Wanderings in Hampi

Bygone splendour, visible artistry.

Bygone splendour, visible artistry.  

THE Hampi Link Express was the most convenient train from Bangalore to Hospet, an overnight journey that saw us touch Hospet at about 7a.m. My chosen hotel was Priyadarshini, just five minutes down Station road. Picked out from the Karnataka guide, the hotel proved a real winner. And the manager was most solicitous, arranging for a car and reliable driver for our trip to Hampi, 11 km away. The ruins are spread over 26, and even all day is not enough.

Buses ply frequently between Hospet and Hampi, and budget tourists can easily hire cycles or mopeds. Guides abound at the entrance to the Virupaksha temple, usually the starting point of the Hampi tour. A cool Rs.300 is the standard amount paid to a good guide, for a day. By the second day, he becomes redundant, and indeed almost just a tout.

The drive into Hampi gives absolutely no indication at all of the enormous vista of sheer grandeur of the Vijayanagar kingdom that flourished from mid-14th to latter 16th Century. The lofty tower of the Virupaksha temple, on the banks of the Tungabhadra, is a standing testimony to the pure glory of those days, the place where Pampa devi married Virupaksha (Shiva), the presiding deity of Hampi, in constant worship from then, till today.

The guide takes us to a spot behind the sanctum, where through a small opening in the wall is cast a perfect reverse image of the main tower, on the wall behind

The courtyard has some really unique brick and mortar niches high above — each niche has a plaster figure of a god — Krishna, Rama, Shiva, Brahma ... These have now been restored and coated with a sort of chemical slap-on.

The main street in front of the temple is called the Hampi Bazaar. Old pavilions exist, much defaced now. The original mandapam where the king used to rest while visiting the temple is quite unrecognisable now. Today, this street is lined with shops — internet centres, cafes, handicraft outlets, lambadis selling mirrorwork garments, etc. "Aspiration Stores" is a bookshop with a difference, run by T.T. Guthi, a Pondy ashram follower. The place has a very good collection of books on Hampi, as well as postcards, and health products from Auroville. French and German speaking guides are arranged here, for the milling foreign tourists, as well as massages! Guthi has been here for about 25 years, and is devoted to the preservation of Hampi. He feels deeply that authorities do not confer with locals before undertaking unnecessary beautification projects at Hampi's heritage sites. It is not a picnic spot, he avers, rightly, but a vast inheritance of a timeless heritage, to be preserved accordingly. Guthi sells a map of Hampi (Rs. 10), which is most useful, and also lists a doctor and other services.

From here began the long trudge to see Hampi, armed with heavy cameras, water bottle, hats and umbrella, for this is no ordinary place, it is now close to an open furnace. The landscape seems prehistoric — it's full of fallen boulders strewn about, or piled up, in all shapes and sizes. Greenery is sparse. Walking about in a guided manner takes us to the Sasmekalu and Kadlekalu Ganeshas — giant rock figures 2.4 and 4.5 m high respectively.

The Krishna temple and the giant Narasimha stone figure, seated in a yogic pose, with the yogic band across its legs are both stunning. The figure has its hands chopped off, and the originally seated Lakshmi is now long gone missing. Close by is the shrine of a three metre high stone linga, beautifully polished. The base here is always immersed in water.

The Hemakuta Hill has temples dating to 1398. Shrines also exist from the Ninth Century, making them perhaps the oldest in Hampi. This ancient hill has mythological associations with the Ramayana, as Kishkinda.

The most beautiful sculptures are to be seen in the Hazaara Rama temple, said to contain 1,000 carvings of Rama and his life story. But the name implies "Hajaramu" — the Telugu word for entrance hall to palace. Said to be of the 15th Century, almost every inch of the hall is covered with truly exquisite carvings, well preserved. Each panel shows an episode in Rama's life. Four black stone pillars within too carry many sculpted images.

From here one walks to the Mahanavami Dibba or Dasera Dibba, built by Krishnadeva Raya after his conquest of Orissa. Full of beautiful carvings of dancers, soldiers, horses and elephants on the walls of a huge raised platform. Foreigners like Arab horsetraders, Chinese visitors with pigtails and conical hats are depicted here, showing the immense reach of the empire.

