Scenic ruins

Print edition : July 16, 2010

A VIEW OF the remains of Hampi on the banks of the Tungabhadra river. Hampi will be an important destination in the heritage tourist circuit because of its mesmerising monuments.-

THE ruins of Hampi, spread over a vast area, lie in harmonious conjunction with the rest of the landscape. Large boulders, hillocks, scanty bushes and the Tungabhadra river surrounds the stone and brick constructions.

In its heyday, Hampi was a city of great beauty, pomp and splendour. A visitor now could still make out that the city once had opulent palaces, marvellous temples, massive fortifications, baths, aqueducts, pavilions, stables for royal elephants, and elegantly carved pillars. For the reconstruction of the history of this great city, historians rely on the accounts of two travellers, Fernao Nuniz and Domingo Paes, who visited the city and provided first-hand accounts.

Paes writes, The size of the city I do not write here, because it cannot all be seen from any one spot, but I climbed a hill whence I could see a great part of it; I could not see it all because it lies between several ranges of hills. What I saw from thence seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight; there are many groves of trees within it The people in this city are countless in number, so much so that I do not wish to write it down for fear it should be thought fabulous; but I declare that no troops, horse or foot, could break their way through any street or lane, so great are the numbers of the people and elephants.

Paes erred in his judgment because the city is dead now, destroyed in a valiantly fought battle in 1556. But it is still not completely barren. A tiny village, scattered around the majestic Virupaksha temple, survives as the only remnant of a grand city, a civilisation and a culture that once was the envy of the medieval world. The expanse of ruins is spread over several square kilometres and, like those of other great cities around the world, are like a palimpsest of an architectural heritage. Built over a few centuries with gradual additions, Hampi reached its high point during the reign of Krishnadevaraya, between 1509 and 1530, when the empire extended across the whole of southern India.

But the story of Hampi goes further back in time and begins in the smaller settlement of Anegundi across the serene Tungabhadra, which separates the older parts of the extensive city from the newer ones. According to Robert Sewell, one of the earliest modern chroniclers of the Vijayanagara empire, the city of Vijayanagara was founded in 1336 and named after the sage Madhavacharya, who was also known as Vidyaranya. According to legend, Anegundi was under the control of a king called Deva Raya, who was hunting in the surrounding forests when a hare bit one his dogs. Astonished at this, the king met the sage Madhavacharya who advised him to build a city at the spot. While this continues to remain the most popular legend, there are other legends associated with the founding of the city, all of them featuring Madhavacharya.

Anegundi now hosts some of the lesser known destinations associated with Vijayanagara. Many of the tourists who cross the Tungabhadra visit sites there for their religious significance. The later kings of the Vijayanagara empire built much of the city across the river in Hampi. Visitors will chance upon fortifications all around the city, but most of the attractions are now situated in two areas commonly referred to as the Royal Centre and the Sacred Centre.

It will take some imagination now to visualise the vibrancy and the grandeur that Hampi once possessed, but a stroll through the complex of the Vittala temple rekindles a sense of what is lost. It is also here that one finds the famous stone car that has become an iconic image identified with Hampi and, more generally, with tourism in Karnataka, splashed as it is across brochures and advertisements. The Vittala temple complex is Hampi's crowning glory and it has a large ranga mantapa; within it, 56 musical pillars carved out of stone resound with musical notes when struck. Another temple that was reserved only for the royalty is the Hazara Rama temple.

The entire temple is embellished with bas reliefs depicting scenes from the Ramayana. The walls of the enclosure are richly carved with friezes depicting processions of horses, elephants, dancing girls, and soldiers of a variety of ethnicities representing the splendour of the empire as well as its international linkages.

While almost all the temples at Hampi have been defunct for a few centuries now after 1556, when the city was sacked, worship is offered in the Virupaksha temple. Dedicated to Siva and his consort Pampadevi, the temple has a nine-storey gopuram and towers over the other structures at Hampi. The ceiling of the ranga mantapa of this temple is elegantly painted with scenes from the epics and the Puranas.

Among the secular structures of the empire are the ruins of the king's palace, a vast complex that forms the largest enclosure among the ruins. It has two major platform structures, an underground chamber which must have served as a treasury or a private audience hall, several other interesting architectural platforms and double fortification walls.

Equally impressive is the massive Mahanavami Dibba, where the kings are supposed to have once sat on gem-studded golden thrones and watched processions pass by. The platform sports densely carved bands of horses, soldiers, and depictions of the various aspects of courtly life.

The zenana has the Lotus Mahal a relatively smaller, but visually appealing structure with open pavilions at the bottom and balconies above. A beautiful example of the fusion of Hindu and Muslim styles of architecture, the mahal derives its name from its beautiful, geometrically arranged cusped arches that resemble the petals of a flower in bloom.

Declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1986, the ruins of Hampi form the most important tourist attraction in Karnataka.