The lost city of Hampi
Today we walk among the ruins of an ancient kingdom that time forgot.
The rise and fall of Hampi
Hampi is an ancient city on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in Hospet taluka of Bellary district in Karnataka. Granite boulders of varying sizes dominate the landscape, distributed as piles of smooth spherical rocks. The former capital of Vijayanagara Empire and known as the City of Victory, the city is a sea of more than 1600 stone structures spread over an area of 25 square kilometers. Once South India’s wealthiest and most powerful cities, it was sacked in 1565 by the armies of the Bahamani sultanates. For years, the city lay abandoned until it was rediscovered by the British in the mid-nineteenth century. The still preserved 800 year old temples, market streets, pools, watch towers, palaces and elephant stables are sure to take one back in time.
Hampi used to be the capital of the Vijaynagara Empire where music, art and sculpture flourished. There are numerous stories about the founding of Hampi. One of the most prominent being about Harihara and Bukka Raya, staunch Hindu brothers serving under the king of Warangal. They fled from Warangal when it was invaded and destroyed in 1323 and took service under the Rajah of Anegundi. Seeing the horror brought on by the marauding Muslims, they pledged themselves to the cause of their motherland and their religion. The brothers were smart and rose in ranks under the service of the Rajah to be minister and treasurer respectively. In 1334 Anegundi too was attacked by the Sultan of Delhi. Anegundi fell. However the Sultan not being able to govern the capital all the way from Delhi, restored the city to the Hindus and promoted the brothers to Rajah and Minister respectively.
Hampi saw many rulers after Harihara (1336–56) and it rose to its zenith during the reign of the Vijayanagara Kings. Among the kings of Vijayanagara, Krishnadeva Raya (1509-1529) a man of many abilities and sharp intellect deserves a special mention. He successfully ruled the region and took the city to new heights. It was during his reign that the city truly flourished and came to symbolize the medieval political culture of south India. When I was a kid, I was greatly inspired by the stories of one Tenali Rama, a witty jester in the court of emperor, Krishnadeva Raya.
Barely 35 years after the death of Krishnadeva Raya, the Deccan Sultanate, consisting of Ahmad Nagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golkonda attacked and defeated the army of Vijayanagar Empire in the famous Battle of Talikota in January, 1565. At the time of the Muslim conquest, Hampi was a city of rich artistic tradition. Hindu shrines were to be found by almost every hillside. Two hundred years of wealth and planning are reflected in the layout of Vijayanagara. To safeguard against the looting Muslim armies, Harihara and kings following him gave prime importance to protection against invasion. The city was built like a fortress, lined with massive stone walls, with watch towers scattered across its length and breadth. The chain of boulder hills also made a natural fortress around the vast area. Visitors to the city, irrespective of their business or intention, had to travel through the heavily fortified and protected area before reaching the town center. Massive fortifications stood at every possible entry into the main metropolis and in other crucial locations. Watch posts were built along the roads, gates and hilltops to provided maximum visibility. Despite all these precautions, the Deccan Muslim Confederacy still invaded Vijayanagara and plundered and desecrated the grandeur of Hampi.
With this, the last significant Hindu kingdom in the Deccan came to an end. After the battle of Talikota, Tirumala Raya escaped, accompanied by the surviving members of the royal family along with 550 elephants laden with treasure in gold and precious stones from the royal treasury of Hampi to the fortress of Penunkonda. They still left behind the treasures that lay in several other palaces and underground treasure chambers, waiting to be plundered. After the tragedy at Talikota, hordes of dacoits pounced upon the city and subjected the stores and shops to plunder leaving the city in ruins. Judging from the amount of destruction of the palaces, the conquering troops must have spent months pillaging the city. Houses of general people made from mud and bricks were totally destroyed. Only the structures built of solid stones survived. So thorough was the devastation that future rulers, despite several attempts could never re-establish it.
Even though the city is considered to be around 800 years old, recent excavations around Anegundi have unearthed archaeological artifacts dating back to 3rd century BC. These findings show that the Vijayanagar area was densely settled for a long period even before the creation of the empire.
Ride to Hampi from Toranagallu
Hampi can be reached either from Torangullu/Bellary or through road from Hospet. Hospet is normally preferred as it takes a lot less time and there are lots of transport choices easily available. The best way to enjoy Hampi is on foot or on a bicycle, but since we were staying quite far away in Torangullu, we had to take a car. I had already gathered most of the information about the area and the route we would take using Google Maps. From my understanding of the place, it was going to be a long walk, so we started a little late in the day at 11 a.m. from Hampi Hyatt.
