This was a journey in planning for more years than I care to remember. I had even booked hotels and train tickets a few years ago, only to be cancelled in the last minute for some reason. It seemed as if it was a journey I was never going to make. Ever since my father had said that one of our ancestors fought in the army of emperor Krishnadevaraya, arguably one of the greatest monarchs of the time, I had dreamed of visiting the capital of the greatest empire of medieval India. An opportunity arose during this visit to India with some spare time.
I walked into the local Train booking centre, which happened to be literally across the street from my brother’s house and booked two overnight tickets on the Hampi Express. I had heard quite a lot about the Hampi Express from my friends and was looking forward to the train journey as much as the visit to Hampi itself. Travelling in trains in India has not changed much over a hundred years. There is still the same crowd of people rushing to find their coach and seats – those that were lucky enough to get a booking. This who were not lucky enough to get a reservation even in the “Tatkal quota” were seen to be running from one end of the train to the other looking for UR – unreserved carriages, carrying bulky trunks, suitcases, bags and even some cases filled with fruits. Women carrying crying babies, the noisy ‘coolies’ (they are no longer called coolies – a remnant of the British Raj) Booking a train ticket is a complex procedure, it appears if you go to a station to book one. One has to fill in an elaborate form printed in smallest font they could find and with questions to daunt an MI6 spy – not that anyone is admitting that MI6 exists! After a few attempts I gave up and went home dejected. But a walk down the street to a local shop got me two tickets in an instant. After a couple of phone calls to people who had visited Hampi, booked a room at Hotel Malligi, which came highly recommended. I called up my publisher friend who had worked on a treatise on the Vijayanagara empire for help with a guide. I was hoping to get her friend who was in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as a guide. ASI had done yeoman service to the ancient monuments in India and probably the best experts in the subject. I was disappointed to hear that he was retired and moved away from Hampi. I had to settle for a guide recommended by the hotel like everyone else. It turned out be not a bad choice in the end.
We reached Hospet Junction, about 12 kms from Hampi early hours of morning after a comfortable overnight journey in the famed Hampi Express. It lived up to its expectations. The clackety-clack of the rails, gentle swaying (mostly gentle!!) of the carriage, ‘chai gharam chai’ at every station along with hawkers selling roasted peanuts and as the sun broke on the horizon, breakfast sellers filled the carriages with that inescapable aroma of Idli and sambar. Its an aroma that is unmatched by any other food item, particularly on a train. There were neatly folded and ironed sheets, blankets and pillows for our comfort with a decent sized bed to boot. As soon as we got off the train at Hospet, we were swamped by Riksha drivers inviting us to go with them “to the best hotel in town saar.” After fighting off the madding crowd, we did manage to get to the Riksha stand and hire one to our hotel.
A nice hot shower in a sumptuous and somewhat ornately decorated room with a nostalgic feel of the 1960s and 70s, and delicious breakfast with a spread to match any appetite, we were ready for Hampi. The hospitality desk at the hotel arranged a car with a driver – we still don’t see many outsiders like me daring to drive on the Indian roads yet. Our driver was an enthusiastic youngster who gave us his own version of history of Hampi as he weaved his car through the mad rush of traffic mingled with stray cows and dogs of Hospet out on to the road to Hampi. “Don’t worry, saar. I’ll get you the best guide in Hampi for you. I look after my guests and know their taste minute I see them.” He wasn’t too far off his claims. The gentleman he found for us held a degree in history and appeared to know what he was talking about.
The first sign of what to expect comes, not in the form of monuments, but what appears to be an inexhaustible collection of huge granite boulders over low hills, stretching for as far as the eyes can see. The granite rocks of colours from grey to ochre and pink appeared to have been thrown in a random fashion everywhere. The remarkable evenness of the top of the hills didn’t seem natural at first, until a closer inspection revealed that the rocky hills were topped by neatly arranged, beautifully sculpted granite rocks, row after row to lift the height of the hills. These turned out to be the first of the seven walls of the city of Hampi. The rulers of the fabled city were apparently fanatical about the safety of their capital and surrounded the city with seven huge granite fortifications. Outsiders, particularly strangers were not allowed beyond the second wall until authenticated. Our driver pointed to several ruins on the way such as watch towers high up on the hills where “kotwals’ would watch over the city walls.
