Romancing the Ruins – Hampi

The Achyutaraya temple from a distance: the ruins, the greenery, the palm tops and the boulders give an Angkor Wat look.

Hampi is a historian’s delight as much as it is a tourist’s fantasy come true. The capital and the seat of power, trade and culture in the Vijayanagara kingdom’s prime, this place retains the evidence of a thriving and glorious empire from the 14th to the 16th centuries.

One look across the landscape with boulders strewn all across leaves you with no doubt about the enormous opportunity that the architects had, to exhibit their creativity and the abundance of resources and skills set the stage for artistic indulgence in the kingdom’s heyday. However, heavy attacks by the Delhi sultanate and its allies and the final downfall of the empire left most parts of this glorious kingdom and its famed structures in ruins and hence the oft repeated reference to the “ruins of Hampi”.

A tour of Hampi generally starts with the Hemakuta hill, formed of a single rock, a monolith. This hill with its structures, the neighbouring Virupaksha temple and its adjoining market place and the Krishna temple formed a part of a buzzing town life. The boulders and rocks on top of the Hemakuta create some magical forms.

The Virupaksha temple, started in the 9th and 10th century, acquired its size and grandeur during the reigns of the Vijayanagara rulers. A live and a very active temple, it is an attractive stop for both the religiously and the architecturally inclined.

As in many places of the country with references to ancient Indian history, you see a number of step-wells in this region. You would find a few in the temple complexes, quite large ones, and one close to the royal area. A great town planning marvel is the aqueduct that was built to supply water to the town settlements from a lake (Halli Kere) more than two kilometres away .

Among the top temples of Hampi are two of my favourites, the Hazara Rama and the Achyutaraya temples. The former is located near the royal area and has some splendid carvings of scenes from Indian mythology.

A trek along the Tungabhadra – it rocks!

We were lucky to get connected to a local guide, Hussein (more about him later), who had planned a walk for us along the Tungabhadra. The idea was to walk down from the Virupaksha temple complex end to the famous Vijaya Vittala temple along the river. What was planned as a walk turned out to be a trek as we had to work our way up and down the innumerable boulders that line the banks of the river. The effort was absolutely worthwhile as we came across the strangest of land forms and stunning craftsmanship adorning some of the rock faces.

No place of historical significance is complete without its share of ancient or mythological anecdotes. There are many around Hampi too. The west bank of the Tungabhadra where one sees the abundance of boulders is also called Kishkindha, the famous kingdom of the monkeys that finds reference in the epic Ramayana. The siblings, Bali and Sugriva ruled this kingdom around the time that Lord Rama came to this land during the days of his exile while in search of his beloved queen Sita. It is said that Lord Rama’s army of monkeys had carried boulders from this site to the coast in Rameswaram to build the “Ramsetu” bridge to Lanka. There is also a formation of stones that hides a cave between them, referred to as the Sugriva cave. This is the cave that Bali and a demon had gone into while engaged in a fight till death. Sugriva’s assumption of Bali’s death on seeing blood flow out of the cave became the contentious point in the enmity the ensued between the brothers.

Note: we did this trek of approximately 4 kms, pulling ourselves over boulders, jumping off rock faces – all with our N95 masks on, and our guide Hussein followed suit. For all those who think masks can be an impediment to any activity, it’s time to rethink.

The Vijaya Vittala temple is probably the most photographed monument of the Hampi ruins. The exquisite carvings and sculptured pillars have attained global fame and draw the maximum footfall. Apart from the iconic stone chariot (that finds its place in every reference to Hampi), the musical pillars in the mandapa that let out different musical notes when struck, are amongst the most fascinating features of this temple. Unfortunately, the musical pillars are out of bounds for the viewing public. A look at those pillars will tell you why – the abuse by years of visiting tourists is evident.

The monuments in this city of ruins are countless, and the variety, endless. Back to the royal area of the city, a different kind of architectural design waits to charm you. The lotus mahal and the elephant stables bring a hint of indo-islamic styles with their arches and domes, though these were built very much in the Vijayanagara kingdom’s days.

Some details about our trip and the stay:

This was among the first few trips that we undertook after the 1st wave of the pandemic, that needed us to hire an accommodation. We wanted to ensure that we stay safe, away from crowded hotel locations. We had no first hand knowledge of accommodations in and around Hampi, including in Hosapet, the nearest large town. After some research and deliberations, we hit on the idea of staying in the heritage property, Shiva Vilas Palace, in Sandur. This property is a palace turned hotel, with members of the Ghorpade royal family still retaining part of the palace for private use. Sandur is about a 45-50 minutes drive from Hampi, though that’s a lot of time for the distance of 30 km. The drive is slowed down considerably because of iron ore/manganese laden tippers that ply on this road, and the busy streets of Hosapet that one has to negotiate on the way. The drive is very picturesque, though dusty (from the red iron ore dust that the tippers leave behind). It, however, offers some great views of the surrounding hills and meadows.

The pandemic has had its effect on the footfall of tourists in this magnificent seat of Indian history. We could easily count the number tourists that we came across at each monument. There were places where we found ourselves to be the only ones, something unthinkable in Hampi during its peak tourist season. The uncertainties faced by the local populace, so dependent on tourism, was a painful realization that left us saddened.

Shiva Vilas Palace hotel, Sandur.

Hussein, our guide for the two days that we romped around amidst the ruins of Hampi, is clearly a pro in the business. He had his own way of planning the visits to different parts of Hampi, based on rush hour movements of tourists, and heat and light conditions. His suggestion to take the walk along the Tungabhadra was a super hit. He carries enormous knowledge, not just about Hampi and the Vijayanagara kingdom, but also about the various south Indian dynasties that lent a lot of flavours to his narrations and analogies. He is a man well educated in history and has been trained by the ASI for his work. Even though you might have a number of other resources to tell you about the monuments and sites that you would be visiting, knowledgeable and educated local guides add significantly to your experience with their share of insights and anecdotes.

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