Tag Archives: temples

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. 


 

Orchha – A Hidden Heritage Site

Just because you’re stuck at home doesn’t mean you can’t add another place to your travel list.

Orchha in Madhya Pradesh, India is a ‘hidden’ gem. It’s historical monuments adjacent to pristine nature narrate a story.

I happened to be in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, on the occasion of ‘Namaste Orchha’ festival, whose director Yasmin Kidwai said that, “Madhya Pradesh is a very underrated destination. While its wildlife is acknowledged, the state’s vast historical and architectural heritage is not. The state represents what best India has to offer. Orchha is a part of these untold and undiscovered destinations in the state.” 

A small town in Bundelkhand region may have just emerged as the key to unleashing the rich potential of tourism in Madhya Pradesh, but it is a treasure trove of forts, rivers, forests, and cultures. 

So, to explore its historical and architectural heritage, I had decided to roam around the nooks and corners of the small town with a glorious past. 

Colors of Architecture 

Chatturbhuj Mandir

Founded in the 18th century by Rudra Pratap Singh, Orchha became the capital of the Bundela Rajput dynasty. Planned along the river Betwa, the complex of forts, palaces, and cenotaphs surprise the visitors with the unexpected. While exploring them, legends come alive and you are lost in a labyrinth inducing curiosity.

Yes, this is Orchha. A vast canvas with all the colors of architecture and each color tells a unique and vibrant story. It is the only place in India where Lord Ram is worshipped as a King. The grand temples stand majestically against the landscape, merging the stories of valor of the Rajput Kings with those of the Gods. 

Chhatris – Memorials of Rulers 

Chhatris along the river.

Fourteen chhatris or cenotaphs line the Kanchan Ghat of the river Betwa. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, chhatris are memorials spaces for the rulers of Orchha. Like the pyramids of Egypt, they were constructed to respect the dead, but no treasure can be found here. While watching the flowing river, walking through the green fields, you can marvel at their intricate beauty. While passing through the square shape cenotaph of Vir Singh Deo, I felt as though I could spend hours admiring the structure. 

Splendid Palaces 

Orchha, which means ‘hidden’, has a paradise of forts that need to be explored and admired for its blend of Mughal and Bundela architecture. To understand the grandeur of the past, one must visit the fort complex where Orchha’s rulers used to live. It is a delightful experience to watch the sunset from the jharokas built on the fort’s exteriors. From the top, you can see the entire town and three main structures of the fort – Raja Mahal, Jehangir Mahal, and Rai Praveen Mahal. 

Raja Mahal includes the Sheesh Mahal and every evening you can enjoy a light and sound show which narrates the story of the Bundelas. It is one of the most historic monuments in the fort.

Situated to the right of the quadrangle, is a palace built by Madhukar Shah. The plain exteriors crowned by chhatris, give way to interiors with exquisite murals, bold colors, and a variety of religious themes.

Jehangir Mahal has intricate carvings and large verandahs at every step. Passing through several dungeon-like staircases and maze-like rooms will leave you in awe. Invited by the Bundela King, Jehangir came and ended up staying for a long time; this was constructed to honor him. The Jahangir Mahal is multi-story and offers spectacular views from its balconies.

Rai Praveen Mahal was constructed for the poetess and singer of the royal court at Orchha during the time of Raja Indramani. When Emperor Akbar heard about her beauty, he ordered to send her to Delhi. But, her commitment and love for Indramani forced Akbar to send her back to Orchha. The palace built for her is a low two-storied brick structure, designed to match the height of the trees in the surroundings. Now it is left with stories of the glorious past in its ruins.

Temple Tales 

Raja Ram Temple is the main temple for the people of Orchha, where Ram is worshipped as king, not as a God. This complex was originally the palace of then-ruler, Madhukar Shah Judev, a devotee of Lord Krishna. His wife, Queen Ganesh Kunwari, worshipped Lord Rama and wanted to place his idol in the palace. At odds, the Queen set out to Ayodhaya. Pleased by her prayers alongside river Sarayu, Lord Ram appeared in the form of a baby and agreed to go with her on the condition that he will be the king of Orchha and the first place she seats him will be his final place of stay. On returning, the queen placed him in the palace for the night. Next morning, when she tried to take the idol to the Chaturbhuj Temple, which was constructed for it, Lord Ram did not move; hence the palace became the Raja Ram temple. 

The Chaturbhuj Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and constructed on a stone platform and is a rectangular building only reached by climbing a long flight of stairs. The temple has brown walls and beautifully carved high ceilings; a 202-meter-high ceiling is undoubtedly a unique feature of any Hindu temple. You will not find any carvings in this temple but the beautiful blend of palace and temple architecture is impressive. Lotus emblems and other symbols of religious significances provide delicate exterior ornamentation. Within the sanctum, it is chastely plain with high, vaulted walls emphasizing its deep sanctity.

Laxminarayan Mandir

Laxminarayan Temple is also a blend of fort and temple architecture. The interior is decorated with wall paintings and ceiling murals, which are vivid compositions. Although it’s a palatial temple with ongoing construction, you can still feel the serenity and calmness soothe your mind and body. 

Homestays – An Emerging Concept

Maximum tourists are preferring to stay in homestays, which is an emerging market. Designer Anupama Dayal painted the walls of these simple but comfortable stays with the drawings of Gond art. “It is a repetitive motif albeit in completely different art styles in the frescos and the colorful Gond art. These lovely motifs symbolize the freedom and the link between earth, waters, and strong elements of Orchha,” she told. 

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 10 books on different subjects and translated around 130 books from English to Hindi.