple complex and the vehicle parking. Motorised vehicles are no longer allowed near the immediate precincts of the temple. As the shuttle ambled along the dusty path, which again, was flanked by the customary bazaar pavilions and stone shrines, the temple pushkarni, I had my first glimpse of the crumbling but nevertheless majestic gopura, and I saw why I had read so much about the place.Time really has stopped there. Even the gecko we chanced upon was so disproportionately large that I wondered if time, in fact, grew younger here. Legend and fact have formed a seamless tapestry around the Vittala Temple, which took nearly five decades in the making.
The legend of the Saptasvara Mandap or the Dancing Hall resonates yet, as its 56 musical pillars once did. The 56 musical pillars generate the sounds of 56 musical pillars and apparently could be heard far and wide, when the Queen put up a dance performance.
Then our guide told us about the 16 pillars that resonate with the seven notes of the sa-re-ga-ma. How’s that for being wonderstruck, in quite literal terms?! And then came the note that fell flat. Tourists are no longer permitted to try and coax music out of these pillars. So we just had to take his word for it. But our disappointment was short-lived, for the Vittala Temple complex holds many wondrous distractions.
Like the iconic Stone Chariot that stands in front of the temple as it has for centuries. Dedicated to Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s eagle-winged vehicle, except for its wheels, the entire chariot was carved from a single piece of stone. By entire chariot, we’re talking about a structure that matches, if not surpasses dimensions of a real chariot, with intricate stories carved over its every inch. We spent the rest of the afternoon crawling all over the Vittala Temple complex, listening to the countless stories its every pillar had to say.
Since we’d travelled in winter, and on a weekday at that, the place was big enough for our cameras and the other tourists. We managed to get some rather nice tourist-free photographs of the monuments. No small feat for a place that sees thousands of visitors every day. It’s out here that I made the acquaintance of a yala. Many yalas in fact, considering nearly every other pillar in this countless-pillared structure had one of these mythical occupants at least. Part horse, part crocodile, part lion, part pig, the yala looks like a cousin twice removed of the dragon.
We were so engrossed in our guide's stories about the place that we didn’t quite notice the sun slip away. “Look around madam, see temple looks like gold.” And it was true. Antique gold never looked this antique than in this trick of light. “This is just psychedelic.” my friend said for the millionth time on the trip. And this was just our first day.
The Tungabadra flows a little away from the temple and along the way we encountered the ascetic langur. He sat in a near-perfect lotus position with his wrists resting over his knees, worshiping the dying sun. I’m convinced he was human during the Golden Era and kept coming back in different reincarnations just to be around the place.
Vijayanagara was not called the Golden Era for nothing. The imposing King’s Balance which stands to the south-west of the temple testifies to it. Made of stone (obviously), the king would weigh his weight in gold and jewels and make a charitable donation out of it. Further down the road, the Tungabadra flowed rather sedately between huge boulders. The water looked so deceptively unthreatening, you’d think you could hopscotch across the river. But this river is a proud one and you don’t want to mess around with it – undercurrents, whirlpools and sudden drops make the temperament of this river.
Oh, and they say, you just could meet a crocodile. Across the river, the stone stumps of the ancient bridge stood sentinel, guarding the city of Anegundi. On these banks, stands the mantapa dedicated to one Karnataka’s most renowned poets. Purandaradasa penned his magnam opus at a mantappa that still stands like an acetic in meditation on the river banks. The warm evening sun, mellow on the tall grass and skimming the shiny wet rocks and the chuckling river right at foot of the pavilion - I couldn’t help but resent Purandaradasa for his idyllic workdesk.
Atop the Matanga Hill
Our day began early the next day. We had one of Hampi’s simply-must-dos first on our itinerary. At 6.15, we found ourselves straining our necks to assess how high a climb the Matanga Hill would prove to be. Obviously our guide thought we were the adventurous sorts, for of all the three paths you could climb the hill, he chose the most difficult one. Clearly he missed our paunches saying hello. While he nimbly hopped from one rock to the next, we wheezed our way up on all fours. He felt so sorry for us; he ended up carrying all our stuff. And he was still ahead of us and breathing normally. But once on top of the hill, we were ready to thump our chests in victory. The sun doesn't rise over Hampi. It caresses the city. And yes, turns it to gold.
A little away, amongst boulders that looked like massive potatoes, stone bazaar stretches and monuments, the towering gopura of the Virupaksha Temple stood 9 storeys tall and distinct from the rest. We took the Royal Path down - a veritable staircase made of stone slabs, which made it a cakewalk in comparison to our climb up. Sure, it wasn’t half as eventful as the climb up, but it certainly had far more photo-ops.
