Hampi: The City of Enchanting Ruins

‘‘The city of Bidjanagar is such that the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it in the world. It is built in such a manner that seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other.” These were the words of Abdur Razzak, the 15th century Persian ambassador about the Vijayanagara kingdom. Today what remains of that glorious past is only a partial glimpse. The ruins of Hampi, the capital city of Vijayanagara, are scattered in the present-day Bellary district of Karnataka.

The main Mandapa of Vitthala Temple complex with musical pillers
Tall Carved pillars of the Saasivekaalu Ganesha Temple at Hemakuta Hill_Our own Parthenon

But the ruins here are enchanting. Taking in the sights, one wonders, had it been left untouched by history, how fabulously spectacular it would have been. Some claim ‘Hampi’ means ‘champion’. One can’t agree more. Hampi was a popular destination for travelers during its glory. Its palaces and artistry of Dravidian temples were much admired by travellers, be they Arab (Abdul Razaak), Morocco (Abu Abdullah/lbn Batuta), Portuguese (Domingo Paes, Duarte Barbosa, Fernao Nuniz), Russian (Athanasius Nikitin), Italian (Nicolò dei Conti, Ludvico de Vorthema) or Marco Polo of Venice. Vijayanagara had a thriving trade with foreign countries. Among other items, horses were regularly imported from Portugal.

A view of Virupaksha temple from Hemakuta Hill.
Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati(Pampa), Virupaksha temple

Visiting the enchanting city of ruins was a memorable and magical experience. If you wish to be reborn in a different era, Hampi definitely is the right place. Hampi, the former capital of the ‪Vijayanagara Empire—also called Karnata Empire (used in some inscriptions) or the Kingdom of Bisnegar by the Portuguese—situated on the placid banks of river Tungabhadra, is a heaven for tourists who want to take it easy. This is a place where everything moves slowly, even the tourists and their tired limbs; a place where one can smell and feel history behind every stone.

The Virupaksha temple A view from Hemakuta Hill
Virupaksha temple with its huge Pushkarni (water tank)

Skillfully sculpted temples, brilliant architecture of palaces, a meticulously planned market place, roads and sanitation, Hampi is a fabulous example of town planning of Vijayanagara era. The history of Hampi during the Vijayanagara Empire spans from 1335 up to 1646. The period of king Krishnadevaraya (1509-1529), was the golden era of Vijayanagara Empire. Hampi was the capital city of this geographically vast kingdom which constituted most of the Southern Indian peninsula and stretched itself further north to central India. As per Wikipedia, ‘‘the Vijayanagara Empire created an epoch in South Indian history that transcended regionalism by promoting Hinduism as a unifying factor.’’
UNESCO declared Hampi as a World Heritage Site in 1986. It was declared an endangered monument in 1999. Excavations are still on and hopefully many secrets are yet to be discovered. ASI is also doing some restoration work.

Ugra Narasimha, the gigantic 6.7m high monolithic Lakshmi-Narasimha statue
Wall scluptures in Balkrishna Temple

Hampi is mesmerizing even amidst its ruins. The once enchanting capital city is in ruins due to thoughtless carnage unleashed by the Sultans of Bijapur and their allies. Today, looking at the demolished and badly damaged buildings, one can’t stop to ponder over the love with which these monuments have been created. Ruins reveal a lot about the rulers of the time. Skills of the artisans were perfection personified. One also wonders about the looters and killers who systematically destroyed a thriving city and killed many.

The beautifully carved Stone Chariot in the Vittala Temple complex
The Pushkaraini (pool) situated opposite Kuduregombe Mandapa

Vijayanagara literally means the ‘City of Victory’ and Hampi was its capital. When the power and influence of Vijayanagara diminished, neighboring kingdoms started eying the wealth of the empire. History tells us that the city was conquered by the Deccan Muslim confederacy (Sultanates of Bijapur, Bidar, Ahmadnagar and Golconda.) after the fateful battle of Talikota (January 26, 1565) and it was plundered over a period of five months before being abandoned. The entire royal family was brutally killed; temples vandalized and beautiful statues were broken. At the end of the brutal destruction, only the Virupaksha temple, much older than the Vijayanagara Empire, survived inexplicably undamaged.

The Lotus Palace (Janana Enclosure) seen with remains of a Watch Tower behind
The empty pool inside the Queens Bath

Cesare Frederici, an Italian traveller who spent seven months at Vijayanagara in 1567, two years after the city was plundered, wrote that though the capital was badly damaged, Tirumala of the Aravidu dynasties tried to re-establish the Vijayanagara capital here. But all attempts failed and eventually the city was abandoned for good. Naturally further destruction occurred.
The Hampi remained largely ignored until the mid-19th century, when British army officer Alexander J. Greenlaw (1818-1870) visited the place. He was an avid photographer and painstakingly photographed the site in 1856. He created an archive of 60 calotype (early photographic process using paper coated with silver iodide and negatives used to be covered with wax-paper) photographs of temples and royal structures that were standing in 1856. These photographs were held in a private collection in the United Kingdom and were not published until 1980. Today the Greenlaw photographs are considered as the most valuable source for art historians, researchers and archaeologists to learn about the mid-19th-century state of Hampi. Greenlaw used massive negative plates of 18”×22”. It must have been a very difficult task for him.

