Book excerpts: “Hampi – Discover the Splendours of Vijayanagar”

On October 20, 2010 the official launch of the publication “Hampi – Discover the Splendours of Vijayanagar” authored by Subhadra Sen Gupta with photographs by Clare Arni and published by Niyogi Books was held at the Crossword Book Store in Bengaluru (Bangalore). Smt. Sudha Murthy, Chairperson, Infosys Foundation was the chief guest for the evening and writer and director Shri Nagathihalli Chanderashekhara  was the guest of honour.

We give below excerpts from the book. The introduction by the author Subhadra Sen Gupta and by photographer Clare Arni.


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 16th 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 to take their oath of allegiance on the Koran. When Krishnadeva sat in court both the Hindu scriptures 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 andarchitecture. 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 forever.

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 voices chanting prayers. Take a happy sniff of the aroma of incense smoke and flowers and you realise that at 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 palaces 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.

–Subhadra Sen Gupta


A Place of the Imagination…

Hampi is interesting, not just as a dry as dust academic site, but an exciting and ever-changing place that exists as much in the present as it does in the past. Alongside the ancient ruins and prehistoric rocks thrives a population and a culture that is still evolving so that when I walk the streets of Hampi Bazaar or the Royal Enclosure, the feeling in the air is not one of decline but one of renewal.

The colours, smells and sounds, the vibrancy and the urgency in the air makes the Vijayanagar site a special place for those interested in humanity, rather than history. Here hereditary priests, ascetics and sadhus mix with foreign tourists, trance music reverberates across the three hundred-year-old buildings of the Hampi Bazaar and where those that seek enlightenment live in caves and bathe in the Tungabhadra River. Even in the deserted ruins, the rubble and the remains are populated by characters from one’s mind, since Hampi is, above all, a place of the imagination.

The first place a visitor comes to is Hampi Bazaar—the main marketplace and the thumping commercial heart of Vijayanagar. It is a long, wide street, bordered by stone colonnades, where the shopkeepers and artisans would have produced and sold their wares. At one end is the ivory-white gopuram of the main Virupaksha Temple and at the other end rises the stone steps of Matanga Hill. The Bazaar is bustling, filled with traders, tourists, pilgrims, saffron-clad sadhus, policemen, cows and every form of life that an Indian market can produce. The smell of bananas, goats, hot chai and fried food fills the air and grows stronger. This is Hampi’s living past, people worshipping at a site that has been a source of pilgrimage for hundreds of years.

In other parts of Hampi, the crowds and bustle are confined to the imagination. In the Queen’s Bathing Pool, perhaps certain views were always strictly imaginary, but the echoes of laughter and the chatter and the sights of saris drying in the sun still remain in this arched and delicately stuccoed building. The courtyard, open to the sky, is profoundly evocative with its tank and many pillared halls that still echo with the sounds of water and laughter, despite being long dry and embellished by generations of amorous graffiti.

Wandering through Hampi, there is an abundance of individual images and impressions that stand out—the long row of enormous arches of the Elephant Stables, capped with their elegant domes, the beautiful and seemingly interleaved columns and pillars of the Lotus Mahal, the solitary sentry tower standing guard for centuries. Every scene and sight in Hampi seems to have been deliberately composed with a sophisticated and painterly eye, as great boulders, startling green paddy fields and stone temples complement each other and are therefore, a photographer’s dream.

Hampi is also full of hidden things. Just beyond the Bazaar there is a wonderful walk to Kotalingam where lingams are carved straight on to the living rocks. It is thrilling to discover them as you wander between the boulders (and occasionally leap from one to another) to find these sculptures seemingly placed at random amongst the serene landscape. From Kotalingam you can see the slow-flowing Tungabhadra meander past you, dotted with coracles, and beyond it a great hill of broken boulders rises into the air. Among the natural shapes are more deliberate ones—temples, stairways, a Nandi bull, the strange, discordant remains of the Vijayanagar civilisation.

Getting to know Hampi is a complex and very personal journey; it is a place to visit and revisit. You slowly become attached to favourite places, dismiss others as mere tourist spots, get to know the characters that fill the scenes and begin to claim some aspect or understanding of the place as entirely your own. Places like Kotalingam where the nature of your first discovery and your subsequently evolving encounters result in a relationship as subtle as one that you can have with an individual. You witness sights that are so ephemeral that you feel yourself privileged to have seen that particular aspect of Hampi. A majestic sunset is watched every evening by rows of langur monkeys, sitting high among the rocks, doing nothing but watching darkness fall. A coracle, hopelessly over-stuffed, disgorges goats, a motorbike, two bicycles and a few ruffled tourists on to the stone embankment. A pale sadhu comes down to bathe in the twilight, chanting in a low reverberating voice.

It is strange that some of the most evocative ruins are the ones that are the least substantial. As less of the structure remains, it is left entirely to the imagination to conjure up most of the structure and the people and movements that attended to it. One such structure is the Mahanavami platform, which was once a hundred-pillared audience hall in the midst of the Royal Enclosure. Now only the substructure remains, the rest was devastated by vengeful invading kingdoms. Yet, as you walk across the summit of this still substantial edifice, decorated with beautiful stone carvings of elephants and hunting scenes, and you look across the ruined city and to the hills beyond, you know that you are walking in the footsteps of ancient kings and the true majesty of Hampi becomes apparent.

The architecture of the Royal Enclosure is still magnificent. The long Elephant Stable (so wide, that it is nearly impossible to get the whole structure in one photograph) is a masterpiece, with great stone fluted arches and capped domes, niches and brickwork in the Bahmani style and it stands as a powerful symbol of the riches of the royalty of Vijayanagar. The Lotus Mahal, a mind-bending structure of seemingly interleaved and interwoven fluted arches and columns, is still standing almost perfectly, its form still conveying the shape of that flower.

From the Mahanavami platform it is not a long walk to a recently discovered treasure. A deep and wide tank is dug straight into the earth. The steps and platforms ranged around the sides form beautiful geometric patterns. You begin to smell the dampness long before you even get to the tank, an evocative aroma amongst the dusty dryness of the site. It was found when the archaeological department uncovered some water channels and decided to find out where they led to. It is evidence of the advanced engineering ability of the kingdom (which was a parallel to the hydraulic achievements of Rome) which they married so well with a profound architectural style to create the monuments of Hampi. It is also evidence, I think, that much more is still to be discovered under the rocks and earth of Hampi and that the site remains a place of hidden treasures.

Hampi is a serene and spiritual place for most of its visitors, but no description of a place is complete without a mention of its conflicts. There are of course many. The desire for better access has been squashed by those interested in conservation. The once majestic Tungabhadra River is greatly reduced by a dam, though most local houses get no running water and very little electricity. Those who wanted to keep the area pure have already been frustrated by the great clutter of wires and lights to satisfy the local government’s penchant for ‘sound and light’ shows. Clumsy cement restorations and heavily watered lawns have lent some areas a somewhat surreal air. Sometimes I fear that Hampi will turn into ‘Hampi: The Theme Park’, a fear given more credence by the present government’s plan to make such a theme park on local university land.

–Abhimanyu and Clare Arni

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