Hampi : A Tale of Many Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” The opening words from Charles Dickens’ novel “The Tale of Two Cities,” scrolled across our intrepid traveler, 23-year-old Simon Johnson’s mind as he stood on the sun-bleached flagstones.

Hampi was the stuff of dreams. It was sheer poetry carved in stone, telling a tale of many worlds that were unified under one mighty kingdom. For Simon, being in the very place where the illustrious King Krishna Devaraya once walked was a mind-bending experience. He had always wanted to visit this place, having been brought up on tales and legends of Hampi, courtesy his mother who had worked as a volunteer in Hampi. His mother, Faye, had come to Hampi decades ago as part of an NGO focused on educating rural kids. She had lived with the villagers and was privy to all the folktales surrounding Hampi, and as a result Simon’s childhood was filled with stories of fearsome kings and powerful gods.

He wanted to relive those fables, the stories of those larger-than-life Vijayanagara kings that seemed impossible but were very real. Hear his travel tale as we spin you around on the glories of the Vijayanagara empire.

On the Vijayanagara Trail: Virupaksha Temple
“As I stood in front of the 7th century Virupaksha
Temple, a small shrine that expanded into a magnificent
work of architecture during the 14th century, I could
only be awed.”

Decorated with elaborately carved pillars, and a soaring gopuram, the Virupaksha Temple is the oldest and continuously functioning temple in Hampi.

Running his fingers along the curlicues on the pillars, Simon looked up at the ceiling, which still shimmered with some of the last remaining murals of Vijayanagara art dating back to the 16th century. As his eyes traced the intricate brush strokes, his mind wandered to the stories he had read about Hampi, which had mesmerized him enough to make the trip.

Imagine this, says Simon. “Can you see richly dressed men and women walking through the streets of Hampi Bazaar in front of the temple? There’s so much history that you can just breath it!”      And he is right.
Hampi was a centre of trade for spices and cotton, and said to be so rich that gold and silver were used as currency while rubies and diamonds were hawked as common wares.

Legends and folklore: The Royal Enclosure
Let’s follow Simon as he now winds his way on his rented cycle to the Royal Enclosure. He remembers a story behind the name of Hampi that his mother had narrated to him even as the rocky terrain flies by.

Why Hampi is Hampi: According to folklore, Goddess Pampa, or Hampe in Kannada, was a staunch devotee of Shiva, the God of Destruction. Impressed by her devotion, Shiva granted her wish to marry him. Hampi is derived from the name Pampapathi, which is another name for Shiva.

Follow Simon as he climbs up the majestic Hemkunta Hill, the spot where legend says that Shiva and Parvathi were blessed with a shower of gold from heaven as they were married. There’s a temple dedicated to Parvati atop the hill, and it appears surreal in the buttery rays of the sun.

Soon, Simon reached the Royal Enclosure. Wide-eyed at the sight that greeted him, he parked his cycle and stood looking at the remains of palaces, water tanks, granaries, durbar halls, and temples that lay sprawled before him. This was where generations of the royal family laughed, fought, shed tears, and celebrated life.

But first, come with us as he goes to the famed Hazara Rama Temple near the entrance. How many tales will Hampi tell if it could speak? Probably one too many, Simon thought as he stood at the entrance of the Hazara Rama temple right next to the Royal Enclosure.

In front of him unfolded scene after detailed scene from the Ramayana, carefully carved by someone’s loving hands sometime in the 16th century. Its intricate bas-relief detailing was breathtaking while the black stone pillared hall inside was alive with sculptures of Krishna, Ganesha and various other gods.
It was nearly evening and the sun slanted across the remains of the Royal Enclosure. “Look at the intelligent and complex water supply and drainage system! So far ahead of its times…”
Simon is spellbound. Reaching the Durbar Hall, he saw vestiges of a bygone grandeur in the massive pillar stumps, large wooden base of the audience hall, and the remains of a crumbling staircase. What a marvellous sight this place would have made with its original 100 pillars intact, resonating with the King’s voice during the day as he addressed the public and his court, and with that of performers as dancers, musicians, and jugglers livened up dusky evenings like this one.

Let’s move on to Pushkarini, the stepwell right next to the Durbar Hall. Simon traces the perfect geometrical symmetry of the steps that led into the tank of water in the centre. Used for religious and ceremonial purposes, these ornate tanks now stood alone, waiting to receive the kings and priests who would never come.

The sun sets on an empire: Mahanavami Dibba

Finally, Simon came to his last stop for the day – the Mahanavami Dibba, a massive platform that was used as a viewing platform from where the king enjoyed festivities, games, and other activities. This is where Vijayanagara came together to celebrate Navaratri and Dussehra with great splendour. The carvings on the platform reveal a people full of life, tinged with the haughtiness that comes with knowing that their king was invincible. Friezes of dancing women, fighting soldiers, visitors from foreign lands, all told a tale of a life well lived.

From atop the Mahanavami Dibba, Simon could see the spread of the Royal Enclosure, and beyond. He felt a tug at his heart with the knowledge that all the celebrations eventually came to a violent end.

The history of Hampi’s fall: Krishna Devaraya and his men had stood tall against the Deccan armies until their fortunes turned at the bloody Battle of Talikota in 1565.

In a heartbreaking twist, a couple of generals who were with the Vijayanagara army turned traitors and joined the Sultanate side. That was the beginning of the end for the people of Hampi. There were no more revelries and no more festivals celebrated ever again as the Sultanates plundered and razed the kingdom to the ground over the next five months. Fires raged, swords beheaded hundreds, palaces and temples crumbled. The destruction was immense and complete.

When the dust had settled and the blood had dried, Tirumala Deva Raya, Krishna Devaraya’s son-in-law, picked up the pieces. He set up the Aravidu Dynasty in Penukonda and tried to revive the glory of the Vijayanagara Empire. But it never quite reached the heights it once enjoyed and lay forgotten until the 19th century when archaeologists and historians unearthed its skeletons.

These nuggets of information swirled through Simon’s mind as the rose tinted rays of the setting sun fell over all the structures making them seem otherworldly. Never before had he felt haunted by a place as much as this. The broken columns and cracked figurines seemed to be telling their secrets, standing witness to an era that had seen the peak of glory to the nadir of darkness. But Simon couldn’t hear their words. Nobody ever would.

The wind picked up as Simon now made his way back to his hostel. He had one more day in Hampi. One more day of stories and legends. But listening to all of them was impossible. Because Hampi needs not two days but a lifetime. Because it had the best of times, and the worst of times.

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