It is not every day that one gets a chance to break free from the clutches of mundane, unexciting and routine life in the city and holiday at an exotic locale far away. There was a feeling of sheer exhilaration at the prospect of a quiet break from the monotony of our urban existence. The combination of Dasara holidays and a weekend gave us an opportunity to undertake our long awaited holiday amidst the 12-15th century ruins of Hampi – the globally renowned heritage holiday destination sited 355 km from Bangalore.
We were team of five hardcore adventurers, campers and heritage admirers. Our team comprised of Kishore Patwardhan, Shiva Kumar, Sree Krishna, Mahesh V and myself. Fully fired up with anticipation we embarked upon our sojourn with an aim trek among the rocks and cliffs of Hampi, the headquarters of the Vijayanagar empire during the 13-15 centuries.
Hampi – a world heritage site
Hampi is a world famous heritage tourism destination and one of the 16 Unesco recognised World Heritage Sites in the country. Once home to a cultural efflorescence involving sculptors, musicians, artists, and artisans who worked together to translate the lofty vision of the Vijayanagar princes into enduring monuments, Hampi is currently an underdeveloped village which doesn’t even have a proper tar road. The ruins sprawl over an area of 26 sq. km and are evocative of ancient Hindu kings’ pomp and glory. The opulent palaces, temples and massive fortifications are built with such ingenuity that they blend naturally with their surrounding rock formations, and appear as though they have just grown out of them.
Sited on the banks of the graceful Tungabhadra, amidst massive boulders and craggy hills, Hampi was the capital of the ancient Vijayanagar empire which controlled the Deccan for over 200 years from 1336-1565 AD, and reached its zenith during the reign of Krishnadevaraya, its most famous emperor. Following the death of Krishnadevaraya in 1529 AD the neighbouring Muslim Bahamani rulers coalesced and attacked Hampi. The invading armies ran amok in the town, destroying its beautiful temples and monuments left the once grand city in ruins.
Present day Hampi is divided into four distinct sectors – Venkatapura to the northeast, Hampi towards the northwest, Kodirampura to the south and Kamalapura to the southeast. On the opposite bank of the river is Anegondi, the old capital of the Vijayanagar empire which hosts a massive fort and other monuments. Several imposing monuments are in various stages of ruin and under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) – a Central government body mandated to protect and maintain all historical sites in the country. Though the ASI has commenced restoration and protection of the site, its efforts don’t seem enough. Severely understaffed, it is unable to prevent insensitive tourists from littering and vandalising the monuments already crumbling under the pressure of the elements.
Thus far the ASI has identified and restored about 121 major monuments in Hampi and has installed explanatory signboards and information plates in front of each one of them. Easy to read, digitally printed maps have also been placed in strategic locations amidst the ruins to help tourists find their way to monuments of their choice. ASI trained guides are available to show visitors around monuments (guide fees: Rs.150-500 per day). For those who would rather wander in the ruins on their own, vehicles are available for hire: bicycles (Rs.100-200 per day) and motorbikes (Rs.300-500 per day excluding fuel). Autorickshaws driven by self-styled local guides are also an option.
Day 1 – Drive to Hampi
The 355 km journey from Bangalore to Hampi situated in the Bellary district of Karnataka began on October 12 at 8.15 pm. The first 25 km out of the garden city was a tortuous jostle through traffic-clogged streets. The next leg, a stretch of about 200 km on the NH-4 (National Highway-4) upto the famous fort-city of Chitradurga was fast and smooth on the new toll highway (Rs.10 per trip per car) built as part of the Golden Quadrilateral project. The remaining 120 km stretch on potholed National highway-13 which links Hampi via Hospet with Chitradurga was a bumpy and slow ride, we finally reached Hampi at about 4 a.m.
Day 2 – Temples tour in Hampi’s main bazaar area
Having reached at an unearthly hour (4 a.m), we decided to pitch a tent and camp out amidst the mountains on the manicured lawns of the Hampi Vidyaranya Math – a religious institution which administers the Virupaksha temple for our much deserved siesta. The local administration collects an entry fee from all vehicles entering Hampi (Rs.30 for cars, Rs.45 for buses and Rs.5 for two wheelers).
After a short nap and a refreshing swim in the Tungabhadra, we set out to explore Hampi and its heritage monuments. The first stop was the Virupaksha temple in the main bazaar area, Hampi’s largest operational temple complex. The massive mahadwara(main entrance) leads into a vast open courtyard of the beautiful stone temple supported by intricately carved pillars and friezes. Perhaps the most striking feature of this 15th century temple is a small dark cubicle behind the sanctum sanctorum, where an inverted shadow of the imposing rajagopuram (entrance cupola) is reflected on the wall opposite – evidence that the pinhole camera technique, and the properties of refraction and dispersion of light were perfected and practised in India well before they became known in the western world. The tallest structure in the ancient town, rajagopuram of the Virupaksha temple is clearly visible from as far as Kamalapuram about 5 km away.
