Even as you travel from Hospet to Hampi, a 15-km journey, you can see the scenery change. As you move deeper into the countryside, large rust-coloured boulders begin to crop up behind the stately coconut palms lining the sides of the road. Green paddy fields are interspersed with small village settlements. The hilly landscape begins to look even more undulating with rocks lying around in piles, as if they were pebbles heaped together by a child.
Located in Karnataka’s Bellary district, the ruins of Hampi are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and attract tourists from all over the world.
The village of Hampi, built on the southern banks of the Tungabhadra, is set amidst the remnants of Vijaynagar, the historic capital of the Vijaynagar Empire that ruled vast swathes of southern India from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Temples, ruins of palaces, ancient market streets, monuments, gateways, pavilions and various other edifices are built in an intriguing blend of half a dozen architectural styles, including Islamic and south Indian (especially Tamil). It’s like an open museum. With such magnificent ruins, one can imagine what Vijaynagar looked like at its peak as the capital of the empire.
Hampi’s monuments can be broadly grouped into two clusters. One is the Sacred Centre, which lies between the Hemakuta and Matanga hills on one side and the Tungabhadra River on the other and includes the Virupaksha temple with its towering “gopuram”, the Vittala temple, and the Monolithic Bull carved from a single massive rock.
To the south of the Sacred Centre is the Royal Centre (the second cluster), which has several palace buildings along with military structures: the guardsmen’s quarters, the elephant stables, a zenana and baths for the queen and the public.
The best way to visit as many monuments as possible is to hire bicycles or mopeds to complete the ‘circuit’, as it is locally known. Most tourists start from the bazaar in the Sacred Centre, make a short stop at the Badavilinga temple and then the Lakshmi Narasimha, the site of the tallest statue in Hampi, before moving on to the Royal Centre. A longer drive from there, through several rocky outcroppings brings you to the Vittala temple at the other end of the Sacred Centre. Any monuments that have been left out can be covered by foot, and will involve a fair amount of walking and clambering over rocks.
Where ever you explore, something catches your attention. The rows of pillars in temple mandaps, the intricate bas-relief carvings and inscriptions from the Ramayana on the walls of the Hazara Rama Temple, the Courtesans’ Street from the Achyuta Raya’s temple that looks like it has been hastily abandoned, the majestic elephant stables in the Royal Centre, the Lotus Mahal and watch towers in the Zenana enclosure, the musical pillars and the large stone chariot in the Vittala temple which is one of Hampi’s most iconic symbols... the list is endless. Hampi overflows with history, some of it is known and a lot of it unexpected, given how little we are taught about this time period in school.
As popular as Hampi is for its history, it is equally known for its unusual landscape. Nature, by way of years of volcanic activity and erosion, has sculpted a unique, rocky terrain which has influenced much of Hampi’s culture over the centuries. Since there is no dearth of rocks (the main building material), there is no dearth of monuments. There are over 500! Everywhere you look, you see ancient structures hewn from stone and their weathered granite facades in various hues of ochre and grey.
The profusion of rocks also makes Hampi a centre for bouldering. Just across the Tungabhadra from the Virupaksha temple lies Virupapur Gadde, which can only be accessed by ferry, since there are no bridges to cross the river. Most of Hampi’s better known bouldering spots lie in this area, and the shops and outlets here rent out basic bouldering and climbing equipment to tourists. Virupapur Gadde also has guest houses, lodges and tourist huts for accomodation and the abundance of rocks seems to pervade everyday life as well. Our guest house rooms were small circular huts, and while the roofs were thatched, the floors and pillars were made of the same granite that has been used in Hampi since time immemorial.
With so much to explore and experience, Hampi is like an exotic oasis in the middle of nowhere and is definitely worth a visit, even if it is for just a couple of days.