November 27, 2015

Jahaz Mahal and Hauz-i-Shamsi, Mehrauli, Delhi

“Dilli jo ek sheher tha alam me intekhab, rehte the muntakhib hi jahan rozgaar ke
Jis ko falak ne loot ke veeran kar diya, Hum rehne wale hain usi ujde dayar ke” 

“Delhi, that singularly celebrated city where lived only the remarkable few of their time 
Fate has devastated and rendered it deserted, I belong to that very destroyed city.”
– Mir Taqi Mir, renowned Urdu poet (lived 1725-1810)

Jahaz Mahal - An enigmatic ship washed ashore

Despite the viciously bone-chilling, teeth-clattering cold they invoke, winters in Delhi, merciless in their extortion and cruelty, can occasionally be tremendously heartwarming (pardon the expression!) – the otherwise vibrant, perennially overcrowded landscape transmogrifies into a chillingly bleak and thoroughly deserted ghost city colonized by such impenetrably dense fog that early morning one cannot see the buildings across the road, conducive of course to steal a few quick smooches from one’s sweetheart as I have often been guilty of. The chance appearance of minute slivers of warm sunshine are merrily greeted by the entire neighborhood – the infirm elderly quickly rush out to catch up on the gossip, the effusively cheerful children skip and run about, the slightly older ones calmly settle down in the verandahs and balconies with books and earphones and, not to be left behind, the resourceful homemakers too instantaneously bring out the vegetables and fruits that they are to shred and dice and gleefully spend extra minutes bargaining and (often unnecessarily) scolding the “reri-wallahs” (fruit-vegetable sellers, recyclemen, garbage collectors, papad-wallahs and the likes), an ancient convention which they would have otherwise rudely interrupted to rush back into the mellow warmth of the house.

The irony, the religious hypocrisy! - Hauz Shamsi and the sandstone pavilion enshrined with Buraq's sacred hoofprint

Engaged in a losing skirmish with these infinitesimal rays of sunshine, the universally abhorred forces of impermeable fog hastily call a temporary retreat only to regroup and reappear later around dusk, in the meanwhile leaving behind only a few scattered wisps sentinel-like hanging about keeping eagle-eyed watches over the larger lakes and hyacinth-shrouded water bodies. No mist however hangs over Hauz-i-Shamsi – where there once was a huge artificial lake exclusively encircled by luxuriant pleasure pavilions, vibrant orchards and manicured gardens, today is an uneven crater bursting with stinking murky water capped with plastic garbage, rotten organic rubbish and human and animal excreta enclosed by a vast contour-less plain where can be spotted even more of this malodorous waste in addition to putrid animal carcasses and shards of beer bottles! Disappointingly, reality, in this case, does not even come close to holding a candle to mythical legends.

According to popular folklore, 1230 years following the crucifixion of Christ, two men dreamt the same lucid dream – the Prophet Muhammad, seated on Buraq, the celestial winged steed with a head that instantaneously transformed from that of a heavenly horse to a glorious woman and back, beckoned them to follow and thus quickly traversed several miles. Suddenly halting, the otherworldly Buraq kicked the ground with its muscular foreleg and immediately erupted there an immense fountain of sparkling clear water.

Not a drop to drink!

Now these two men could be any ordinary persons living anywhere, but they weren’t – they happened to be the legendary Chishti Sufi saint Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and Sultan-i-Azam Shamshuddin Waddin Abul Muzaffar Iltutmish (reign AD 1211-36), the emperor of Hindustan, and being incredibly pious men they decided that the formidable Sultan must set out with his entire immense retinue to determine if the dream was indeed prophetic. Intriguingly, some distance away from the regal citadel was discovered the hoof print of the mighty Buraq and thus resolved, the Sultan instantaneously issued a royal decree to commission an immense tank, christened “Hauz-i-Shamsi” (“Shamshuddin’s tank”), encompassing as its centerpiece a small domed pavilion conceived around the stone slab bearing the celestial hoof print thus preserved for posterity. Drinkable water supply then being terribly acute, the blessed water, besides being religiously venerated, was immediately drawn via terracotta canals and pipelines to supply the thriving residential enclaves within the medieval fortress of Qila Rai Pithora and later Tughlaqabad (refer Pixelated Memories - Qila Rai Pithora and Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad Fortress complex). Unbelievable now, considering the present insufferable levels of pollution!

Blues and reds

During the architecturally glorious reign of the Lodi Dynasty (AD 1451-1526), a magnificent floating pavilion accessible by a large causeway was constructed along the peripheries of the majestic tank divinely thus ordained and regally thus patronized – referred to as “Jahaz Mahal” (“Ship Pavilion”) on account of it being immediately reminiscent of an enormous ship gracefully floating on the brilliant blue waters underneath, the graceful retreat was envisaged as a transit accommodation (“serai”/inn) to serve devout pilgrims from central Asia and Europe arriving in Delhi to visit its numerous, devoutly worshiped Islamic shrines and accordingly is composed of numerous individual chambers tastefully designed and opulently adorned. Later it was repaired by the Sultans Alauddin Khilji (reign AD 1296-1316) and Feroz Shah Tughlaq (reign AD 1351-88) and was eventually refurbished to function as an ornamental pleasure pavilion for the last Mughal emperors Akbar Shah II (reign AD 1806-37) and Mirza Abu Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II (reign AD 1837-57).

