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The Elephant Stable with its homogenous group of chambers, high arched facade and lofty domed roof is one of the masterpieces of Hampi’s Indo-Islamic architecture.

Temples of Hampi: The Lost Kingdom

From the breezy, cavernous verandah of my guesthouse, the blue waters of Tungabhadra gently wind their way through the desolate landscape strewn with gigantic red and ochre boulders. Over a delightful breakfast of crispy dosas and fluffy idlis, I watch the daily ritual of bathing of Laxmi. She is the resident elephant of the nearby Virupaksha temple. A few minutes earlier, her attendants have ceremonially led her to the river. As the pachyderm rolls around in the shallow riverbed, the sprayed water catches the pale morning light. The scene looks like an ethereal holdover from Hampi’s magnificent, forgotten past.

“I never saw a place like this,” wrote Nicolo de Conti, the Venetian merchant who arrived in Hampi in 1420, the first European to set his eyes on the Vijayanagara empire. Another century would pass before this mighty southern kingdom would reach its pinnacle of glory. In those early years of the 16th century, Hampi was the second-largest city in the world after Beijing, and dripped with a glitzy splendor. Sprawled on the banks of the River Tungabhadra, the city bustled with its bazaars teeming with merchants from different parts of the globe. From the chronicles of these overseas merchants, the opulent palaces, magnificent temples, imposing fortifications, and dainty riverside pavilions of Hampi became the stuff of legend.

The glory was short-lived though. In 1565, an alliance of the Deccan Sultanates invaded. For five months, Hampi was plundered, the majestic monuments were razed and citizens were tortured and bludgeoned. But even this crudest form of mayhem and carnage could not completely obliterate the magnificence that was Hampi.

The still-used Virupaksha temple, a 160-foot-high, cream-white pyramidal structure that nestles intricate columns, stone statuettes, a pillared mandapa, and orange-robed monks silently gliding through the temple’s layered interiors, is my start-off point. From there, I take a walk that takes me down a stony trail along the bank of River Tungabhadra. The 2-km stretch feels like a time warp, marked with rock carvings, natural overhangs, cliffside chambers, and obscure monuments hidden behind huge boulders. It is here I find Hampi at its most primitive, and most evocative with its herd of striped squirrels and droves of monkeys scampering about the random, abandoned structures. About midway along this stretch lies Achyutaraya temple. Time seems to stand still since the days when this grandiose temple complex was built in 1534. The long, covered boulevard that stems off the temple is in crumbling ruins. This was a grand bazaar with shops dealing in pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. The temple today is a derelict complex of red-capped structures that are now homes to groups of black-faced langoors, but the exquisite carvings of the towers and arched passageways speak of a glorious past.

From Achyutaraya temple, a 15-minute walk takes me to Vittala temple, the eternal symbol of Vijayanagara kingdom. The crowning glory of the Hampi temple circuit mesmerizes me with its architectural brilliance, and its unmatched craftsmanship is reflected none better than in the exquisitely carved musical pillars of the rangamantapa. My guide Shankar shows me around the set of 56 monolithic pillars of the pavilion. He taps gently on one of the fluted columns with a sandalwood stick and a strange thing happens. The pillar emanates an unmistakably rhythmic, musical note that sounds like a faint ringing of a bell. “These are the SaReGaMa pillars.” – Shankar says with an elaborate sweep of his hand. A geological analysis has revealed that these pillars were sculpted from the granite rocks that litter the landscape around Hampi. It was nothing short of a medieval engineering marvel to utilize the resonant properties of the rocks, rich in metallic ore and silica, and turn them into pillars that would not only emit the seven basic notes of Indian classical music but also the higher and deeper pitches of wind and string instruments!

The arched openings of the two-storied Lotus Mahal.
The arched openings of the two-storied Lotus Mahal.

Awestruck, I come out from the semi-dark chamber of the Rangamantapa. Shankar leads me to another architectural marvel inside the Vittala temple complex: the iconic stone chariot. A miniature temple dedicated to Garuda (the carrier of Lord Vishnu), the chariot was immaculately sculpted on a wheeled platform. Legend has it that four wheels of the stone chariot could be made to turn on their axis.

