Hampi: Frozen in Time


I have been in Bangalore for the past 4 years, and ever since I came here, I have been wanting to go to Hampi. Finally, the plan materialized and we decided to go on a week-long vacation there in January. I had read a lot about this UNESCO World Heritage site, and also heard about its beauty and splendor from friends. I went with a lot of expectations and my expectations were not let down one bit. You have to see Hampi to believe it.

The site is on the south bank of the river Tungabhadra, and it is said that Hampi got its name from this river, which in olden days was called Pampa, and was worshipped as a river goddess. While settlements in Hampi and areas surrounding it can be dated back to the early part of the first millennium CE, the city actually reached the zenith of its political power as the capital of the powerful Vijayanagara Empire between 1336 and 1565 CE. The empire got its name from the capital city of Vijayanagara, meaning ‘City of Victory’, which in those days included the present day Hampi and areas around it. Contemporary chroniclers from Persia, Portugal, Italy, and Russia visited the empire during this period and left glowing accounts of the city, which was unparalleled in India and probably the world at the time. This once magnificent city, pride of the Vijayanagara kings, was ransacked in 1565 CE by the Deccan Sultans, who had formed a unique alliance against Vijayanagara. After defeating the Vijayanagara army at Talikota, some 90 kilometres away from the capital, the marauding Sultanate armies entered the city, plundered and pillaged it for 6 months, and then abandoned it. So thorough was the process of destruction that very few buildings were left intact. What remains at Hampi today are only the ruins of that great, magnificent city. Anyway, we will come to the sad part of the story later. For now, let’s focus on the foundation and growth of this great empire.

As one enters Hampi, the first thing that catches the attention is the landscape, which is lined with granite boulders of various colors, distributed either as hills, ridges or sometimes just piles of boulders balancing precariously against each other. One gets the feeling that the terrain might be a result of a massive earthquake. Archaeologists and authors John M Fritz and George Michell in their book ‘Hampi Vijayanagara’ say:

The terrain is, however, one of the most ancient and stable surfaces to be found anywhere on earth, its unique rocky appearance caused not by earthquake and upheaval, but by some three thousand million years of erosion, first underground and then, when uplifted, by exposure to sun, wind and rain.

The terrain might have been one of the reasons the Vijayanagara kings chose the site for their ambitious capital. The rocky terrain on all sides and the Tungabhadra to the north gave natural protection to the city against possible invaders.

The foundation of Vijayanagara was probably laid by the brothers Hukka and Bukka who would have started out as local chieftains. They established their legitimacy by patronizing the Virupaksha shrine, which predates the Vijayanagara empire by 400 to 500 years and by taking the blessings of priests at the Sringeri matha in the Western Ghats. Thereafter, the boundaries of the kingdom kept expanding first under the brothers and then under their successors, reaching the proportions of an empire under Devaraya I (1406 – 1422) and Devaraya II (1424 – 1446). The empire stretched from the “Bay of Bengal on the eastern coast of southern India to the Arabian Sea on the west, and from Krishna river in the north to the tip of Tamil Nadu in the south”.

The massive wealth of the empire was diverted to the capital and it soon “developed into an unrivaled showpiece of imperial splendor”. The city witnessed non-stop building activity throughout its existence. During the reign of Krishna Devaraya (1509 – 1529), the empire reached the height of its power and architectural splendor. While I am not well versed in architecture let alone being an expert, I will try to describe the ruins of the magnificent architecture of the site in the terms of a layman. What would have set Vijayanagara apart from other magnificent cities of its time, in my view, is the harmony between the practical utility of urban town planning and aesthetic brilliance and beauty of the buildings.

I was amazed at the size of Vijayanagara with the central, urban part, which was walled in those days, alone measuring around 31 square kilometers. The full extent of the capital would have been much larger and we can easily assume that the surrounding areas of the central core, up to a radius of 15 kilometers , would have been part of the capital city during those days. The central core can be divided into two zones, which are now called the ‘Sacred Centre’ and the ‘Royal Centre’ by archaeologists and scholars.

