Once a thriving empire on the shores of River Tungabhadra, Vijayanagara or Hampi as it is known today, is considered the second largest open-air museum in the world. The ruins of this ancient empire spread across 25 square kilometres, is a spectacle of piled boulder landscapes and excavated sites. Derived from the name Pampa – the old name for River Tungabhadra – who is married to Lord Shiva, Hampi is an anglicized version of its ancient Kannada name.
Hampi was an inclusive society, visited by travellers from Mongolia, China, Portugal and Spain. Built in 15th-17th century and flourished under the patronage and vision of King Krishnadevaraya of the Tuluva dynasty, this kingdom was abundant and had markets that traded in gold, diamonds, spices and horses. Even today, while walking through its ruins, one can feel the ethereal charm of this place and through the stories weaved by the guide, get a dreamlike glimpse of the grandeur of its heydays. The strong breeze that sweeps through this scrubland echoes of the timeless empire and its magnificence.
I visited Hampi for 2 days, even though according to my driver Venkatesh and guide Krishna, to see all of its 83 excavated sites, I would require 3 months. Alas! With time against me, we settled on visiting some of the most important sites and was told that the archaeology department still keeps stumbling upon new ruins every now and then and this place has more secrets to reveal than it already has.
Our tour started at the Virupaksha Temple – the only temple inhabited by hordes of monkeys. I receive a warning from my guide to be mindful of my belongings, lest the monkeys snatch them away. Immediately after going through the main entrance – an ornate huge gopuram – on the left side, we see a small Nandi Bull statue with three heads. This is one of its kind in the world.
The large courtyard is sprawling with monkeys, carrying their babies, feeding on food offered by visitors or simply basking in the sun, diligently cleaning themselves. Stone carved pillars and elaborate structures greet us on each side of the main temple. Inside the main temple, Krishna points us to the ceiling which is painted with organic dyes and depict the various legends of Ramayana.
While we are marvelling at how the tints have still retained their colours, we see the temple elephant – Lakshmi – make her way across the courtyard. Returning from her morning bath, she turns towards us and gives us a bow. She then elegantly walks over to her pen where she will be dressed for the day to greet other visitors.
We move to a small low-ceilinged enclosure behind the sanctum sanctorum, and Krishna points to a small opening in the wall facing the main gopuram. There is a small hole through which light filters in and inverts the shadow of the gopuram on the opposite wall – an indigenous pin-hole camera of the ages. At a distance of 200 meters the architects attained a perfect angle such that all throughout the day, the shadow falls on this part of the temple. In Kannada tradition it is considered auspicious to touch the gopuram for beginning a new chapter in life and all couples who get married at this complex, get their blessings by touching this shadow of the gopuram.
Our next stops are the 4 monoliths of Hampi.
We walk up to the Kadalekalu Ganesha – the peanut Ganesha. The name is derived from the shape of this monolith’s belly. As we enter, on the right is a structure with 4 huge arches. Krishna tells me these were parking spots for the elephants. The monolith statue is housed within an acropolis style temple and overlooks the Bazaar Street.
A little ahead is the Sasivekalu Ganesha, or the Mustard Ganesha, named after the offerings from the mustard traders that contributed to its construction. This monolith is a unique statue where in front you see the elephant god’s form and behind a woman’s form. Krishna tells me that this is the only statue of its kind and depicts Parvati – Ganesha’s mother – holding him on her lap.
The third monolith that we visit is the Lakshmi-Narasimha. The complete statue used to have a Goddess Lakshmi figurine as well which has been damaged due to weathering and all that remains is one of Lakshmi’s limbs to the left of the statue’s body. With the missing female deity figurine, it is often mistaken to be Ugra Narasimha, meaning angry Narasimha. He is considered the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
The final monolith, just next to the Narasimha statue is the Badavilinga. This is a 3-meters tall Shivaling and gets its name from Badavi, which means poor woman, as the construction of this monolith was an offering from a poor woman. Covered by an enclosure with an opening on the roof, the pedestal of the monolith always remains submerged in water.
The Krishna temple was commission by Krishnadevaraya as a mark of his victory in the Orissa war and his subsequent marriage to the Odiya princess. At the entrance, we see various carvings of fish and dancing girls. It is said that the direction of the fish’s jaw indicated the source of water in the area. These markings were like the street signs of today to help people identify their directions.
Opposite the temple, across the road, lies the ruins of the spice market. Next to the road also stands a 5-feet wide and 2-feet tall stone box, with 3 large rectangular opening on the stone slab that covers it. This was a hundi – an offering box – in which the citizens would offer gold nuggets and diamonds to the resident deity.
The temple gopuram facing inside depicts scenes from the Orissa war and the king’s wedding to the princess of the land. The architecture of the temple domes is similar to the ones found in the Asian countries of Cambodia and Thailand. Krishna tells us that the king collaborated with artisans from all over the world and imbibed numerous architectural patterns from around the globe in the construction of Hampi, at the same time retaining and improvising on the South Indian architecture style.
Vittala temple is the most mesmerising monument of the group. The crumbling outside façade along with the main temple is under restoration and is regularly monitored by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
On the way, the road is flanked by a Horse Temple to the left and a sacred water tank – Lokapavani Pushkarani – to the right. Outside are the remnants of the horse market and towards the right at the far end stands a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. On the left of the entrance is the Rang Mahal, where the court dancers would put up a performance each evening for the buyers and sellers in the market.