Relics from an age long gone - A ruined chamber (mausoleum?) in the vicinity of Jahaz Mahal

Rendered visually imposing by the employment of massive square chattris (umbrella domes surmounted on slender pillars) and conical buttress corner towers, the gorgeous palatial edifice possesses a U-shaped layout arranged around a large central courtyard (where presently are organized the extravagant cultural and literary celebrations associated with the annual “Phoolwalon ki Sair” aka “Sair-i-Gulfaroshan” festival) and is much embellished with Persian glazed blue and white tiles, multi-patterned alcoves, numerous pointed arches, staggered cross-shaped decorative depressions and ornamental embossment facades. An odd octagonal chattri crowns the mihrab (western wall of a religious/funerary structure indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering namaz prayers) distinguished by the fixation of white (now yellowish) tiles.

Long gone is the celebrated age when come monsoons the infinite expanse around the hallowed Hauz was rendered marvelously enthralling by flowering shrubs that would blossom overnight and hundreds of species of multi-hued butterflies romanced midair under the immense canopy of the crookedly gnarled branches of the massive trees peppering the entire verdant landscape; the earth reeked of the mesmerizing post-rain fragrance while good-naturedly querulous birds flitted from branch to another just as the hundreds of magical glittering glimmering dragonflies skimmed the surface of the numerous runoff-collecting tanks and natural water bodies; magnificently-plumed peacocks and spellbinding docile deer freely roamed about, defeated only in numbers by the gently-cooing pigeons and flawless white doves quietly making love against the vibrant red sandstone of the monuments that littered around. The lavish retinues, of Mughal emperors and British officials alike, would lugubriously encamp here and reverberate even till wee hours of the starlit mornings recounting tales of hunts past and phantoms and banshees, interspersed only by fierce drinking bouts and delightful musical and dance soirees set in rhythm with the heavenly descent of torrential rain and thunderous streaks of fearsome lightning.

Forgotten history? - An undocumented medieval mosque across the road from Jahaz Mahal

The sacred tank has been ignominiously reduced to less than a quarter of its original proportions and the preserved hoof print of the mythological Buraq too has been removed even though the twelve-pillared sandstone pavilion constructed to encompass it still exists buoyed in an ever-multiplying stream of foul-smelling garbage and excreta. Even the geographical continuity amongst the numerous medieval mosques and unusual mausoleums that mushroomed around the Hauz on account of its legendary sacredness has been ruthlessly shattered by malignant slum encroachment and extraordinarily ill-planned urban development – the Lal Masjid (“Red Mosque”) nearby, possibly a Lodi-era monument judging from its numerous ornamental features and architectural innovations including melon-like fluted corner towers and painstakingly embellished protruding central mihrab, has been redeveloped on all sides and converted into a grotesque multistoried brick-and-cement residential-cum-religious edifice, its singular domes and the slender minarets too waiting to be assimilated within this tasteless monstrosity but seemingly spared for the time being to herald its regal antiquity. Come to think of it, substitute the domed corner towers with low rectangular buildings and the wall mosque would almost visually resemble its cousin Madhi Masjid, distant both in terms of geographical separation and state of conservation and restoration (refer Pixelated Memories - Madhi Masjid).

Lost in a deluge of encroachments - Lal Masjid across the road from Jahaz Mahal

Another substantially huge medieval mosque, fitted with glass windows and iron grilles and alienated from the pleasure palace by a road stretched like an evil serpent between the two, has been entirely engulfed in an all-pervading deluge of encroachment and even the narrow mausoleums adjoining it have been bricked up and converted into makeshift residences!

“More than his (Sultan Iltutmish’s) wars or his conquests, it is with the water supply he has built for the people of Delhi that he has won his place in heaven!”
– Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (lived AD 1238-1325)

Sultan Iltutmish, Hazrat Qutbuddin and Hazrat Nizamuddin have been long deceased and their mortal constructions and conceptions shall too follow soon, murdered by the so-called educated intellectuals and civic planners who have irredeemably failed to preserve traditional water management techniques while simultaneously failing to adopt to rapidly evolving climatic and geographical realities and pressures. Why still do the educationalists insist on reminiscing about baolis (step-wells), artificial tanks, bunds (embankments) and surakhs (water tunnels) in CBSE primary school textbooks is perplexingly incomprehensible!

Towering - A lone mausoleum adjoining the aforementioned undocumented medieval mosque

Location: Mehrauli village (Coordinates: 28°30'51.5"N 77°10'42.7"E)
Nearest Metro station: Both Qutb Minar and Chattarpur stations are approximately 1.5 kilometers away
Nearest Bus stop: Mehrauli terminal, approximately 1.2 kilometers away
How to reach: Walk/avail a rickshaw from the bus stop or walk/avail an auto from the metro stations. The locals can easily supply the requisite directions.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 45 min
Relevant links -
Other monuments/landmarks located in the vicinity -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Adham Khan's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal
  3. Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb
  4. Pixelated Memories - Gandhak ki Baoli
  5. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Bakhtiyar Kaki's Dargah
  6. Pixelated Memories - Mehrauli Archaeological Park
  7. Pixelated Memories - Moti Masjid
  8. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
Suggested reading -

November 24, 2015

Sri Prasanna Chennakesava Temple, Somnathpura, Karnataka

“From the origin of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, inclusive, architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his different stages of development, either as a force or as an intelligence.

When the memory of the first races felt itself overloaded, when the mass of reminiscences of the human race became so heavy and so confused that speech naked and flying, ran the risk of losing them on the way, men transcribed them on the soil in a manner which was at once the most visible, most durable, and most natural. They sealed each tradition beneath a monument.

