Ruled by four dynasties, Hampi was the capital of Vijayanagar Kingdom once – a rich cultural, trading, and political centre. The austere, gradiose site in Karnataka is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites
It felt surreal standing in the middle of Hampi’s Main Bazaar Street as we arrived at the break of dawn. There was calm on the streets before tourists, vendors and tour guides started pouring in. Morning rituals at the nearby temples had started and we were enjoying their melodies. As the morning brightened, the town came alive, and it wasn’t long before the 1,600 surviving remains began interacting with us, excited to share stories they’ve been collecting since Hampi’s early civilisation in the 1st Century. We were all ears and set to explore Hampi, the once capital city under the Vijayanagara Empire, admired for its group of temples displaying Dravidian architecture marked with massive dimensions, lofty towers and decorated pillared entrances. The buildings here were built over a period of 200 years and their evolving architectural influences are a sign of a fast developing religious and political environment of the period, which is a study by itself.
The 10 temples here are dedicated to many gods, however, Virupaksha, the patron deity of the Vijayanagara rulers, is most respected. The Virupaksha Temple, oldest in Hampi, holds the deity’s image and a Shiv Linga. The main mandapa is surrounded by smaller temples on the east and the north. Usually this is the first temple to be visited in Hampi. Exiting it, the Bazaar Street leads to Matunga Hill, at the base of which impressively sits a massive monolithic Bull. Considered to be Lord Shiva’s carrier, Nandi, it looks over his Linga in the Virupaksha Temple. The hill’s western end has steps to reach the top; however, the climb is very risky with slippery stone steps. The view is breathtaking though, overlooking the plush green paddy fields across the river to the North, Hemakuta Hill to the West, well-spread Achyutaraya Temple in the East, Elephant Stable and Royal Fort ruins to its South. Its height mutes the sound of the busy streets and silence prevails.
Moving further East, the most compelling structure is the Vijaya Vittala Temple, counted among the best sculptures in Hampi. Its architecture and display of craftsmanship on its pillars and roof is exemplary. The Kalyana Mandapa and Utsava Mandapa are beautifully carved with images of angels, lotus, swans, yoga postures, and horses. The sharpness they’ve retained is impressive. The musical pillars at the Sangeetha Madapa glorify the architectural genius here, and it’s nearly impossible to not be left charmed. Varying in weight, width and cavity, the pillars were played to produce different musical notes and create an orchestral feel. Yet, the Stone Chariot parked at the entrance hogs all the limelight. The grand chariot is made with rough quartz and pictures of hunters, soldiers, Portuguese, Arab and Persiant traders have been depicted. It’s also testimony to its religious rituals.
Moving towards the Royal Centre in the South, en-route we made four main stops. The first was the Mustered Ganesha. The giant 12 feet monolithic Ganesha is still worshipped by the royal family each year. It is also considered the entry point to the main Hampi town, and thus, a mark of good beginnings as per Hindu tradition. Travelling further, we reached the Krishna Temple. The entrance gates are decorated by carved pillars displaying the seven avatars of Lord Vishnu, including Rama, Krishna, Shiva, and Buddha. A step inside and you’re welcomed by two Apsaras which then was a sign of royalty. The idol once placed here in the inner sanctum was brought from Udaigiri, however, it is now placed in the museum of Madras as one of the only surviving idols. Carvings on the pillars depict events from the King Krishnadevaraya’s life and are meticulously executed. The roofs display tones from the Chinese architecture. It’s interesting how Hampi was a rich trading hub once and the ties were strong enough to not only learn from various cultures but to showcase their influences in the temples’ architecture too.
Further ahead from the temple is the idol of Ugra Narasima, and at 22 feet, it is the biggest in Hampi. It was broken during the Deccan Muslim confederacy in 1565. Though without a temple surrounding it, the idol stands strong unprotected, which is admirable. Badavilinga, sitting next to the Ugra Narasima, is the biggest Linga in Hampi. Badavi, meaning poor, suggests that the Linga was commissioned by peasant woman. The sanctum on which it stands is always covered with water from the river Tungabhadra.
Once you get to the Royal Centre, the temples fade away to make space for military, royal, and urban setups. It has its own allure, and displays skillful and harmoniously integrated town and defence architecture, along with multi-cultural blend in design. The Elephant Stable and Queen’s Bath are blends of Indo- Islamic architecture, indicating a highly evolved multi-religious, multi-ethnic society. The domes on the stable are not unified in design and are of various shapes, which we learnt later was only for decoration purposes. Given that elephants have long been a sign of Hindu royalty, having Muslim domes atop Elephants’ stables speaks of undeniable unity between the two religions assertively. Adding to this is the Lotus Mahal, a Hindu-Muslim architectural mix again. This mortar building remains cool even in the summer heat thanks to the water channels that ran through it. It may have been the resting place for the queen with beautifully kept gardens.
The centerpiece of the Royal Centre, however, is the Mahanavami Dibba. The 22 feet high 80 square feet platform is suggested to be the seating area for the king to enjoy a wide panoramic view during competitions, festivities and other celebrations. The carvings surrounding the platform display hunting scenes, hundreds of elephants, dance postures, mythological pictures, person bowing to the throne, and more. The carvings also suggest international ambassadors from countries with which the empire’s markets would trade with. The underground cellars were used to discuss state secrets and matters of empire safety, alike Diwan-E-Khas in forts.
Across the river is a hill holding atop a Hanuman Mandir. It is believed that he was born here and waited before he met Lord Rama, making Hampi an important site for Ramayana too. The climb comprises of steep 400 steps. The sight from the top is a mine of boulders, greenery, and a river cutting the landscape, curving away and eloping in to the background. The ferry ride to cross the river is an experience of sorts. This side is marred with paddy fields and plots with varied shade of green. The home stays here are occupied by foreign tourists and long stay backpackers and is unlike the other side. With a lot to learn and much to experience, Hampi stays with you even when you leave.
Written by : Gagan Sharma