‘No one forgets the first sight of Hampi. The road from the town of Hospet to Hampi climbs up a hill, curving higher and higher and then there is a steep suicidal turn and your heart stops. Before your eyes is a panorama that can rival anything, anywhere in the world. Spread across the landscape, as far as the eye can see are the remains of a city. Between the stony hills and by the Tungabhadra River and all around Hampi, history awaits you in red-gold silence, frozen in stone.’
Hampi is one of the greatest heritage sites in India. It has not merely temples or palaces but the remains of a complete medieval city – the magnificent Vijayanagar. There is an exquisite collection of monuments that lie scattered across a picturesque landscape.
Founded in the 14th century, the kingdom of Vijayanagar thrived for three hundred years. It was one of the greatest cities of the medieval world, legendary not just for its wealth and military prowess but also for its art, architecture, crafts and culture. Some of the finest architecture and sculpture can be seen at Hampi. It is one of the World Heritage Sites of the UNESCO.
Once traders and adventurers across the globe came to Vijayanagar, but in the 16th century the city was sacked by invaders, abandoned by its people, and it never rose again. Today as travelers and pilgrims wander through its beautiful palaces and temples, it seems that the world has returned to Hampi once again.
Subhadra Sen Gupta writes on various aspects of Indian history and culture through fiction and travel writing. Her books aim to capture the fascinating, vibrant and many-hued aspects of the people, places and history of India. She also enjoys writing historical fiction for children and scripting comic books.
Clare Arni is a Bangalore-based photographer and specializes in architecture, travel and documentary photography. She has worked with UNESCO, Wall Street Journal, Wallpaper City Guides and Conde Nast and her work has been exhibited across the world.
A visit to Hampi captures the imagination in many vivid ways. Here is the personal response of the writer and photographer of this book to a place they have grown to love.
Listen to a Silent City…
Even for a traveller who has visited many historical sites in South India, Hampi promises a peerless experience. I have wandered through many temple precincts and marvelled at the soaring gopurams but Hampi brings in addition, a royal enclave attached to its sacred zone. The grandeur of many royal palaces have filled me with astonishment but they did not possess the spiritual resonance that I sensed at the ancient Virupaksha Temple at Hampi. It is really very difficult for anyone to compare the experience of Hampi with any other place in South India; it is truly, a one of a kind phenomenon.
For me, Hampi is like a palimpsest of the passage of time. This medieval metropolis with a citadel and sacred centre thrived for three hundred years but then in the century it was totally destroyed by Muslim invaders and the city was abandoned. The wood and brick palaces were burnt to ashes, leaving just the stone basements behind, images lay smashed where they fell and pillars crumbled to the ground. What followed over the next four centuries was the gentle but inexorable march of nature across the devastated landscape. Creepers grew across the fallen columns, pipal saplings raised their heads above dilapidated gateways and grass sprouted over broken masonry. The villagers planted rows of paddy around collapsed pavilions and used the exquisitely carved stones to prop up the thatched roofs of their mundane huts. A magnificent metropolis merged back into the landscape and was forgotten by history.
There is just one other medieval Indian city, that I can think of, that has been frozen in the past like this — Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri near Agra. Thinking of Hampi—Vijayanagar and Fatehpur Sikri, I have discovered many similarities between them. Both of them were abandoned in the 16th century and never ‘came to life again. They were imperial capitals of great empires—Vijayanagar and the Mughals. They were also inspired by the spirit of two truly enlightened monarchs— Krishnadeva Raya and Jalaluddin Akbar.
Vijayanagar and Fatehpur Sikri were cities that flourished through trade. The cities were visited by travellers from across the world who were dazzled by their magnificence and left memoirs capturing their vivid life. Lively, gossipy chronicles of prosperous bazaars; busy inns; musicians, dancers and poets, all patronised by a generous nobility: Most importantly, their societies were remarkably tolerant in an’ intolerant medieval world. Akbar married Hindu princesses, had Hindu ministers and generals and got the Mahabharata translated into Persian. Krishnadeva Raya had whole battalions of Muslim soldiers who were allowed take their oath of allegiance on the Koran. Sri Krishnadeva sat in court both the Hindu and the Koran were kept beside him and after successful military campaigns he honoured Hindu, Muslim and Portuguese ‘generals.
Both the cities are the• anti-thesis of our image of medieval societies. They were open to the world. Where Vijayanagar triumphs is in its respect for women. None of the contemporary chroniclers mention purdah in the kingdom. Women were educated and one traveller mentions numerous girls’ schools. Another tells us that women were employed in the royal establishment not just as maids, cooks or companions, but also as administrators and accountants. Some women even became wrestlers!
