Hampi, Ruined, yet Regal (2019)

Hampi, Ruined, yet Regal (2019)

So near, yet so far. Hampi teased and tantalised, for decades. Finally I made it to these magnificently regal ruins on the banks of the legendary Thungabadra. Perish all preconceived notions about Hampi. It surpasses your wildest your imagination, grander than anything you conjured up in your most expansive moments. The ruins sprawl over several hills, hillocks, knolls and lush banana plantations, daring your knees and joints. Hampi can hold its own against another exquisite rock city in the Arab desert -Petra. Hampi’s ruins are still largely intact to give us a glimpse of the grandeur in its heyday.

Hampi’s ancient ruins call for a degree of physical fitness and nimble limbs to navigate, situated as they are, on the banks of the Tungabhadra river on a rocky terrain.  Almost equidistant from Bengaluru and Hyderabad and the site is easily accessed by road or rail.  Strewn over an area of 30 odd acres, Hampi is often associated with the resplendent Vijayanagar kingdom that ruled the Deccan for three centuries from the 14th to 17th, but actually dates back to a more distant past. The sprawling ruins tease and tantalize, 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 curious historians and archeologists 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 location 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 market place, 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 pavillions, and to imbibe the serene ambience of the tranquil village fringed by coconut palms and paddy fields.

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 Lord Virupaksha, a form of Shiva, was built by Lakkan Dandesha, a nayaka (chieftain) under the ruler  Deva Raya II of the Vijayanagar empire. However, the temple must have existed long before the Vijayanagar era, probably from the 7th century when it was dedicated to Pampa Devi, the goddess of 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 having been made during the Chalukya and Hoysala periods and culminating in the aesthetic marvel of the Vijayanagar era. Major and minor altars came up around 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 Queen’s Bath and Elephant Stables which have aesthetically blended the best in Islamic and Vijayanagar 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 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 many dynasties including Muslim rulers, 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 Ashoka’s rock edicts in Nittur and Udegolan—both in Bellary district 269-232 BCE—suggest this region was part of the Maurya Empire during the 3rd century BCE. A Brahmi inscription and a terracotta seal dating to about the 2nd century CE have been found during site excavations. Chalukya’s inscrptions in Badami name it as Pampapura dating back to the 6th century. By the 10th century, Hampi had become a centre of religious and educational activities during the rule of the Kalyana Chalukyas. Inscriptions on the site speak of land grants made by the kings to the Virupaksha temple. Inscriptions from the 11th to 13th centuries mention gifts to goddess Hampa-devi. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, Hoysala kings built temples to Durga, Hampadevi and Shiva, according to an inscription dated about 1,199 CE. 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 for almost 200 years, four dynasties ruled over Hampi and made the Vijaynagar empire one of the richest and most famous empires. Decades of relative peace and prosperity under enlightened rulers who encouraged the arts and learning, music and architecture, made Vijayanagara splendid city, rivalled only by Peking in its heyday. Vijayanagara reached its zenith during the progressive rule of Krishna Deva Raya during 1509-1529 CE.Naturally, a flourishing empire like Vijayanagara attracted not only savants, philosophers and artists, but also merchants bearing precious metals, bales of silk and skilled woodcraft as well as 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, 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 Colonel Colin McKenzie of the East India Company spotted this hidden treasure in 1800 and prepared the first survey map of the ruins.

After my peregrinations through 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 forty 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 Mantapa has sixteen intricately decorated pillars having beautiful sculptures of Narasimha and Yali. These set of sixteen pillars forms a rectangular court. The ceiling of the Maha Mantapa is a richly engraved and truly a feast for the eyes.

The Vittala Temple Complex has the richly sculpted Stone Chariot, considered to be the most stunning architecture of the Vijayanagara kingdom. The Stone Chariot or Ratha stands in the courtyard of temple and is one of the three famous stone chariots in India, the other two are to be found in Konark (Odissa) and Mahabalipuram (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. In fact, the wheels of the chariot were once functional and could be rotated, but in recent years, the ASI has cemented them to prevent further damage to the structure, just as it has stopped the public from tapping the delicate pillars to coax dulcet notes.

As I make my way to the nearby Hemakuta Hill, I am awe-struck by ornamental temples that line up precariously 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 Lord 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 down Kama, 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 ten 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.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 Devaraya I, and built in the 15th Century, this temple is a fine example of the Dravida Vimana compact style. It is believed to have been used for ceremonial functions by the royal family and hence the embellishment in the form of scenes from 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 splendrous celebrations of yore so eloquently vouched for by visiting Persian and Portuguese dignitaries of the period. Curiously, there is also a relief of a Jain Tirthankar inside this temple.The great Durbar or Audience Hall of the Vijayanagar empire, also called the Mahanavami platform is located within a 7.5-hectare (19-acre) 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 royal activities of the time – domestic scenes, battle scenes, offerings and processions, marching animals etc.

A few meters from the Audience Hall is a perfectly proportioned, geometric stepped tank made of granite, excavated only in the 1980.  It is a Pushkarni used for religious and ceremonial purposes. The steps carved into the sides of each pushkarni allowed for worshippers to easily get in and out of the water. The pushkarnis were fed with the water of the nearby Tungabhadra River through a series of canals and aqueducts. I peer gingerly into the tank under the watchful eye of a security guard posted there to prevent visitors from venturing into the waterbody. 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 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 water bodies strewn around Hampi. Like all flourishing civilizations of yore, the inhabitants of Hampi throughout the ages knew the salience of water. A welter of aqueducts, drainages for waste water, fountains and ponds ensured that the city always had access to abundant water for irrigation, domestic, sacred and ritual use.

The Lotus Mahal, is a pleasing monument that sports a syncretic architecture. It combines a symmetrical, square, Hindu mandala design with 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. Lotus Mahal, despite its aesthetic appeal, does not seem to have any specific royal purpose. I go back to Hemkuta Hill just in time to catch a golden orb disappear yonder behind a distant boulder. (published in Frontline dated Sep 24, 2021)