Every stone in Hampi has a tale to tell. But after centuries of abandonment the ruins have fallen silent and you have to coax and cajole them into narrating their story. And that requires time. So if you have left urgent assignments behind, Hampi is not the place for you. Hampi requires investment – of time and passion. Trek those hills, climb those rocks and really sweat it out but come back with a contented heart. Walk around the ruins; gaze at them when caressed by the morning sun or during sunset; while away in their cool shades when the midday sun shines most belligerently. Interspersed with coconut groves, banana plantations and a mountainous terrain these derelict structures look lonesome yet magnificent enough as they did when part of a bustling city.
Hampi’s past presents an intricate pattern – strands of history and mythology woven together, form a rich tapestry. There are no water tight compartments – mythology takes over just where history ends.
Historically speaking, Hampi was the capital of Vijayanagar Kingdom, which flourished between 14 th century and 16 th century. The Delhi Sultans pursued a policy of expansion in the south but as soon as they turned their backs a power vacuum led to the emergence of two powerful kingdoms – the ‘Hindu’ Vijayanagar and the ‘Muslim’ Bahmani sultanate. There is a wonderful story about how two brother- Hakka and Bukka, were out on a hunting expedition when the hare they were chasing led them to Matanga Hill. As soon as they reached the hill the hare turned ferocious and snarled at their hounds. Perplexed, they sought the advice of the ascetic, Vidyaranya who considered it to be a good omen. He advised them to establish their kingdom right on that site and name it as Vijayanagar (City of Victory). Hakka ruled as the first independent ruler, Harihara I and was succeeded by Bukka.
Served by three dynasties – Sangam, Saluva and Tuluva, Hampi flourished for two and half centuries as the sole Hindu kingdom in south before the great battle in 16th century triggered its destruction. Seven neighbouring Muslim rulers joined forces to crush Vijayanagar kingdom. Plunderers looted the prosperous city for the next six months.
History apart, Hampi and neighbouring Anegundi formed the mythical land of Kishkindhya, the kingdom of monkey-king Bali. He was defeated by Rama who then crowned his brother, Sugreeva as king and secured latter’s help in rescuing Sita. Matanga Hill, Rishimukhya Hill and Anjaneyadri – the birth place of Hanuman were referred in Ramayana. Whether it was indeed Kishkindhya is difficult to conclude but the increasing population of monkeys convinced us that simians still rule the roost!
In ancient times Hampi was known as Pampakshetra. After killing Dakshya, Shiva left Kailash and started meditating at Hemakuta Parvat. Parvati or goddess Pampa lived near Pampa Sarovar. She performed penance to win over Shiva. Kamadeva disturbed Shiva with his love arrow and was reduced to ashes but eventually Parvati won him over. After marriage Shiva came to be known as Pampapati (husband of Pampa) and Virupaksha, the Lord with oblique eyes. There are many Shivalingas in Hampi, a reminder of its long association with the Destroyer of Universe.
Our exploration of Hampi began with the beautiful, majestic Vitthala Temple. If Hampi is poetry than Vitthala Temple is surely blank verse. Its silent stones reveal little of its origin, standing aloof from the rest of ruins of Hampi. The intricately carved pillars of the innermost sanctum produce a variety of musical notes when tapped gently. Although prohibited by ASI a guard stationed there gently tapped on the pillars to produce the sound of tabla, damru, jaltaranga, that of horses’ hooves leaving us in awe at this instance of acoustics engineering. One of the pillars had been sawed off. Apparently, a British officer had ordered the sawing off of each set of pillars to find out its musical secret before better sense prevailed. Sending Mangalyaan to space seems to be a trivial achievement compared to this expertise in engineering and music.
The engraved stone chariot of Garuda in front of the main temple reminds of Sun Temple of Konark and its giant wheels. The horses in front have been replaced by two elephants brought from elsewhere. The hooves of the hind legs though, were visible. It is an iconic structure reflecting the superior artistry of Vijayanagar craftsmen.
Just in front of the temple there were long rows of box-like structures, evidently a bazaar. Bazaars mushrooming beside temples are no recent phenomena but an ancient one. It was a hub for trading horses (much before modern day politicians made horse trading a fine art!) and hence the engravings below the main portico of the temple show horses being led away by traders or buyers checking on the teeth of the animals, forcing open their mouth. The huge King’s Balance triggers your imagination – visualize the great humdrum of life around it in the busy market place.
