Hampi is a familiar place to all foreign tourists so much so that tourists are not foreign to Hampi. They seem to flock to Hampi just like they do to Goa. In their view, it appears that these two are the only places that are worth visiting. This may very well have to do with their micro-colonization of these places which makes it familiar to them.
These tourists bring valuable foreign exchange to the country. Definitely, local economies thrive due to tourism. At the same time, people are aware of the damage done by tourists to local cultures and ways of life. There are certain areas of Hampi which are not recommended for Indians. I was informed as much by a local from Gadag who I met on the train to Hospet. But before such tourists made a cultural ruin of pockets of Hampi, this ancient city has long been a ruin after its once grandeur and splendour.
Ruins are the way of nature and unavoidable. Nothing material lasts forever. There are those ruins that are inaccessible. There are those that are too much a ruin to retain anything that can be seen and appreciated. There are those that have been restored too much to retain their charming antiquity. There are those that live too close and interwoven with modern settlements that we lose the historical perspective and importance. There are those which have little elements of all of the above and yet give us more than a glimpse of their past. The stand in an ancient ambience of their own, preserved in time and simply looking at the modern world without involvement. Such is the perfection of the ruins of Hampi.
The ruins of Hampi are so famous that reading tourist guide books, one gets the feeling that the Vijayanagar Empire was perhaps the greatest of all Indian empires. The Mauryas, the Chalukyas, the Pallavas, the Pandyas, the Rastrakutas and the Mughals were all great empries. In fact, history books will tell us that the Vijayanagar Empire lasted just over 200 years until the Battle of Talikota in 1565, after which it lasted another century in diminished glory. If history places importance on this empire it is only because it was the last of the Hindu empires to stand against Muslim invaders. The subsequent history of South India was shaped by feudal kingdoms that became independent after the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire.
While the empire lasted, it was perhaps the greatest in its time. The ruins are testament to this. The ruins are spread over a wide area on a rocky and hilly landscape. Often it is not certain if the landscape of warm-coloured boulders, stacked up as cairns on a bigger scale, is the better ruin of natural forms and forces than man-made structures.
The perspectives are stunning. The 18th century English Landscape Gardening, with its carefully arranged perspectives of monuments, lakes, slopes and grottos, find their more natural and real counterparts in Hampi. There are pillared temple ruins standing on an assemblage of boulders on a hilltop. There are pillared corridors, empty and roofless stretching alongside a dirt track that leads to Achyuta Raya Temple. These were once thriving market places of the old Vijayanagar kingdom. The atmosphere is partly recreated by the bazaar outside the walls of the Virupaksha Temple.
Dried-up tanks overgrown with weeds and emptied of all water look up to the sky in their desolation. Beams fallen inside temple sanctums record their fate. Beheaded torsos and disembodied feet lie unnoticed in abandoned scantums. The broad slow flow of the Tungabhadra river shows that it belongs to this landscape. There is erosion and the facts of natural history; then there is belief and the stuff of legends and legendary tales.
Despite all of this, there is little that we can call as art in Hampi. Art belongs to Belur and Halebid. Hampi has the scale and the settings to impress but little in the way of art. The sculptures lack fine details. Bridles are unadorned. Jewellery is without ornamentation. Faces are forms without expressions in lip and eyes. Some of this may well be due to erosion but I find it hard to imagine it matching the artistic excellence of the Hoysalas who came before the Vijayanagars.
I did find the art of Hampi in the working sanctums of the Virupaksha Temple. The deities had been decorated in the finest of silk sarees, pleated and fanned out neatly. Devotees gathered in constant crowds for a fleating darshan. Behind the deities was a backdrop of colourful silk sarees dovetailed in their free fall. Their silk borders glittered in the warm tungsten light. Garlands of jasmine festooned the deities who were bedecked with gold jewellery. Their faces gleamed with turmeric and sindur. It was a kind of beauty to touch even an atheist.
Frankly, there are so many temples here that one is overwhelmed. It may be fit to conclude with some of the highlights of the day:
- The stone chariot at the Vitthala Temple is a true masterpiece as are the pillars of the maha mantapa and the kalyana mantapa.
- The Shiva Temple near the Vitthala Temple has the quietness of an isolation ruin not found in other temples.
- The ancient pin-hole camera in the Virupaksha Temple captures on the opposite wall the inverted shadow of the gopuram. The hole is about the length and width of my palm.
- The sculpture of Laskmi Narasimha is indeed a fearful sight. Here is something of what can be call as art. Previously, this was mistakenly thought to be Ugra Narasimha but the remnant of Lashmi’s arm has removed that misunderstanding.
- The Achyuta Raya Temple is special with two courtyards. Carvings here speak of Krishna’s exploits as a baby, scenes from the Ramayana and much more.
- Krishna Temple was a surprising find when I thought I had covered everything of importance for the day.
I took the Hubli-Bangalore-Hampi Express (Train No. 6592) from Bangalore to Hospet Junction. Leaves Bangalore at 2230 and reaches Hospet at 0745 the next morning. From Hospet, there are plenty of buses to Hampi and they take under 30 minutes except when they get stuck at the railway signal.
Hospet is said to be cheaper than Hampi and with better options. I stayed at Haripriya Lodge near the bus station. Clean, convenient and cheap @ Rs. 250.
Opposite my lodge is Amanthran with good service, cleanliness and excellent food.
Exploring the temple ruins from Virupaksha Temple to Vitthala Temple is more than enough for a walk. There are many paths wandering off to farther hills which may be an option for those not so interested in temple architecture.