Climb any boulder-toppled mountain around the ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire and you can see the dizzying scale of the Hindu conquerors' glory; Hampi was the capital of a kingdom that covered the whole of southern India. Little of the kingdom's riches remain; now the mud huts of gypsies squat under the boulders where noblemen once stood, and the double decker shopfronts of the bazaar where diamonds were once traded by the kilo is now geared solely towards profiting from Western tourists and domestic pilgrims. Away from the hubbub and hassle of the bazaar, Hampi possesses a romantic, hypnotic desolation. You'll need at least a full day to get a flavour of the place, but for many visitors the chilled-out vibe has a magnetic attraction, and some end up staying for weeks.
The road from the west comes over Hemakuta Hill, overlooking the sacred centre of Vijayanagar (the 'Town of Victory'), with the Virupaksha Temple and the Tungabhadra River to its north. On the hill are two large monolithic Ganesh sculptures and some small temples. The road runs down to the village and the once world-famous market place. You can now only see the wide pathway running east from the towering
with its nine-storey
, to where the bazaar once hummed with activity. The temple is still in use; note the interesting paintings on the
You can walk along the river bank (1500 m) to the famous Vitthala Temple. The path is easy and passes several interesting ruins including small 'cave' temples - worthwhile with a guide. Alternatively, a road skirts the Royal Enclosure to the south and goes all the way to the Vitthala Temple. On the way back (especially if it's at sunset) it's worth stopping to see
, on a hilltop, with its Dravidian style, quiet atmosphere and excellent view of the countryside from the rocks above.
, which leads to the Tiruvengalanatha Temple 400 m to the south, the riverside path goes near
, where it is said that Sita's jewels, dropped as she was abducted by the demon Ravana, were hidden by Sugriva. There are good views of the ancient ruined bridge to the east, and nearby the path continues past the only early period Vaishnavite shrine, the 14th-century
is at the end of the path as it approaches the Vitthala Temple. It is said that the
rulers were weighed against gold, jewels and food, which were then distributed to Brahmins.
a World Heritage Monument, is dedicated to Vishnu. It stands in a rectangular courtyard enclosed within high walls. Probably built in the mid-15th century, it is one of the oldest and most intricately carved temples, with its
has 56 superbly sculpted slender pillars which can be struck to produce different musical notes. It has elephants on the balustrades and horses at the entrance. The other two ceremonial
, though less finely carved, nonetheless depict some interesting scenes, such as Krishna hiding in a tree from the
and a woman using a serpent twisted around a stick to churn a pot of buttermilk. In the courtyard is a superb chariot carved out of granite, the wheels raised off the ground so that they could be revolved!
On the road between the Virupaksha Bazar and the Citadel you pass Krishnapura, Hampi's earliest Vaishnava township with a Chariot Street 50 m wide and 600 m long, which is now a cultivated field.
has a very impressive gateway to the east. Just southwest of the Krishna temple is the colossal monolithic
statue of Lakshmi Narasimha
in the form of a four-armed man-lion with fearsome bulging eyes sheltered under a seven-headed serpent, Ananta. It is over 6 m high but sadly damaged.
The road south, from the Sacred Centre towards the Royal Enclosure, passes the excavated
(misleadingly named 'underground')
and interesting watchtowers.
At the heart of the metropolis is the small
, the Vaishanava 'chapel royal'. The outer enclosure wall to the north has five rows of carved friezes while the outer walls of the
has three. The episodes from the epic
are told in great detail, starting with the bottom row of the north end of the west
wall. The two-storey
is in the
or ladies' quarter, screened off by its high walls. The watchtower is in ruins but you can see the domed
for 10 elephants with a pavilion in the centre and the guardhouse. Each stable had a wooden beamed ceiling from which chains were attached to the elephants' backs and necks. In the
is the specially built decorated platform of the
, from which the royal family watched the pageants and tournaments during the nine nights of
festivities. The 8-m-high
square platform originally had a covering of bricks, timber and metal but what remains still shows superb carvings of hunting and battle scenes, as well as dancers and musicians.
The exceptional skill of water engineering is displayed in the excavated system of aqueducts, tanks, sluices and canals, which could function today. The attractive
is the 22-sq-m stepped tank at the centre of the enclosure. The road towards Kamalapuram passes the
, in the open air, surrounded by a narrow moat, where scented water filled the bath from lotus-shaped fountains. It measures about 15 m by 2 m and has interesting stucco work around it.
The transport hub for Hampi, Hospet is famous for its sugar cane; the town exports sugar across India, villagers boil the milk to make
and a frothing freshly wrung cup costs you just Rs 4. Other industries include iron ore, biscuit making and the brewing of Royal Standard rum. The main bazaar, with its characterful old houses, is interesting to walk around.
is 49 m high and offers panoramic views. One of the largest masonry dams in the country, it was completed in 1953 to provide electricity for irrigation in the surrounding districts.
Muharram, the Muslim festival that marks the death of Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussein, is celebrated with a violent vigour both here and in the surrounding villages and with equal enthusiasm by both the area's significant Muslim population and Hindus. Ten days of fasting is broken with fierce drum pounding, drink and frequent arguments, sometimes accompanied by physical violence. Each village clusters around icons of Hussein, whose decapitation is represented by a golden crown on top of a face covered with long strings of jasmine flowers held aloft on wooden sticks. Come evening, fires are lit. When the embers are dying villagers race through the ashes, a custom that may predate Islam's arrival. The beginnings or ends of livestock migrations to seasonal feeding grounds are marked with huge bonfires. Cattle are driven through the fires to protect them from disease. Some archaeologists suggest that Neolithic ash mounds around Hospet were the result of similar celebrations over 5000 years ago.
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