First settled in the 14th century by the brothers Harihara and Bukka, the Vijayanagara Empire reached its zenith under the rule of Krishna Deva Raya in the 16th century. In the preceding years, the incumbents to the throne had built an impressive series of temple, palaces and monuments around their capital. A lost war, led to the sudden desertion and subsequent ruin of the capital. Nevertheless, what remains today is testimony to the grandeur and skill of the kings and artisans of those times.
With the monsoon clouds providing dramatic backdrops, our cameras were going berserk. Every stone, every gate, every pathway had a million stories to tell. But no story seems more evocative than that of the Courtesan’s Street (view a 360° panorama here). Said to be the liveliest of all streets in Hampi, it’s pavilions showcased merchandise from far off lands. Food stalls, knick knacks and performances by dancing girls were the highlight of evenings. If one were to close their eyes and listen carefully, perhaps the laughing of the dancing girls and the tinkle of their anklets could still be heard. And as if on cue, a group of wild horses materialize out of nowhere and disappear into the temple.
North East towards to the river is the Vittala Temple complex. Thirty seconds into it comes a voice, “Medam faarin ninchi vacchindi, photo teestamu!” (Madam is a foreigner, lets take a picture with her).A Telugu family of fourteen has taken a fancy to MB and are crowding her for a picture. The poor girl from Uttarakhand has no option but to oblige while BB and I are rolling over in laughter again. The architecture and carving at the Vittala Temple is no laughing matter though.
The stone chariot within the compound is a shrine in itself and a work of years of painstaking labour. “Come, I will show you musical pillars, 50 rupees only.” We decide to oblige the obviously unofficial guide. He leads us to the Maha Mandapa or the chief hall and strikes the pillars and hopes that we will hear Sa-re-ga-ma. We only hear a thin metal rod striking stone. That or we are tone deaf.
A walk down the riverbank, and a ride in a coracle later we are chomping on the delectable pizzas straight from a wood fired oven. Had it not been for the paddy fields and the sound of hymns from the temples in the air – I could have very well been in Italy.
The next morning, we are face to face with the Angry God – The statue of Ugra Narasimha celebrates the legend of Prahalad who was rescued from his evil father by Vishnu, who took the form of a man-beast. Seated on (now ruined) coils of the seven headed serpent ‘Sesha’ and crowned by the still swollen clouds, the statue did look terrifying. Down the road from here lie the Southern group of monuments, or the Royal Enclosure. Impressive as they are, especially the Hazara Rama temple and the outlying palaces in their well manicured lawns do not evoke the same feeling as the ones set among the boulders by the riverside.
We head to the Hemkuta hill, above the Virupaksha temple and the main bazaar. Littered with shrines and cenotaphs from various eras, it is perhaps the most tranquil spot in all of Hampi. It affords a marvellous view of the temple and its surroundings. The three of us wander on our own atop the hill and I come across this little Hanuman temple when I have my ‘Hampi moment’.
The setting sun has set the grey clouds alight. Birds return home and the only sound is wind weaving its way through the boulders, laden with the chime of the temple bells. I sit there alone, watching the changing colours narrate long forgotten stories of valour, grandeur, beauty and defeat.
Useful Info on Hampi
Location – 15.335°N 76.462°E
Access – Nearest railhead is Hospet. Overnight trains from Goa, Hyderabad or Bangalore are the best ways to reach Hospet. From Hospet, autorickshaws will drop you to Hampi Main Bazaar in about 30 mins.
Eat / Drink – Mango Tree is by far the best place to eat in Hampi. Set on the river bank, the tables are arranged on steps leading to the water. It is an attraction on its own. To get there, follow the signs leading west from the ferry crossing. In the Main Bazaar, the German Bakery is a good all day eating option along with several South Indian restaurants cooking fresh Idlis, Dosa and Vadai all day.
Other Tips – October to February is the best time to visit. It is also the most crowded and expensive time to go. We went in late September and the last of the monsoons laid down a special spectacle for us. Apart from visiting the main temple and palace complexes, do visit the Anjaneyadri Hill on the north bank of the river. Legend has it that Hanuman was born on hill, but the view from there is worth a climb even if you are an atheist like me. This website is perhaps the best resource on Hampi. One can also visit the Daroji Bear sanctuary, a unique place providing shelter to the dwindling numbers of Sloth Bears in India. Owing to its religious significance, the main Hampi village is a no-alcohol zone. However, resort owners in Virapuragadde will oblige on advance notice.