And not only the form of edifices, but the sites selected for them, revealed the thought which they represented, according as the symbol to be expressed was graceful or grave. Greece crowned her mountains with a temple harmonious to the eye; India disemboweled hers, to chisel therein those monstrous subterranean pagodas, borne up by gigantic rows of granite elephants.”
– Victor Hugo (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, 1831)

Poetry in stone (V4.0) - Sri Prasanna Chennakesava Temple

In the unbelievably tranquil tiny village of Somnathpura not very far from the elegant city of Mysore exists the majestic Prasanna Chennakesava temple, chronologically the last and visually the most remarkable exemplar of Hoysala architecture and an epitome of highly symmetrical, immaculately designed and imaginatively embellished sculptural magnificence. Dedicated to the mythological Lord Keshava/Krishna, an ostentatious playboy-strategist-statesman-cowherd-warrior-philosopher who supposedly lived some 5,000 years ago and is regarded as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment, the architecturally outstanding and artistically unequaled triple-celled (“trikutachala”) temple seated on its perfectly symmetrical juxtaposed star-shaped platform (“jagati”) venerates the “Venugopala” (“The hypnotic cowherd flute-player”), “Janardhana” (“He who bestows worldly success and spiritual liberation”) and “Kesava” (“He of the beautiful long hair”) aspects of the Lord respectively in its three highly embossed, excellently ornamented individual shrines. In their literature and folktales, the Hoysalas (reign AD 1026-1343) traced their historic lineage to the Yadava clan of north India which claims genealogical descent from Lord Krishna himself – therefore the conspicuous overabundance of exceptionally splendid shrines and vividly bejeweled sculptures throughout the historic land of Karnataka revering the mythical deity.


As if traversing a mysterious mythical barrier delineating the reality from the fantastical, a strangely verdant world presents itself to a visitor as soon as s/he steps within the wire mesh-demarcated physical boundary of the painstakingly landscaped lawn surrounding the temple. Vividly colored flowers mesmerizingly flutter against the gentle breeze and butterflies drunkenly flit around in arbitrary patterns from one shrub to another, flawless white egrets traverse the unfluctuating spread of the grass carpet in search of grub and overhead large hornbills with majestic beaks swoop from the immense spread of the gnarled branches that envision to block out the entire sky somewhere in the future. Several massive flame-of-forest trees compose the boundaries of the lawn while rows upon rows of neatly manicured hedges eventually terminate in an enormous acacia tree that benevolently shelters in its cool shadow the simplistic gateway of the temple’s enclosing rectangular courtyard whose boundaries in their turn are composed of strikingly symmetrical colonnades.

Indian Grey Hornbill - Another of nature's wonders

Step through the gateway and one literally feels unreservedly humbled in the face of indescribably gorgeous sculptural grandeur – not only is the sheer variety and noteworthy ornamental nature of the artworks and sculptures adorning every conceivable surface of the shrine unmentionably vast and beyond description, but furthermore, overawing every person that beholds the small shrine, here at least, unlike the more grander, unmatched Hoysala specimens at Belur and Halebidu (refer Pixelated Memories - Hoysaleswara Temple complex, Halebidu and Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple complex, Belur), the layered pyramidal spires crowning the three individual shrines, meticulously proportioned and exquisitely detailed with a spellbinding miniaturization of precisely-defined flourishes, insignificant deities and mythical creatures, are still existential and exceedingly well-preserved.

Moreover, such is the attention to the minutest of ornamental details that the extraordinarily accomplished craftsmen-sculptors introduced in their craft that one can be forgiven for believing that the patterns and mythological lores are carved not in stone but in wax or wood! The entire superstructure is composed of dark green/blue-black hued chloritic schist (soapstone) which is extremely easy to chisel into ornately detailed patterns in its original form but transforms to tremendously resilient, unmalleable stone once exposed to the elements for years. Interestingly though, the fascinating sculptures here are significantly more richly jewel-encrusted despite their considerably smaller dimensions relative to their counterparts at Belur and Halebidu.

A world in its own

Also, except for a visual representation each of Goddess Saraswati (the ethereally beautiful patron of arts, music, learning and knowledge) portrayed here ecstatically dancing while deftly playing her Veena (Indian string instrument) and a ten-armed Goddess Durga (a fierce manifestation of primordial feminine energy) piercing the body of buffalo-demon Mahishasura with her intimidatingly long trident while straddling a particularly realistic buffalo, all depictions here are strictly those of Lord Vishnu and his numerous anthropomorphic incarnations, mythological divine aspects and legendary followers. And while the larger sculptures layering each angle and protruding corner are exemplars not only of unparalleled sculptural art, but also of excellent ancient mythological fables that even precisely specify how a deity is to be visually depicted and which weapon and which facial expression and bodily movement symbolically represents what action and which boon-bestowing capability, the most enthralling are of course the outstanding individualistic horizontal friezes comprising the base of the temple’s external ornamentation – the six layers, punctuated by miniaturized discontinuous depictions of tales from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, are respectively composed of charging elephants, mounted horses, floral scrolls of foliage and variegated creepers interspersed by fearsome “Kirtimukha” (the ferociously wide fanged, lion-like face of an all-consuming demon conceived and originated out of thin air by Lord Shiva, the God of death and destruction, to destroy other mightier demons), mythical “Makara” (entities possessing the body of a fish, the face and tusks of an elephant, the limbs of a lion and the tail of a peacock) and beautiful swans respectively symbolizing insurmountable stability, matchless agility, formidable strength, unchallenged might and elegant grace.

