The ruins at Hampi offer one a glimpse into the past

Hampi’s uniqueness lies in the fact that despite the many centuries over which it was built and the many dynasties that ruled it, the architecture is distinctly Dravidian and reflects a “highly evolved multi-religious and multi-ethnic society”.

Published : Sep 17, 2021 06:00 IST

The Virupaksha temple in Hampi, Ballari district, Karnataka.

The Virupaksha temple in Hampi, Ballari district, Karnataka.

THE most fascinating journeys are those that lead us backwards in time, step by chipped, cracked, crooked, crumbling step. Throw in a few formidable boulders and slippery rocks and you are in Hampi, Karnataka’s spectacular UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site in Ballari district. Navigating Hampi’s ancient ruins calls for a degree of physical fitness and nimble limbs, situated as they are on the rocky terrain of the banks of the Tungabhadra river. Almost equidistant from Bengaluru and Hyderabad, the site is easily accessed by road and rail. Spread over an area of 30 odd acres, Hampi is often associated with the resplendent Vijayanagara kingdom that ruled the Deccan from the 14th to 17th century but actually dates back to a more distant past.

The sprawling ruins tease and tantalise, excite your imagination and nudge you to reconstruct a remote past from fragments left behind serendipitously. The clues range from almost intact temples of relatively recent origin embellished with exquisite etchings that easily give away their provenance to dilapidated pavilions of indeterminate vintage and origins, remnants of prehistoric pottery, cave engravings and edicts dating back to the Mauryan era, not to mention scarred sculpture, maimed statuary and shattered structures, all spanning the centuries in-between and defying slotting.

Hampi is indeed an open-air museum of antiquity, a puzzle to the curious historians and archaeologists who throng here. But it also offers something for everyone. For the motorcycle borne, selfie stick–wielding youth and Youtubers, Hampi holds out the allure of stunning locations and vantage perches that offer Instagram-worthy images against a deep blue sky; for the epicureans, Hampi has sprouted fancy eateries offering eclectic fare to cater to an increasingly international clientele that has made this place its haunt. Adventure-seekers can trek up the many rocks that jut out of the landscape while cyclists can careen through the smoothly paved streets that must have rung out with the bells of cattle and hooves of horses not so long ago. The pious can offer prayers at some of the few remaining living temples in the area. I am none of the above; I am here to drink deep of antiquity, to retrace the measured steps of merchandise-laden traders through the colonnaded marketplace, to skip lightly down the stone slabs of a stepwell that must have reverberated with the thud of many a bejewelled feet not long ago, to chronicle on memory card the many elegant and curvaceous maidens from mythology populating the myriad pillars in the sprawling mandapas and pavilions, and to imbibe the serene ambience of the tranquil village fringed by coconut palms and paddy fields.

Virupaksha temple

In Hampi, all roads lead to the Virupaksha temple whose gopuram, garishly whitewashed, cranes over every structure in the complex. Wikipedia informs us that the temple, dedicated to Virupaksha, a form of Siva, was built by Lakkan Dandesha, a nayaka (chieftain) under the ruler Deva Raya II of the Vijayanagara Empire. However, the temple must have existed long before the Vijayanagara era, probably from the seventh century when it was dedicated to Pampa Devi, the goddess of the Tungabhadra, the river that nourishes these parts. Legend even links Hampi to the ancient Kishkinda kingdom integral to the Ramayana epic. Of course, over the centuries, the shrine precincts expanded; additions were made during the Chalukya and Hoysala periods, culminating in the aesthetic marvel of the Vijayanagara era. Major and minor altars came up around the Virupaksha shrine over the years, including a monastery dedicated to Vidyaranya of Advaita Vedanta tradition. Subsequently, some syncretic elements were added in the form of the Queen’s Bath and the Elephant Stables, which have aesthetically blended the best in Islamic and Vijayanagara architecture.