After marvelling at the Virupaksha temple, we climbed the adjacent Ratnakuta hill strewn with several small abandoned temples. Contiguous to Ratnakuta is the Hemakuta hill, scattered with temples and large dolmens. Conspicuous among the buildings atop the Hemakuta hill is Sasivekalu (mustard seed) Ganesha, a 12 ft tall monolithic image of the elephant god enshrined in an open pillared pavilion. Consecrated in 1506, the statue depicts four-armed lord Ganesha seated in the ardha padmasana yogic. Another monolithic idol the 18 ft Kadalekalu (Bengal gram) Ganesha also enshrined on the Hemakuta hill is installed in a fine dolmen supported by attractively carved pillars and friezes depicting gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.
With the sun beating down mercilessly, we took a lunch break and rested in the cool shade of the ruins. Refreshed we traversed a rough footpath to the sprawling Achyutaraya temple about 500 metres from the main bazaar. The temple has some of the most decorative carvings found in the ruins and was built by Salakaraju Tirumaladeva, chief officer of king Achyutaraya, predecessor of Krishandevaraya. A towering gopuram at the entrance leads into the temple’s carved halls and sub shrines. An important shrine inside is dedicated to Agni, the God of fire.
We capped the day’s activities with a visit to the top of Mathanga hill. Climbing a steep flight of 600 steps which weave and wind their way between massive boulders and through caves was well worth the effort. The view from the summit, of the sunset flooding the ruins of Hampi with crimson light, offered an awesome vista.
Day 3 – Tour of the royal enclosure and more monoliths
Venturing deeper into Hampi ruins, we took in the magnificent 26 ft tall monolithic statue of Lakshmi Narasimha (the half-lion-half-man incarnation of Vishnu), seated atop the giant coils of the seven-headed serpent god Adishesha. Consecrated in 1528 on the orders of Krishnadevaraya, the sculpture originally depicted the divine consort Lakshmi seated on Narasimha’s lap. It is popularly believed that the monolith was mutilated and the Lakshmi idol hacked to pieces by raiding armies. An idol of Lord Shiva, known as Badavalinga, is sited in the immediate vicinity. The 12 ft tall lingam carved out of shiny black granite rises out of a shallow pool of clear water.
Our next stop was to Hampi’s most famous Vittala temple, 5 km by road or 3 km cross-country trek through rocky hillocks or by road. We opted for the latter, a decision which provided a memorable experience. En route were monuments far removed from the tourist circuit – Purandara Mantapa on the banks of river Tungabhadra; and the King’s Balance where it is believed the Vijayanagar princes weighed gold and silver ornaments received as tribute from subordinate kingdoms.
The Vittala temple is perhaps the finest example of Vijayanagar architecture. Originally constructed by king Devaraya (1421-1440), it was further embellished during Krishnadevaraya’s reign (1509-1529). The temple comprises an impressive rajagopura, a sabha mantapa (congregation hall), narasimha mantapa, kalyana mantapa (wedding hall), utsava mantapa (function hall) and several small devi shrines in the passageways. The pillars hewn out of single granite blocks with carved friezes, produce musical notes when tapped gently, prompting the mantapa to be christened the Hall of Musical Pillars.
Yet perhaps the most breathtaking structure in Hampi is the amazing Stone Chariot installed inside the Vitthala temple. This life-sized chariot carved out of stone and 22 ft tall, is testimony to the skills of the stone carvers of the Vijayanagar era. The intricately carved monolithic stone wheels of this chariot rotate on its axle with the precision and detailing of their sculptures inspiring awe.
A little distance away is the grand Hazara Rama temple, originally built by Vijayanagar kings for private worship. The temple which stands within a walled enclosure exudes an air of elegant serenity when the soft moonlight illuminates its beautiful friezes, even as its rock sculptures glisten in the rays of the morning sun. The relief sculptures on the walls and temples depict scenes from the epic Ramayana.
Our next stop was the Royal Enclosure, which contains the Lotus Mahal, elephant stables, Zenana enclosure, the Mahanavami Dibba and the stepped tank. The Zenana enclosure or the queens’ quarters is an eclectic blend of Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture, surrounded on all sides by tall watchtowers – most of them in a state of ruin. The elegant Lotus Mahal appears suspended like a floating palace on a full moon night. Close by are the elephant stables, a majestic row of 11 domed stalls, with arched connecting doorways. One of the palaces here has been converted into a museum which displays an impressive collection of royal artefacts.