Mythology articulated in stone

The temple’s front face possesses, instead of the larger sculptures, tiny scroll bands of numerous perceptibly different geometric and floral patterns followed in their turn by diminutive decorative circular or star-shaped pillars supporting in their midst an extravagant mesh work of small arched alcoves inset with tens of thousands of inconsequential deities, celestial dancers and divine devotees.

The most spellbindingly realistic and artistically evocative statues are however those of the celestial guards that flank the entrances – draped with extremely fine jewelry and headgear that one would have been hard pressed to even be able to carve in soap and yet those tremendously skilled sculptors of yore crafted in stone, the marvelous figures, bearing divine chakras (serrated spinning disc weapons) and conch shells and wrapped with layers upon layers of extraordinarily delicate jewelry, are embossed upon layers of elaborate foliage and geometric patterns once more culminating into fierce Kirtimukhas, miniature Makaras and tantalizing floral patterns.

Those sculptors, these details, such polish!

The multitudes of sculptures and scroll work lend testimony to the incomparable skill of the architects and artists who were themselves so impressed and overjoyed by their own creations that they disregarded ancient Hindu architectural customs that prohibit artists and sculptors from signing their work – thus come to light the names, sovereign-bestowed titles and places of origin, but not the achievements and lives, of Ruvari Mallitamma, Masanithamma, Chameya, Chaudeya, Nanjeya, Rameya, Pallavachari and Cholavachari. A huge inscribed stone tablet records the commissioning of the temple in AD 1268 by Somanatha Dandanayaka, the illustrious Commander-in-Chief of Emperor Narasimha III (reign AD 1263-92), within the small village he had established and christened after himself as “Somnathpur Agrahara”. In and about the temple are several other inscriptions as well dated from AD 1269 to 1550 recording its substantial embellishment by private individuals and the endowment of the revenue of several villages for its maintenance by later sovereigns.

Sculptural extravaganza!

The enchanting T-shaped superstructure is divided internally into three exactly identical, incredibly narrow sanctums facing the central hallway, each possessing a singular sculpture portraying the Lord’s aforementioned aspects and heralded by massive astonishingly impressive doorjambs and resplendently ornate divine guards crafted from lustrous granite. Each mesmerizing idol is so thoroughly detailed and finely polished that it lustrously shimmers golden-brown in the warm mellow glow of the numerous incandescent bulbs that illuminate the incredibly dark interiors since the minute streaks of sunlight tracing their way in through the formidably set entrance and the numerous miniscule cross-shaped openings in the ornamental stone latticework that defines the magnificent temple’s walls prove to be grossly insufficient. The darkness further accentuates the forbiddingly straight vertical and horizontal lines that define the numerous deftly designed stone patterns carved into the heavy set walls, but it also succeeds in blurring the methodically detailed nature of the numerous ornately carved concave stone roofs that grace the enchanting rectangular hallway preceding the sanctums and culminate into unequaled patterns fairly realistically reminiscent of the development and blossoming of a massive banana bud.

Soothing sacredness

Except for two stellar-shaped ones immediately adjacent the entrance, all the tantalizing pillars that support the extensively conceived, immensely heavy roof are lathe-turned polished to spotless brilliance and passionately decorated with ornate strings of sculpted trinkets and meshwork patterns. It is compelling to notice how the relatively straightforward interiors were transformed into an artistic extravaganza along the exteriors by those matchlessly accomplished sculptors and consummate craftsmen through the employment of numerous angles and recesses in cohesion with hundreds of thousands of sculptural curves and miniaturization art in collaboration with an unequalled understanding of light and shadow play. Not to be easily outdone by the physically larger and regally patronized shrines at Belur and Halebidu, here were constructed at each protruding vertex of the plinth (“jagati”) smaller ornate sculptures of caparisoned elephants, insignificant deities and serpent divinities.

Impossibly detailed

Sadly though, despite witnessing such incomparable visual extravaganza and sculptural grandeur, I left the shrine slightly dejected – it being a Sunday and therefore a vacation for post offices and furthermore, there not being any significant information on the internet apprising passionate philatelists that a letter/post card dropped in the small red postbox nailed to the aforementioned massive acacia tree outside the temple enclosure will be stamped with a special commemorative cancellation depicting a pictorial profile of the shrine, the enthusiastic amateur philatelist in me (further goaded by an innate, much despised tendency to collect and hoard souvenirs!) could not help feeling crestfallen about not having on me an envelope and consequentially not being able to post a letter from here.

The last of its kind

Open: All days, 8.30 am – 5.30 pm
Location: Somnathpura, 35 kilometers from Mysore
How to reach: Infrequent private buses ply between T. Narsipur and Somnathpura villages (12 kilometers – 20 minutes – Rs 10/person). Regular government buses are available from Suburban bus stand, Mysore to T. Narsipur bypass flyover (35 kilometers – 30 minutes – Rs 15/person) from where one can walk to T. Narsipur village bus stand. The roads between Mysore and T. Narsipur, although terribly pockmarked, wind through vast water-logged paddy plantations that alluringly glisten soothing blue-green early morning and brilliant blinding green in the afternoon.
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 5; Foreigners: Rs 100; Free entry for children up to 15 years of age.
Photography/video charges: Nil
Note: The temple is still fervently revered by faithful pilgrims and footwear is not allowed within the central courtyard. The same can be deposited (for a miniscule sum of Rs 2/pair) at the makeshift counter near the humble gateway.
Relevant Links -
Other Hoysala temples in Karnataka -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Hoysaleswara Temple complex, Halebidu
  2. Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple complex, Belur
  3. Pixelated Memories - Sri Pataleshwara Temple, Belur
Other monuments/landmarks in/around Mysore -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Church of St. Joseph and St. Philomena
  2. Pixelated Memories - Mysore Palace
  3. Pixelated Memories - Seringapatnam
  4. Pixelated Memories - Sri Chamundeshwari Temple
Suggested reading - 
  1. - Permanent Pictorial Cancellations: Karnataka
  2. - Somnathpura
  3. - Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura

