The sand clouds furling and building an ancient aura settled down gradually to reveal the silhouette of an architectural expanse with traces of a fairytale city, lost in the tides of time. Its towers so majestic and shapes so profound, the ruined city of Vijayanagara, or Hampi as it is better known, stands proud still. Passing years have not been able to tarnish any of its charms. If you squint your eyes a bit, against the horizon, the city appears almost golden, revoking the tales of cities akin to EL Dorado- lost, searched and never to be found. But here, the city of Vijayanagara is not just a manifestation of human imagination… it is very much real. Vijayanagara, The renowned city that lies in ruins today, is a legacy of the great empire of the same name.
Sprawled out on the shores of the Tungabhadra River in Karnataka, the Vijayanagara Empire was established by the Sangama brothers. Popularized in the stories of the great court jester and thinker, Tenali Rama, the empire itself was part of several folklores and literary expressions; be it the 9 gems in the court of King Vikramaditya, or the battle of Talikotta. Vijayanagara grew from a pilgrimage city, spread into a large area and became the second-largest city in the world in the 1500s and the richest in India. The tall, detailed out structures with diminishing towers became iconic images of the city. All the structures are so skilfully designed and uniquely crafted, that the architectural style of Vijayanagara came to be known as Vijayanagara Architecture.
The site of Hampi has very few defined routes and paths to be followed, leaving the majority of itself bare for the visitor to explore. The structures ranging from temple complexes to pools and shaded market stretches are scattered around in the rocky terrain of granite boulders that form a partial range of hills around the extent of the city. One of the first structures to be seen, is the step wells, the Pushkaranis, set to the sides of the walkway, with effigies and motifs that run along the borders and steps that descend into the shallow pool of water. They set the tone to all the architectural masterstrokes you witness here.
Vitthala Temple Complex
The entry is through an enormous gateway, sculpted into ornamental pillars and chariots, built of granite stones of the Eastern Dharwar Craton. It leads to the Vitthala Temple Complex- buildings with long colonnaded Mandapas and outstretched courtyards. In the magnificence of the scale of each of its parts, what is often missed is the beauty in the details. Be it the intricate carvings depicting the stories of Puranas, the beautiful animal figurines by the entry steps of each structure, or the musical columns of the Ranga Mandapa. The 56 pillars emit various musical notes on being struck, making visitors acquainted with the proficiency of ancient Indian architecture.
The image of the famous stone chariot in the complex is used as the representational face of Hampi. The sculpture, complete with elephants, wheels and ornamental columns, is made of monolithic stone and set independently in the courtyard, standing out in the wide expanse of it. Built as a Garuda shrine, historians often an emphasis on the beauty and minuscule detailing that has been put into this small structure.
Various smaller temples, markets, shaded pathways, and water storage tanks mark the city, scattered over the 26 sq.km stretches. On tracks meandering from the popularly used trails, one would find hidden shrines and caves, rock formations that make up tunnels for adventures and exploration and architectural gems in the form of uniquely sculpted stone towers and series of figurines, left in partial ruins. In most shrines you find along the journey, dark descending stairways lead to underground chambers, enriched with fascinating idols, water drains, ambulatory pathways, all said to have been used during rituals of the time the city was active. The eerie chambers are for the strong-hearted, to relive the ways of the past.
The Sasivekalu Ganesha idol is situated in a colonnaded temple hall, complete with capitals, beams, and ornamented roof slab, all built out of stone. The 2.5 m tall idol has a snake figurine going around the midriff of Ganesha, attributing to a popular story from the mythology. The whole of the temple sits atop a large rock, with few rock formations surrounding it, creating an interesting picturesque backdrop along with the low laying valley behind the hill.
Another famous idol is the Badavilinga Shiv Ling, a 3 m tall monolithic sculpture, made of black stone, and complete with markings depicting the 3 eyes of Lord Shiva. The Linga is situated in the enclosed temple, jut in a pool of water.
One of the biggest monolithic idols in Hampi is the Ugra Narasimha, which is 6.7 m in height. The half-human – half-lion sculpture depicts the Narasimha- the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Set under the open sky, the style of the sculpture itself is interesting and typical of its time- with exaggerated details and curves.
The Virupaksha Temple Complex
Being among the largest and oldest of the temple shrines in Hampi, it is marked with its huge entry Gopura and a similar, but taller pyramidal tower of the main shrine. Both of these structures are embellished with erotic carvings, typical to the Hindu temple architecture of ancient India. The complex is majorly intact, standing out from the rest of the ruins. Dedicated mainly to Lord Shiva, the complex holds multiple temples for various deities. The large complex and adjoining market stretch is the major attraction of Hampi, pertaining to the center of the pilgrimage.
A day’s journey, walking amidst the history crafted in ochre-colored granite rocks, leaves you with wisdom, and memories worth the long hike. A craving to know more and a wish to return to explore the unexplored is left in you by this lost city of a legendary empire.
Melva Joseph is a young, passionate architecture graduate from TKM College of Engineering, Kerala. Being extremely curious and adaptable made her an extensive reader, avid traveler and a good conversationalist. She holds close the belief that the existing gap between architecture and the common man should be bridged.