Hampi Hyatt Place is located in the beautiful landscaped Vidyanagar township, some 27 km away from Hampi and it takes around an hour to reach Hampi. At times it felt we would have been better placed had we booked a hotel in Hospet, but after the amazing service we received at Hyatt, there is no doubt that if we were to visit Hampi again, this would definitely be the place to stay.
It was a lazy ride from Toranagallu to Hampi with long stretches of open space and some far-away mountain ranges in the west.
The first piece of history we encountered was the Queen’s Bath. The driver was not accustomed to this place, which we later found out to be a real deal-breaker. He was going past the Royal Enclosure on the Kamalapur-Hampi main road when I spotted it and asked him to stop. Strangely it was located outside of the boundaries of the Zenana Enclosure. Logically a place where queens and princesses take bath would be more guarded.
As we entered the complex we were greeted by long high-arch corridors running all around a square pool. The balconies are decorated with three tiny windows each supported by four columns that look like lotus buds. The ceilings were decorated with floral patterns. The center of the pool is about 6 ft. deep and fully open to the sky. The sunlight creates a beautiful ambient glow inside the complex. The Queen’s Bath is surrounded by a moat, used to supply fresh water to the pool. And ahem.. according to history, the only male allowed inside was the King himself.
We walked past the Queen’s Bath towards the Chandrasekhara Temple. The entrance to the temple is magnificent, though in ruins. Inside the premises is a small temple dedicated to the Sun and Moon. The front of the temple is adorned with many columns with depictions of Surya and Balakrishna. There is very less visibility inside and the idols have been moved to the nearby museum.
Beyond the temple we could see quite a few more structures sprouting all over the area and we decided to walk on rather than go back to the car. The sun was beating hard down upon us, but we were energized by the mystery of the place. We also saw some farmers coming down the trail. Some 200 mt. away along the trail we reached the Octagonal Bath. This structure, as the name indicates, is a big bathing area in the shape of an octagon.
From here we could see a cluster of palace bases and we just kept walking towards them. The upper structures of these palaces were generally constructed with bricks and now torn down or weathered over the years. Walking past them we reached the Saraswati Temple. Created in 1554 AD, the temple has some intricate carvings of Krishna, Hanuman & Narashimha.
From here Mani pointed out to another cluster of buildings around half a kilometer away. We kept walking for some 20 minutes on the same trail and we reached an underground temple. It was called Madhava Temple popularly known as the Ranga Temple. The temple is known for the 3 mt tall Hanuman sculpture. The grounds of this temple has a Ranga Mantapa which was exclusively used for musical and dance performances when Hampi flourished. The pillars of Ranga Mantapa have structural depictions of Garuda, Vitthala, Surya, Balakrishna & Hanuman.
The Zenana Enclosure is just beside the Madhava Temple but since we went up a hidden trail, we ended up at the rear gate. The security guard wouldn’t let us in from the rear entrance and we had to go all around the enclosure, to the front to get the tickets.
The Zenana Enclosure is a large stone-walled compound marked by 3 huge watch towers. The name ‘zanana‘ which means ‘lady’ in Hindi, kind of suggests that this whole enclosure was a separate area only for women and the watch towers were more of a lookout from where the women could enjoy the activities surrounding the enclosure.
We saw a few foreigners checking out the ruins over here. Right beside the main entrance on the left is a museum, but it is closed on Fridays. The remains of a large building stands opposite, of which only the three-tiered base remains. The structure on top of the base was probably built of bricks or wood, which was destroyed over the years. Historians tell us that this was a palace for the Queens. Some of the royal enclosures, markets and other dwelling grounds were also fortified, to withstand invasions. Thousands of elephants and innumerable army men, on foot and horses, were kept and maintained, to protect the vast kingdom.
A few minutes into the Zenana Enclosure, we came by the Lotus Mahal. The two-storied building was a non-religions building, looks more of a resting place for Queens and others similarly privileged or maybe for social gatherings. The upper storey is provided with numerous small arched windows.
At the back-end of Zanana Enclosure is a row of huge domed chambers with eleven tall arched openings alternating with walls of blind arches. The royal elephants were kept here. Frankly, I have never heard of elephant stables, let alone seen one. Those elephants must have had a charmed life. The open area in front of the of the building used to be a parade ground for the elephants. The guards’ barracks are located right next to the Elephant stables.
