Hampi – The Open Air Museum of the Vijayanagar Empire


Sunset at Hampi

Sun set at Hampi

“We would like to live as we once lived. But history will not permit it”, said John F. Kennedy during a speech in Fort Worth, a few hours before he was assassinated.

The residents of current-day Hampi would concur – though in a totally different context. Hampi, a city in the south Indian state of Karnataka was once part of the capital of the mighty and affluent Vijayanagar Empire. When the Deccan Muslim Confederacy defeated the Hindu rulers in 1746, ending their three hundred year long reign, Hampi was pillaged and ravaged. It never recovered.

Royal family tree - Vijayanagar Empire

Royal family tree – Vijayanagar Empire

The tourist spots in today’s Hampi are like an open air museum of the erstwhile Empire, where every stone has a story to tell. The monuments are everywhere – a temple here and a pavilion there rising up amid the brown and green vista of the hills.

Hampi ruins

Hampi ruins

Boulders of all shapes and sizes abound, as though a huge asteroid had smashed into the terrain. Scattered across as far as the eye can see, the ruins make up the landscape. “It feels like being in the lost city of Atlantis”, says my daughter. She is right. A large part of Hampi’s ruins were literally lost, buried for a long time under silt from floods in the Tungabhadra river, till the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began excavations.

Towering boulders

Towering boulders

Hampi - the lost city

Hampi – the lost city

Apart from a few tourists and their guides, refreshment vendors and the sellers of stoneware souvenirs, the signs of habitation are few and far between. In a country with over 1.2 billion people, this is very unusual – and adds to the sense of abandonment. You feel your presence itself is a violation of the sanctity of Hampi’s monuments.

As you walk on, admiring the skill of the artisans who had brought to life this multitude of dancers, gods and the mythical creatures called Yalis, you travel back in time. You can hear the sounds of rumbling chariots, resonating temple bells and musical anklets of dancers entertaining a royal audience.

Kolattam, a dance like the Dandiya of Gujarat, in progress

Carving shows Kolattam, a dance form like the Dandiya of Gujarat

It’s the crunch of scores of shoes on gravel that brings you back to the present. School kids, accompanied by their teachers and the inevitable guide are approaching. Hampi is a popular site for school and college excursions and a ‘must see’ for any student of ancient history.

Architecture students/aficionados would also find the Vijayanagar style interesting as it is a combination of Pandya, Chalukya, Chola and Hoysala styles, with occasional touches of Islamic structural design. Palaces, temples and a water bearing network of aqueducts, pavilions etc. point to a high degree of building expertise.

There are a few quirky features too. A carving of two soldiers engaged in a sword fight signifies the Mongol trainers of the Vijayanagar Empire’s army and another one of an Arabian steed’s teeth being examined shows a purchase in process for the king’s cavalry, guides will tell you.

Mongolian looking soldiers

Mongols, or not?

Horses are a recurring theme and show King Krishna Deva Raya's fascination with them

Horses are a recurring theme and show King Krishna Deva Raya’s fascination with them

These additions make you wonder if they were the royalty’s way of recording trade/interaction with other nations or a means to acknowledge their contribution to the Empire’s development.

Whatever the case, they only add to the allure of Hampi. Listed as a ‘World Heritage Site’ and featuring among Lonely Planet magazine’s ‘Top Ten Sights of India’, the ruins comprise over 500 historic structures.

The demarcation of these into the Royal Centre and Sacred Centre shows a literal separation of the state and church. The Royal Centre is where the royalty lived and entertained foreign visitors and the Sacred Centre is where the temples are clustered and by inference, the Hindu priests lived.

Interesting topographic model at the Archaeological Museum, Kamalapuram

Interesting topographic model at the Archaeological Museum, Kamalapuram

Monuments like the Mahanavami Dibba, Queen’s Bath, Lotus Mahal, Elephants Stables, Hazara Rama Temple etc. in the Royal Centre give you a glimpse of the Empire’s grandeur. The Sacred Centre is home to the Virupaksha Temple, Hemakuta Temples, Laksmi Narashimha, Kadalekalu Ganesha etc. Other notable temples that are not part of this cluster but lie along the banks of the Tungabhadra River are the Vitthala Temple and the Kodanda Rama Temple.

Ruins of temples near Tungabhadra river

Ruins of temples near Tungabhadra river

To understand the layout of Hampi’s ruins better, you could look at the maps on http://www.hampi.in, an excellent resource for information on Hampi. (link to the map here)

The next few posts on this blog will explore Hampi’s tourist spots in greater detail.

GETTING THERE – Hampi is a small town with no direct connectivity of flights or trains. The nearest airport is Hubli and the nearest rail head is Hospet. Taxis and buses to Hampi are available from both these cities. Direct buses to Hampi are also available from Goa, Bangalore etc.

Within Hampi, you could rent cycles/bikes or take auto rickshaws to the sites of interest. Walking is the best alternative if you wish to explore the place extensively

See a related Wikitravel link – http://wikitravel.org/en/Hampi and

a Lonely Planet link here – http://www.lonelyplanet.com/india/karnataka/hampi/transport/getting-there-away

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13 responses to “Hampi – The Open Air Museum of the Vijayanagar Empire

  1. Pingback: Bird Watching in Anegundi – Part 1 | PixelVoyages·

  2. I remember going to Hampi many years back on a school trip. I don’t remember much, but posts like yours make me long to go back. I feel stupid not having appreciated all the beauty when I was actually there. Glad to be able to relive it to some extent through your pictures and narrative :)

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    • Hi Surya. I am so glad the post took you there and hope you will visit soon. I know that feeling. When something is too close/easy to access, you take it for granted. I lived in North India for half my life and never visited Agra. It was only when I moved to Mumbai that I made time for it. That said, don’t we make the same mistake with people as well?

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    • Thanks for the compliments, Rusha. Great to have made your acquaintance. Normally, I post more travel related stuff. Just recovered from the ‘writer’s block’ and this piece took longer than anticipated to come through even though it turned out to be quite satisfying after all!

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