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The year is 1509. The ailing ruler of Vijayanagara, Viranarasimha of the Tuluva dynasty is on his deathbed. He wants his infant son to succeed him.
Appaji, the prime minister, has been given secret orders to kill Krishnadeva, the king’s able step-brother, who might come in the way of such dynastic ambitions. Appaji assures the king that the deed will be done, but he sends Krishnadeva away to safety.
While wandering in disguise, Krishnadeva chances upon the beautiful Chinnadevi who is performing at Virupaksha temple. He is enamored of her, but she laughs at the man who cannot even reveal his true identity. Still, the temple dancer and her mother provide him a temporary home. When it is time for him to move on, Chinnadevi asks if he must leave.
“I must! God willing, I’ll see you again,” says Krishnadeva.
The old reliable comic book—Amar Chitra Katha, ACK for short—was my first introduction to many characters from Indian history and mythology. The illustrations allowed me to make journeys of imagination as a child. Just one such memorable excursion was traveling incognito with Krishnadeva. Of course, I had no idea then that this jaunt would be the basis of any actual future trip.
In January 2004, I was in Hampi with my family. It was peak tourist season and the clerk at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) office could not find us a guide on short notice. Ranjan, our resourceful driver, swung by a shady nook, near the Mustard Ganesha enclosure. Apparently, it was a hangout for guides on the bench. At that moment, there was just one man there.
“He doesn’t speak good English,” Ranjan said dismissively. Until Ranjan found just the right man for the job, we were on our own. Luckily, we had a decent handbook from our first stop, the Kamalapuram Museum.
We walked over to the Virupaksha temple. At the entrance, the resident elephant tapped me on the head in a little benediction and swiped me for a payment. It was a raven among elephants, all black, unlike the usual patchy gray ones. I confused him by paying for my entire group at one go. As the others stepped up, one by one, he kept swiping at their palms. He could not bless them without the coins. They had to place the trunk over their own heads, in turn. The mahout glared at me. I had screwed up his elephant’s little routine!
The tower gateway had been whitewashed, obscuring all artistic detail. Still, it looked imposing, and its picture was the very first in the set of postcards sold in the bazaar. The portico with the lotus pond, which might have been just the perfect backdrop for a historical romance, was crowded with chattering schoolchildren that noon. We were ready to move on.
Meanwhile, Prakasham, the perfect guide, had been found. He was ready to give us the grand tour. We were in Hampi bazaar, once a thriving center of commerce. Two-storied, slender-columned, open-air shops lined the thoroughfare. Apparently, the sellers of gold and diamonds had had no need to lock up at night, in the prosperous city where precious stones were sold “by the liter.” Prakasham pointed to the ornate structures where merchants had once tied their elephants and horses.
The busy marketplace must have missed a beat when Krishnadeva had disappeared suddenly from the capital. As the prosperity of any trade center depends on a strong ruler, the anxiety over the succession must have been keenly discussed.
Why isn’t the prince seen anywhere? Has he been done to death? God forbid!
The neighboring sultans are getting ready to invade. It is time for Krishnadeva’s comeback. The repentant king breathes his last. Krishnadeva is crowned emperor. As per tradition, he marries a woman of noble birth before the coronation. Soon after, he weds his beloved Chinnadevi.
The next morning we were at the Vittala temple, representative of the best of Vijayanagara art. The intricately carved stone chariot, on the cover of the ASI guidebook, stood at the center of the complex. Next to it was the astounding dance hall with a series of ornate pillars. At the bottom of each one was a sculpted instrumentalist, frozen in mid-concert. That was a vital clue to the musical nature of the pillars.
The cutout colonnades, which constituted each pillar, produced melodious notes when struck. At our guide’s request the caretaker accepted a small fee, and came forward to demonstrate. I could have imagined it but the notes produced by each set of colonnades seemed to correspond to the classical instrument chiseled below.
Visitors are discouraged from trying this, but everyone is permitted to listen by gluing their ears to the post. The bystanders rushed to it, though they had no intention of paying. There were four colonnades to each pillar and four people in my group. It was hard to push the eager audience away. Of course, they had as much right to listen as the four of us, the pittance notwithstanding. A British officer had had one granite colonnade sawed off to see if it was hollow. It was never replaced. History does not document if he solved the mystery of its timbre.