November 12, 2015

Hampi, Bellary, Karnataka

“The city of Bidjanagar (Vijayanagar) is such that the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it in the world. It is built in such a manner that seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other. Around the first citadel are stones of the height of a man, one half of which is sunk in the ground while the other half rises above it. These are fixed one beside the other in such a manner that no horse or foot soldier could boldly or with ease approach the citadel.”
– Abdur Razzaq, Ambassador (AD 1442-43) of Shah Rukh, Shah of Herat

“One state, many worlds” – Karnataka tourism’s particularly unpretentious tagline eloquently sums up the enthralling culmination of marvelously affluent palaces, scenic natural landscapes, infinite thundering seas, painstakingly ornamented shrines, peacefully serene fields and endless fringes of bountiful coconut trees that defines the vast beautiful state. It is therefore exceedingly surprising that the enviably endowed state does little to promote the considerably immense treasure of medieval monuments and mythological sacred sites that it possesses – point in case, Hampi – the unequalled stronghold of the culturally renowned Vijayanagar Empire (reign AD 1336-1646) that, like several other hallowed sites and shrines puzzlingly scattered throughout the subcontinent, has its ancient mythological roots in intricate Hindu legends and mythical tales and is an incredible epitome of the unbelievable evolution and seamless assimilation of implausibly far-fetched folklores with emotionless history.

Hampi - Where meet history, mythology and nature

Stepping into the deliriously laidback village is certainly visually enchanting – as if with the singular purpose of vexing mere mortals, nature has studded the landscape in every direction with enormous accumulations of substantially huge granite boulders heaped over each other till they surmount considerable heights and intimidatingly dwarf the entire settlement into a miniature dollhouse-like existence. And then, perhaps to iterate their sculptural capabilities and accomplishments, humans peppered the entire area with an infinity of splendid shrines, towering gateways and rudimentary pavilions carved out of the very granite boulders that reflect the golden brilliance of the sun rays with such intensity that the whole seemingly insignificant settlement appears aglitter.

The legends and obscure stories surrounding the mysterious establishment and development of the relaxed village and its environs as “Vijayanagar” (“City of Victory”), the outstanding capital of the unsurpassed medieval empire, are many and often historically implausible – the first and the most unbelievable of all states that the formidable empire was established by mere shepherds – the brothers Harihara and Bukka blessed to become mighty kings by the celebrated reclusive sage Madhavacharya Vidyaranya who was pleased with their steadfast devotion and unwavering financial support to him in the form of food and basic necessities during the difficult period of ascetic penances that he undertook in the neighboring forest lands.

Complimenting nature

Scholars however argue that the brothers were either local chieftains or military commanders or treasury officers in the service of Pratap Rudradeva I of the Kakatiya Dynasty of Warangal (Andhra Pradesh) who was ruthlessly defeated and contemptuously forced to surrender his entire treasury and powerful army of well-trained elephants in AD 1310 by the fiercely fanatical-iconoclast Muslim armies led by Malik Kafur, the ferociously barbaric eunuch General of Sultan Alauddin Khilji (reign AD 1296-1316) of Delhi Sultanate. Thereafter the brothers, along with Pratap Rudradeva’s other generals, were unceremoniously carried to Delhi, rudely ridiculed, unconsentingly converted to Islam under constant threat of imminent death and given command of a few divisions of the imperial army. Their puny armies were soon afterwards commanded to assist Malik Kafur’s in the punitive siege and plunder of Dwarasamudra, the majestic stronghold of Hoysala Veera Ballala III (ruled AD 1292-1343) (refer Pixelated Memories - Hoysaleswara Temple complex, Halebidu). However, in the midst of the anticipated melee, they escaped to the impenetrable forests and gradually drifted towards the tiny village of Hampi where they reverted to Hinduism and imperceptibly slowly built a tiny kingdom, ringed in by line upon line of massive, majestic hills composed of colossal, delicately balanced boulders perpetually threatening to topple over and roll through humanity and habitation. The small kingdom would later flourish unchallenged into a grand empire and all the Hindu forces of peninsular India would rally to its unified command and vision in the face of dreaded barbaric onslaughts viciously perpetrated by the Islamic Sultans of Delhi (especially the visionary but ceaselessly pitiless Sultan Muhammad Juna Tughlaq (reign AD 1325-51)).

Another theory states that they were actually high-ranking ministers or feudatories of the unassumingly peaceful, miniscule kingdom of Anegundi (located across Hampi on the other side of the mighty river Tungabhadra), enslaved when Muhammad Tughlaq invaded the region and explicitly forced the local chieftains to submit in AD 1323 – the Sultan however unequivocally instituted them as the fortified province’s governors after they nominally converted to Islam. They initially reigned supreme, although insignificantly so, for several years as “Mahamandaleshvara” (“Great Lords”) from Anegundi under the distant authority of Muhammad Tughlaq and the spiritual guidance of the learned Madhavacharya Vidyaranya; but thirteen years later, as the memory of the Sultan’s exceedingly fierce assault flickered and almost dwindled into obscurity, the statesman-philosopher-author sage prudently advised them to proclaim their independence from Delhi Sultanate and cement the conception of their unopposed supremacy over the environs of Hampi and its fertile surroundings by commissioning an administrative capital surrounded by enormous fortifications on the site. It is unfeasibly also suggested that the illustrious capital was originally christened as “Vidyanagar” (“City of Learning”) after the eminent sage, however the name was corrupted in contemporaneous historical records.