Achuthraya Temple and the Courtesan Bazaar
At the foot of the hill, stands the Achuthraya Temple, built by Krishnadeva Raya’s successor Achuth Raya. Macaques scampered across the courtyard, making us a little jumpy. But if you ignore them and don’t wave food in their faces, the monkeys let you be. The temple, beautiful as it is, suffered much under the attack of the Muslim invaders during the Battle of Talikota and it shows signs of being incomplete. Yet, you can hardly call it a ruin. It’s believed that Hampi burnt for six months after the Battle of Talikota - a fire that claimed its sandalwood halls and stripped it off its glory. It’s been centuries since, but from our guide’s voice, I can hear that the Muslim invaders are far from forgiven.
“And this, is the courtesan bazaar”, our guide announced once we stepped outside the temple. “The WHAT?” “The courtesan bazaar. The king would come here and choose women.” Ah well, they don’t call it “living like kings’ for nothing! On a distant hill, a little white temple stood out against the boulders. Our guide tells us that the hill, known as the Anjenadhri Hill, is believed to have been the birth place of the monkey god Hanuman. As we walked away from the Achuthraya Temple, we kept looking over our shoulder at the Matanga Hill and congratulated ourselves on having conquered it at daybreak - daybreak, mind you, it’s all in the timing. We go around a huge boulder and whoa, suddenly we’re on the banks of the Tungabadhra River! Though it looked placid enough, our guide only had stories about a wicked river that claimed many a lives to tell us. But a coracle ride was a different thing altogether, and the morning was just perfect for it.
Later at breakfast by the river, we found ourselves contemplating the mysteries of the universe. A city that has defied plunder, pillage and passing centuries, can have that sort of effect on you. Hampi is dotted with food joints with at best, mostly comprise a few plastic tables and chairs. And yet, names like falafel, carbonara, hatziem, pancakes roll off waiters’ tongues with American-accented ease. Being greeted with a “What wudcha like?” instead of the “Ess meydem” or “Kya chahiye” momentarily startled us, but then again, Hampi has a huge international fan following.
The Virupaksha Temple
The Vijayanagra Dynasty patronised the arts and science alike. The carvings show signs of objects that resemble inventions that came along much, much later. Some parts of the Virupaksha Temple (of the nine storey gopura fame) even predate Vijayanagara.
The inner sanctum dates back to the eighth century. And in a side passage, next to the main shrine, we saw what has to be the earliest example of a pin hole camera - a hole in the wall projects an inverted image of the gopura on the opposite wall. Guides make it a point to block the light to prove the authenticity of the shadow, lest you’re skeptical and think that it’s a painting. The Virupaksha Temple is where, as the legend goes, where the Shiva-Parvati union was solemnised.
Outside the temple, this lady literally pushed a bunch of bananas into our hands saying “Elephant eat banana." Bewildered as I was about why she had to sell me bananas with a scientific snippet like that, we bought a bunch. But of course, it’d have been foolish to carry bananas in the open. For every bunch of bananas you hold, there are ten cows on the street who’ll literally eat it out of your hands. My friend tucked it away from sight, which later on proved to be good thinking. For, waiting at the temple entrance, were no less than seven monkeys. And the prettiest cow elephant. Now the science snippet made sense! Lakshmi, the temple elephant, is rather popular with the tourists and you can feed her bananas and even have her bless you with her trunk for a small dakshina or money offering. As luck would have it, the high priest came along just when we were feeding her. We watched her prostrate before him and then follow him. With the elephant gone, the opportunist monkeys did a carpe diem on us. One of them scrambled down and did a monkey version of gunpoint for the last banana. “Give it to him,” our guide warned, “he’s mean.” He certainly didn’t have Lakshmi's manners, but it was no less entertaining to watch him peel it carefully and munch it, cheeks rounded.
The painted ceiling of the main mandapa which was painted long before paint, as we know it, was invented; the Shivalinga which is believed to be swayambu or self-created, and the three-headed statue of Nandi - each head representing the past, present and future of Hampi, of which the third one has been defaced, and ever since, Hampi hasn’t seen days like it once did - and not to mention, the erotic carvings, brought out so many facets of Hampi. Incidentally, the ornate Virupaksha Temple was the venue of King Krishnadeva Raya's coronation. The Virupaksha Bazaar (every important temple has its own bazaar, remember?) is now known as the Hampi Bazar, was once world-famous. Today it’s a great place to pick up some great souvenirs and literature on Hampi. Not to mention the visual treat of seeing a few gypsies, decked up in gypsy garb - mirror spangled blouses, colourful wide hemmed skirts and wooden bangles that go all the way up their arm - fry snacks on the roadside.
