There is hardly any archaeological site in this country that is as rich in history, vast in expanse, spectacular in sight and complex in nature as Hampi. Conserving this medieval city, integrating it with its surroundings and enriching the tourist experience, is a challenge. Unfortunately, despite repeated demands, archaeologists and the authorities in Karnataka have not even finalised a comprehensive plan to sensibly conserve this historic place. This delay, as Unesco’s World Heritage Committee recently observed, has caused concern about the future of Hampi. When this royal city, built between the 14th and 16th centuries by the Vijayanagara kings, was nominated for world heritage status in 1982, Unesco pointed out that conservation cannot be limited to a select group of 56 monuments. Though Unesco conferred world heritage status on Hampi in 1986, it strongly recommended that the Archaeological Survey of India delineate a larger area and include more monuments. Hampi is not a simple set of standalone monuments. It is a large cultural landscape where more than 1500 historic structures co-exist with many living villages, fertile agricultural lands and numerous water bodies. Conservation cannot exist in isolation. It has to be seamlessly woven with the development of the region.
For long, no progress was made on this front. Public pressure, and the listing of Hampi as an endangered world heritage site in 1999 forced the State government into action. Finally, in 2003, the government set up a Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority (HWAMA) to coordinate with various agencies including the ASI to draw up an integrated management plan. Though it delineated a larger region of about 210 sq km around the archaeological zone, the authority has not yet finalised the integrated plan, which would address mobility issues, environment concerns, monument protection and community interests. In its defence, the government may point out that it has already notified a Master Plan for Hampi. But the fact is that master plans and their conventional tools such as land use regulations are inadequate to handle complex sites. Two years ago, the HWAMA evicted hundreds of families residing in the bazaar area in front of the Virupaksha temple, which is the only religious structure under worship. George Michell and John Fritz, architectural historians who have studied Hampi for decades, perceptively remarked that archaeological departments can neither neglect monuments, which leads to encroachments, nor clear inhabitants in heritage areas to promote “five-star tourism.” The way forward is to implement a sustainable plan with local participation, and do so without delay.