It is now way past lunchtime — the stomach may not have realised it but our legs did. We decided to go back to Hospet for lunch. Back at 2 p.m. the guide first showed us the fine discovery of the 1980s — the excavated stepped bathing tank in green chlorite. Strangely this open place is the only area within the ruins where the cell phone works!

We start early next morning, for Hampi. It's to be long walks today, and the car is parked as close as possible to the Kothandarama temple site, on the river bank. This is a good distance away, across rough terrain. We come across a huge stone structure — the King's Balance. This is where the benevolent king weighed himself against gold and gems, to be distributed to the public. A beautiful work of art, it even shows the king and his two wives in miniature at the bottom left of the post. A shankham and chakram in stone were present atop the beam long ago, but are now missing.

We reach the Kothandarama temple, where large figures of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita were carved into the rockface, and the temple later built around it. The entire route to his temple is full of excavated sites. From this mercifully shady spot a lovely view of the placid Tungabhadra can be had. Coracles are seen ready, and it's a great idea to go back to the car in a coracle.

We now proceed to the main attraction in Hampi — the Vitthala temple, on the riverbank. A long row of ancient pillared pavilions stretches out — this was he original main bazaar area, where gems were traded.

The temple tower is a lovely deep red, in brick and mortar, and is broken in a most striking manner. The granite base is intact, and has withstood the constant ravages of time. The remnant tower is adorned with fabulous stucco figures. Built by Krishnadeva Raya in the early 16th Century, the temple mandapam stands on a rectangular courtyard 152 m by 94 m. Fifty-six granite pillars carry fine artistic works on them. Forty-six musical stone pillars along the corners are a special feature here. This mandapa was the dancing platform, a moving art form surrounded by sculpted art. Large sculptures of musicians stand along the pillars, many vandalised .

This main mandapam is fronted by the stupendous stone chariot — the veritable photographic symbol of Hampi. The chariot holds the idol of Garuda, and is drawn by huge sculpted elephants. The large stone wheels actually revolve. Ancient photographs taken in 1856 by the Englishman Alexander Greenlaw show a brick and mortar tower on top of the chariot, now missing.

All the mandapams or pavilions in this complex have lovely delicate friezes of dancers and musicians — all beautifully dressed, and with elaborate hairstyles. In one frieze the hairstyle is a huge bun, easily touched by the dancer's elevated foot! Sadly, many of these sculptures have the noses chopped off, as they are all within arm's reach.

The once mighty Vijayanagar empire gradually grew weak, in the hands of ineffective rulers. The Deccan sultans, in spite of their differences, joined together and defeated Rama Raya in the battle of Talikota, in 1565.This terrible defeat was followed by systematic looting for many long months. Ferishta, the late 16th Century Persian traveller describes the 1565 rout thus — "the river which ran near the field was dyed red with their blood. It is computed that 1,00,000 infidels were slain during the pursuit."

Robert Sewell in A Forgotten Empire says: "for five months the Mohammeddans with fire and sword, with crowbars and axes carried on day after day their work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought so suddenly, and reduced to ruins amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description".

Hampi today is compared to ancient Rome. The mind boggles, and the eye blinks at such bygone splendour, such visible artistry. It must have taken riches of an extraordinary amount, to achieve such a scale of building. The region is not really agriculturally productive, but for plantains and a bit of paddy. Though Bellary's mines are nearby, it is the far reaches of the empire in Golkonda that supplied diamonds, in Sindbad style, it is said. The driver had a fanciful explanation — "it used to rain gold and gems in the days of the mighty rulers here," he quoted, in answer to my question on the impossible wealth of this kingdom. The UNESCO has made Hampi a part of its preservation programmes, as it so well deserves.

The memory of the scattered boulders abides, in all its changing colours through the day, as does the sunset seen from Anjaneya hill, with the empire laid at one's feet, crisscrossed by old aqueducts, and dotted by tanks laid by caring kings ages ago. Dazzled foreigners generally spend many days in Hampi, looking at the sculptures and rocks in differing light, at sunrise and sunset, the same rocks seeming to be different, the light throwing the sculptures into perfect relief.

Hampi is actually a world within this world, hard to detach oneself from, once seen and experienced.

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