However, most of the surviving monuments in Hampi are Hindu. Some of the temples host stunning depictions of Hindu deities and episodic themes from the Ramayana and the Puranas. There are also six Jain temples and monuments and a mosque and tomb. What sets Hampi apart is that despite having been built over many centuries and being ruled by many dynasties, including Muslim ones, the architecture is distinctly Dravidian, and whatever the vintage, the structures have been constructed entirely from locally available rocks and stones. In fact, UNESCO says the architecture reflects a “highly evolved multi-religious and multi-ethnic society”. Wikipedia informs us that Emperor Asoka’s rock edicts dating to 269-232 BCE in Nittur and Udegolan—both in Ballari district—suggest this region was part of the Maurya Empire in the third century BCE. A Brahmi inscription and a terracotta seal dating to the second century C.E. were found during site excavations. Chalukya’s inscriptions in Badami, dating back to the sixth century, call Hampi Pampapura.

By the 10th century, during the rule of the Kalyana Chalukyas, Hampi had become a centre of religious and educational activities. Inscriptions at the site speak of land grants the kings made to the Virupaksha temple. Inscriptions from the 11th to 13th centuries mention gifts to the goddess Hampadevi. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, Hoysala kings built temples to Durga, Hampadevi and Siva, according to an inscription dated about 1199 C.E. Hampi became the second royal residence; one of the Hoysala kings was known as Hampeya-Odeya, or “lord of Hampi”.

Popular legend ascribes the creation of the more recent version of Hampi to Harihara and Bukka, two brothers who founded the Sangama dynasty in 1323 and named it Vijayanagara, or City of Victory. From 1323 to 1565, four dynasties ruled over Hampi and made the Vijayanagara Empire one of the richest and most famous empires. Decades of relative peace and prosperity under enlightened rulers who encouraged the arts, learning, music and architecture made Vijayanagara a splendid city, rivalled only by Peking in its heyday. Vijayanagara reached its zenith during the progressive rule of Krishna Deva Raya from 1509 to 1529.

Naturally, a flourishing empire like Vijayanagara attracted not only savants, philosophers and artists but also merchants bearing precious metals, bales of silk, skilled woodcraft and bushels of grain. The sprawling market square that abuts the Virupaksha temple reminds me of the Roman Forum, only grander. The colonnaded periphery of the square is still mostly intact and is impressive. I close my eyes and hear, in my mind, the haggling voices of merchants, the hustle and bustle of commerce, the chariots clattering on stone slabs and wandering minstrels singing, a city alive and throbbing. Of course, the affluence and splendour of Vijayanagara also attracted rival sultans from the Deccan who looted and ransacked the city in 1565, leaving gore and ruins behind them. Temples were knocked down, markets looted and legend has it that the royal women even committed jauhar , or mass ritual suicide, to escape the depredations of the plundering hordes. Eventually, the city itself was abandoned and reclaimed by bulrushes until 1800 when Colonel Colin McKenzie of the East India Company spotted this hidden treasure and prepared the first survey map of the ruins.

Vittala temple

After my peregrinations through the Virupaksha temple, I make my way to the Vittala temple with its iconic and most-photographed stone chariot. There are many halls and pavilions in this complex, all mounted on elaborately carved pedestals. The Maha Mandapa is held up by 40 pillars, all exquisitely carved. The adjacent Ranga Mandapa, held up by 56 pillars, holds a secret: Its pillars are musical. My guide taps on each one to produce multiple notes. Evidently, Vijayanagara sculptors even knew how to coax music out of stone! My guide tells me the British ripped apart a couple of pillars to divine the secret but found none.

The central part of the Maha Mandapa has 16 pillars intricately decorated with beautiful sculptures of Narasimha and Yali. These pillars form a rectangular court. The ceiling of the Maha Mandapa is richly engraved and truly a feast for the eyes. The Vittala temple complex has the richly sculpted stone chariot ( ratha ), considered to be the most stunning piece of architecture of the Vijayanagara kingdom. The ratha stands in the courtyard of the temple and is one of three famous stone chariots in India, the other two are to be found in Konark (Odisha) and Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu). The chariot once housed the deity of Garuda, Vishnu’s vahana , but now stands bereft. Of course, visitors are not allowed to climb on to the chariot whose wheels were once functional and could be rotated, but in recent years, the ASI cemented them to prevent further damage to the structure, just as it has stopped the public from tapping the delicate musical pillars to coax dulcet notes out of them.

