If Alleppy is India’s Venice, Hampi is its Rome
After spending 3 relaxing weeks in Goa meeting new friends, lounging on the beach, and losing several pairs of sunglasses, we set off on a whirlwind week of travel to the neighboring state of Karnataka. We planned to hit three cities in a week: Bangalore, Mysore, and Hampi, then head to the southern state of Kerala. There will be forthcoming posts about Mysore and Bangalore, but for now, let’s talk about Hampi.
Just over 200 miles north of Bangalore, Hampi is a small town that is home to a stunning collection of ruins dating from the 14th-16th centuries. The ruins belong to the capital city of the Vijayanagara empire which, in its heyday, ruled all of what is now south India. To give you an idea of the city’s size, in 1500 it was the second largest city in the world (behind Beijing), was home to half a million people, and was more than double the size of contemporary Paris. Following military defeat in the 16th century, the city was razed and abandoned. What remains, however, is gorgeous.
We secured an autorickshaw at our hotel to drive us to the ruins where we’d spend 5 hours a day for two days. Our first stop was the Queen’s Bath, where the queen would bathe and change, and where her wardrobe was kept. Today, only the bath remains – a 5 foot deep basin inside a 300 square foot stucco structure. As we entered, a local woman sitting inside took up the role of tour guide, showing us around and pointing out the features. Even though she spoke no English, her gestures and pointing were easily understood, really bringing the place to life. In its prime, the queen’s bath was over-the-top, featuring gold ceilings and detailed frescoes. You really get a sense of the grandeur of the place when you imagine it as it was, and this is just where she bathed!
After the Queen’s Bath, we moved on to the Royal Enclosure, guarded by large double walls and housing several buildings, it was the nucleus of the city. This is where we got our first taste of the scale of these ruins. As we climbed up the stairs of the former royal palace, we were treated with a view that was jaw-dropping. We both kind of stared off into the distance, utterly speechless. The ruins continue as far as the eye can see. The landscape that the city is set in would be worth a visit on its own, hills and plains strewn with boulders the size of houses. We both remarked that it’s obvious why the capital was built here – who else but the gods could have put those huge boulders everywhere?!
Finding ourselves at the edge of the Royal Enclosure and right next to Hazararama Temple, we walked there rather than returning to our rickshaw driver to have him drive us. We would later learn that our driver thought this was ridiculous – why walk when you can ride? Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the temple dates to the 1400s. The amount of work that must have gone into the detailed carvings on display here just blew our minds. Nearly every visible surface had a deity or a story carved into it. This contributes to one of the themes that emerged from our visit: stop and notice both the very big and the very small. Everywhere you look, there’s a reminder of both the vastness of the city as well as the intricate, the small, and the personal.
Returning to our worried and possibly annoyed rickshaw driver, we then sped off to another temple, this one about a 10 minute drive away from Hazararama. Called the “Underground Siva Temple”, it’s only underground compared to the current ground level. In its day, it was above ground. Its current location, dug out from its surroundings, causes water to collect inside the temple, leaving it a bit eerie.
Passing through a few more temples dedicated to Krishna, we came to a large open-air bazaar that used to be a gathering area for the city’s residents. Down one side is a long walkway that clearly used to be covered, and down the other is a large temple set inside a ghat or step well of some kind.
After several hours of exploring, nature called. Unfortunately for Danielle, not only were the toilets nearly too high off the ground for her to get up on, they were pretty gross. After the bathroom break, we stopped at our last destination for the day: Virupaksha Temple which predates the empire, was expanded in the 14th century, and is still in use today. Unfortunately it was closed when we arrived, but we got to walk around the exterior. The temple is the third tallest of its kind in India and it’s difficult to do it justice with just a couple pictures. Again the scale of the structure itself is only part of the story. From top to bottom, the temple’s carvings tell stories that are thousands of years old.
The next day our tour continued, starting at Virupaksha temple so we could check out the inside. Photography is prohibited so we don’t have any pictures, but we did pay a local guide who showed us around. He pointed out a few smaller things to look for elsewhere in the ruins: carvings of yoga poses (sun salutations) in the rock, and representations of an animal that’s 6 animals in one: elephant’s trunk, crocodile mouth, horse’s neck, cow’s body, rabbit’s ears, and lion’s legs. Symbolizing the strengths of each of these animals, this mythical animal was the symbol of the empire. Knowing what to look for, we found these symbols throughout the city which gave us a deeper appreciation for the sense of connectedness of the place, despite its vastness.
Right before we left the temple, we gave a donation and received a blessing and red dot of color on our foreheads. Afterward, we were off to a walled enclosure that houses the old elephant stables, the Lotus Palace, some old watchtowers, and several unmarked ruins still under excavation. Again, we wandered too far for our rickshaw driver’s liking here, but it was worth it.
Not to be outdone by humans, mother nature is putting on her own show in Hampi. The area around Hampi is strewn with huge boulders, rolling hills, and small mountains. No matter where you are in Hampi, a quick survey of the horizon will reveal piles of boulders dotted with ruins as far as the eye can see. On our way to our next destination, we climbed up a small hill that was covered with boulders and upturned rock, affording us 360 degree panoramic views of the ruined city and its environment.
A short hike brought us to our last destination in Hampi – Vitthala Temple. One of the largest temples of the era, Vitthala was built in the 15th century to worship Lord Vishnu. Leading up to the temple is a huge (.6 mile long) bazaar that was obviously grand in its day. Inside the temple complex is a huge stone chariot as well as a building with carved granite columns each of which, if struck, produce a different musical note.
Spending 10 hours exploring the ruins was not enough. After Vitthala but before heading back to our rickshaw, we went for a hike behind Vitthala toward a river that bisects the ancient city. Along the way we saw several more ruined structures as well as more sun salutations carved into the rocks along what used to be the road (look everywhere, big and small, even on the ground). Arriving at a series of boulders each about 6 feet high, we climbed them and got a view of the river and still more ruins – none of which we had time to explore. Oh well. Next time.