We were famished after the long walk in the sun and had some cool “Tender Coconut” water. After taking a breather, we walked back towards the entrance. There aren’t many stores located nearby. Only one shop is there near the entrance and I was able to obtain a bottle of cold mineral water. I called the driver but the novice he was, he took 30 mins to come which should have taken 5 mins. Once he was back, we headed towards the Narasimha Temple.
Constructed in 1528 under the supervision of King Krishnadeva Raya, the Laxminarasimha Temple is dedicated to Lord Narasimha, one of the nine avatars of Vishnu. According to mythology, Vishnu had taken the form of a human with the head of a lion in order to kill the asura king Hiranyakashyapu.
The story goes… when the demon king Hiranyakashyapu learned of the death of his younger brother at the hands of Vishnu in the form of Varaha, he swore revenge. He vowed to make himself mightier than Vishnu. He performed a rigorous penance to please Brahma, seeking the boon of immortality. Brahma declined so he continued his penance taking it to even harsher levels and eventually Brahma was forced to grant him an alternate boon. Hiranyakashyapu asked of him – “Then let not death come to me at night or day; by weapon or hand; by club or sword, nor spear nor bow; on earth or heaven, nor the Nether world below; by god, demon, snake nor a being as low; by human or beast, nor any other foe; neither in nor out may Death smite me his blow.” Once he got this boon, he started vandalizing Heaven and Earth. Eventually Vishnu took the avatar of Narashimha to finally kill him.
This statue of Narasimha is carved out of a single piece of granite and is the biggest statue in Hampi at 6.7 ft tall. Narasimha is depicted sitting on the coil of a giant seven-headed snake called the Sheshnaga or Adishesha, king of the snakes. The heads of the snake acts as the hood above his head.
The original statue is said to have contained an idol of goddess Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu, sitting on his lap. But this statue has been damaged seriously during the raids leading to the fall of Vijayanagara. According to mythology, the lion face of Narasimha is the 4th incarnation of Vishnu and is also sometimes called as Unganarasimha (the ferocious Narasimha)
Krishna Temple & Baazaar
About 200 meters north of Narasimha Temple is the Balakrishna Temple. Carved pillars at the Balakrishna Temple, depict stories from the Bhagavatham. The Balakrishna Temple was created in around 1513. It is a complex with many sub-shrines and halls. The interior of these temples is poorly lit with extremely rare windows. Today we are able to stroll into these temples, but during those days the divinity of the sacred idol was known only to a handful of priests and noblemen. Public display of the idol was strictly forbidden.
Just opposite to the temple lies the Krishna Bazaar, a trading place for diamonds and other gems. As we went down the steps, we saw some horses were grazing in the ruins of the bazaar. The vast array of bazaars – semi-intact structures are a direct evidence of the city’s inclination towards trade, and its associated methods. Traders from Portugal, Persia, Italy and even Russia came to Hampi and chronicled the grand lifestyle of the city.
Domingo Paes, a Portuguese traveler who had visited the metropolis around 1520, had compared Hampi’s size to that of Rome. He wrote about what he has seen in Hampi: its lavish markets and fairs, its rich merchants, streets, row of houses and even its food. He wrote about its irrigation and its many ports where the Portuguese had set up factories. His accounts are one of the most detailed and well explained. It is known that such was the wealth of Hampi that gold was openly sold in the market, like any other product.
During Krishnadeva Raya’s rule, this trade-oriented city developed and thrived. Cotton, spices and textiles were traded with the Europeans. The Portuguese traders and the king shared a good and friendly relationship which thrived on mutual benefit and exchange of goods continuously took place between the two. The Portuguese, particularly traded horses for acquiring many items from Hampi.
Monuments on Hemkuta Hill
Idols of Kadalekalu Ganesha (Elephant God), on the Hemkuta Hill, Sasivekalu Ganesha, in another part, showcase how massive structures were created out of a single piece of rock. Parts of these temple complexes also contain numerous carvings of mythological importance. In fact, the epic ‘Ramayana’ is carved on the main sanctum and the boundary walls of the Hazara Rama temple. Hampi, also known as Kishkinda Kshetra, is considered to be the birthplace of Hanuman, a revered figure from the Ramayana.
Read more about the monuments on Hemkuta Hill.
As we started our descent from Hemkuta Hill, we could see the Virupaksha temple complex. This temple predates the Vijayanagara kings, and is still an active temple in Hampi. I was pretty tired by the time we reached Virupaksha temple. There was quite a crowd around and a few devotees were placing diyas on the road. It being Dusshera in India, they probably had some festivities planned for the evening.
Read more about the Virupaksha Temple.
