Among the ruins of Hampi

Among the ruins of Hampi

By Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

Published: Wed 19 Jul 2017, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 19 Jul 2017, 7:08 PM

The earth spawns stony cities that are hard and unyielding. Yet, the stones yield and seem almost pliant when hewn and carved by expert masons and sculptors into temples, palaces, stone chariots, pillared audience halls, giant statues... of solid granite and schist.
And so it is with the magical city of Hampi in India's south-western state of Karnataka that flourished amidst a wild lunar landscape of rust and pink rocks and misshapen boulders - seemingly strewn around in divine fury. Today, however, the parched other-worldly aura of the terrain is softened by palm groves, banana plantations and paddy fields.
Hampi was the capital of the medieval Vijayanagara empire and exuded a sense of power and pelf that comes with being the heart of an empire, which, at its height, stretched from the Bay of Bengal in the East of India to the Arabian Sea in the West and from the Krishna river in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south.
Though much of Hampi is in ruins and what remains is spread over 25 sq km, the destination is still an eyeful and can be easily explored in four days. We stayed at Orange County Hampi, the only luxury resort near this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We would retreat to our luxe haven when Hampi overwhelmed us with its sheer grandeur. Indeed the resort too echoed the wealth of the once flourishing empire, in its wide spaces and royal trimmings; its classical contours of domes and scalloped arches were softened by glistening water bodies, lush-yet-rugged landscaping. At dusk, mashals (lit torches) and diyas lent it a fairytale aura.
We would set off early morning to explore Hampi when the sun softly caressed the golden stones of its timeless monuments, and retreat when the sun rose high in the sky, to the cool luxury of our palatial suite aptly called Jal Mahal. The suite came with separate living and dining areas and a bath of royal proportions, private indoor courtyards, a plunge pool with a romantic pavilion and lotus pond where birds fluttered in for a sip. We couldn't help but feel like Vijaynagara empire royalty, ensconced and pampered in a charmed world of our own.
Hampi was founded 1336 AD, and over the next 230 years, the Vijayanagara Empire bloomed across the southern wedge of the Indian peninsula. A succession of rulers stretching across four dynasties transformed what was once rocky forest terrain into the capital of a kingdom that rivalled the Mughal Empire in the north of the subcontinent. It was in the reign of the 16th century warrior poet Krishnadevaraya that Hampi's Golden Age dawned. The arts flourished. Architecture found expression in myriad palaces, temples and monuments. Aqueducts and irrigation canals crisscrossed the settlement. Hampi became a buzzing commercial hub where traders from around the country and the known world, Europe and Arabia included, came to do business.
Today, the ruins of the once proud capital lie enveloped in the secretive, melancholy quiet of centuries. Yet, the sun-warmed stones have tales to tell. of valour and defeat and of the empire's halcyon days. Here you might as well scoop up a handful of ancient soil only to stumble upon a historical artefact. Over the years, archaeologists have thrust deep and unearthed the remains of a vast step well, the queen's bath, which was once filled with perfumed water, stables for royal elephants, the petite Lotus Mahal.
In Hampi, solid granite becomes a canvas to tell the story of Ramayana visually in graphic relief, as in the exquisitely carved Hazara Rama temple that was the royal house of worship. The artists and sculptors who decorated the walls of the many temples with a profusion of images dipped into the sacred scriptures for inspiration.
The only living temple is Virupaksha, which, with its soaring 56-m high gopuram is Hampi's sacred heart. There, the temple elephant can be bribed to bless you by resting his trunk on your head - but only if you place some cash in its trunk. Fruits do not merit blessings, we were told.
After admiring the neighbouring Lakshmi-Narasimha statue, an imposing 6.7m monolith sculpture of the fearsome half-man-half-lion avatar of Lord Vishnu tearing out the entails of a dreaded demon, we drove down to the Vittala Temple complex on the banks of the Tungabhadra River. We entered via a 1-km long pillared bazaar, where horses from 20 different countries and other livestock were traded and were awestruck by the complex with its pillared halls, fine carvings and the centre piece, an exquisitely sculpted stone chariot, which, in fact, served as a shrine.
The Vittala temple is an architectural marvel and one of the halls has 56 musical pillars. Each slender one, when struck, produces a different sound - of the dhumri, tabla, etc. (Today striking the pillars is banned in the interest of preservation.) The grand Mahamandapa hall was where one of the favourite queens of Krishnadevaraya, a royal dancer, would perform only for him and when musicians played in the hall of musicians, the melodies would reverberate across the boulder-strewn hills.
Beauty and grace ultimately contain within themselves the seeds of their own ruin. It took the armies of the four neighbouring sultans of Bijapur, Bidar, Ahmednagar and Golconda to defeat the Vijayanagaras in the battle of Talikota in 1565 AD. And when they claimed Hampi, they were so overwhelmed that they set about plundering it. The orgy lasted for six months, at the end of which Hampi was largely razed to become the refuge of outlaws and bandits. With time, the forest reclaimed the land and mantled the lost city. The ruins of Hampi were surveyed in 1799 by Scottish Colonel Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India. The rest is history.
On our last evening, we dined royally on a Vijaynagara thali at Orange County's Tuluva restaurant near the infinity pool. In a pavilion, a dancer bent like a stalk in the wind as musicians strummed the soft night air. In our mind's eye, we saw the last Vijaynagara king pacing the corridors of his glorious citadel, grieving for his lost paradise. Did he wish that he had managed somehow to hold on to his vast empire, in whose light, paradise may well pale in comparison?

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