Let’s look at the Royal Centre first, which has ruins of the King’s Palace, the Assembly Hall, the Queens’ Enclosure, the Noblemen’s Quarters, the Elephants’ Stables, various water tanks, and even an underground secret consultation room! However, in my view, there are three structures that stand out for their scale, beauty, and splendor. These are, the Hazara Rama Temple, the Mahanavami Dibba, and the Stepped Water Tank.

The Hazara Rama Temple was the family shrine of the Vijayanagara kings. They prayed and carried out all their family rituals here. The temple is beautiful and stands out for reliefs depicting scenes from the epic Ramayana carved on the walls of the temple. In fact, the entire story of the Ramayana has been carved on the walls from right to left. If you look at the photograph below, you can see at the bottom right, the childless King Dasaratha receiving a boon, granting him children, after performing a yajna. To its left, in the next relief, you see the king passing on the boon in the form of prasada to his queens. In the next relief, you can see four young princes, Rama and his brothers, being educated by their guru. In this manner, the entire story of the Ramayana is told on the walls of the Hazara Rama Temple. The temple is aptly named, as it translates into English as ‘the temple with a thousand Ramas’, in reference to the multiple reliefs of Lord Rama carved on the walls. 

Story of the Ramayana told on the walls

A Thousand Ramas

Carvings on the Hazara Rama Temple walls

The Mahanavami Dibba had ceremonial significance, in that the king used to preside over the Dussehra procession atop this massive multi-staged platform. The lower two granite stages are covered with reliefs illustrating a full range of royal activities, such as the king giving audience, watching wrestling matches, and hunting. The reliefs also depict the Dussehra procession in its full vigor and splendor. You can see elephants being led by mahouts, camels walking, with or without riders on their back, horses walking and occasionally prancing, sometimes with riders on their backs and sometimes with their sellers / trainers held by the bridle. You can also see dancing-girls in various mudras, and musicians playing a variety of instruments. As you climb up the stairs, and reach the top of the platform, a panoramic view of the entire royal centre presents itself. Column footings indicate that a wooden mandapa would have stood atop the platform. 

The Mahanavami Dibba

Intricate Carvings on the Mahanavami Dibba

The Stepped Tank is made of black polished granite. The pool at the bottom can be reached by descending symmetrically disposed flights of steps, whose complex structure make the tank look extraordinarily beautiful. The blocks are inscribed with letters and numbers which indicates that the structure was reassembled at the Royal Centre, from some far off place. The Stepped Tank and other various pools in the area were fed by a raised channel that conducted water from the Tungabhadra, making one wonder at the innovative ideas used by engineers during those days.

The Stepped Tank

Now, let’s visit the Sacred Centre. The Sacred Centre can be divided into four zones or distinct areas centred around a temple each. The Virupaksha Temple zone, the Krishna Temple zone, the Vitthala Temple zone, and the Achyutaraya Temple zone. As mentioned earlier, the Virupaksha Temple predates the Vijayanagara empire by 400 – 500 years. The temple is dedicated to Virupaksha, venerated as the consort of the river goddess Pampa, and is identified with Lord Shiva. This temple is still operational, in the sense that puja is still carried out here. The other three main temples in Hampi are not in use and lie in ruins after the city was abandoned in the aftermath of the catastrophe of 1565 CE.  The Vitthala Temple, one of the largest temples in Hampi was built during the time of Devaraya II. However, substantial portions of the temple were added during the reign of Krishna Devaraya. The temple was dedicated to Vitthala, a form of Lord Vishnu. The Krishna Temple was built during the reign of Krishna Devaraya to commemorate his victory over the king of Orissa around 1513 CE. The temple was dedicated to Balakrishna, Lord Krishna in the form of a baby. The Achyutaraya Temple was built in 1534 under the patronage Achyutaraya (1529 – 1542) and was dedicated to Tiruvengalanatha, an aspect of Lord Vishnu.

