The kingdom of Vijayanagar or the ‘City of Victory’ was founded in 1336 and forged from an amalgam of ancient Hindu kingdoms of the south. It was a time when the southern states came together to form a formidable force against the pillaging Muslim armies of the north.
Hampi - the glory of the empire that was
The city of Hampi on the southern banks of the Tungabhadra river was the capital of this empire. Its fortunes peaked under the reign of Krishnadevaraya who ascended the throne in 1509. It was under his command that the Hindu armies of the south defeated the armies at the Muslim stronghold of Raichur and eventually even captured Bijapur. Vijayanagar’s decline began soon after Krishnadevaraya’s death and Hampi was gradually forgotten. Today the fabulous ruins are alive again, albeit with wonderstruck tourists who try to come to terms with the feat of planning displayed in this city built over 700 years ago. What’s amazing about Hampi is the impunity displayed by its very location. Situated on the southern bank of the Tungabhadra, with the Muslim armies permanently encamped on the northern bank, the city planners must have had a lot of confidence in the seven lines of fortification surrounding the city. Hampi was reputed to have a population of one million and accounts left behind by travellers like Fernão Nuniz and Domingo Paez tell of the flourishing trade that existed here and the markets that overflowed with diamonds and precious stones.
How you want to go about seeing Hampi is your choice. There’s an entire city to explore and you could spend days just soaking in the atmosphere of the place. Several tourists, especially westerners, like to hang out in close proximity of the ruins and spend hours doing nothing at all. The main sites of interest are the Sacred Centre, which includes the Virupaksha Temple and Hampi Bazar, and the Royal Centre.
One of the earliest structures to be built in Hampi, it is today a very peaceful place to visit. Try and get there early so there aren’t many tourists and you can see the stones come alive in the early morning rays of the sun. The temple complex houses a shrine for the goddess Pampadevi who is an incarnation of the goddess Parvati. Entrance is free from 6.30 to 8am and 6.30 to 8pm. At other hours the entry ticket costs Rs 5.
All that remains today are the stone ruins bordering the road to the Virupaksha temple, but in its prime it was here that all the trade took place. The guide explains that traders would set up shop between the stone pillars and the scene was very much like today’s share market.
Achyutaraya Temple and Vittala Temple
Located in isolation at the foot of the Matanga hill, the temple is in a poor state of repair. But the scale of the front gateway is a stark reminder of its former glory. Continuing north-east towards the Vittala temple, you climb a rocky path and come upon a number of small piles of stones. Couples hoping to conceive visit this site and put stones as an offering. On becoming parents, they return to remove the stones.
The Vittala Temple is the highlight of the ruins, one of India’s three world heritage monuments. Work on the temple is thought to have started during Krishnadevaraya’s reign and though it was never finished or consecrated, the temple’s incredible sculptural work is the pinnacle of Vijayanagar art. The main temple hall on a raised platform has a cluster of intriguing small columns that, when struck, produce the sound of different classical instruments. Over the years, with innumerable and insensitive sightseers striking them, these pillars have worn out and today the practice is actively discouraged. Usually the temple caretaker will oblige a large group and strike the columns for a small tip.
It houses monuments like the queen’s bath with its ingenious drainage and ventilation system that has a constant breeze blowing through it. The royal enclosure area was the most important structure of civic life, but sadly all that remains today is the stone. All the wooden buildings were burned down by the rampaging Muslim armies.
The stepped tank was uncovered recently after archaeologists figured that there must have been some kind of water entrapment system below huge aqueducts that terminated a few feet above the ground. One experience that shouldn’t be missed in Hampi is crossing the Tungabhadra by the corracles. These huge straw saucer-like boats have been around for centuries, the only difference being that the buffalo hide used to keep water out has been replaced by plastic.
Eating out in Hampi
Food is very cheap. A satisfying plate of four large idlis and a cup of authentic filter coffee will set you back by Rs 8 only. Even upmarket restaurants that serve super south Indian food will rarely set you back by Rs 100 for a meal for three.
Located 150km to the north of Hampi, Badami was briefly the capital of the Chalukyas and the rock-cut caves and sandstone temples here are definitely worth a visit.
The caves have super carvings and are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Lord Buddha. The temples display 7th and 8th Chalukyan architecture and are still being excavated. They are centered around the 6th century artificial Agastytirtha tank that is functional even today. If there’s one temple that will definitely take your breath away for the serenity of its location, it is the Bhutana temple on the tank’s east bank. The hill behind the temple has few more temples under it because carved stones and idols are constantly being uncovered by the locals. According to the caretaker of the archeological museum on the north bank, there are plans to carry out a major excavation at the site.
A pleasant 20km drive away lies Pattadakal which has more temples, mainly the Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples built by Vikramaditya the second’s queens. The queens, Lokamahadevi and Trailokanahadevi, built them to commemorate his capture of the Kanchipuram from the Pallavas.
Issue: 192 | Autocar India: August 2015
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