Episodes about the Vijayanagara Empire in the television show Bharat Ek Khoj by Mr. Shyam Benegal (based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery Of India) – that I loved watching on Doordarshan during my growing up days – had developed a deep curiousity and fascination about the empire in me; and I had always yearned to visit the ruins of Hampi – capital of the 14th century Vijayanagara Empire. Imagine my joy when I visited Bangalore this year for a conference and realized that this was the perfect opportunity for me to make my childhood dream come true.
Hampi is a small hamlet by the southern banks of River Tungabhadra in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. A UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of 1600 monuments, surrounded by craggy hills and dominated by the gurgling river makes it a travellers delight. I was so mesmerized that I cancelled my plans to visit other few areas as per my itinerary and used the next six days to explore the entire stretch of the Heritage City.
History of Hampi dates back to Chalcolithic period or Copper Age. Handmade pottery and neoliths of that period, discovered from the ruins and currently exhibited in the Bangalore Government Museum, bears testimony to it. The district is also believed to have been a part of the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka, in the 3rd century A. D. Prior to the rise of Vijayanagara empire in the early 14th century, this site and its environs were ruled by numerous dynasties.
The Vijaynagara empire was established by two brothers, Hakka and Bukka, who actually served the King of Warangal, were arrested and brought to Delhi and through an interesting flow of events, were finally sent by the Delhi Governor to Hampi to subdue the various rebellions against the Delhi Sultanate in the area. The brothers not only restored the law & order of the province, but also declared it an independent Hindu empire – “Vijayanagara” of the Sangama Dynasty. Krishna Devaraya, king of the Sangama Dynansty in the early 16th century was when the empire peaked according to numerous historians, and he is known to be the greatest ruler in the history of Vijaynagara. He was also an accomplished scholar and a poet, who wrote numerous Sanskrit and Telegu texts. His court was seat of eight great poets known as an “Astha-Diggaja“. Among them, Allasani Peddanna was his poet laureate and a noted Telegu poet. Temples, Gopura, Ranga-Mandapa and many others structural gems were erected under his patronage. He also made many structural improvements to the Vitthala and Hazara Rama Temples. The empire, after his death, saw a steady decline.
Earliest mentions of Hampi is found in Ramayana; known as Kishkindha, Hampi was the seat of the monkey clans, ruled by Vali and later by his brother and Ram’s ally Sugriva. It has numerous religiously significant sites and is rife with legends, myths and magical secrets. Here, are two such secrets that I witnessed myself.
Musical Pillars – Yes, you read that correctly – musical pillars! There are 7 pillars inside the Vittala temple which can produce different musical notes when tapped. I overheard a guide explaining to a group of people how the British broke a few of these pillars to find the source of such rhythmic sounds, only to find that the pillars were hollow inside.
Inverted Image – Virupaksha temple another architectural gem of Hampi. Its gopuram (a large pyramidal tower over the entrance gate to a temple) is a 9 storied structure, the inverted image of which can be seen more than 300 feet away on the wall of the Saalu Mantapa, at the other end of the Virupaksha temple. This phenomenon was created using the concept of the pinhole camera, using a small hole in a wall which creates the inverted image of the gopuram when light passes through it. I captured the inverted image with my camera, only to lose it courtesy my crashed computer on which all the pictures were stored; but many nice pictures are available on google if you search for it.
Despite the grand history and breathtaking visuals that mesmerized me and forced me to stay longer than I planned, I can’t help but say that this UNESCO World Heritage Site needs immediate attention from authorities and the local community for its preservation. Apart from the illegal mining and smuggling of mineral ores, Hampi is also threatened by treasure hunters or gold diggers, digging anywhere and everywhere, looking for riches. Many apparently are moving around with hi-tech scanners and equipment but little regard for the historical richness they are destroying in the process. While the police are constantly on the look-out for these hunters, this menace may need more focussed institutional intervention to be subdued.
The other obvious issue plaguing these lovely ruins are the encroaching illegal constructions, like most other heritage sites which cry for stronger administrative intervention. I noticed an ongoing construction at the river bank right behind the renowned Virupaksha Temple. When I asked the construction workers, I was told to go ask anyone – police, Minister – I wanted to ask about it, layered with a veiled threat to behave like a tourist else I would find it difficult to roam around. I noticed similar constructions near the Krishna temple as well, which falls under the core heritage area.
I was lucky to have made this visit, for we might lose this pride of Indian heritage soon; and suggest all heritage and history lovers to add it to the top of your bucket list, mostly because you might not have much to see if you wait too long.