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!
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.
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.