You approach Hampi from Hospet, through the south. The village of Hampi has one main street — Hampi Bazaar, which is closed to all vehicular traffic. At the western extreme is the Virupaksha Temple, one of the many places to visit in Hampi. At the eastern extreme of the street is the museum at the base of Matangi Hill. The ruins are scattered south-east of Hampi Bazaar and northwest of Kamalapura. Be prepared for some amount of walking even if you hire a car or take the guided tour — carry along your walking shoes. If you can cycle or ride a motorbike, this is a great way to see the place. No matter what you decide, carry some kind of head-gear for protection from the sun, and take a picnic lunch (and water) along — you can always get bread and bajjias, boiled eggs or paranthas from one of the eateries to carry along with you.
On your first day here, it may be worthwhile to take the guided tour run by KSTDC or hire a vehicle (auto or car) to get a broad overview of the ruins. If you choose the latter, make sure you take a government-approved guide along, otherwise you will find yourself shelling out money at every site for mediocre guides. If you don’t use the services of a guide, you also run the risk of overdosing on hundreds of stones that don’t, after all, speak. If you would rather go solo, do your research since just the aesthetics of some sites are insufficient reason to commend themselves. Keep in mind that if you don’t have at least a minimal affection for history, Hampi is not for you — no pubs, no non-veg restaurants, no shopping. The locals are a quiet lot, so there’s none of the ease of conversation one can strike up as in Rajasthan, none of the curiosity towards outsiders as in Bihar, none of the colour of Tamil Nadu. Hampi still needs a healthy dose of tourist-oriented dynamism. It remains a somewhat unexplored territory.
The ‘sacred centre’ of Hampi is along the riverside and comprises temple complexes such as the ancient Virupaksha Temple, as well as those dedicated to Pattibhirama, Raghunatha, Balakrishna and Vittala. The distinctiveness of the Vijaynagara style of building lay in the construction of mandapas and huge gopurams called rayagopurams. Around each of these temples rose habitations comprising ‘residential areas’ with quarters named after the king who built them or after main deities of the temple itself. Thus, we have Virupakshapura and Krishnapura, each with big bazaar streets in front of the respective temple.
I reached the Vittala Temple, whose construction began in 1513 under Krishnadevaraya, but was never completed even by 1565 when the capital was shifted to Penukonda. It is simply superb. The story goes that when it was being built, Lord Vittala came there from his abode in Maharashtra and seeing the temple went back to his humble abode in Pandharpur saying it was too rich and beautiful for him to live in. Thus the consecration of the temple never occurred. It is more likely that the temple remained incomplete since Hampi was invaded while it was still being constructed. Nevertheless, it is a lovely place with musical pillars and halls. As I go around the ruins, I see several open, pillared structures, many of which are probably mandapas. I stop at the Krishna Temple, built also by Krishnadevaraya. On the eastern-most side is a building that may have been the temple kitchen. Down the road to Kamalapura is the Badavi Linga which means small or poor linga. This huge linga, standing at 12 ft and built in black granite, is anything but poor or small. Locals call the next stop on my agenda Ugra Narasimha — a 22-foot statue, sitting cross-legged, with a serpent protecting it by opening its hood. It probably had a small Laxmi idol sitting in its lap that was broken at some point and taken away.
I walk around the Kamla Mahal and the elephants’ stables and they seem in remarkably good shape. Some historians are of the opinion that these were built after the ransacking of the city, but recent evidence suggests that they were contemporary to the other ruins. The secular buildings are also examples of Indo-Muslim architecture. In the Kamla Mahal, for instance, the arches are distinctively cusped and its chajjas or window awnings are also bracketed as is found in Muslim structures. Even the elephant stables have a dome over each individual stall, reminiscent of Muslim architecture elsewhere. There is a small museum near the base of the Matanga Hill. It houses a permanent exhibition of 60 enlarged photographs of Hampi, taken in 1853, by a British photographer. There’s another set of photographs, taken 130 years later (the same angles), by an Australian photographer. Figure out the changes (or lack thereof) that have occurred since then.
At Royal Center, I found palaces, zenanas and baths, as well as the Hazara Rama Temple meant for royal worship. Such a wealth of secular structures has not survived from any other kingdom, not even the powerful Cholas of the Tamil Nadu region. Vijaynagara reached its zenith under its great king, Krishnadevaraya. Temple construction was given top priority and no aspect of life was ignored. Travellers’ accounts talk of the wrestling competitions, dance, processions, mock battles, astrology and music. One can imagine such activities taking place in open mandapas laid out across the place. Most imposing is the Mahanavami dibba, a massive platform probably dating back to as early as the 14th century, with roughly hewn masonry but neat joints and some fine carving. There are steps but no superstructure, so it is impossible to tell what precisely it could be. Foreign visitors of that time describe wooden or cloth superstructures on this. It is speculated that it was a throne room or audience hall of some kind used for royal ceremonies.
Location: Hampi is set upon a desolate, rocky terrain, at the cusp of the Tungabhadra River and its reservoir, in the Bellary region of northern Karnataka.
Distance: 350 km NW of Bengaluru
Journey Time: By Road: 8 hrs; By Rail: 10 hrs; By Air: 45 mins
When to go: The monsoon and winter are best. The temperature varies between 16°C and 35°C.
By Dhanwanti Nayak
About the author: Dhanwanti Nayak is an independent writer and researcher based in Bengaluru.