Our car stopped in a ramshackle car park with the usual hawkers selling caps, plastic sunglasses, ice creams and tender coconut filling most of the parking space. Even though it was still late morning, the sun was blisteringly hot. I ended up buying one of those Texan hats to protect my head from getting sunburnt. A good sunblock cream and dark glasses is a must for a visit to the site.
There was a vigilant guard at the gate of the fenced off area who looked us up and down before letting us in. I was a bit surprised that there was no check as is the usual custom in most hotels, malls and even some shops in India. Judging from what we saw that day, if there was a place which needs protection is the ruins of Hampi. Our guide told us that the site was covered with CCTV cameras pointing to a few tall poles around the site. The area of Hampi is vast, extending to over 32 square kilometres, making it the second largest city in the world during 14th and 15th century after Beijing. Our guide told us that the central district was divided into four cities, centred around four large temples – Hampe around Virupaksha temple, Krishna pura around Krishna temple and so on.
Once through the gate, we start climbing a gradual slope on massive granite boulders to reach the first feature of the entire site. The massive monolithic statue of Lord Ganesha – here called “Sasive kalu Ganesha,” is seated on a plinth protected by rough cut granite platform with a granite roof, some of which had long since disappeared. Standing at 2.4 metres, it is quite impressive in size and beauty, only marred by the broken trunk. This deity was the first one a commoner would offer prayers before moving on to the main temple at the top of the hill. The idol had been defaced by the Islamic forces of the Bahmani Sultans in 16th century after the fall of the Vijayanagara empire. As per the Hindu tradition, there was no prayers offered to the deity as it was defaced. It was an impressive feat of engineering to see a 15-foot-high idol hacked out of a single granite block using nothing but hand tools.
From here the climb is gradual over solid rock and we soon come across first of the twenty-two “dwaras” – main gates to the city. Pavilion like gateway, again hewn out of granite and with massive stone columns and two storey chambers on either side with two and often four channels in each – a four lane highway in 15th century! The gate is set back from a massive stone wall which stretched on either direction for as far as the eyes could see. This was the outside fortress wall sitting on top of natural granite rocks on top of the hill. Our guide tells me that there were seven walls altogether around the city. At this place it was about three meters wide, with two layers of granite boulders with compacted earth in between. There was no mortar used and the stability was entirely due to the accurate cuts. There were remnants of square and rectangular battlements on top at regular intervals where soldiers could patrol and keep a watch on the city. Just north of the gateway is the austere looking temple with an open mandapa. The slender columns look delicate compared to the size of the huge Ganesha within – standing at 4.5 metres, nearly twice the size and even more impressive than the previous one. My guide tells me that this was the first deity the royalty visited before proceeding to the main temple. It is called Kadalekalu Ganesha. The statue is defaced with broken trunk and damaged belly – ostensibly looking for hidden treasures within the stomach of the Ganesha.
The climb continues uneven rock and we come across numerous tiny shrines for lord Shiva, with lingams missing from all of them, again carved out of granite. These are small “temples’ built by commoners, generals as well as minor chieftains to mark their devotion to the deity or/and the reigning monarch of the time. When the Islamic forces went on a looting rampage, they firmly believed that fabulous wealth was hidden inside these ‘lingams’ and they invariably destroyed the idol to find the wealth and as a mark of stamping their religion on the defeated populace. There we see a large granite temple for Shiva with three large pyramidal towers or gopuras. They have square mandapas with unadorned walls, rather austere compared to the rest of the architecture of Hampi. These were one of the first of the great temples built by Kampila Raya, king of Kampili with its capital Kummata not too far from Hampi. This is where it all began with sacking of the Kampili in 14th century by the Malik Zada, a general of the Delhi sultan, Mohammed Bin Tughluk. The story goes that when the citizens of Kampili realised that the battle was lost, they committed Jauhar – mass sacrifice – ala Masada. This probably laid the seed for the future development of the famed Vijayanagara empire.
