Riding into the remote little town of Hampi in the heart of South India, you might not be initially impressed by the rolling green hills and unimposing chai stands dotting the side of the road. But it’s a modest cover for greater marvels. Walk just a little further into the heart of the city to uncover towering temple structures and massive stone ruins that speak to the hidden history of a civilization now gone.
Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Hampi – or Vijayanagara as was its ancient name – was the capital city of a powerful and wealthy empire that spanned the Southern region of India. And the buildings and relics left standing today give us a small glimpse into the glory and beauty of this piece of India’s history.
Vijayanagara: Capital of an empire
Accounts differ as to the founding of the city of Vijayanagara. But the best version is the one rooted in folklore. Two local chieftains, Hakka & Bukka, went to their guru with an unusual sighting after a hunting expedition. Their hound was chasing a hare when the prey suddenly grew courageous and chased the hound back. The guru explained by saying the place is special and must become the location of their capital. And so the location of Vijayanagara was chosen.
One of the largest cities of its time
The area is mentioned in the Hindu legends of Ramayana as Kishkinda, the realm of the monkey god. Vijayanagara grew into the political and commercial hub for the Vijayanagara Empire in South India and was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. The city’s bazaars were a center for commerce and lured merchants from all over the world. Its gardens were said to rival in beauty those of Renaissance Europe.
But the city’s glory would come to an abrupt end in 1565 when it was conquered and ransacked by rival Deccan sultanates.
Sacred places of worship
Today, visitors flock to the still-standing city to view in awe its architectural feats. The monolithic steeple of Virupaksha Temple crowns the center of modern-day Hampi. It predates the Vijayanagara Empire and is still in use today as a place of worship. The place is dedicated to Virupaksha, an aspect of Shiva and his consort Pampa.
If you’ve seen postcards of Hampi, you’ve probably seen monuments inside Vittala Temple northeast of Virupaksha. Notable sights include a massive stone chariot or ratha, and 7 musical pillars supporting the main temple building. When struck, the pillars produce a sound corresponding to a specific musical instrument.
Besides these two landmarks, a vast wealth of temples and small shrines dot the bouldered landscape, providing a seemingly endless supply of places to discover.
Relics from the former seat of government
Buildings dedicated to the royalty and administration stand a little further south from the river. Lotus Mahal was used as the women’s quarters and displays a symmetrical layout with intricate carvings typical of Indo-Islamic architecture. The still-standing elephant stables housed ceremonial elephants of the royal household.
A clash between old and new over a world heritage site
The area was declared a World Heritage site in 1986. And in order to stay on this list, Hampi must preserve their monuments according to the exacting standards set by UNESCO. This is where old and new interests have come into conflict as the state government attempts to modernize in order to meet the needs of the local community while still preserving Hampi’s World Heritage listing.
Although Hampi sits on the south side of the Tungabhadra River, many of the hotels catering to the town lay on its north side. Locals must also frequently cross the river to get to cities on the north side of the bank.
Despite all this transportation need, people still line up to board boats to get them and their vehicles across the waters.
The government and UNESCO clashed in the past over the construction of two bridges linking Hampi with its neighbors. The unsightliness of the bridges and the danger of increased traffic congestion were enough to put Hampi’s World Heritage listing in danger in 1999. Today, the government and UNESCO have come to a compromise and construction continues for a bridge further downstream from the main historic area. So monuments will stay safe while local transportation needs are addressed.