If there be heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!

Soon after its inception, the empire forged a unified alliance with the gradually declining kingdoms of Dwarasamudra and Warangal to constitute an unyielding bulwark against the Muslim Sultanate of north India, in so doing phenomenally halting the inroads of Islamic plunder and territorial occupation from proceeding to the south and catalyzing the immediate military capitulation of all the remaining south Indian Hindu kingdoms to its own unchallenged ascendant authority. Over the next 300 years, the magnificent empire would be governed by four different dynasties – Sangama (reign AD 1336-1485), Saluva (reign AD 1485-1505), Tuluva (reign AD 1491-1570) and Aravidu (reign AD 1542-1646), and despite the sporadic incidents of violent tyranny, desertions by provincial governors and renegade generals, political discontent among rebellious nobility annoyed by antagonistic royalty, conniving refractions and renegades in vassal states, cold-blooded regicide and barbaric cruelties, it would literally become a synonym of Hindu cultural and architectural prowess, even though its emperors would refer to themselves with a composite Persian-Arabic title – “Hindu Raya Suratrana” (“Sultans over Hindu Rayas”). It would ambitiously send emissaries to China, levy tributes from Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and become renowned for its luxurious palatial residences, painstakingly irrigated and cultivated fields yielding plentiful produce even in the most arid of topographies, strictly ordered administration and gigantic armed forces comprising over a million strong infantry and several score thousand cavalry. In a display of the empire’s secular and militaristic orientation, Emperor Deva Raya II (reign AD 1422-46) would issue orders for the engagement of over 2,000 exceedingly lethal Muslim archers, who would train his force of 60,000 Hindu mounted archers, besides allotting them vast residential annexes in the capital and commissioning numerous handsome mosques for the exercise of their faith.

Sculptural orgasm! - Vitthala temple

The empire’s numerous colorful bazaars lined with extremely wide roads and pavilions for the merchants to trade and reside in would became legendary for the assortments of fruits, meats, spices, textiles, Arabian horses, jewels and dozens of curiosities on offer and would be described thus –

“This is the best provided city in the world, and is stocked with provisions such as rice, wheat, grains, Indian-corn, and a certain amount of barley and beans, moong, pulses, horse-gram, and many other seeds which grow in this country which are the food of the people, and there is large store of these and very cheap..

In this city you will find men belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it has, and the many precious stones there.. The streets and markets are full of laden oxen without count, and in many streets you come upon so many of them that you have to wait for them to pass, or else have to go by another way.. You will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and cloths, and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy. Then you have there every evening a fair where they sell many common horses and nags, and also many citrons, and limes, and oranges, and grapes, and every other kind of garden stuff, and wood; you have all in this street.
– Domingo Paes, Portuguese visitor to Vijayanagar (AD 1520-22)

At its zenith, the empire’s vast realm would extend throughout peninsular India between both shores covering the modern states of Karnataka, Telangana, Seemandhra, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and minute portions of Maharashtra. Hampi (Vijayanagar), its matchless capital, would be the world’s second largest city and boast of 500,000 inhabitants at the beginning of 16th century!

Virupaksha temple - Dominating the skyline

Krishna Devaraya (reign AD 1509-29), the greatest of its sovereigns who would usher in a golden age of monumental architecture, victorious territorial annexations and notable literature, would become a household name throughout the country for several centuries to come so much so that a satirical cartoon inspired by the hilarious exploits of his quick-witted and sagacious court jester Tenali Raman (also otherwise known as Tenali Ramakrishna), one of the eight distinguished authorities on literature and poetry (“Ashtadiggaja”), would air on national television in the first decade of 21st century! (That is how I first heard of the comical Tenali Raman and Krishna Devaraya, the magnanimous, far-sighted monarch who was an epitome of physical strength and fearsome rage).

Eventually however, the epochal empire hastened to its demise at the hands of aggressive Muslim forces demographically very different from those that it had been conceived to steadfastly oppose in the first place. In the administrative vacuum created by the retreat of Delhi Sultanate, Deccan India slowly disintegrated into five neighboring Muslim kingdoms of Adil Shahi Bijapur, Nizam Shahi Ahmednagar, Qutb Shahi Golconda, Imad Shahi Berar and Barid Shahi Bidar – suspicious and enraged at the political intrigues of Aliya Rama Raya (reign AD 1542-65) who had been eagerly and condescendingly stoking the embers of discontent and warfare between them, the Islamic Sultans formed a formidable alliance in AD 1565 and inflicted a decisively catastrophic setback to the forces of Vijayanagar and heartlessly plundered Hampi of all its fabled treasures and destroyed each of its awe-inspiring palace gardens and hallowed temples.