Once we reach the top of the hill, called Hemakuta, the view is spectacular, and one can see the extent of the city to an extent. The most impressive is the Virupaksha temple towards the east of the hill, which towers above the south bank of river Tungabhadra with panoramic views. We turn right and go down steep steps through seven stone pavilions, cut into the granite rock to reach the massive temple complex. The temple built on a square plinth with the usual three-chamber format, is massive. Base of the main entrance is made of granite with the huge tower or gopuram built out of brick and mortar – mythological figures along with the figures of the emperor Krishnadevaraya and his concubines adorn the tower. Our guide tells us that the superstructure collapsed after the sacking of Hampi in 1565 and it was rebuilt by an unknown chieftain during early 19th century. As we pass through the massive entrance we are into a spacious rectangular courtyard with high stone-walls. There is the customary kitchen in the north-eastern corner – or what is left of it. The great Emperor built the smaller gopuram on top of the sanctum sanctorum, in 16th century. He also built a mantapam with 100 columns in front and to the left of the main chamber. The columns are typical of 16th century architecture of cut out columns with delicate carvings. The ceiling shows vivid paintings from Ramayana as well as the story of Pampa and Virupaksha. Our guide tells us that the ceiling paintings have been restored in 19th century. The main deity is Virupaksha, a Shiva lingam with a bejewelled face mask. On the right side of the main chamber we find two smaller chambers with deities of Buvanashwari and Mahishasura Mardhini. Bhuvaneshwari is the family deity of the kings and the main deity of the Mahanavami festival – which now continues as Dassara celebrations in Mysuru. As we pass through the south facing entrance there is a large Pushkarni, a stepped well, now in a rather dilapidated condition. Tungabhadra flows serenely a couple hundred yards to the north of here.
The front of the Virupaksha temple shows a vast bazar extending to 100 feet wide. It is L-shaped with the long limb stretching to nearly a kilometre in length. The shops on either side was a row of stone built and in many places two or even three storeys high. In the north-east corner of the bazar is the customary tank or Pushkarni for the merchants and the customers alike. Walking through the bazar, one gets an eerie feeling of being in a massive open-air mall. Our guide tells me that these bazars thronged with merchants from all over the world hawking their wares. Each of the bazars was dedicated to different type of goods – one for corns and groceries, one for gold, precious and semiprecious stones and so on. The immensity of the bazars cannot be appreciated by photographs. The open space between the rows of shops would fit many football fields. The Virupaksha Bazaar is flat and at the same level as the temple.
As we work our way back towards Kamala Pura, we come across the next impressive temple complex of Krishna. Most of the superstructure of the temple has collapsed and there were scaffoldings by the ASI (Archaeological Society of India) trying to restore and hopefully preserve. This forms the nucleus of the townships of Krishna Pura. The impressive granite entrance is topped by a once massive gopuram of brick and mortar. We can still make out some of the figurines showing battle scenes – from the battle between Krishnadevaraya and Gajapathi of Orissa. Our guide tells me that the emperor brought the Krishna idol from Udayagairi after winning the battle to install in the temple. It is now apparently in a museum in Chennai. There is a large square Mantapam in the quad with 25 open bays leading to the sanctum with an enclosed passageway around for circumambulation. The main idol of the temple is missing, presumably destroyed by the invaders.
As we come outside through the south facing gateway, we come across a huge granary. This is covered by six massive domes and vents at the top for airing the granary. The front of the temple gopuram leads to a vast granite steps leading to the Bazaar about twenty feet below. The linear bazaar is again at least hundred feet wide, lined with rows of stone columned shops, some of which are two and three storeys high. The bazaar is again nearly a kilometre long and has the customary tank, ‘Pushkarni’ in the north-east corner. I believe most of this was under sugar cane plantation not too long ago.
As the road winds around the corner from the bazaar through another pavilion like archway, the next complex comes into view with a walled enclosure. A path leads us to the most impressive part of the complex. Massive idol of Ugra Narasimha. The colossal statue stands at 6.5 metres high and even today is awe inspiring with huge seven headed snake on top. We can still remnants of an arm of the goddess Lakshmi sitting on his left thigh. Rest of the goddess has been completely destroyed by the invaders. If you are not impressed by this, you will certainly be impressed by the next monolith – a huge Lingaa measuring about 3 metres tall standing in a pooled enclosure.
As we drive towards Kamala Pura after this, we come across Virabhadra temple, which apparently was yet another gateway during the time of the empire. On the other side of the road we can glimpse ruins of stone columns and fallen granite roof slabs – ‘chatra’ – a free house where poor and needy were fed during the empire. Not too far from here we come across a curiosity that I have not seen anywhere else. There is a stone cut curved channel with plates, cups etc carved on its banks, ostensibly to serve as an elaborate picnic table made of green stone.
