Hampi ‘rocks’ .. Literally so !

January 1565. That windswept street in front of the Virupaksha Temple looks deserted at best. That’s how a gloomy, cloudy day should end perhaps ! End of Business as usual though; people moving back to their homes after a day’s work at the fields and in the bazaars, a few oxen carts mingling about with leftovers from the day’s sales, shops closing, temples getting ready for the evening rituals; some of them starting to light their lamps already, children enjoying their last few playful moments before darkness would sweep in.

And yet, unbeknownst to all, darkness was indeed beginning to sweep in on the last few moments of glory that the city was to enjoy; the last few moments of it’s unperturbed existence as well.

A group of folks getting back from the bazaar can be heard talking. “So what if the king has been on war with the ( Dakhan ) sultanate since the whole of last month. It should lead to our victory against them for sure !”. His tone betrays his lack of confidence though, for this time, all 5 of those kingdoms have combined against the empire. “At the worst”, he goes on, “in the event of a loss, a settlement may have to be ratified by payment of huge sums as has happened in the past. The city has been in stable existence for more than last 2 centuries without any harm coming to it, and our empire right now is stronger than ever. What can happen to us I say ! Nothing changes in our lives and in this city, we are safe !”

It’s as if by some cruel turn of fate, that all of a sudden around a corner, they come across a scraggly and haggard looking soldier who drops the ominous news. The king has been killed in battle and the only surviving royalty, his younger brother, ran back from the battlefield and is now preparing to leave the city with his riches and his followers. Even as he breaks the news, he points towards the cloud of dust that is now seen blowing somewhere outside the city. Whether it signals the remaining troops coming in or fleeing it, he doesn’t know.

His  words spread like wildfire and within no time, people start coming out of their homes and gathering on the streets. They are shocked and too confused to react, praying to the Gods that this be a rumor and nothing more.

It starts as a murmur but takes shape of panic in no time. A lazy evening turns into a frenzy. With the city gates unguarded, and their oxen gone along with the army train, most people have no option but to hide their valuables in whatever way they could, and wait for the worst to get over.

They had no idea.

The local robbers made their mark the next day, looting from shops and from houses, laying their hands on whatever they could. It would take one more day, however, to signal the beginning of the end, when advance troops of the conquering army begin entering the city; looting, murdering, and plundering at will. The carnage went on for days and nights together; wherein hammer, sword and fire reigned supreme. Determined to destroy forever the glory and splendor of this most powerful kingdom that united all that was there to the south of the river Krishna, their hatred knew no bounds in ravaging the art and architecture of the native lands.

They had succeeded to a great extent when they left after 6 months.

And yet, not all was lost. Forgotten for a long time, yes, but not lost. The phoenix rose from the ashes once again with the re-discovery of this once forgotten city, bit by bit, around a century and a half after it was destroyed. Hampi still succeeds in surprising us, throwing up bits of it’s art and architecture even as excavations continue, offering us but only a glimpse of what was and what could have been had it survived all this long.

It is into the arms of this bruised and crest-fallen lady that I find myself ensconced one fine Saturday morning. She may have been relieved of most of her ornaments, but she looks stunning nevertheless. A beautiful drive through green fields and ‘golden’ rocks ( early morning light ) after getting down at the Hospet railway station, and then a sudden turn on this rocky and hilly terrain reveals glimpses of the Virupaksha temple and most of the monuments surrounding it; I find myself awestruck all of a sudden at this timeless beauty which beckons one and all from far-away lands, just as she used to back in those days !

The bazaar next to the Virupaksha temple ( aptly called Hampi Bazaar ) is where tourists put themselves up on this side of the Tungabhadra river. Convenient but basic home-stays, including some which provide food as well ( of the local as well as the continental variety ), dot the bazaar, and so do small home establishments which dish out only the local fare for you. I must not forget to mention the famous ‘Mango Tree’ restaurant which is on this side of the river as well, and dishes out Israeli, Mediterranean cuisine among others. Hampi is thronged by foreigners by the droves !

We put ourselves inside one such guest house bang on the river ( Venu Guest House, 9448191626; booked through makemytrip.com ). It has decently clean rooms and beds, and the owner is quite co-operative. There’s a small eatery on the terrace, with views of the river on one side, and that of the Virupaksha temple gopuram ( tower ) on the other. All in all, a decent bargain.

Since Virupaksha temple is so close by, it’s imperative that you will start off your trip here. Combine it with a small trek over the Hemakuta hill just beside, to view other temples/monuments therein. You can also postpone the latter for sunset just as we did, since the hill is a good sunset point as well, and affords you nicely lit views of both the temple gopurams ( towers ) during the evening. And oh, legend has it that it was on this very hill that the famous saint Vidyaranya ( Madhavacharya ) used to reside and meditate. The patron saint who had suggested establishing of the empire here, and who later presided as it’s chief priest, was revered quite much by the kings. The Virupaksha temple owes much of it’s present structure to that same reverence.