“This was not a defeat merely, it was a cataclysm. All hope was gone. The myriad dwellers in the city were left defenseless.. The enemy had come to destroy, and they carried out their object relentlessly. They slaughtered the people without mercy, broke down the temples and palaces; and wreaked such savage vengeance on the abode of the kings, that, with the exception of a few great stone-built temples and walls, nothing now remains but a heap of ruins to mark the spot where once the stately buildings stood. Nothing seemed to escape them. With fire and sword, with crowbars and axes, they carried on day after day their work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged, and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description.
– Robert Sewell, “A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar” (1900)

Vijayanagar - Masquerading tales of murder and devastation under a veneer of beautified monuments in a landscaped setting

Vijayanagar, “City of Victory”, the majestic Hindu stronghold devastatingly ruined by Islamic forces, was abandoned in its entirety and relinquished to relentless wilderness and ruinous desolation redolent of mass-scale death and destruction. Its unequalled splendor would crumble into nothingness and its long line of illustrious rulers who proudly fought for south Indian and Hindu autonomy would disappear from the memory of their own kingdom and would only be chronicled by contemporaneous literary records and foundation stone tablets within erstwhile glorious shrines and gigantic public works presently scattered around as uncared for orphan ruins.

“Its rulers, however, in their day swayed the destinies of an empire far larger than Austria, and the city is declared by a succession of European visitors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to have been marvelous for size and prosperity – a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare. Its importance is shown by the fact that almost all the struggles of the Portuguese on the western coast were carried on for the purpose of securing its maritime trade; and that when the empire fell in 1565, the prosperity of Portuguese Goa fell with it never to rise again.
– Robert Sewell

Kudure Gombe Mantapa - Irrecoverable remnants of an obliterated past

At the apex of its supreme glory, the picturesque city was the second largest in the world – today its ruins compose the grandest of the lost cities of Asia and are unreservedly considered an open air encyclopedia, a vast interminable museum reminiscent of the empire’s unmatched architectural and cultural grandeur and considerable financial affluence.

But tiny Hampi is significantly older relative to the glorious reign of Vijayanagar Empire, or the very history of Hindu-Muslim religious and territorial conflict which unambiguously contributed to its emergence as a medieval Hindu stronghold. Its existence is said to be eons of eons ancient not only compared to the numerous smaller south Indian kingdoms such as the Chalukyas (reign AD 543-753 and 973-1189), Rashtrakutas (reign AD 753-982), Yadavas (reign AD 850-1334) and Hoysalas (reign AD 1026-1343) which ruled it in quick succession through their feudatories prior to the Vijayanagar Empire, but even when stacked against the peerless ancient dominions of Emperor Ashoka (ruled BC 268-32) whose reign over the vast territory can be surmised from the numerous rock edicts commissioned by him in the vicinity to expound his messages of harmonious religious coexistence, tenderness towards all forms of life and respect for the government of the day and its administrative endeavors. The tranquil settlement, almost untouched by the recklessly avaricious forces of relentless urbanization and snobbish modernization, finds mention in the most ancient of epics as a hallowed site whose timeless antiquity and unmatched spiritual importance has long been inconsiderately forgotten but which nonetheless remains indissolubly linked to several prominent mythological events involving primeval creatures and mythical anthropomorphic entities. Undeniably, it is amongst the finest examples of this country’s religious heritage where history, mythology and legends merge in a fantastical fusion to generate fables that invoke metaphysical entities and invincible deities to exist alongside ephemeral emperors and fleeting histories.

Let us fly back in time, dear reader, to Hampi's mythical origins

Legend goes that the pristine hills surrounding the medieval settlement are even older than human comprehension and were in existence when impossibly influential deities, fiercely powerful demons and captivatingly voluptuous celestial forest nymphs roamed the realms of earth alongside the earliest of human beings, the immediate progeny of the all-pervading Brahma, the Lord of life and origins. Ancient lore associated with several fervently venerated shrines throughout the country recall the ritualistic sacrificial worship (“yagna”) commissioned by the mythological emperor Daksha in which his own angelic daughter Sati (Shakti) and her husband Shiva, the Lord of death and destruction and the foremost of primordial deities, were unwelcome. Sati, though requested not to go by Lord Shiva but persuaded by an unremitting love for her father and maternal family, nonetheless reached her father’s abode only to be faced with an unrelenting onslaught of merciless abuses and insults heaped upon her all-powerful husband, as an anguished consequence of which she committed suicide by jumping into the ceremonial fire. Dangerously enraged and unnervingly grief-struck, Lord Shiva picked up Goddess Sati’s lifeless body in one arm and his frightening trident in the other and began the frenzied “Tandava Nritya” (“Dance of Universal Annihilation”). The entire world was on the brink of irrevocable destruction when all the Gods and deities collectively invoked Lord Vishnu, the Lord of life and preservation, who used his “Sudarshana Chakra” (serrated spinning disc weapon) to cleave Sati’s body into 51 parts since an infuriated Shiva had vowed not to stop his terrible dance till Sati’s body existed. Each of the sacred spots where these 51 hallowed parts fell came to be sanctified as an auspicious “Shakti Peetha” (“Seat of Power”) where an intent worshiper would be endowed with immeasurable intellectual and spiritual prowess.

Virupaksha temple - An assortment of primeval deities, mythological creatures and mythical anthropomorphic entities