The enormous platform known as Mahanavami dibba with a floor area of 5,300 sq ft, served as a festivities viewing platform for kings, consorts and royal officers. About 30 ft above ground level, it is decorated with intricately carved horses, soldiers, a couple of foreign looking dignitaries, and a scene showing girls frolicking in water. The vantage view of the Tungabhadra as it silently winds its way through the rocky cliffs is enchanting. Another must-see monument here is the stepped tank, about three metres deep, into which water was fed by a series of stone channels, an example of expert engineering techniques developed several centuries ago.
Day 4 – Anegondi and return to Bangalore
On the last day of our excursion we set out early morning for Anegondi, 35 km by road, reluctantly refusing the option of crossing the river on coracles, plied by local fishermen. A proposed bridge to link these two villages has been stalled by Unesco because under the World Heritage Council rules, there should be no modern construction on heritage sites. Anegondi formed the northern outpost of the Vijayanagar Empire and its once mighty fort is now in ruins. The main landmarks of this village are the Ranganatha temple, Huchchappayana Matha, Pampa sarovara and Nava Vrundavana.
The sprawling Ranganatha temple is sited in the centre of Anegondi from which we visited the Pampa sarovara, a large water body set amid rocky hillocks. A short coracle ride ferried us to the Nava Vrundavana, a highly venerated temple housing nine shrines dedicated to Madhva seers (theerthas) – Padmanabha, Kavindra, Vageesha, Govinda-wadiyar, Vysaraya, Raghuvarya, Srinivasa, Rama and Sudhheendra – dating back to 12th-16th centuries.
Returning from Nava Vrundavana by coracle, the next stop was Anjanadri Hill, about 6 km from Anegondi. This rocky formation topped by a Hanuman temple, presents a striking visual when viewed from Hampi. Surprisingly the entire hill including the temple is being managed by self-styled ganja smoking, Hindi-speaking sadhus aka godmen who continuously recite verses from the Ramayana. The best feature of Anjanadri is the marvellous view it offers of the surrounding countryside. Amidst rugged cliffs, the mighty Tungabadhra flows calmly and gracefully offering fantastic sunset and sunrise vistas.
On the return journey back to Bangalore, the only stop en route was at the Tungabhadra Dam, Hospet, about 22 km from Hampi. It encloses waters spread over 400 sq km, making it the largest multi-purpose dam in Karnataka, generating 27 MW of electricity annually and also irrigating several thousand acres of land in Bellary, Raichur and Chitradurga districts. Recreation facilities in the form of fountains, beautiful walks, children play park, an aquarium and a musical fountain are also on offer.
Our four-day sojourn in the ancient ruins of Hampi made us aware that there’s more to this world heritage site than is generally depicted and promoted. Though the ruins span only 26 sq. km, the list of monuments identified by ASI features over 121 temples and other monuments of which we had visited only a few. A good enough reason to revisit this psychologically uplifting seat of an ancient empire which is testimony to the architecture and town planning capabilities which we are heir to.
Hampi is sited in central Karnataka and is well connected by rail, road and air.
Rail. The nearest railhead is Hospet from where one has to travel another 15 km by road.
Road. Regular bus services are available from Bangalore to Hospet 15 km from Hampi.
Air. Bellary (74 km) is the nearest airport; other convenient airports are Belgaum (190 km) and Bangalore (353 km).
The best time to visit Hampi is from September to February. Summer months can be quite unpleasant with temperatures soaring above 380 C.
Hampi offers a few hotels with rudimentary facilities viz, Hotel Mayura Vijayanagar, Pampa Lodge, Naga Lodge among others priced in the range of Rs.60-150 per night.
Hospet has many hotels offering better facilities. Hotel Malligi (Rs 140-700 per night), Priyadarshini (Rs 140-500), among others.
Eating out in Hampi. Numerous small eateries and cafés line the road in the main bazaar area catering to every taste and season – South Indian, North Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Italian – and include ice cream parlours, fresh fruit stalls etc. This is probably because every second traveller to Hampi is a foreigner.
Hampi Festival. Every year in November, the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation (KSTDC) organises the grand Hampi Utsava to attract visitors to this far-flung locale. This year’s festival is slated for November 3-5.
Tips to travellers
Heat. Hampi is a hot expanse. There is little shelter across its vast area except a few trees and the ruins themselves. Even in winter, afternoons are very hot. A water bottle, sun cap or umbrella is advisable paraphernalia while exploring Hampi.
The river. The Tungabhadra is treacherous and should be avoided except by good swimmers. Since the river flows through rocky and boulder-strewn terrain, judging the depth is difficult and underwater, the rocks are slippery.