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Inside the Virupaksha Temple, including both it's entrance gates/towers.
Inside the Virupaksha Temple, including both it’s entrance gates/towers. Supposedly, gilded back in those days !
and from the outside ... these colonnaded halls on both sides of the street serving as lodges as well as shops.
and from the outside … these colonnaded halls on both sides of the street served as lodges as well as shops.

Afternoons are hot in Hampi, and this was February ! The tour of the temple past us, our hunger pangs and the heat led us straight to the ‘Mango Tree’ restaurant just outside. A lunch and a siesta later, we were ready again, just as the sun started showing some signs of respite. You can, of course, utilize the afternoon to take a rickshaw ( tuktuk ) and do a quick tour ( recce ) of the major attractions in this city, of which there are many. You can then pick and choose as to where you would like to spend more of your time, which is quite important for us photographer folks. You will need a tuktuk for any kind of tour anyway, or you can rent a bicycle if your map asks you to explore on your own. The time on your hand, as well as your curiosity, is of essence here !

We decided to do the recce on the 2nd and last day of our tour, for we were sure we would return back again sometime, and know where to go. Hampi is hardly possible to be covered entirely on a 2-day tour, even if you’re just on a touristy visit. Stay for 4 days at least if you want to see it all, but I’m sure it will still tire you even then ! It’s the capital of an ancient and the most powerful kingdom south of the river Krishna back in those days ! What else do you expect 😉 ?

My blabbering apart, we split into groups for our first evening, each deciding to do their own thing. My group headed straight on the street in front of the Virupaksha. It’s almost a mile long, or may be a little more, flanked by colonnaded balconies and verandas on both sides. Walk past them, and you can imagine that very bazaar that I talked about in the beginning of this monologue ! It was a bazaar alright, and a magnificent one at that ! Don’t take my words for it, but of that traveler Domingo Paes, a Portuguese, in the city during the reign of Krishna Deva Raya, “In this city you will find men belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it has, and the many precious stones there … the streets and markets are full of laden oxen without count, and in many streets you come upon so many of them that you have to wait for them to pass, or else have to go by another way !”

The street leads you to a massive statue of the Nandi bull at the end of it, and from hereon we took a right turn to start climbing atop the Matanga hill, named after the sage Matanga who meditated here. It’s at least an half an hr to 45 mins of a climb which leads you to the top, from where you can watch awesome views of the sun setting on the city. The trek is moderate and you have direction arrows guiding your way for the most part. The view just keeps getting better and better as you climb, so take rest as you please and enjoy the same from your perch !

Virupaksha temple and the street in front, as seen from a distance while on your way to the Matanga Hill summit.
Virupaksha temple and the street in front, as seen from a distance while on your way to the Matanga Hill summit.

At one point, you can see the Achutaraya temple down below and the famous ‘courtesan’ street in front of it. The street has it’s share of magnificence and opulence in being a market for diamonds, rubies and the jewels alike. In other words of the traveler Domingo, “In this street live many merchants, and there you will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and cloths, and every other sort of thing there is on Earth and that you may wish to buy !”. The courtesans did have a gala stay and an exalted status I’d say !

Achyutaraya Temple and the courtesan street in front of it, including the sacred tank area. This was from a short distance below the summit.
Achyutaraya Temple and the ‘Sule’, or courtesan street in front of it, including the sacred tank area. This was from a short distance below the summit.

Move a little further up ( we had to find our way for a bit ), and you reach the summit with a ruined temple on top. What’s better, we perched ourselves on the temple terrace and enjoyed a relaxing sunset, trying to take in the panoramic view all around and below us. Starting from the Krishna Swamy Temple towards the left, to Virupaksha Temple further right, on to the Tungabhadra river, and the Anegondi hills beyond it.  What a view it must have been during the heydays of the empire !

Sunset from atop the Matanga Hill ! Virupaksha temple to the right again.
Sunset from atop the Matanga Hill ! Virupaksha temple to the right again. You may have to blow up and see !

While getting back, we tried another route ( what with a properly laid staircase ), supposedly the actual and more comfortable way up as well, but we ended up losing our way among the shrubs once we came down. We did have a sense of direction though, and we finally landed up on the road in front of the Krishna Swamy temple, traversing that centuries old bazaar in front of it. We learnt later on that the bazaar was still under excavation !

The walk from Krishna Swamy temple to our abode near Virupaksha was a short one, and we enjoyed every bit of the solitude and cool breeze on our faces; watching the changing colors of the sky above, and the tourists cycling past us, while some were walking along. We had our dinner at Mango Tree once again; a Mediterranean spread this time. It was lavish and we stuffed ourselves the best we could. A bit of night photography later again in front of the Virupaksha temple, and after a little talk on astro photography, we gave up on ourselves for the day and resigned to our rooms.