Immediately after the entrance we are greeted by the Stone Chariot in the vast courtyard – possibly the most recognised symbol of Hampi. This chariot was dedicated to Garuda and houses a small figure of the demigod in human form. In front of the statue are two elephant figures and Krishna mentions that the original structure had 2 horses. After the excavation, all that was found were the broken pieces of the horses and hence the ASI filled the void with 2 elephant statues from another section of the ruins.
Opposite the chariot is the Sabha Mantapa (Congregation Hall). The monolith pillars of this complex are famous as the musical pillars of Hampi. On being lightly tapped, they emit various musical notes. Small human statuettes carrying various musical instruments at the base of each pillar indicate the notes that the pillar would echo. The corners of the roof sharply twist upwards giving glimpses of the influence from Japanese pagodas.
The complex also houses a Kalyana Mantapa (Marriage Hall) and Utsava Mantapa (Festival Hall). Inside the Utsava Mantapa, the pillars are covered with carvings of the scenes from Ramayana. The empire had a huge influence from the epic Ramayana and it is believed that Lord Hanuman (the monkey god) was born here. The various hillocks that dot this empire are named as Kishkinda, Anjanadri, Hemakuta, etc., names that are frequent mentions in the epic.
Krishna also tells me that legend has it that when Lord Ram was on his way to rescue Goddess Sita from Lanka, he rested at Hampi and met Hanuman here, who helped deliver Ram’s message to Sita in the form of a ring. He points to two carvings on a pillar in which the bow carried by Ram is touching the ground (a depiction that cannot be found anywhere else) and where Ram is seated consulting Hanuman (another depiction that does not exist anywhere). Krishna says that these depictions are proof that Ram rested in Hampi on his way to Lanka.
The complex was specifically built for the 3 queens of the king. Zanana is an Urdu word meaning woman. With a palace dedicated to each queen, the complex is built in an Indo-Islamic architectural style with 3 watch towers that were guarded by eunuchs. Today the main palace is nothing more than the plinth that it was built upon and the same fate accompanied the Jal Mahal opposite to it.
The only structure that stands tall today is the Lotus Mahal. The symmetrical arches of the palace are wide and airy with inbuilt air conditioning. All along the structure walls and ceilings, hollow baked mud pipes were inserted during construction with an opening to fill water. The water along with the high winds cooled down the palace in this otherwise arid scrubland.
Every monument that we visited, we came across these little gems of indigenous technology without the intervention of any modern inventions that we have come to live with. The knowledge and application of the engineers of the era are nothing short of genius and awe inspiring.
Every so often when the queens wanted to take an elaborate bath, the king had made arrangements for that too. The queens would be carried in palanquins to this complex, which houses a swimming pool. The water from the nearby River Tungabhadra was diverted to this complex and cleaned on a bed of rocks lining the outside walls, before being filtered onto the swimming pool. Small openings on the pool floor were used to inject rose perfume into the water.
The corridors surrounding the pool contains changing rooms on the four sides and projected balconies with small ornate windows, from which the queen’s maids would shower flower petals below, while the queens enjoyed a swim in the pool. What a royal bath!
Another influence of the Indo-Islamic architecture can be found at this long rectangular structure that was the stable for the royal elephants. 11 huge arches adorn domes which are symmetrical and shaped circular, octagonal, ribbed and fluted. The central dome is distinct and largest signifying the spot was reserved for the king’s elephant. A narrow opening from the central chamber reveals a concealed staircase that leads to the roof; this however, is a restricted access today. All 11 chambers are connected by low doorways in the walls between the arches.
Our last stop for this 2-day tour comes to a close with a visit to the royal enclosure. Before the entrance we see 2 massive stone doors lying flat on the ground. These were the main gates of the enclosure and were so heavy that they could only be operated by elephants.
The high walls surrounding the complex has markings of stone cuts that were done without any instruments. In order to crack and cut the huge boulders, people would drill small holes in the stone in a straight line and stuff it with wood. Water was then poured over the wood to make it swell and the resulting pressure would crack the stones, which were then moulded into various shapes.
Spread over an area of 59 square meters, at the entrance is the Mahanavami Dibba. This Aztec-like 3-tiered pyramidal structure was the ceremonial throne of the king. At a height of 8-meters, from the top of the structure, the entire area can be viewed. The tiers are covered with carvings of temples, war scenes, and various animals.
To the left of this structure is a pushkarni, decorated like a stepwell. The construction and design of these step-wells have a distinct style that can be found in the vavs of Rajasthan. Pushkaranis are a fixed feature at every South Indian temple, and even though the royalty had influences from various cultures in the construction of its empire, it retained the very essence of the land it belonged to.
A little ahead are the secret chambers of the royal family, complete with a 9-room residence and a secret council chamber. The underground complex was hidden from view by an artificial water tank built above it. These chambers were connected underground to the audience hall. A narrow and high flight of steps lead us down to a dark alley that opens up to the secret council’s chamber that was used by the king and his court men for discussing high profile military strategies.
The audience hall to the west of the secret chambers today is just a flat platform with remnants of the 100 sandalwood pillars that adorned this court. 100 square stone marks with brackets for the wooden pillars dot the whole podium, with ten rows for ten pillars each.
As the sun starts to set and our tour comes to an end, I leave the place in awe of not only its vastness but its detailed architecture, inclusive society, and technological marvels. This place truly echoes of its past glory even today and left a mark on my memory and captured my imagination like no other place ever had.