As I make my way to the nearby Hemakuta Hill, I am awestruck by the ornamental temples precariously lined up on boulders. En route, one pays homage to two massive Ganeshas, Sasivekalu and Kadalekalu, keeping a benign watch over the hill. Legend has it that Siva did penance on this hill. Pampa, a local girl attracted to Siva, enlisted the help of Kama (god of desire) to lure Siva away from his focus. Siva opened his third eye and burnt Kama down but consented to marry Pampa. Whereupon, the skies are said to have wept gold on this hill, hence the name Hemakuta. The hill is peppered with pre-Vijayanagara temples. Inscriptions found on the site name a Krishna temple on the other side of the Hemakuta hill. It has a gateway with reliefs of all 10 avatars of Vishnu, starting with Matsya at the bottom. Inside is the ruined temple for Krishna and small, ruined shrines for goddesses. The temple compound is layered into mandapas, including an outer and an inner enclosure. The original image of Balakrishna (baby Krishna) in its sanctum is now in a Chennai museum.

Hazara Rama temple

By far, the finest examples of Vijayanagara aesthetics can be found in the Hazara Rama temple in the urban core of the royal centre that was Hampi. Attributed to Deva Raya I, and built in the 15th century, this temple is a fine example of the Dravida Vimana compact style. The royal family is believed to have used it for ceremonial functions, hence the embellishment in the form of scenes from the Ramayana all over its walls and pillars, lintels and columns. The exquisite carvings range from Basanta Panchami celebrations to Dussehra processions. Marching bands, dancing damsels, ambling elephants, trotting horses all bring alive the splendorous celebrations of yore so eloquently vouched for by visiting Persian and Portuguese dignitaries of the period. Curiously, the temple also has a relief of a Jain Tirthankara. The great Durbar, or Audience, Hall of the Vijayanagara Empire, also called the Mahanavami platform, is located within a 7.5-hectare enclosure at one of the highest points inside the royal centre (urban core). It has ceremonial structures. The granite lintels host a veritable catalogue of the royal activities of the time: domestic scenes, battle scenes, offerings and processions, marching animals, and so on.


A few metres from the Durbar Hall is a perfectly proportioned, geometric stepped tank made of granite, which was excavated only in the 1980s. It is a pushkarni used for religious and ceremonial purposes. The pushkarni s were fed with water from the Tungabhadra through a series of canals and aqueducts. The steps carved into the sides allowed worshippers to get in and out of the water easily. I peer gingerly into the tank under the watchful eye of a security guard posted there to prevent visitors from venturing into it. The tank is dry and the grey of the granite glints in the afternoon sun. Another tank nearby goes by the name of Queen’s Bath because of its ornate façade with pavilions on four sides. But the historians Kathleen Morrison and Carla Sinopoli believe it was a public bath meant for travellers. It is a happy union of Dravidian and Islamic styles. There are other tanks, aqueducts and waterbodies strewn around Hampi. Like all flourishing civilisations of yore, the inhabitants of Hampi throughout the ages knew the salience of water. A welter of aqueducts, drainage for waste water, fountains and ponds ensured that the city always had access to abundant water for irrigation and domestic, sacred and ritual use.

Lotus Mahal

The Lotus Mahal is a pleasing monument that sports a syncretic architecture. It combines a symmetrical, square Hindu mandala design with the lobed arches, vaults and domes of the Indo-Islamic style. Its basement and pyramidal towers are based on Hindu temple architecture. With no inscriptions that date it, historians are of the view that these buildings reflect the assimilative approach of the Vijayanagara Hindu rulers. Despite its aesthetic appeal, the Lotus Mahal does not seem to have had any specific royal purpose.

I go back to Hemakuta Hill just in time to catch a golden orb disappear behind a distant boulder.

A meticulous chronicle of Sudha Mahalingam’s travels can be found at

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