It was going to be an early morning.

We woke up before sunrise, and after the usual cleansing acts, huddled ourselves in 2 auto-rickshaws ( tuktuks ) which were to take us close to a beautiful sunrise point ( Malyavantha Hill ). We arrived not later than half an hour later. There was a large temple at the spot ( dedicated to Lord Rama ). We skirted past the same, and guided by our tuktuk friends, started ascending a staircase on to another dilapidated structure close by. 10 minutes past, we were on top of the old structure that was to be our vantage point for the beautiful sunrise view. We fixed up our cameras on our tripods, and waited for the sky to turn reddish. We were joined by few other small groups as time elapsed, while I could see one tourist in meditation pose on the rocks below. We might have inadvertently disturbed her practice, but it’s a tourist place after all !

It was still dark when we had ascended, but as the morning sun came up, it revealed a stunning vista in front of us. All around were boulder strewn hills that this terrain is so famous for, and which made it impregnable back then. Rocks of all shapes and sizes adorned them, arranged as if somebody had left all of them in a haste, perhaps after being used in one of those wars in Hindu Mythology that Hampi is so famous for. Some of us would surely remember Kishkinda from the Ramayana epic. This is it !

When the sun was still coming up !
When the sun was still coming up !
and after it did !
and after it did !

I turned back and I could see the entire compound of the Ranganatha Swamy temple down below. This is the same temple that we passed earlier on our way to the sunrise point. Built during the VijayNagar reign, it’s quite magnificent and expansive, and deserves a visit.

The Ranganatha Swamy Temple below !
The Ranganatha Swamy Temple below !
Sunrise from behind the rocks .. not my idea though !
Sunrise from behind the rocks .. not my idea though !

Having spent close to a couple of hours at this place now, and having photographed to our fill, we came down and took our tuktuks for a short drive to one of the most magnificent edifices of this city, the Vitthala Swamy temple ( of the stone chariot fame ). The tuktuks dropped us on the main road, from where we had to walk little more than a kilometer to reach the main temple complex. On the way, we stopped at a few other smaller ( but no less imposing ) mandapas ; pillared halls that were used for various purposes during those days of yore.

Just before the main temple complex is it’s bazaar area and the sacred Lokapavani tank. The tank, especially, presents for a very pretty picture in the morning, and one can click it with the temple ( also lit up beautifully ) in the background. The bazaar here was meant for ‘horse-trading’, which was a very important and big business back in those days, given the importance of these animals during war. The VijayNagar kings had to compete with Bijapur sultans for the best quality horses that used to come from Persia through Goa, which came under Portuguese domination somewhere in the 1st half of the 16th century. Sure enough, the Portuguese benefited a lot from a stable and prosperous VijayNagar.

The Lokapavani tank, with the sun shining so beautifully on it !
The Lokapavani tank, with the morning sun shining so beautifully on it !
Vijaya Vithala temple - first view - That burnt down and cracked up entrance tower.
Vijaya Vithala temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu – first view – That burnt down and cracked up entrance tower.

Enter Vitthala Swamy temple, and it’s magnificent and imposing architecture spellbinds you ! This temple had been in construction for over 100 years when devastation struck in 1565. Going by the fact that it then represented the epitome of VijayNagar art and architecture, it did receive it’s fair share of wrath as well when the end began. The raiders could not hammer and chisel enough, and tried to burn the temple down. A look at the blacked out gopura ( entrance tower ) still gives an impression that the marauders have just left; and yet, centuries have passed. The stone chariot still bears marks of the damage inflicted, as do the other buildings throughout the city; the most common sight being that of elephants’ trunks that were hacked off. I read somewhere that you could rotate those stone wheels of the chariot until some time back, when they were cemented into place to prevent any further damage. They’re awesome !

That world famous stone chariot - temple of Lord Garuda, the vahana of Lord Vishnu.
That world famous stone chariot – temple of Lord Garuda, the vahana of Lord Vishnu. Mark the cut off elephant trunks. Blow up the pic if need be.
Another close perspective with the sun rising above ! Aren't they marvels in stone :-) ?
Another close perspective with the sun rising above ! Aren’t they marvels in stone 🙂 ?

It would have been a breathtaking sight to behold all these marvels in all their glory, and yet, they still take your breath away ! I was surprised to see native German guides in the complex, which just goes to show how popular this place is with the tourists. I could see the German group standing in front of the musical pillars, which is another marvel that this temple is famous for. You can’t, however, touch or tap those pillars anymore. Apart from the human touch, constant exposure to natures’ elements have weakened parts of the structure, as I could see renovation work in progress too.

Wonder how old this tree is, and what it has witnessed .... perhaps nothing !
Wonder how old this tree is, and what it has witnessed …. perhaps nothing !
Some drama !!
Some drama !!