As we pass further on we come across a large platform with a notice board saying ‘Queen’s palace’, presumably was where royalty and nobleman lived. Only the foundations survive showing a glimpse of the grandeur and size of their residences. We see within the complex several remnants of storehouses and granaries. Not too far from here we come across a high walled enclosure, part of it destroyed. After buying the customary entrance pass, we enter a vast enclosure with well kept lawns. On our left, in the far corner is a huge square building with plain unadorned walls, only broken by high small windows – maybe a store room or armoury. In the midst of a well-manicured lawn is foundations of a vast building – ‘queen’s palace.’ None of the walls have survived the destruction of the invaders. As we cast our eye to the north, a square building with bathing facilities looms large. But the most impressive building of the enclosure is the Lotus Mahal. Its built on a square platform with nine pyramidal towers. Its on two levels with a very narrow stairwell – locked out now. The architecture is interesting as it is a mixture of Islamic and Hindu styles – showing the cosmopolitan nature of the empire. The enclosure has its quota of watch towers, in different states disrepair. The enclosure also has granaries, water storage tanks and store rooms – or what is left of them.
A small gate in the eastern wall leads into a large plaza, which I believe was covered by sugar cane fields at one time. In the southern edge of the plaza is the what is presumably the most impressive building of the entire site – Elephant stable. They are truly impressive and seen to be appreciated. It is a row of eleven stables, each capable of holding two elephants. The domes on top of the stables are again a combination of Islamic and Hindu architectural styles. The central dome on top of the stable which apparently hosted the drummers and musicians for the parade has lost its tower. An equally impressive two storey building at right angles to the stables – with elevated gallery and eleven pointed arches. Most likely used as a gallery for the dignitaries to watch the parade. The building has narrow corridors with open courtyards behind – our guide was not too sure about the use of the building! It could have been the quarters for the soldiers and mahouts – I have my doubts!
As we go past the stables, we come across a vast area of half excavated monuments and some still to be excavated complexes. They are mostly Jain temples with a road leading onto south and a monumental gateway leading us out of the enclosure. The road leads on to yet another gateway out of the city wall – Talarighat gate.
As we walk out of the enclosure (often termed “zenana”) to the south-east, we come across an equally impressive building – ‘Queen’s bath’ – with rather bland outer walls. The interior takes you to a large pool – now completely dry – surrounded by ornate balconies, where presumably ladies in waiting sat and sang songs and threw perfume and flowers into the bath as the royalty swam in the pool. The towers on top of the enclosure is now collapsed leaving a sort of a flat roof. We can still see the remnants of the aqueduct which brought water to the bath from the river. Not too far away from the bath itself. If you look towards the east from the bath, there is another small Siva temple which our guide tells us dates from the period of Krishnadevaraya. Not too far away is the famous octagonal bath with granite columns and a central platform. Our guide was not sure about the purpose of the bath as it appears to stand isolated.
One temple not to be missed in the Hampi complex is the Vittala temple. It is a masterpiece of construction and is probably the biggest temple complex at the time. It formed the centre of Vittala pura, one of the four centres of the capital. The vast ‘chariot street’ forms the bazaar in front, with most of the colonnade destroyed by fire. The temple itself has three ‘gopuras’ on top of a vast sanctuary. The central one, ostensibly built by Krishnadevaraya is very ornate and still looks impressive. The interior of the sanctuary is empty with evidence of wanton destruction by fire evident everywhere. Our guide tells me that the invaders kept the fire going inside the temple for six months and ran the nearby forest to the ground in the process.
The front chamber is a large hall with numerous columns, most of them defaced by repeated knocking of the pillars by tourists over the centuries. The walls of the chambers have figures from all over the world – Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and European. The ceiling at one time had elaborate paintings – now almost completely destroyed by the fire. There have been some attempts at restoration during the early 19th century. This chamber was used for music and dance. The pillars were carved in such a way that when it is hit with certain force and directions, they produced different sounds, ranging fro vocal to string and wind instruments as well as the drums. Indiscriminate hitting of the stone pillars made them precarious and the powers banned anyone from hitting the stone pillars and recently, the entire area has been cordoned off to stop the tourists from being tempted.