The courtyard with the stone chariot of Vitthala Temple complex.
Stepped Tank near the Underground Temple

The immense value of Greenlaw photographs lie in the fact that they are helping in the conservation and restoration of some of the collapsed structures. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is restoring parts of the Krishna and Vithala temples based on these images.
Another interesting fact is that the monuments of Vijayanagara (Hampi) are, perhaps the earliest in India to be photographed, as photography was invented less than 20 years ago in 1839. Greenlaw photographed many monuments of this ancient city during 1855-56.
Present day Hampi is a small town in ‪Karnataka, around 350 km from Bangalore and 12 km from the nearest railhead Hospet. Scattered over an area of around 26 square km, lay the numerous spectacular relics of a glorious bygone era. Hampi provides the visitors an experience which combines history, religion, architectural splendor and untouched natural surroundings. It’s truly like a huge open air museum, where every nook and corner holds some awe-inspiring secret.

Remains of a two storied gate and fortification
Last end of almost one km long Hampi Bazar situated in front of Virupaksha Temple, where the annual Hampi Festval is held

The undisputed highlight of the Hampi ruins is the 16th-century Vithala Temple—with the ornate stone chariot that stands in the courtyard—stands amid the boulders 2km from Hampi Bazaar. The temple was never finished or consecrated, yet its incredible sculptural work remains the pinnacle of Vijayanagara art. The outer ‘musical’ pillars of the main ‘mandapa’ reverberate when tapped. They were supposedly designed to replicate 81 different musical instruments.
The Virupaksha Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, where regular Puja is offered to the deity even today, is a grand monument, said to be more than a thousand year old. Overlooking the fabled Hampi Bazar, the temple comprises scenes from the Ramayana, carved with immaculate detail.

12 metre high Dasara Platform, also called the Mahanavami dibba
A Gopuram inside badly damaged and burned Krishna temple complex built by King Krishnadevaraya

The cluster of temples on Hemakunta hillock adds another perspective. A huge monolithic Ganesha statue (Sasvekallu Ganesh) uniquely depicted as sitting in the lap of his mother Sati. The Laxmi Narasimha statue (also known as Urga Narashima or Lion headed Deity), a giant awe inspiring sculpture, though badly damaged by invading solders, is a sight to behold.
Krishna temple it is one of the most beautiful monuments located close to Virupaksha temple. It was built by Krishnadevaraya. Its gopuram was vandalized to a large extent. It is believed that the entire royal family was massacred in this temple. Blood flowed in the temple premise; women and children were set on fire. The burn marks are visible inside the temple.

Holy Bull in Tungbhadra, one of many such small sculptures in river water
Beautifully decorated columns inside legendary Virupaksha Temple
Badly burnt main chamber of Krishna Temple built by the king Krishnadevaraya in 1513 AD to celebrate the conquest of the eastern kingdom of Udayagiri or Utkala

The Hampi Bazaar, also well known as the Virupaksha Bazaar is almost one km Long Street at the foothill of the Matanga Hill located in front of the Virupaksha Temple. On both sides of the street are an array of old pavilions, which were once the part of the thriving market and also the residence of the nobles. There is a huge Nandi located at the East-end side of the street along with an open platform, which serves as a main stage for the annual Hampi festival.
Other attractions of Hampi are the Hazaar Rama Temple, Mahanavami Dibba, the Stepped Water Tank, the Doddakalu Danesh Temple with greek Parthenon type pillar and a miniature citadel, Badavi Linga, Underground Shiva Temple, Queens bath and Hampi Museum at nearby Kamalapur.

A portion of the restored Hampi main Bazar
2.4 metres (8 feet) tall monolithic Ganesha Sasivekalu Ganesha temple located on the southern foothill of the Hemakuta Hill

Portuguese merchant and traveller Domingo Paes who visited Vijayanagara in 1520, wrote, “In this city you will find men belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it has, and the many precious stones there.… the streets and markets are full of laden oxen without count,.… and in many streets you come upon so many of them that you have to wait for them to pass, or else have to go by another way……This is the best provided city in the world. . . . .’’

Stone monolithic Nandi Bull statue carved out of a single boulder at the end of Hampi main Bazar

Some of the long distance express trains pass via Hospet. There are a few passenger trains that connect Hospet with nearby cities. Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmadabad, Hyderabad has direct train connections. Hampi is only 14 km from Hospet.
The state run KSRTC (www.ksrtc.in) operates a number of luxury and ordinary buses from Hospet to various towns and cities in Karnataka. A number of private operators too run regular long distance buses to Hospet (and to Hubli, a major town 3 hours west off Hospet). You can drive all the way to Hampi via NH13.
Hubli is the nearest airport (about 160km) west of Hampi. Further northwest is Belgaum (about 270 km). Both have moderate connections with cities around the region. Bangalore is more practical option to fly in and take the overnight Hampi Express.

Vijayanagara : through the eyes of Alexander J. Greenlaw, 1856, John Gollings, 1983 / editor, M.S. Nagaraja Rao

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