A beautiful maiden with a creeper, on one of the door jams in Vijayanagara's ruined Krishna Temple.
Combining an entire city's worth of incredible South Indian architectural marvels with one of the subcontinent's grandest landscapes, Hampi is unequivocally one of India's most magnificent historical sites.
The modern village of Hampi is nestled in the midst of the ruins of what was, in the 16th century, the world's largest city after Ming Dynasty Peking. The city was called Vijayanagara, and it was the capital of South India's final great Hindu empire. It was situated in an area naturally fortified by a river and enormous mounds of granite boulders, a region with a history that goes back well over a thousand years before the founding of Vijayanagara in the 14th century.
Hampi is an example of a place that directly owes all of its cultural achievements to geological forces. If the area was not the sight of such spectacular and easily defensible rock formations, it would not have been so consistently occupied. Nor would the materials used by the Vijayanagar builders, along with their forbears and successors, have been in such plentiful supply.
It can be said, then, that the story of Hampi begins between 3 and 3.5 billion years ago, all the way back in the Pre-Cambrian period, when rising magma solidified underneath the Earth's surface, forming granite intrusions. Over thousands of millions of years, these extremely hard, subterranean masses of granite, which are among the very oldest rocks on the face of the planet, were exposed, and then subjected to a variety of erosive forces, which created and then slowly expanded fractures in the once solid rock. Over time, enough fractures formed that entire chunks of the granite formations became detached, and these continued to be gradually sculpted into rounded forms.
Geologically, the area is very similar to the rounded boulderlands of the Alabama Hills of California (which I wrote about in my post on Lone Pine). Given that those hills were used as a backdrop in so many classic Hollywood movies set in India, the most notable of which being Gunga-Din, one wonders if some film personality had actually travelled to, or at least heard of, Hampi, and decided that the Alabama hills would make a good stand-in.
The landscape is one of the most bewildering and surreal that India has to offer, and even if it were not the location of one India's grandest historical sites, it would still be worthwhile traveling hundreds of kilometers just to run around on the boulders....and yet, what makes Hampi so outstanding is that, for someone who is interested in both landscapes and history, it provides a gigantic dose of both. The ruins of Vijayanagara are spread over an area of 25 square kilometers, with a number of other settlements, such as Kamalapura and Anegondi, which were suburbs of the capital city and have numerous ruins of their own.
In its heyday, Vijayanagara was the largest, and presumably one of the richest, cities in India. It served as the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire from the early 14th century, until the middle of the 16th century, when the city was reduced to ruins virtually overnight. In some of India's most dramatic history, Vijayanagara's army was defeated at the battle of Talikota, after which the world's second largest city was left undefended and open to plunder. It was never reoccupied, and even to this day, the area has much smaller population than it did at the height of the Vijayanagara Empire.
I spent four days there, during which, even though I would usually be up and about exploring for twelve hours at a time, I didn't even come close to seeing everything.
The massive gopura, of ceremonial gateway, of Hampi's Virupaksha Temple, in nice late afternoon lighting. The gopura itself is, at least by the standard of the rest of Hampi area, is not very old at all, dating only from the early part of the 19th century. Oddly, it's not known exactly who built it. The temple that it serves as an entrance to, however, predates the founding of the Vijayanagara empire by around six hundred years, though most of the extant structures are from the 16th century. Virupaksha is a form of Shiva, and the temple venerates both him and a local goddess named Pampa, who is regarded as Virupaksha's consort. In the ruined city, there are no less than four massive temple complexes, each of them constituting small cities unto themselves, complete with their own reservoirs and the remains of large bazaars. However, the only one that remains a site of active worship is the Virupaksha Temple....It was also the only major site that I never went into. I would always leave my hotel room planning to visit the temple as I was coming back, but then I would wind up doing more during the day than I had planned, and night would have fallen by the time I was returning...It's very easy to get sidetracked in Hampi.
15th century double storied gateway, near the summit of Hemakuta Hill, behind the Virupaksha Temple complex. The gateway once served as part of a path that lead over the hill and down towards the Tungabhadra river, which formed the northern boundary of the city.
Sasivekalu, or Mustard Seed, Ganesha, in a shrine on the opposite side of Hemakuta Hill from Hampi. The idol dates from the very early 16th century. He's holding a piece of his broken tusk, a goad for driving cattle, a ball of sweets, and a noose. In this depiction, his belly is bulging even further than it usually is (Ganesh is not viewed as a model of self control as far as his food habits go.) He has that cobra tied around his stomach because, in one story, he ate so much that he very nearly exploded, and only managed to keep his belly from popping by catching a snake and tying it around himself like a belt (though, on this statue, he seems to have tucked the snake into a belt he was already wearing.) The locals refer to this idol as the Sasivekalu Ganesha because the statue's belly is round like a mustard seed.
