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Hampi – History’s Little Nook (Part 2)

Here’s a bit more on Hampi’s star attractions.

The Queen’s Bath

Our first stop was the Queen’s Bath. Everything about the structure testifies to what it must have been like to be the favourite queen in a great empire. Built for Krishnadeva Raya’s favourite queen Tirumalambika, the bath’s square-shaped enclosed structure has a decorated corridor running around an 8-ft pool, which yet again, is surrounded by a small moat on the exterior. With a measure of imagination and a share of the guide’s details, the place comes back to life.

The Royal Enclosure

A little further down from the Queen’s Bath is the Royal Enclosure. Right outside the walls were two massive symmetrical rectangular stone structures that looked much too heavy to have had a functional role in everyday life, despite their elaborate carvings. To my limited imagination, they looked like they’d lain there since the beginning of time. Our guide informed us that they were the stone gates to the Royal Enclosure, which were once opened and closed by elephants. Dussera was celebrated here long before Mysore became the official host of the nine-day festival. The Mahanavmi Dibba literally translates into nine days programme platform, and it’s from its still-intact, awe-inspiring heights that the king once greeted his subjects and watched the Dusara festivities.

Built to commemorate Krishnadeva Raya’s victory over Pratap Rudra Gajapati of Orissa, it’s also known as the house of victory and gave us a good vantage of the entire royal quarters. Far on the horizon, tall boulder hills rose, guarding the city as they have for millennia. Hampi’s natural fortification made it just the place for the capital of the golden empire that once reached from coast to coast. The interior passages and the base of the platform are a veritable gallery, with engravings that depicted the day-to-day events of a progressive society. Oriental traders, lady hunters, and caparisoned elephants shared space with scenes from the myths and religious iconography.

A little away is the Pushkarni or the stepped-tank. Made of polished black schist, its symmetrically designed five tiers culminating in green depths is if not anything else, psychedelic. The King’s Palace is a complex that leaves much to the imagination. As we clambered up and down stone steps and stone boundaries, our guide told us a rather recent Legend of the Secret Chamber. A rather exciting place which included going down a steep staircase and walking blindly in pitch black darkness, hoping and praying you won’t bump into anything from the past. The Secret Chamber which was the empire’s equivalent to the CIA headquarters, was presented to many a tourist as the place where the king went to have a smoke!

An unlicensed guide could have you believe that the Secret Chamber is, in fact, the Cigarette Chamber. A licensed guide would cost you around Rs 1000 a day during the offseason and up to Rs. 2000 in the high season. But it’s worth the money – the licensed ones know their history and chart out your trip smartly and sometimes even hold the water bottle as you pant and wheeze across Hampi’s uneven terrain.

The 15th-century temple Hazarama Temple is filled with stories. literally. ‘Hajara’ being the Kanada word for corridor leading to a palace. Its friezes predated books and were used to teach the temple’s royal visitors the Ramayana.

If the king’s palace is all about imagined grandeur, the elephant stables are all clear and present majesty. Massive in every respect, the enclosure that could house 11 elephants has to be seen to be believed. Late afternoons are better for photography. The same goes for the adjacent Zenana Enclosure or the queen’s quarters. Though the main palace met with a similar fate as the King’s Palace during the invasion, the Lotus Mahal still blooms graceful, especially in the evenings.

Vijaya Vittala Temple

Our next stop was believed to have been too grand for a god himself. Legend has it that, when Lord Vishnu came to reside at the Vijaya Vittala Temple, he found it so ornate that he returned to his humble abode. This temple is perhaps the most renowned among Hampi’s many temples. An electric shuttle takes tourists back and forth from the temple complex and the vehicle parking. Legend and fact have formed a seamless tapestry around the Vittala Temple, which took nearly five decades in the making.

The legend of the Saptasvara Mandap or the Dancing Hall resonates yet, as its 56 musical pillars once did. The 56 musical pillars generate the sounds of 56 musical pillars and apparently could be heard far and wide when the Queen put up a dance performance. Then our guide told us about the 16 pillars that resonate with the seven notes of the sa-re-ga-ma. Tourists are no longer permitted to try and coax music out of these pillars. The iconic Stone Chariot that stands in front of the temple as it has for centuries was carved from a single piece of stone – except for its wheels.

Middle of the week is the best time to visit for photography’s sake. We were so engrossed in our guide’s stories about the place that we didn’t quite notice the sun slip away. “Look around madam, see Temple looks like gold.” And it was true. Antique gold never looked this antique than in this trick of light. Vijayanagara was not called the Golden Era for nothing.