On my second morning in Hampi, I head towards the Queen’s Bath, the 15th-century structure built for the royal women of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Shankar points towards the deep, dry trench that runs around the palace. “It used to be a moat filled with water, and crocodiles.” – he smiles. It was evidently a design to ward off the trespassers as the bathhouse was used by the king’s consorts. The simple exterior of this zenana enclave belies the charm of the dainty interiors. A cool gust of air blows as I walk around the arched corridor that rings the rectangular-shaped pool in the center. The vaulted ceiling still bears traces of exquisite stucco designs. Sitting on one of the ornate balconies that hang over the colossal bath, I try to imagine the heady days of this open-to-the-sky aquatic pool five centuries ago, when it was filled with laughter, frolic, and scented water. 

My next pit stop is Lotus Mahal, the leisure palace of the royal household that also worked as a council chamber of King Krishnadevaraya for his ministerial meetings. The two-storeyed palace stands amid a lush green compound, resplendent with its symmetrically equal projections on four sides. The breezy mahal with its open pavilions, cusped arches, and clusters of decorative panels is a brilliant example of Indo-Islamic architectural style. A short walk away I find the Elephant Stables, a linear building with rows of domed structures – homes of the royal elephants. The large central hall used by troupes of musicians during royal procession has a temple-like tower, while the chambers on both its sides reflect the Islamic architectural motifs and style. 

After a sumptuous lunch at a local eatery that is a typical North Karnataka affair with boiled rice, kosambari ( a salad with dal, fresh cucumber and carrots), sambar, and a tangy, aromatic fish curry, I decide to take a coracle ride. These circular-shaped country boats have been plying on the swirling waters of the Tungabhadra to ferry people since the days of the Vijayanagara Empire. As the coracle moves downstream, I find the ride a delightful way to explore Hampi from a riverine perspective as my helmsman, while deftly negotiating the currents and ravines of the river, delves into the history and architectural details of the temples as they pop into view over the boulder-strewn banks.

 A coracle on River Tungabhadra.
A coracle on River Tungabhadra.

As the slanting rays of the afternoon sun starts lighting up the textures of the rocky hills in a mellow glow, I take a short auto-rickshaw ride to the base of Matanga hill. A 45-minute hike through the stepped ramp that zigzags its way up takes me to the top, the highest point in Hampi. From up here, the vast swathes of granite-strewn landscape that was once one of the richest kingdoms on earth looks magnificent, oozing a crimson glow in the soft light. The architectural wonders dotted across this landscape, untouched by modernity, are now ablaze, their chiseled contours more radiant than ever. And amid that solitary wilderness, I can almost feel that the place is frozen in time. The din and the bustle of the lost empire can come alive at any moment, just the way it had been, more than half a millennium ago.  


Sugato Mukherjee is a  journalist based in Kolkata with bylines in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, Nat Geo Traveller, Fodor’s Travel, Atlas Obscura, Mint Lounge, and The Hindu Business Line, among others. 


 

Top Tips For Relocating To Qatar

With its high salaries, zero income tax, and glamorous lifestyle, it’s not surprising that Qatar is one of the hottest destinations for expats. Here are some top tips to help you prepare for moving there.

Get ready to embrace the heat

One of the biggest challenges expats face when moving to Qatar is acclimatizing to the intense climate. Temperatures can peak at around 50 degrees Celcius in summer and levels of humidity can reach around 40-60%. But you shouldn’t let this put you off, because every building has air-conditioning and there are numerous hotel pools to cool down in.  

Take advantage of the excellent healthcare 

Qatar boasts one of the top 5 healthcare systems in the world which is great news for expats. And because all employers in Qatar are legally required to provide healthcare for their employees, expats should be covered from day one. They can either access state healthcare services at a subsidized rate or buy private health insurance to access excellent private facilities and cover any costs not met through public healthcare. 

Remember to dress conservatively 

Qatari society is heavily influenced by Islamic customs, so expats should dress conservatively when out and about in public. Men should avoid wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts in public places and women should avoid wearing revealing clothes that don’t cover their shoulders and knees. It’s also important to respect local etiquette when it comes to greetings and general behavior. 

Be aware of the strict laws on drugs and alcohol

For most expats, drinking alcohol is a normal part of life, but in Qatar, there are strict laws to abide by. Drinking alcohol or being drunk in public are offenses and drink-driving and other alcohol-related offenses can result in imprisonment, fines, or even deportation. That said, alcohol is still available at licensed hotel restaurants, bars, and certain clubs and expats should carry their Qatar ID or passport with them. The use and selling of recreational drugs are illegal too, and offenders can face long-term imprisonment, heavy fines, and deportation. 

