By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If you were asked what was the world second largest city in the 16th century after Beijing what would your answer be? Would you name London, Paris, Rome, Constantinople or Edo? Well, guess what the right answer is a city you may never have heard of before. Welcome to Hampi the largest and wealthiest Indian city of the time!
In those days Hampi was the capital city of the prosperous Vijayanagara Hindu Empire. Today Hampi is a huge UNESCO World Heritage site and even if it has lost its economic power it still is an important religious centre with Hindu temples, a monastery and ancient medieval monuments. It is located in Karnataka in southwest India on the Arabian Sea and you will easily get there by road or by train. The nearest railway station is in Hopset, a modern town built close by after Hampi was conquered and looted by a coalition of Muslim sultanates in 1565. You can also reach Hampi from Goa by bus or train.
Hampi is a very vast site of over 10,000 acres on the banks of the Thungabhadra River. No less than 1,600 vestiges of the last Hindu empire of south India including forts, royal palaces, temples and sanctuaries can still be seen in Hampi. It is a rocky hilly area with sparse vegetation. The site is really huge so don’t expect to discover it by foot. The easiest way is to hire a guide and his rickshaw. You easily find them waiting at the entrance of the main monuments and you can rent one for one or several days. It’s a cool and heady sensation to travel sitting in the back of the rickshaw, refreshed by the wind, zigzaging from one half-ruined stone monument to the next, trying to understand what life would have been like at the time of Hampi glory. There are many traveller accounts telling how great the city was. A 15th century Persian man wrote that, walking through the main jewellers’ street, he was astonished by the unbelievable profusion of precious stones, diamonds and pearls in the shops, that was exceeding all his expectations.
If all this wealth is long gone now the site still is very impressive. Massive fortifications sheltered marvellous palaces, elegantly carved temples, towers, baths, markets, warriors barracks, aqueducts, royal elephants stables, large and various water tanks, stone bridges over the river… Most of the must-see monuments are located in two main areas, called Sacred Centre and Royal Enclosure. The Sacred Centre is in the northern part of the city on the banks of the river centred by Vijaya Vitthala Temple, the top-listed monument of Hampi. The Royal Enclosure is in the southwest part of the site including royal palaces, baths, elephant stable. All around stand dozens of monuments and structures more or less in ruins, as well as hundreds of other remains non-recognizable by anyone who is not an archaeologist. But does it really matters? Let yourself be caught by the mysterious atmosphere of this tremendous site.
Your stroll will no doubt take you to Hernakuta Hill, a rocky hill devoid of any vegetation, dotted with small temples and monuments. The early morning light gives contrasting shades to the massive stones of the temples and to the delicate bas-reliefs carved by unknown artists on the round-shaped rocks or even directly on the ground of the hill. A path leads to the other side of the hill overlooking Virupasksha Temple, the only temple still being a worship place in Hampi. This temple with its huge gates called gopurams (the main one is 50m. high) and its large courtyards is the place where pilgrims and mere tourists go to receive an elephant blessing. Give a few coins to his driver and the elephant will delicately touch the top of your head with his trunk.
Close by is Hampi village where you can stroll about and shop in the bazaar where lots of small restaurants and local craft shops await worshippers and tourists. Back in your rickshaw, go to the Lotus Mahal, a delicate pavilion said to be the King’s Council Hall. It has elegant arches on two floors looking like the petals of a flower opening to the sunlight. You may still have some time left before lunch to go to the Queen’s Bath, the Royal Elephants Stables.
Your afternoon will be very busy too. Don’t miss the Royal Enclosure with the vast Mahanavami Platform that overlooks the Stepped Tank, a marvellous upside-down pyramid-shaped tank. Close by the Hazara Rama Temple has well preserved frescoes showing episodes of the Ramayana, and on its enclosure walls, bas-reliefs depicting ceremonies and processions of horses, elephants, dancing girls and warriors.
A dirt road going through an impressive double line of long causeways covered with huge cut-stone roofs will take you to Vitthala Temple main entrance. Try to be there at sunset when dusk gives a deep blue colour to the temple. Wait a little longer when it’s almost completely dark and be surprised by the sudden illumination the whole place. The Vitthala Temple appears in its golden splendour, revealing under the spots light all the details of its fabulously thin columns and carved pillars. Between the main door and the central temple, the lights also reveal a magnificent Stone Chariot standing on four turning stone wheels set between the main door and the central temple.
This one-day tour in Hampi might be exhausting but you won’t regret it. Of course if you are an ancient monument lover you will want to spend more time here. Hampi is so vast and so rich that you will have plenty to do and see.
© Annick Dournes/Frederic de Poligny