Atop the Matanga Hill

At 6.15am, we found ourselves straining our necks to assess how high a climb the Matanga Hill would prove to be. There are three ways to climb the hill, and our guide chose Level Expert for us! But the climb is worth it. For, the sun doesn’t rise over Hampi. It caresses the city. And yes, turns it to gold.

We took the Royal Path down – a veritable staircase made of stone slabs, which made it a cakewalk in comparison to our on-all-fours climb up. Sure, it wasn’t half as eventful as the climb up, but it certainly had far more photo-ops.

Achuthraya Temple and the Courtesan Bazaar

At the foot of the hill, stands the Achuthraya Temple, built by Krishnadeva Raya’s successor Achuth Raya. Macaques scampered across the courtyard, making us a little jumpy. But if you ignore them and don’t wave food in their faces, the monkeys let you be. It’s believed that Hampi burnt for six months after the Battle of Talikota – a fire that claimed its sandalwood halls and stripped it of its glory. It’s been centuries since, but from our guide’s voice, I can hear that the Muslim invaders are far from forgiven.

“And this is the courtesan bazaar,” our guide announced once we stepped outside the temple. “The WHAT?” “The courtesan bazaar. The king would come here and choose women.” Ah well, they don’t call it “living like kings’ for nothing! On a distant hill, a little white temple stood out against the boulders. Later at breakfast by the river, we found ourselves contemplating the mysteries of the universe. A city that has defied plunder, pillage and passing centuries, can have that sort of effect on you. Hampi is dotted with food joints with at best, mostly comprise a few plastic tables and chairs. And yet, names like falafel, carbonara, hatziem, pancakes roll off waiters’ tongues with American-accented ease. Being greeted with a “What wudcha like?” instead of the “Ess meydem” or “Kya chahiye” momentarily startled us, but then again, Hampi has an enormous international fan following.

Hampi still remains a relatively unknown destination. The first few names that spring to mind when you think India are Goa, Kerala, Pondicherry and Delhi. Nestled geographically in Karnataka and metaphorically on time’s beauty chest, this article gives you a couple of tips on how to make the most of your Hampi visit.

The Virupaksha Temple

The Vijayanagra Dynasty patronised the arts and science alike. The carvings show signs of objects that resemble inventions that came along much, much later. Some parts of the Virupaksha Temple (of the nine-storey gopura fame) even predate Vijayanagara. The inner sanctum dates back to the eighth century. And in a side passage, next to the main shrine, we saw what has to be the earliest example of a pinhole camera – a hole in the wall projects an inverted image of the gopura on the opposite wall. Guides make it a point to block the light to prove the authenticity of the shadow, lest you’re skeptical and think that it’s a painting. The Virupaksha Temple is where, as the legend goes, where Lord Shiva was betrothed to his consort Parvati.

Outside the temple, this lady literally pushed a bunch of bananas into our hands saying “Elephant eat banana.” Bewildered as I was about why she had to sell me bananas with a scientific snippet like that, we bought a bunch. And, waiting at the temple entrance was the prettiest cow elephant. Now the science snippet made sense! Lakshmi, the temple elephant, is rather popular with the tourists and you can feed her bananas and even have her bless you with her trunk for a small dakshina or money offering.

The Virupaksha Bazaar is now known as the Hampi Bazar, was once world-famous. Today it’s a great place to pick up some great souvenirs and literature on Hampi. Not to mention the visual treat of seeing a few gypsies, decked up in gypsy garb – mirror spangled blouses, colourful wide hemmed skirts and wooden bangles that go all the way up their arm – fry snacks on the roadside. Hampi is huge on monoliths, like the rotund Ganesha statues, which were chipped out of rock and then had a temple built around them.

The nearby Anegundi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire until it was shifted to Hampi. A short boat-ride across the Tungabadra and we were on the side most tourists give a miss. Most, but not all. This is where Hampi lets down her hair and has herself a good party. There are boulders to climb, lakes to swim in and long, unhurried stretches of road to cruise in on a luna (a rickety excuse for a two wheeler). At the Sanapur Lake, we saw divers drop off tall boulders and splash splendidly into the water below. Hampi is regarded a holy place, and frivolous activity is generally considered disrespectful. Anegundi is relatively more relaxed.

After hanging around well after sundown, despite being dog-tired and desperately thirsty, our vigil was rewarded. First, a golden full moon crept up the sky and set the mood and then, as if on some celestial cue, all the lights went on. And it was a sight that cannot be described. Or captured in a photograph. So I won’t try. I’d advise hanging around as we did. Like I said earlier, efforts are rewarded in Hampi.

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