We were inside the temple complex for a little more than an hour, before we were forced out by some of the senior members of our group ! Given time, I would have loved to spend couple of hours more inside the complex, but the sun was already getting a little too high and hot for photography, and besides, we had to vacate our rooms. We were to catch the evening train back to Bangalore.

We proceeded on our way back to our abode close to the Virupaksha, but this time, instead of taking the tuktuk, we walked back from the Vitthala temple. It’s about a half hour walk, but can stretch more and more, depending on your interest in the structures that you encounter on your way. I can remember one of the city’s magnificent gates, and the king’s balance among a few others; and oh, how can I forget crossing the Achutaraya temple and the courtesan street in front of it. I have an eye for this temple on my next visit to Hampi, but right now, I just needed to walk past and enjoy the rockies on the other side of the Tungabhadra. We could have tried taking one of the coracles to Virupaksha, but we didn’t have enough time to look for them.

One of the lesser known temples on our way back ... someday i'll return to picture all these in leisure. Right now, the sun was pretty high so I gave my camera some rest !
One of the lesser known temples on our way back … someday i’ll return to picture all these in leisure. Right now, the sun was pretty high so I gave my camera some rest !

We returned to our rooms through the same bazaar street in front of the Virupaksha that I talked about earlier. After vacating our rooms, and having our stomachs filled up with the local fare nearby ( try them paddus ! ), we took our tuktuks yet again for a short recce of the city for our next visit. Yes, there was lot more to cover ! Among the more important monuments, we visited the Krishna Swamy temple ( impressive/detailed architecture ), the Ugra Narasimha statue and the huge Shiva Linga nearby ( destruction evident on the former; it’s nose cut off and the statue of Goddess Lakshmi hacked off ), the royal palace enclosure ( totally despoiled ), the underground Shiva Temple, the nobles’ quarters, the Hazara Rama temple and the Pan Supari bazaar in front of it, the Mahanavami Dibba ( from where the king would see over the 9 day long Mahanavami celebrations; vivid descriptions of the same exist in Paes’ narrative ), the Lotus mahal ( probably used by the king for deliberations with his minsters; some say it was for the ladies of the harem, enclosed within the zenana), the famous elephant’s stables for the king’s royal elephants, the guards’ rooms nearby ( now a museum ).

Phew ! All this in a matter of an hour or two, it was really a whirlwind acquaintance tour as it was supposed to be. Still, we could cover only about 60% of the sites, which again testifies to the fact that Hampi commands a week’s itinerary if done leisurely, but only for the historically inclined !

Sun was high up on the sky, shining pretty bright as we returned back to our quarters, but not before having a nice relaxed lunch on the other side of the Tungabhadra. This other side of the river ( known as Virupapur Gadde ) is where you must settle yourself if you are game for non-veg food and liquor, coz you can’t have them on the Virupaksha side ( my advice would be to experience stay at both sides ). Virupapur Gadde also has more stay and dining options as compared to the Hampi Bazaar area where we had put up, and there is a touristy flea market feel to it ( mini-Goa of sorts ! ). And it is here that civilization existed before the empire came into being. You still have a few vestiges left that you can decide to explore here in Anegondi, and well, if you can, try to find this guide named ‘Virupaksha’ in the temple. I’ve heard about the interesting anecdotes of this place that he can enthrall you with, and you may also get to meet some of the descendants of the royal family who stay put in Anegondi. This, I didn’t know, until I got back from the tour. This guy sounds quite interesting for sure, so you might want to look for him !

Meanwhile, our agenda for the evening was to climb on the Hemakuta hill near Virupaksha, and enjoy the evening light playing up on the temple gopuras. The hill itself, however, has quite a few temples and other structures of interest, and gives ample opportunities for photography. Do try covering it on one of the evenings, and you will savor the sunset view I’m sure. We did !

The Virupaksha temple again, amidst the setting sun !
The Virupaksha temple again, amidst the setting sun !
and then, from between those rocks !
and then, from between those rocks !
That lone protector of the last remaining vestiges of the empire !
That lone protector of the last remaining vestiges of the empire !
One of the more famous perspectives from atop the hill !
One of the more famous perspectives from atop the hill !
and then, when the sun finally set on Hampi and our trip !
When the sun finally set on Hampi and on our trip !

and then, just as she had welcomed me into her ruins, Hampi bode me farewell as our weekend tour wound off to a sudden end. Not having enough of her, I left with a promise to get back and explore more, and keep up with photographing her marvels. I know I’ll be heading back again sometime soon. Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal ( another set of UNESCO heritage sites ), are not very far either !

So long !

A map for your reference, just to show the scale of this place and it’s monuments. It’s in no way complete, but lists the more important ones for sure.

Your guide in Hampi !
Your guide in Hampi !
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