Immediately in front of the mantapam is the now famous stone chariot – The Garuda temple. The tower of the temple shrine is missing. Our guide tells us that the emperor would turn the wheel of the stone chariot on the day of the Mahanavami – we can still evidence for the movement of the wheel. There is an inscription on a stela next to the shrine which tells us about the construction of the complex by Krishnadevaraya – in three languages – Kannada, Telugu and Tamil.
As we walk out of the Vittala temple complex, we are faced with the King’s balance and a two storeyed gate which would take us out of the Vittala pura. The Kings would weigh themselves with gold and precious metals which would be distributed to the temple priests.
The sun had started to go down by this time and our guide said we would have to watch the sunset from the top of the fort for a spectacular view. Our driver sped past the monuments to reach the fort wall near the Sasivekalu Ganesha and I ran up the hill to the top of the fort wall. It was worth the effort and the sunset over distant hills with rocky rubble strewn all over the immediate distance was out of this world. There were many tourists sat on top of the fort in silence soaking in the serene atmosphere.
I sat there soaking in the setting sun and the surrounding glory that once was the golden empire of the sun. It was a fitting end to a glorious day and somehow, I was at peace with the world. There was intense sadness at the wanton destruction of the grandeur of what once was. What did the invaders achieve by destroying such a beautiful city? A question I have asked myself many times with no answer. As the sunset finally, most of the people on the wall started to walk back slowly in utter silence back to the car park below. It was sad that I could not see everything in the complex, the glory of Hazara Rama temple, sanctity of Mahanavami Dibba, the majestic Matanga Hill, quaint Anegondi (where it all started) and many more. There will be another day and another time for me to see and as our taxi wound its way past the last of the watch towers, I thought I could hear the tormented voices of the brave souls of Kampili.
A Cry for freedom
Is that the cry for freedom in distance I hear?
It’s but the voices of tormented souls I fear
The dreaded enemy is at the front and rear
No escape for the brave souls of Kampili I fear
Enemy drown the voices, as they plunder and loot
The valiant and tortured souls end their life in fear
Roaring fire of funeral pyre darkens the sky in soot
The enemies destroy their homes and city held so dear
As the monuments of grandeur and palaces crumble,
A tiny seed is borne out of the ashes and rubble
A seed is born for something unknown and greater
Something far greater and ambitions still higher
Bring forth Hukka e Bukka, the Sangama brothers
They rallied the brave with their life, with no fear
Found the great Vidyaranya, sage tutor theirs
Born was the desire rest of world would fear
The desire of an unrivalled empire to come
An empire that all Gods would welcome
A truly golden empire to shine over others
An empire rising out of the rubble of rocks
The kings built Hampi and cities of gold, many
With forts, palaces and temples of grandeur
The empire grew, a dismay of the Bahmani
It blossomed with art, music and architecture
Cities thronged with merchants from far and wide
Goods aplenty, gold, diamonds in profusion
Markets with abundance one would struggle to decide
No one went hungry in the land of profusion
The golden period of empire saw an emperor
Build the glory of Hampi, a pinnacle the world over
The five jealous Bahmani Sultans tried and failed
Into the kingdom scribes from Europe sailed
Sangama, Tuluva and Saluva, dynasties three
Hoysalas all, branches from the same tree
Raised the empire from river in the north
To the Tambrapani and ocean in the south
Dynasties came and went, the empire matured
A pearl in the eyes of people loved
Loved by the emperors and the kings alike
But an envy of the world over unlike
Foreigners from afar flocked to the city to gaze
At the splendour, beauty and wealth ablaze
Poets and scribes from afar wrote grand epics
The wealth and grandeur of a scale epic
There came an emperor par excellence
Took the empire to a pinnacle of excellence
The art and architecture knew no bounds
It was the golden period for artists so sound
The beautiful Hampi sang, hewn out of granite
Inimitable magic of the stones of Hampi did ignite
Intense jealousy, anger and greed of the Sultans
Knew no bounds, hurt the greedy Sultans
The emperor left, fate has it and the power did slip
The five Sultans of the Bahmani’s, friendless
Joined hands and with treachery afoot killed
The monumental golden Vijayanagara Empire.
A cry for freedom of tormented souls went unheard
A cry that would lay buried among the ruins of Hampi
As the enemy spent months burning the city to shreds
Hear the cry for freedom from the forests around Hampi