The way to Vitthala was picturesque as we made through stone ruins, coconut trees and banana plantations. Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) offers rides in golf carts till the temple but it is preferable to walk because there are structures like the majestic Gejala gopuram, the serene, water- filled Pushkarini with a colonnade in the middle and an engraved mandapa on the way which do require adequate attention but are often overlooked by tourist in a hurry.
A temple which actually matched Vitthala in majestic beauty was the Achyutaraya Temple with its intricate carvings on the pillars, walls and ceilings. It too, had a bazaar in front and a water tank but dry. The walkway between Vitthala and Achyutraya Temples, along the meandering Tungabhadra was long but worth it as we watched the sun go down behind the imposing gopuram of Virupaksha Temple.
Virupaksha Temple, dedicated to Shiva and his consort is considered to be the most important site but in spite of its majestic, imposing gopurams, one outside and another inside – it failed to impress us the way Vitthala Temple did, for the simple reason it was swamped with pilgrims who did not have an eye for architectural beauty. Apart from the temple elephant there were monkeys all around attracted by the fruits and food left behind. Cattle tug at garlands and the complex was dirty enough to put you off. But if you still get over your initial disgust do look at the fine paintings on the ceiling depicting the marriage of Virupaksha and Pampa- his consort. Even after Hampi was abandoned after its destruction by enemies people continued to worship at Virupaksha Temple.
In Hampi, every little mound has a structure. Some so small, that may appear to be guards’ enclosures. There are temples with just an idol, a porch or a pavilion but even then appear to be exquisite – like Bheema’s Gateway. The immense Ganeshas – on your way down from Hemkuta Parvat- carved out of single stones and amusingly named after the shapes of their large bellies (Bengal gram and mustard) were magnificent. The second one – Kadalekalu, had intricate work on pillars and ceiling. You are left wondering about the skill of those anonymous artists immortalized by their creativity. A little downhill, near the immense Shivalinga in an austere temple, stood the iconic gargantuan idol of Lakshmi Narasimha. The broken limb was apparently wrapped around Lakshmi on his lap though she did not survive the vagaries of nature or the plunderers’ sword. The almost intact Hazara Rama Temple had engravings all over depicting various tales from Ramayana. If you know your epics well you can easily decipher the stories depicted in stone including that of Marich impersonating as a golden deer to lure Sita.
The ruins of Hampi also whisper courtly tales of kings and queens, military commanders who lived in royal palaces, bathed in arched water pavilions and relaxed while watching games, competitions and indulged in other social activities. Beside a beautiful stepped tank sans water was the Mahanavami Pavilion, a square raised platform, with a flight of steep, stony steps and its sides embellished with scenes of games, archery, wrestling, hunting and so on. Perhaps there was a wooden structure on the top which failed survive the rigours of time. Although the Hemakuta Hill had a sun set point distinctly marked with a signboard the sun’s homeward journey was no less spectacular when seen from the top of the Mahanavami Pavillion.
The Zenana enclosure, apparently wrongly labelled, is another site worth a visit. Well maintained by ASI with manicured lawns this enclosure contains the Lotus Mahal, a beautiful Council room with arches and domes – an instance of the secularism of the Vijayanagar kings. Its secured façade, inspired the label of women’s quarters but the presence of four well- guarded gates in four corners, the parade ground at the back and the regal stables for the royal elephants all point to its being the council room of the king. Do not miss the museum set up by ASI in the Zenana Enclosure because you would find in display the photographs by Alexander Greenlaw who first photographed the ruins of Hampi.