There are a few common features of all these four temples. The path leading to the main entrance of the temple is lined with bazaars on either side of the road. The merchants’ quarters were usually right behind their shops and the foundation of these quarters can still be seen in the Krishna Bazaar leading up to the Krishna Temple. At the centre of the bazaar, usually to right of the path leading to the main entrance, one can find a pushkarni, kind of sacred tank, which was probably used for ritualistic ablutions before entering the temple. The temples, usually surrounded with a strong enclosure, can be divided into the following parts, the inner sanctum (garbhagriha), the antechamber (shukanasi), a connect (antrala) between the sanctum and the outer hall (mandapa) and an enclosed pillared hall (rangamandapa). The temples are lined with covered circumambulatory passages running parallel to the enclosure walls, and usually have three entry and exit points, one facing the east, and the other two facing north and south. The larger temples have a large open pillared hall (mahamandapa) and a ceremonial hall (kalyanamandapa) meant for celebrations.

I will not go into the details of each of these temples, but will describe the Vittala Temple a little as in my view, it stands out from the others for its grandeur and beauty. The bazaar leading up to the main entrance of the Vittala Temple is 945 metres in length and legend has it that the shops in this bazaar sold gold, silver, diamonds, and other precious gemstones, apart from fine silks, ivory and other high value items. The main entrance has the remains of a gopuram which must have been built of bricks, wood, and stucco. The wood was burnt down after the invaders set fire to the temple. As you enter the temple, you come into a huge courtyard, with a rangamandapa to the right and a kalyanamandapa on the left. As you walk straight ahead, you come to a stone chariot, called Garuda Ratha, carved out of a single rock. The chariot was built to resemble the temple chariots in which temple idols are traditionally taken out in procession. The horses that were originally built infront of the ratha, were damaged by the invaders, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) replaced the horses with elephants found elsewhere in Hampi. The ratha is exquisitely beautiful and I kept admiring it with my mouth agape. The composite pillars of the mahamandapa are massive, hewn out of single granite blocks, which are designed as clusters of slender pillars. These pillars when tapped gently produce musical notes! The ASI has made the mahamandapa a restricted zone, as visitors, keen on listening to these notes, used to bang their heavy hands against these slender pillars, causing them much damage over the years. I found sitting in this temple complex very peaceful and I ended up going there twice and sat there for hours.

Bazaar leading up to the Vittala Temple

Main Entrance of the Vittala Temple

The Garuda Ratha

The other structure in the sacred Centre that captured my attention and imagination is the massive, 6.7 metre monolithic statue of Narasimha, an aspect of Lord Vishnu. Narasimha sits on the coils of the serpent Sheshanaga and the seven hoods of the serpent forms a canopy over the head of Narasimha. Formerly, there was a statue of Lakshmi, Lord Vishnu’s consort, that used to sit on the left thigh of Narasimha, however, that has now fallen off. It seems that it was an act of vandalism on the part of the invaders. ASI has now put a granite strip between the knees of Narasimha to make the statue more stable.

The Monolithic Narasimha

I can go on  and on about the structures I’ve talked about in the preceding paragraphs. There is so much to be felt, so much to be experienced and so much to be told about them. Moreover, there are other exquisite, beautiful structures in Hampi that deserve a mention.  There is so much more that I want to tell. Every brick, every stone in Hampi has a story to tell. Hampi, frozen in time, but talking…talking to everyone who is willing to listen. And these stories need to be told. But then, this is a post and not a book. Wow! that’s a thought! A book! Is it possible? Maybe some day! Maybe!


4 thoughts on “Hampi: Frozen in Time

  1. Thanks for such an informative article and lovely pictures…its good that down south was not damaged much by the turks…and such beautiful piece of art, architecture and culture is very much still intact. In gangetic plane specially in Magadha the destruction was much widespread and massive. almost everything was razed to ground. what is left here at Magadha in its hundreds of village at its peak wassomething like stone structures down south….

    • Yes Deepak, I’m sure the splendor of Magadha in its prime must have been larger than life. With Emperors such as Ashoka and Samudragupta, one can only imagine how exquisite the architecture of Magadha would have been. Hampi was also ravaged and pillaged for six months. However, we should be thankful that some structures survived the thorough destruction wrought by the invaders.

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