Hampi is huge on monoliths, like the rotund Ganesha statues, that were chipped out of rock and then had a temple built around them. The Kadale Kalu Ganesha stands at 18 ft, dates back to 1440 and is the largest statue of Ganesha in Karnataka. One of the many things that are awesome about Hampi is that, it rewards your efforts right away. You wheeze up a hill, and you’re treated to a view worth selling your soul for. As much as the sun might try to convince you that it’s a case of seen-one-seen-em-all, you simply cannot give anything a miss - as you often discover for yourself if you take the effort. The 24-pillared temple built around this gram seed shaped Ganesha, offered a splendid view and momentary respite from the heat. Further down the hill is another 9ft monolithic statue of Ganesha. The guide books told us that the Sasive Kalu Ganesha or the mustard seed Ganesha gets its name from the resemblance of its toes to mustard seeds, while our guide told us that it was commissioned by a mustard merchant in 1516 and thus the name. Both the stories made us smile - well mustard seeds and the elephant god is not exactly common. The backside of this statue which stands inside a four-pillared stone canopy, is done in the form of a woman - giving the impression of Ganesha sitting on the lap of Parvati, his mother. But the statue of Lakshmi Narasimha was by far my favourite.
The lion-headed, snarling-faced avatar of Vishnu was depicted on many a stone wall pulling out demon intestines and other viscera or avenging this and that - which I found supremely appealing. The 6.7 metre tall statue with the celestial seven-hooded serpent, Adisesha for a seat, and the temple built around it was the last temple built under Krishnadeva Raya’s patronage. Strangely, other than for the damage caused to Hampi’s monuments by the muslim invaders in 1565, they don’t appear to have suffered the casualties of passing time. A dismembered arm is all that remains today of the Lakshmi avatar which once perched on the left thigh of Narasimha. The 3m tall Shivalinga(1467) at the Badavi Linga Temple, though is practically untouched and is permanently submerged in a metre of water as it always has been.
The lives of the Vijayanagara Kings can sometimes make one feel like the runt of the litter. Most of us have to settle for a promotion or a raise to celebrate our victories. Krishnadeva Raya got himself a temple built. And a new queen. The Balakrishna Temple was built in 1513 to commemorate Krishnadeva Raya’s vistory over Prataprudra Gajapati, the king of Orissa. I’m supposing the hills were the kings’ version of modern day mantelpieces. Hampi has some amazing vantage points; the Matanga Hill is but one. Though not quite as awe-inspiring, the Hemakuta Hill offers a nice vista of the sprawling Virupaksha Temple complex, the Jain temples and the two-storied gateway. The hill is peppered with over 30 temples, some as early as the 9th century. It’s on this hill that Shiva is believed to have meditated before marrying Parvati. The Malyavanta Hill where Ravana’s father is believed to have done his penance has a great view as well.
The nearby Anegundi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire until it was shifted to Hampi. A short boat-ride across the Tungabadra and we were on the side most tourists give a miss. Most, but not all. The young and trippy love this side of Hampi where there are boulders to climb, lakes to swim in and long unhurried stretches of road to cruise in on a luna. At the Sanapur Lake, we saw divers drop off tall boulders and splash splendidly into the water below. Hampi is regarded a holy place and frivolous activity is generally considered disrespectful.
Anegundi is relatively more relaxed. The Anjanadhri Hill, where Hanuman was born is a challenging climb, the old fort and the still standing aquaduct were all interesting. But a crocodile was the highlight of Anegundi. The Pampasarovar is a sacred tank with epics and myths weaved around it. This smallish tank is the locale where Paravati performed her penance to prove her devotion for Shiva. A stone’s throw away from this lotus-covered tank was a small, fist-sized lake. And in it swam a CROCODILE! Apparently some locals found this baby croc and didn’t know what to do with it and brought it here for temporary sanctuary. It’s now been removed to a more permanent address, but our jaws did drop when our autorickshaw driver’s supposedly tall story proved to be true.
This last stop marked the near end of our Hampi trip: we had more time travelling on the agenda, and this time it was a much older period. Aihole with its 9th century monuments beckoned. Over two hurried days, we covered most of Hampi, though I wish we had more time for the nearby Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary. We still hadn’t got enough of Hampi and because a trip like this demanded a more momentous close, we returned to the Vijaya Vittala Temple. We'd heard rumours that they were going to illuminate the entire temple. After hanging around well after sundown, despite being dog-tired and desperately thirsty, our vigil was rewarded. First, a golden full moon crept up sky and set the mood and then, as if on some celestial cue, all the lights went on. And it was a sight that cannot be described. Or captured in a photograph. So I won't try. I’d advise hanging around like we did. Like I said earlier, efforts are rewarded in Hampi.