 

Seeking Kabir in Malwa

It was close to midnight as we made our way from Bhaklay village to the town of Maheshwar on the banks of the Narmada. We were at the Malwa Kabir Yatra—a week long annual event organized by Prahlad Singh Tipanya, a folk musician from Madhya Pradesh. There is a busload of folk musicians from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, several young urban musicians and several diehard fans from around the world. All of us have been touched by Kabir’s songs and Prahlad-ji’s music, and we travel around Madhya Pradesh, stop at a different village each night and celebrate by singing songs of Kabir all night long. We had come from all over the world, all inexplicably pulled to this place, to share a journey and to discover a little more about ourselves.

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(Photo credit: Kedar Desai)

The road to Maheshwar was little more than a narrow track. The bus, usually pounding with the beat of the dholak and a full chorus of voices, had gone quiet as we wound our way in the dark through the hills. Suddenly the bus stopped. Ahead was a small bridge, still under construction, with a bypass thick with mud from a heavy downpour earlier that evening.

There was no question of going down the bypass, and trying to turn around would just as likely get the bus stuck in the mud. We were in the middle of a forest and the locals declared that there were enough wild creatures around to make walking a bad option. After much debate, everyone got out, gathered rocks and levelled the gap between the bridge and the road. I held my breath, wondering if the sharp rocks would result in a flat tire, but it didn’t seem to worry the driver. He stepped on the gas and the bus made it across unharmed.

The next morning, we sat on the banks of the Narmada at Maheshwar, fresh from a dip in the sacred river, drinking in the cool morning air. Behind us rose the majestic Rani Ahilyabai fort and temple, changed little from the eighteenth century when Maheshwar was the capital of the Holkar empire. The Sahasrarjuna temple glowed with its eleven lamps. Legend has it that they have been burning since the time King Sahasrarjuna defeated Ravana, pinned him to the ground and placed 10 lamps on his heads and one on his hand. Mooralala Marwada, our fellow yatri and folk singer from Kutch, gave thanks for all of us with a soulful song, “Hamare satsang mein, hamare satsang mein, aavo Sri Bhagwan ki, hamare satsang mein” (In our gathering, grace us with your presence, O lord.)

Later that evening, Mooralala-ji would keep a young crowd on their feet, dancing the evening away in Indore to a foot-stomping, heart pounding, rock concert like rhythm, “Vaari jaaon re, balihari jaaon re, mhara satguru aangan aaya, mein vaari jaaon re” (My true lord has come into my home—I am dancing with joy and surrender everything I have to him.) The crowd kept calling for more and he obliged and the concert didn’t end until well past midnight.

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I had first heard Prahlad Singh Tipanya in 2003, when Linda Hess, a Kabir scholar at Stanford, had brought Tipanya’s group on a tour of the United States. The music drew me in and then words pierced me to the core. “Shabd ki chot lag gayi” a friend remarked when I told her I couldn’t stop listening to his music. That’s Kabir for you. One of my favorite songs speaks to the presence of the universal spirit in everything on this earth. “Choron ke sang chori karta, badmashon me bhedon tu, chori kar ke tu bhag jaave, pakadne vale tu ka tu” (You are a thief among thieves, a troublemaker among troublemakers, you steal and run away and the one who catches you is you too.”)

Apart from the local Malwa musicians, the group included varied participants. There was Mooralala Marwada and Shankar, the percussionist, who had journeyed two and a half days from Kutch, near the Pakistan border,  as well as a young English college girl, volunteering at Manzil, an NGO educating underprivileged kids in New Delhi. There was a group from Anhad Pravah, an NGO focused on building leadership skills among youth, Samarjeet, a young Sufi singer from Mumbai, accompanied by Durgaprasad, a versatile young tabla and flute player. Durgaprasad was a student of Hariprasad Chaurasia, who had run away from home to Mumbai to study music.

Luniyakhedi village, Prahlad-ji’s home, was a special place for me ever since I heard him sing. Prahlad-ji welcomed me with a sandalwood tilak on my forehead. There was a big tent set up and by 7 p.m., several thousand people from the surrounding villages had started to gather. There was food for everyone—we sat cross-legged on colorful dhurries laid out in the open and were served a traditional meal. A simple dal was served with baati (baked wheat flour rolls soaked in a pot of ghee) and a fiery aloo sabzi, packed with red peppers freshly picked from the fields  that you could see drying all over in colorful mounds.  Outside the tent, a couple of vendors served a sweet cardamom tea in tiny cups under a hurricane lantern all night long. Moths buzzed around, drawn to the light, wanting to be one with it. One group after another sang late into the night. When I couldn’t stay up after 3 a.m., I turned to Devnarayan-ji and asked him how long it would go. “Until just after the sun comes up,” he said, “you see, people come here as the sun goes down and they don’t have a way to make it back home in the dark. So we keep them engaged by singing until dawn.”