So during your visit to Hampi a little knowledge of its history would help. This book has two chapters that encapsulate the main stream of events from the foundation of the empire to its oblivion. Chapter 3 gives the history of the period when Vijayanagar was at its zenith and a quick read of it will help you appreciate what you see around you. The following chapters give detailed information about all the important monuments that are worth visiting. To truly savour a place like Hampi you have to alert all your senses. It is not just a visual but a completely tactile experience of touch, smell, sound, and a combination of landscape and architecture: There are the ochre stone hills framing the grey green waters Of the Tungabhadra that shimmer in the early morning light. The sunlight is a haze of gold that creeps into abandoned temples through chinks in the walls and falls at the feet of a goddess like a devoted penitent.
As you wander through the mandapa of a silent temple, take off your shoes and feel the cool stone under your feet. Touch a pillar and follow the lines of carvings of a dancing Shiva and you’ll be able to imagine what that forgotten stone carver felt as he tapped the unyielding stone with his chisel. Listen to the silence as you watch the sun dip past the gigantic head of the Narasimha statue that still watches over Hampi with such ferocious pride.
For the devout, the living shrine of Virupaksha beckons and so do small wayside temples and monastic retreats. If you take an early morning walk by the Hemkuta Hill you’ll hear the atonal chanting of Vedic mantras in the temple of Saint Vidyaranya, interspersed by the flutter of pigeons’ wings and the shrill calls of eagles. Time stands still at such moments and Hampi becomes a part of your imagination for ever.
For me the most haunting place in Hampi is the long stretch of abandoned arcades they call Hampi Bazaar. At one end is the boulder strewn slope of the Matanga Hill and at the other the first gopuram of the Virupaksha Temple. Connecting the two is the broad avenue with rows of rooms on both sides, a colonnade that must have housed shops. This is the road that all travellers describe with wonder, a bazaar that sold everything from silks, gold and diamonds to flowers, spices and betel leaf. Here courtesans danced before the festival chariot of the deities as the air reverberated to flutes and drums and elephants and horses paraded by. Hampi Bazaar is where the spiritual and sacred met the temporal and royal, as kings bowed before the eternal power of the true monarchs of Vijayanagar.—Lord Shiva— Virupaksha and his consort, the Devi Parvati— Pampa. Take a moment on a quiet afternoon, sit inside one of the empty cubicles, lean against a cool pillar and let your imagination fill the avenue with pageantry from the past and you’ll sense why Hampi is so special.
As you stand on top of the Mahanavami platform and look around the desolate landscape, compare it to the busy courtyards of the Virupaksha Temple. I was once on top of the platform at sunset and as the light darkened, all around me were ruins—broken patches of tilting Walls, the stark span of the platforms over which once the beautiful palaces had stood and bits of carved stone sticking out of the ground that no one can identify any longer. A place that was once the kaleidoscopic heart of an empire reverberating to pomp and pageantry, turned into a landscape blasted by the destructive force of envy and malice.
In contrast, the precincts of the Virupaksha Temple are full of all the joys of life, busy with priests and pilgrims. Watch the dark eyes of children running about and the bright saris of the women gleaming against the white dhotis of the men, as the air echoes to the continuous clanging of bells and vices chanting prayers. Take a happy sniff of the aroma of incense smoke and flowers and you realize that the Hampi the temporal world of kings and queens may have vanished but the sacred empire of the gods remains eternal.
Oddly enough it is the same at Fatehpur Sikri, where Akbar’s empty places loom over echoing courtyards where tourists wander during the day time but as dusk falls, it all turns eerily silent and the ghosts flit by to a forgotten jangle of anklets. Right next to the citadel is the mosque and the shrine of the Sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chishti and here pilgrims from every faith come to pray, as they have done for six centuries and at the door of the dargah, qawwali singers raise their voices in prayer. In India the royal panoply of power is always transient, what stays engraved in the hearts of the people are the sanctuaries of the holy.
Hampi means different things to different people. For the artistic imagination it is like a living gallery of sculpture and architecture and for the historian a perfectly preserved page from the past. For the curious traveller it is a journey into another time and for the pilgrim a moment of solace and peace. Whatever you may seek in unforgettable Hampi-Vijayanagar, I promise you, you will not be disappointed.
Once you have seen this city petrified in stone you will never forget it. Let Hampi take you over, surrender to its magic and listen to its quiet, wise voice. It will change you for ever.
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