Perhaps Hampi's most iconic statue, a 22 foot tall image of Narasimha, Vishnu's wrathful form. In this depiction, Narasimha meditates after having just killed the demon Hiranyakashipu. He once had an idol of Lakshmi with him, though it has since been removed. The statue was commissioned in the early 16th century by Krishnadevaraya, the third emperor of Vijayanagara's Tuluva dynasty, who is generally regarded as the empire's greatest builder and most able ruler.
Pavilion and reflection in an old reservoir at dusk. This was next to a ruined bazaar that leads up to Hampi's Krishna Temple complex. Note the colonnade in the background, which was once part of a line of shops that extended along either side of a road that leads to the front of the temple.
Big boulders and the Tungabhadra. This is along the Northern edge of the ruined city. The trail from the modern village of Hampi to some of the more famous temples leads along the side of the river. The views are none too shabby...
More granite across the Tungabhadra. Though the area possess a tumultuous, cataclysmic appearance, the rocky hills are actually not crumbling very quickly at all; they've just been at it so long that they look like they're constantly in the middle of an earthquake. In reality the region has been geologically dead for hundreds of millions of years.
A minor shrine across the river, at the base of a large boulder mound. Note the small stairway leading up to the ruin, which gives some impression of the size of the boulders. In the Hampi area, there are small ruins and 14-16th century carvings virtually around every corner.
Garuda shrine in the shape of a chariot in the Vitthala temple complex. Dating from the mid 16th century, it is perhaps the most famous building in Hampi, and in all of Karnataka, for that matter (it features on many a tourist pamphlet). The God Vitthala is a Kannada rendition of Vithoba, a form of Vishnu who is worshipped in the southern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Garuda is Vishnu's mount.
A different view on the stone chariot. The shrine once had a brick tower, and still did as of the middle of the 19th century, though it disappeared sometime after that. Also, the two elephants which seem to be pulling the chariot along are recent additions. I've seen a picture from the 1850s of what the shrine looked like back when it still had a tower, and I would say that it actually looks better without it.
The incredible open mandapa, or pillared hall, of the Vitthala temple, dating from around the same period as the stone chariot. The Vitthala temple is generally regarded as the crowning achievement of Vijayanagara architecture, and tends to be the "must see" attraction at Hampi. It's interesting, then, that it is unknown who built the original temple. This mandapa, along with the chariot, are actually extensions of the earlier shrine, which were made by a succession of emperors and important people in the Vijayanagara court over the course of the 16th century. It's surprising that such seemingly delicate statuary should have survived the vicissitudes of the 16th century, when the Deccan Sultans apparently plundered Vijayanagara to such an extent that it funded many of their most extravagant building projects. Certainly, a few well placed canon shots into this mandapa would wreck fairly spectacular destruction, yet there does not seem to be much evidence of deliberate defacement. The reason for this may well be that the muslim kingdoms of the Deccan just weren't quite so iconoclastic as, for example, the rulers of Delhi in the north. It is more than likely that, just as Vijayanagara employed large numbers of Muslim troops, the Deccan Sultans almost certainly had large numbers of Hindus among their ranks, which would have made the ransacking of Hindu temples a risky political move. Though the Sultanate troops apparently engaged in a huge amount of looting and plundering (along with local bandits who arrive at the scene first, after the Vijayanagara defeat at Talikota but before the Sultanate troops arrived), they seemed to have been more concerned with the riches of Vijayanagara than with its religion.
Closer on Vitthala columns and colonnettes (which is a real word, by the way). Each column is carved out of a single piece of granite. The colonnettes on the sides of the main shafts are said to ring with musical tones when tapped...a fact which signs at the site proudly proclaim, just before informing you that colonnette tapping is forbidden...actually, I'm not that bent out of shape about it. Apparently people would come and bang on the colonnettes with hammers.
One of the densely carved columns.
Columns of a secondary mandapa in the Vitthala temple complex carved with Yali's, mythical creatures which are said to be more powerful than lions or elephants. They can be depicted with any number of combinations of animal attributes. The Yali's in this picture seem to have lion-like bodies, but with heads that have elephant trunks and tusks.