The next day found us at Sewadham Ashram near Ujjain and we were welcomed by Sudhirbhai Goyal, a bear of a man with a heart as large, who has taken in more than 300 destitute women, children and elderly and given them love, respect and a place to call home. As we helped give polio vaccines to the kids and fed chapatis and jaggery to the cows, Sudhir showed us his expansion plans for the ashram. “How do you fund it all?” I asked. “I just make the plans,” came the answer, “the lord makes it happen.”

One morning, as we lazed around, Shankar, the percussionist, showed off his skills with a ghada-ghamela or earthen pot and an everyday aluminium basin, which looked like it had been used not too long ago to shovel dirt from the fields … In his hands, they came alive and out poured a rhythm that had people on their feet. Samarjeet started teaching him a Sufi song and soon we had a ghada, flute and vocals jamming away. The audience got pulled into clapping hands to keep the beat and joining the chorus. These informal jam sessions were what the Kabir Yatra was all about—we’d crowd in a little room, under a tree or any place at all and the music would start—the rural and the urban all coming together, bound by the music, tossing aside any boundaries that existed earlier that may have kept us apart.

That’s what the Anhad Pravah group was doing too—bringing college kids into spaces that force them to step outside their comfort zone and challenge them to break all the boundaries that shackle their thinking. They went from being spectators to participants, and taking the lead in whatever needed to be done. For many of the city youth, it was their first taste of rural life—drawing water from a communal well for a bath out in the fields (you keep some clothes on), taking turns to serve food when you weren’t eating, and sleeping in communal quarters where you could whisper to your neighbor on either side. On the first night, I was feeling a little lost since the few people I know were the organizers and rather busy. But by the second day, after a few jam sessions and lots of singing on the bus, it felt like we had known each other for a long time.

Oh yes, the bus! Each time we’d embark for the next destination, we’d get no more than a couple of minutes of quiet before the music started and wouldn’t stop until the bus did. The hours seemed to be gone in minutes and nobody was in a rush for the bus to reach its destination. The dholak would emerge and Kishen, son of Bhanwari Devi (who always sang with a veil over her face) would stand up and get everyone clapping to the beat. Samarjeet led from the front with a rip-roaring “Damadum mast kalandar” and Pritam and Mohanlal of the Mohan Barodia village bhajan mandli kept us true to the songs of Kabir with a “Sahib ne bhang pilaye re, akhiyon mein lalan chhayi”(I am drunk with the thought of my lord, my eyes see love everywhere.”)

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The aisle would be packed with people dancing and even Julia, the gray-haired horticulturist from Auroville, would be on her feet. I couldn’t help but sing along and soon was welcomed as an honorary member of the Mohan Barodia bhajan mandli.

“Peekar pyala hua deevana, ghoom raha jaise matwala,
Janam janam ka tala khul gaya, mere jyot lagi ghat mahi”

(I drank from the cup till I was out of my mind, I wander about like a crazed one!
The lock of many lifetimes has sprung open, a spark ignites, a light fills my body.)
As we got off the bus at a village in Khargone district, we were mobbed by several thousand people who had come for the night’s program on a desert plateau under the stars. As friends of Prahlad-ji, we were greeted with the utmost love. You could feel it in the tilak placed on your forehead. In the cities, Prahlad-ji had touched many souls. In the village, he is god. I asked a local if he Prahlad-ji visited Khargone often. “Maybe once a year” he said, “but that’s fine. I have his bhajans on my mobile phone. When I wake up, I listen to them and before I go to bed, I listen to them again. He is with us all the time.”

When I got off the bus for the last time, covered in dust and grime from all the travelling, I felt more cleansed than after my bath in the Narmada—cleansed from a week of sharing so much with fellow human beings who all accepted each other as their own. As I took leave of Ajay Tipanya, Prahlad-ji’s son, he summed up the spirit of the Kabir Yatra with this: “Yeh to bidaai nahin hain—ab ham sab to jud gaye hain” (This is not goodbye, now we are all one.)

Jayaram Kalpathy is a technologist from San Jose, CA. While he is not chasing bugs, he can be found searching for himself in his garden, on hikes in the woods, in music and on bumpy footpaths in India.