Local legend has it that Chinnadevi danced in this hall for her lord alone. Her skilled musicians used gold-tipped ivory sticks to play the colonnades. Silk drapes hung from the stylized hooks ensured excellent acoustics. When Prakasham spoke of this exclusive performance I felt I had stepped right into the Chitra Katha.
Krishnadeva had no name, home or fortune when Chinnadevi gave him her heart. Nothing indicates that this studio was specially commissioned for Chinnadevi but any of the mandapas in the complex could have been the perfect stage for her vibrant art.
The Mahanavami-Dibba, near the Hazarirama temple was our next stop. Rows of elephants, dancers, jugglers, musicians, horses, and camels were depicted in the stone friezes, along the sides of the 12-meter-high platform. “Perhaps in the same order as the original festive procession,” Prakasham surmised. Navaratri and Dashahara, the 10-day-long festival, was celebrated in great style following Krishnadevaraya’s brilliant military campaigns. The Dibba was the emperor’s vantage point at this event. Portugese and Arab emissaries were his guests at the celebrations.
In a short span of 20 years, Krishnadevaraya made Vijayanagara strong and prosperous.
That is how the comic book ended. Just as well, because young readers cannot possibly come to terms with the devastation that followed his golden reign.
Krishnadevaraya’s successors faced internal strife in addition to the ever-present external danger. Finally, his bold son-in-law Ramaraya seized power and kept the neighboring rulers at bay by playing them against each other.
The Bahmani sultans formed a confederacy against Vijayanagara. In the decisive battle at Talikota in 1565, Ramaraya was beheaded. The capital was nearly razed to the ground. Only secular structures, like the elephant stables, escaped the wanton destruction. Aqueducts carrying cooling waters to the city were broken. The city was never resettled.
The unfjordable Tungabhadra is now a dammed river, but the rest of the landscape is dramatic as ever. Breathtaking arrays of granite boulders endure even though they look ready to come tumbling down at the slightest push. These fantastic heaps have survived many monsoons and “even earthquakes,” said Prakasham, amused at our misplaced concern.
Hampi’s terrain is easier to comprehend if it is seen as Ramayana’s Kishkinda, the monkey kingdom. It is just the perfect setting for giant, mischievous monkeys. The Malyavantharagunatha temple was built where Rama supposedly stayed en route to Lanka. The Matanga hill, where Sugriva took refuge from his brother Vali, provides another scenic view. Connections to the epic dot the landscape.
Across the river, atop the hill Anjanagiri, the birthplace of Hanuman beckoned us. It was a coracle ride and a two-hour trek away, at least. Not for the hero of three ACK volumes, though.
The son of the wind god would have been home and dry in one playful leap and a bound.
Vijaysree Venkatraman writes from Cambridge, Mass.
* GETTING THERE
The nearest town, Hospet, is 10 miles away. The Hampi Express, a convenient overnight train from Bangalore stops here. Accessible by rail from Hyderabad also.
* WHERE TO STAY
Malligi Tourist Home: Staff serves with alacrity. Chauffeured rental cars provided on request. Multi-cuisine and South Indian restaurants serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Manager responds immediately to e-mail (email@example.com)—a big plus while making reservations.
Traveler’s Bungalow: A converted Vishnu temple, an interesting concept.
* WHEN TO VISIT
Between October (after the monsoons) and March (before the blazing heat)
* WHERE TO EAT
Forget all the eateries in the bazaar. This is the place to have lunch.
A path through the banana grove, weighed down by bright red flower and heavy fruit, leads to Under the Mango Tree restaurant. The signboard says a “one-minute walk” will take you there. This eatery, overlooking the river is completely organic to the idyllic scenery. It is a perfect place to wind down after trekking through the ruins.
Lean back on the smooth ledges and stretch your tired legs. The Tungabhadra river thoughtfully sends breezes your way. Wholesome vegetarian fare is placed on the low tables. The waiters will happily get you seconds. Dessert—served on banana leaves—is chunks of fresh fruit with grated coconut sprinkled on top.
A tiny swing hangs from the branches of the tree sheltering us. Everything is calm and peaceful. Under the mango tree.