Colonnade and bazaar street leading up to the Tiruvengalanatha temple complex, with Matanga hill in the background. During its heyday, Vijayanagara was one of the richest settlements on the planet, with much of the expenditures of the empire being lavished on the city. Its bazaars contained stalls selling not only agricultural products, but also luxury goods from all over the world. Though it can be assumed that the overwhelming majority these goods were looted at the time of the city's abrupt abandonment, small pieces of Ming Dynasty Chinese porcelain are still occasionally discovered.
Looking down on the skeleton of the Tiruvengalanatha temple complex from Matanga Hill. The temple is dedicated to a form of Vishnu, and was built in the 1530s by Achyuta Devaraya, the great Krishnadevaraya's younger brother, and the last effective ruler of the Vijayanagara empire before the fall of the capital city around twenty years after his death. He was succeeded by a series of weak rulers, who were maneuvered to the side by Aliya Ramaraya, Krishnadevaraya's son in law, who as regent was the de-facto ruler of the empire. Vijayanagara had been at war with the Deccan Sultans to the north on and off for some time, and Ramaraya decided that he would try and deal with the Sultanates through intrigue, meddling in their affairs in such a way as to play them off against each other (kind of like the plot for yojimbo or A fistfull of dollars, but on vastly greater scale.) But the ploy only worked for a short time: The Sultanates, which were generally at war with one another, realized what the regent was up to, and, in one of the very few times in their history when they acted in concert, combined their forces against Ramaraya, which resulted in the defeat of the Vijayanagara army and the abandonment of the city.
Looking from inside the temple, out through two gopuras, or ceremonial gateways, to the remnants of the bazaar outside, and a boulder hill beyond that. The Tiruvengalanatha temple lacks the architectural finery of its neighbour, the Vitthala complex. However, what it lacks for in detail it makes up for in sheer massiveness. The temple gives off much more of an impression of ancient hugeness than the Vittala Temple, though it is also in a worse state of repair.
Looking in the opposite direction, towards the center shrine of the temple.
Near the center of the temple complex, again, looking out, though the view through the gopuras is here obstructed by a small shrine. Note the highly dilapidated tower on top of the gateway. The towers in Vijayanagara were made of bricks with an outer coating of plaster, rather than granite, and unlike the solid stone constructions, which are made from some of the oldest and most durable rock on the face of the planet, the towers have not aged well.
A view through the 100-columned hall in the Tiruvengalanatha temple complex, which contains quite a few interesting shallow relief carvings.
I think this is a sequence from the Ramayana, where Hanuman encounters a sea monster by the name of Surasa, the mother of serpents, on his way to Lanka to free Sita. Surasa tells Hanuman that she wants to eat him, so Hanuman tells her that she can do so after he's completed his mission. However, the sea monster is having none of this, so Hanuman comes up with the expedient of shrinking himself to the size of a thumb, so that when the monster eats him, he's so small that he can immediately fly out of her ear.
I was never able to figure out what was happening here, other than that there's a fellow playing a flute on top of a big scorpion...there is much to be mystified at in Hampi...
A really big Nandi Bull.
Deep in the interior of Matanga Hill. Hampi is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, and for good reason. Most of the region is not exactly untouched. But there is one major aspect of the area which does not seem to have been exploited by tourist operators. The great boulder mounds of the Hampi region are honeycombed with enclosed chambers. As far as I can tell, most of the mounds have huge fractures in them, which can go down over a hundred feet, and are essentially caves. Given that I was alone, without gear, it wasn't really sensible for me to go exploring every yawning opening I came across, though it's surprising that, with the number of people who are attracted to the Hampi region simply for its rock climbing opportunities, that so relatively little attention is given to the labyrinthine interior's of its giant outcroppings. From just what little I was able to explore, I think it is highly likely that some of the larger boulder mounds may contain miles or even tens of miles of cave passages.
Even deeper inside a great fissure in the center of Matanga Hill, looking up at chokestones caught in a crack maybe a hundred feet above. Now, in this particular case, there was actually a stairway carved into the interior of the hill, which made exploring the chambers inside a not particularly dangerous proposition (I always carry a headlamp with me, and it came in handy here). I know absolutely nothing about who built the stairway, or to what purpose, other than that it allowed one to enter the hill by a narrow opening on one side, and then climb all the way through the outcropping and exit via a hole on the opposite side.
The view north from Matanga hill, out over the boulderlands of central Karnataka.