We just watched the temple from outside. I had gotten thirsty and we had left the Water bottle in the car at the Balakrishna Temple. I tried calling the driver but the network was unavailable. We took a short walk on the Hampi bazaar street. On the left was a row of shops. I found a store that was selling mineral water apart from some other snacks. After taking in a few gulps we walked towards the auto/car parking area. We still didn’t have any phone network, so we hired an auto to drive us back to Balakrishna Temple. On reaching the car I asked the driver to take us to our last stop of the day, Vitthala Temple.
We got down at Virupaksha Temple and walked back along the Hampi Bazaar street. At the end of the street, there was a line of decorated steps leading to a monolithic Nandi statue. We skipped that since it was already around 4:30 pm. We asked a few locals and they guided us on the trail. After some time we reached a path made of stones parallel to the banks of the Tungabhadra river. The river at this point is forced into a narrow gorge, hemmed by granite hills. Monsoon had just ended but the river was still very calm. After walking for about 30 min we reached a beautiful spot on the banks of the river. Over the years, the flowing water has polished the rocks that border the river. The river was also known as Pampa in ancient times .We sat there for a few minutes enjoying the late afternoon and cooling our heels in the flowing waters of Tungabhadra. After some rest, we started back on the trail. Quite a few people were coming back on the same trail, so it wasn’t difficult to follow.
Dusk was almost setting in as we reached Vitthala Temple. Just before the Vitthala Temple, there is a monument popularly known as the King’s Balance. The stone frame is all that remains from the original structure that was supposed to work as a weighing scale. It is said that king Krishanadeva Raya, used to weigh himself here with gold, silver and precious stones, and distribute it to the Brahmans on special days.
The Vitthala Temple is Hampi’s crowning glory and a photographers delight. Vitthala is the Krishna avatar of Vishnu, worshiped in these parts as their cult deity. The temple is built in the form of a sprawling campus with compound wall and gateway towers. There are many halls, pavilions and temples located inside this campus. It is one of the largest temples of that period, started under the patronage of Proudha Devaraya, also known as Devaraya II. He ascended the throne in 1422. and ruled up-to 1446 A.D. Substantial portions of the present structure were added by Krishanadeva Raya during his 21 year reign.
Entry to the Vitthala Temple requires a ticket. The temple is built on a sculptured decorated plinth. The pillars of the Sabha Mantapa (meeting hall) are massive, carved out of single granite blocks. To the north of the Sabha Mantapa is the Narasimha Mantapa, where a pillar has the sculpture of Narasimha and its various other forms. The eastern hall of the Mahamandapa is the Hall of Musical Pillars. Each of these pillars is said to have generated music on tapping and are carved with figures of musicians, musical instruments and dancers. However, it is off-limits to visitors now; since people used to break the pillars trying to get music out of them.
Two other prominent structures inside the complex are the Kalyana Mandap (for marriages) and the Utsava Mandap (for festivals). The sky had become vividly purple and looked amazing with the silhouette of Anjanedri Hill in the background. We strolled around the temple grounds, talking and checking out the carvings. After some time we came out and walked towards the left of the temple towards what looked like another Mantapa. We sat their for a few minutes taking in the beauty of the place.
A one day trip obviously does not do justice to all the monuments. Hampi is a photographic pilgrimage. We spent some amazing time at the Zenana Enclosure, Balkrishna Temple and Hemkuta Hill but breezed past Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, and Kadalekalu Ganesha and Sasivekalu Ganesha Temples, Virupaksha Temple, Vitthala Temple and a few others.
The Hampi Group of Monuments was inscribed as World Heritage Site (WHS) by UNESCO in year 1986. Fourteen monuments were covered initially in this inscription and today fifty-six monuments protected by the ASI are considered as World Heritage. Due to recent jump in tourism and vandalism of this great city, UNESCO has listed it as a “threatened” World Heritage site. Mani was already planning to come back and so was I.
Hampi is hot during summers and it involves a lot of walking. So it is recommended to visit from October to April. It is recommended you spend at least two days to truly enjoy the vast heritage of Hampi. Even if you want to explore alone, it is a good idea to hire a Guide, they will tell you the amazing stories behind the ruins. If you don’t know the story a ruin is just a ruin.
If you can withstand a drive of 3 hours, there are other heritage sites near Hampi like Badami & Padatakal that are wonderful places to enjoy more ancient architecture
Places to see in Hampi
Hampi is a vast city, but these are the one’s I was really drawn towards:
- Vitthala Temple
- Zanana Enclosure
- Royal Enclosure
- Elephant Stables
- Monuments on the Hemkuta hill
- Balakrishna Temple