But the most beautiful part of exploring Hampi was definitely the coracle ride on the turbulent Tungabhadra. The motor boat ride across the river on way to Anegundi was most disappointing. A half-built concrete bridge which had collapsed on the river bed served to remind us of pangs of modernity in Hampi -where time stood still. The initial glimpse of a hyacinth-covered Tungabhadra from the windows of the restaurant left us dismayed. But as we walked along the Tungabhadra from Virupaksha to Vitthala temples through a most picturesque pathway, complete with boulders, caves, rocky tunnels and a meandering river we came across a ghat with quite a few coracles. Coracles are no more than round floating baskets and cruising on the turbulent Tungabhadra in a coracle seemed scary. It can accommodate 8 to 10 people and the boatman steers it while sitting on the edge. It was amusing to see him simply pick up the coracle and carry it on his head before setting it afloat once again. Reminded me somehow of the tortoise carrying its home on its back! Our boatman was a delightful young man who spoke English and cracked a few jokes. When we were near an ancient stone bridge of which only pillars remained, somewhat shaped like English alphabets ‘I’ and ‘t’ he solemnly declared “Well, this is IT!” We had our share of adventure when our coracle went into circles in the middle of a whirlpool before he steered it to the other side. Guiding us over boulders he pointed out various sights – Rishimookhya Hill, Matanga Hill, Vitthala Temple, Kodandarama Temple and the various idols of Lakshmi, Vishnu, Durga, the miniature Shivalingas strewn on the banks of the river. Many of the temples did not survive but the idols still stood like captives trapped in their prisons of stone.
Most of the hotels were in adjoining Kamalapur or Hospet (some 11 km away). But right across Hampi Bazaar Street there was a maze of congested bylanes where most single or double storeyed houses offered home stays to tourists, primarily foreign backpackers. “Free WiFi and hot showers” screamed the signboards atop houses, painted in neon colours. Proximity to Goa and obviously, the rich architectural heritage of Hampi seem to have kindled interest among foreigners. And it has spurted a kind of cottage industry of loose, baggy cotton clothes and stone and silver jewellery, you usually find in Tibetan shops. There was nothing that could be called native of Hampi, instead it was clearly a grafted culture for the benefit of backpackers. Even the restaurants in the vicinity catered to foreign tourists and apart from regular Indian curries and rice and chapatis these offered wonderful English breakfast, Israeli hummus, Italian spaghetti or pasta and even Mexican food. We opted for Chill Out in Bamboo Restaurant and were bowled out by the food and fresh juices they served. We loved their pizzas, pastas, noodles, garlic Nan and Nargisi Kofta, stuffed tomatoes and the innovative juices including Lemon Nana, Lemon Ginger, Watermelon and Mint. There were a few Tibetan restaurants as well and those serving the typical South Indian thali. Local restauranteurs have found a way to circumvent the ban on chicken. Lookout for the code-word for chicken in the menu!
Early in the morning we bid adieu to Hampi. The ruins looked magical, awashed by the first rays of the sun – for once the past looked brighter than the future.
Despite the popular perception. Hampi is no weekend destination. Plan at least for three-four days if you really want to see the ruins and soak in the rich history.
Avoid the hot afternoon sun – it can sap your energy. Leave hotel early, rest a while after lunch and then resume your journey as the sun tilts westward. The best way to explore Hampi is to buy a good guide book-there are plenty available and hop on a rented bicycle. You will find bicycles opposite Hampi Bazar Street. Mobility is important in Hampi as the ruins are strewn all over. We were on a road trip from Hyderabad and the car was really a blessing as the other alternative is hired autorickshaws.
After Hampi Anegundi might not be appealing, particularly if you are not terribly imaginative to be able to fancy the greenish water of a stagnated pond as that of famed Pampa Sarovar or when your guides points to mundane spots as where Rama hid while Sugreeva and Bali wrestled on the rocks. However, the rural setting as the autorickshaw steers through paddy fields and banana plantations may be worth enjoying if you have plenty of time in hand.
Avoid visiting Hampi during festivals. Although the temples and select ruins are illuminated it is more of a nuisance. Since we reached Hampi on the penultimate day of Hampi Festival we found the way to Virupaksha Temple closed to traffic and thousands of locals thronging the streets apparently to watch Anuradha Paudwal sing. Helicopter whirred over, transporting passengers at Rs 3,000 per head.
The coracle ride is a must. Apart from the adventure offered by eddies and whirlpools and the great mastery with which the boatman manages his light vessel it provides a wonderful riverside view of Hampi. But haggle a bit. And choose a fabric which will dry off quickly because often water seeps in through the gaps. So be prepared for that wet feeling!