One of India’s most celebrated tourist destinations is actually a ghost town. A 14th century city, it was the capital of the Vijay Nagar Empire that ruled India for over 300 years. The town earlier known as Vijaynagar or the city of victory is now known as Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Located on the banks of the river Tungabhadra, in the state of Karnataka in South India, Hampi’s monuments stand today as a testimony to the master craftsmen of the medieval era. It is not possible to cover all the monuments in a day, so here are my favourite Top 5 that must not be missed:
1. The Royal Enclosure
Ravaged by wars and the passage of time, the royal enclosure takes you back to the days when the Vijaynagar Empire reigned in all its glory. Spread over 59, 000 square metres, the enclosure includes fortified walls, many gates and towers, palaces, stables, underground temples and chambers and a beautifully carved step well. An imposing monument called the Mahanami Dibba built by King Krishnadevaraya stands out in this melee of monuments. One of my favourite moments is to climb up the Mahanami Dibba and to watch the entire landscape of the town, lost amidst ruins. Another of my favourite is the Queens Bath and if I could pick a third, it would be the exquisite Lotus Mahal.
2. The Virupaksha Temple
Hampi is synonymous with the Virupaksha temple. It is the oldest of the many shrines here and even predates the founding of the Vijaynagar Empire. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the 7th century temple is worshipped even today. You cannot miss the Ranga Mandapa which refers to the centrally pillared hall built by King Krishnadeva inside the temple. Walk through the ruins of the ancient market or Hampi Bazaar and climb up the adjacent Matanga Hill to watch the town drenched in the colours of the sunset
3. Vittala Temple
Hampi is filled with temples. Almost every part of the town has a shrine. The Vittala Temple is not just a monument – it’s a spectacle. The stone chariot, the pillars, the halls, the carvings – it’s sheer poetry in stone here. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the temple was built in the 15th century. The ruins of the market, small tanks around the temple and several smaller shrines complete the complex.
4. Narasimha Monolith
A huge imposing monolith of Lakshmi Narasimha, (the form of Lord Vishnu with the head of a beast) stands silently in a corner with another massive linga (a form of Lord Shiva). The Narasimha monolith is all encompassing. At a height of 6.7 metres, the 16th century sculpture stands devoid of its canopy and the entire roof, but this deity, a fine specimen of the Vijayanagar Empire sits with the Goddess Lakshmi on his lap and the giant seven hoods of serpent Adisesha, the guardian of Lord Vishnu, around his head.
5. Bheema’s Enclosure
Hampi has several gates but one of my personal favourites is named after a mythical hero, Bheema. India is a land of several myths and legends and two principal epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata. Bheema, the mythical hero is one of the five brothers from Mahabharata, referred to as the Pandavas. The gateway here has several carvings of Bheema and his wife Draupadi and scenes from the epic Mahabharata. The fortified walls almost give you a sense of mystique as you enter the town through them.
A life time is not enough to discover Hampi. Sail in the coracle along with the locals to the other side of the river and you will discover a completely different world. To me, Hampi is beyond a destination. It is a town that has grown on me ever since I visited it 18 years ago. I have been several times and every time I discover something new. The nomads come and go as seasons change but the stone walls and pillars remain quietly hiding secrets that no guide books will ever tell you.
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