Watchtower in the so-called Zenana enclosure, which contains the majority of Vijayanagara's most famous secular architecture. The term Zenana, which means a place where the ladies of the court live, is misleading, as there's no indication that the area known as the Zenana Enclosure was used for that purpose. This is in the Royal Center of the ruined city, which is where the Vijayanagar court lived and ruled from.
The Lotus Mahal, in the Zenana Enclosure. The building is thought to have served as a council chamber. One of the striking things about Vijayanagara is the sharp contrast between the ruined city's religious and secular architecture. While the temples employ solely indigenous architectural principles, which had been developed in the space of over a thousand years by the South Indian empires preceding Vijayanagara, the designers of the city's secular buildings created a hybrid style that used both indigenous and Islamic methods. Case in point, the pavilion on which the Lotus Mahal stands in Hindu is style, as are the conical tops of the building, which resemble South Indian temple towers. However, the large arches that form the load bearing members of the palace are foreign imports.
Close on the archway that leads through the center of the Lotus Mahal. The wall in the background is what surrounds the Zenana Enclosure. Most of the defensive walls in Vijayanagara comprise two layers of rather ill-fitting granite masonry, in between which is a layer of earth. The masonry blacks aren't cemented, so the only thing that keeps them standing is the earthen layer in the middle.
The elephant stables of the Zenana Enclosure. One of Hampi's most iconic buildings, the stables are, again, in a hybrid style, with very Islamic looking arches. Each chamber was meant to hold two elephants, while the structure in the middle, which once had a tower that has since crumbled away, was meant for musicians. The green space in front of the stables was a parade ground, where troops and elephants would assemble for review by the Vijayanagar court.
A giant, nine foot tall Hanuman slab, in a small temple adjacent to the Zenana enclosure. Hanuman is known locally as Anjaneya, and is frequently believed to have been born on a hill just a few miles away from where this picture was taken. However, how this giant frieze wound up where it did is something of a mystery. It seems to have been dragged in from somewhere else, and the temple that it's in has nothing to do with Hanuman.
Carvings on the exterior of the Hazara Rama, or Thousand Ramas, temple. The Hazara Rama served as the royal chapel of the Vijayanagara rulers from the early part of the 15th century until the abandonment of the city. These reliefs stretch around the entire outside wall of the shrine, with what must be at least several tens of thousands of individual pictures. The sculptures are thought to depict the Mahanavami festival, the greatest celebration at Vijayanagara, during which the rulers prayed to the goddess Durga to give them victory in battle, as Ram had done in before his final fight with Ravana in the Ramayana. The festival apparently culminated in a giant procession. Note the horses, which are being led along by Central Asian muslim attendants.
Pilasters and sequences from the Ramayana, carved inside the Hazara Rama temple. Here, the emphasis is placed more on the quality of carvings than on architectural grandeur. Unlike Vijayanagara's vaster temple compounds in the Sacred Center of the city, which were meant to accommodate thousands of devotees, the Hazara Rama temple was clearly meant to serve a much more select set of worshippers.
More Ramayana scenes. These reliefs are read from left to right and from bottom to top. I suppose the entire epic could be read comic book style simply by walking around in the temple.
Inside the main shrine of the Hazara Rama temple. A depiction of Ganesh on a column which is, according to the excellent and highly recommended guide book Hampi Vijayanagara by John M Fritz and George Michell, made from an igneous rock called dolerite, which had to be brought to the site from elsewhere.
One of the towers in the Hazara Rama temple complex, with a fairly well preserved brick and plaster upper section. Note the many depictions of Hanuman on the lower, granite, part of the structure.
Shallow relief carvings on the Mahanavami platform. Dating from the 14th century, the Mahanavami Platform is believed to be where the rulers of Vijayanagar would offer sacrifices to Durga during the great festival. The carvings on the platform would seem to depict as much of courtly life as the artists could cram onto the granite panels. In the foreground, the illustrations include hunting scenes on the bottom tier, above which are numerous dancing girls, an elephant, a mythical Yali, and jugglers. In the background are more hunting scenes, along with horses, and also camels in front of palm trees.This simple but engaging style of carving is unique to Vijayanagara.
A step-well, in the vicinity of the Mahanavami Platform, which was discovered only in the 1980s. The whole ruined city of Vijayanagara, along with its suburbs, remain very active archeological sites. While I was there, I saw a number of foundations of buildings in the Royal Center which had only come to light in the past few years.
Wow, that was a long one...and what I posted here are just a few of the highlights! One could profitably spend months in Hampi.
So, my next post is going to be on one of the suburban settlements. Stay tuned!