Assuaged of his emotional affliction, Lord Shiva retreated to Hemakuta Hill that overlooks the immense spread of Hampi’s charmingly beautiful landscape, instantaneously relapsed into cosmic meditation and became superficially oblivious of the universe for an eternity. Ages later, the demon lord Tarakasura, possessing immense physical and meditative strength that was a result of extreme penances that he undertook to impress Gods into granting him numerous boons that literally ensured his near invincibility, worshipped Lord Brahma and entreated him to bind his death by the condition that he be only killed by the biological progeny of Lord Shiva. Propelled by his limitless arrogance and emboldened by the belief that Lord Shiva would never emerge from his primeval meditation, he challenged and vanquished the divine deities from heavens who were left with no alternative except to rouse Lord Shiva from his unperturbed meditation and delicately beseech him to remarry for the beneficence of all mankind and divinity. The Shakti Peetha in Assam, where fell Goddess Sati’s mutilated vagina following the Daksha episode (refer Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam) and which had lapsed into unbelievably widespread collective amnesia for several generations, was rediscovered by Kama Deva, the Hindu God of lust and love-making, who fired his potent love-arrows from there at Lord Shiva to retrieve him from his profound meditative phase – thus awakened and exceedingly enraged at being disturbed, Lord Shiva burned Kama Deva (also otherwise known as Manmatha) to ashes with his contemplative third eye (however, as is the case with almost all ancient Hindu lore, he would of course later be recreated from nothingness and enthused with life force by Goddess Kamakhya, the bestower of salvation and Tantric boons). Acknowledging the imminent threat posed by the terrifying demonic armies, Lord Shiva married Goddess Pampa who is traditionally associated with the gently cascading river Tungabhadra.

A tinge of tenderness amidst all-pervading desolation - Eave brackets, Band Tower

This is where even mythology becomes perplexingly layered and perhaps allegorical to such an extent that it loses its resonance and tender sensitivity (especially when contrasted with Kalidasa’s immortal poem “Kumarasambhava”!) – at such terrible cost had the powerful Gods reclaimed Lord Shiva from his oblivious meditation so that he might bring forth an invincible child, but when he began rapturously copulating with Goddess Pampa/Parvati, the other deities despairingly cried out pleading them to stop since his semen was so potent that it had begun to singe the entire universe except Goddess Pampa/Parvati who alone was supremely capable of withstanding its intolerable fury. Relenting their passions, the divine couple ceased their lovemaking and the Lord ejaculated his semen which was determinedly scooped up by Agni, the Lord of fire and conflagrations, with the blameless intention of harvesting it to create a child only to realize that even he is powerless to carry it for long (this rendering has of course prompted some to ridiculously postulate that the scriptures actually refer to a homosexual union between Lord Shiva and Agni which the latter was unable to continue!). Agni therefore deposited the semen discharge along the tranquil river bed and the Goddess, herself indelibly associated with the river, fertilized the sperms and nourished the foetus with the obliging assistance of her six handmaidens (“Kritikas” – the consorts of Soma Deva (Moon God) who are said to constitute the constellation Pleiades) – thus was born a valorous six-headed son christened Murugan/Kartikeya who from the very moment of his birth was regarded as an epitome of intimidating fearlessness, supreme intelligence, spiritual accomplishment and invincible formidability and officially assumed command of the infinite divine armies at a very tender age to triumphantly defeat the demon lord Tarakasura (this is in accordance with south Indian folklore).

Commemorating divine love and intimacy - Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati/Pampa, Virupaksha temple

North Indian folklore however mentions Lord Shiva marrying Goddess Parvati, the virtuous daughter of Lord Himalaya who is the anthropomorphic personification of the expansive mountain range that crowns the land of India. Also there is the confusion over whether it was Lord Shiva’s semen or the sparks from his fiery third eye that were collected by Agni Deva and secondly, was it Goddess Parvati/Pampa who, impelled by a compassionate sense of motherhood, nurtured the young child or the revered river Goddess Ganga. The nomenclature “Hampi” is the anglicized version of “Pampe” which was derived from “Pampa/Pampakshetra” as the area was traditionally referred to as.

Several epochs later, as mentioned in the ancient epic Ramayana that inspirationally enumerates the (technically reiterating) tale of Lord Rama, the ideal king-statesman-warrior-son-husband and a supposed incarnation of Lord Vishnu (the God of life and nourishment), the considerably undulating, boulder-strewn site came to be associated with Kishkinda, the stronghold of Lord Rama’s semi-human, semi-monkey followers belonging to the “Vanara” clan (possibly a race of physically and/or intellectually less developed indigenous tribal groups or aboriginal men characterized by very prominent facial features and endowed with an enviable ability to dwell in and leap between trees and caves). While traversing the entire countryside to trace the whereabouts of Queen Sita, the dutiful wife of Lord Rama who was abducted by Ravana, the ten-faced, twenty-armed intellectual but diabolical monarch of Sri Lanka, it was in Hampi that the strapping prince and his younger brother Lakshman met Hanuman, their most ardent and bafflingly good-natured Vanara follower who was purportedly capable of flying across continents, change his dimensions from minute to colossal at will, tear apart immense mountains and carry them around and defeat entire legions of demonic armies without the slightest of efforts! The claustrophobic residential cave of Sugriva, supreme lord of all Vanara forces, is also located in Hampi overlooking a denuded cliff adjacent the river Tungabhadra.

The descendants of Sugriva and Vali?

It is therefore not surprising at all that the miniature village is a massive playground for exceedingly nimble monkeys – lithe black-faced grey langurs (Semnopithecus entellus) as well as querulous brown-faced Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) – who leap between trees and roofs of houses, run amok across the streets unmindful of traffic and shrieking pedestrians sprinting away from them, climb the mammoth gateway towers of the majestic temples and occasionally also comically tease the local populations of frogs and calves just to liven things up! Nights in Hampi are characterized by a deafening silence undoubtedly capable of reducing anyone on their own (for instance yours truly) to bewildering palpitation and are punctured only by the intermittent meows of the ubiquitous felines and the heavy-footed hushed movement of hordes of sacred (though mostly starved and cadaverous) cows, but during the day one can be assured of being repeatedly startled by the chatter of the unusually numerous simians and their gasp-inducing raucous acrobatics through the dense foliage and upon the palm frond-layered roofs of the austerely simplistic shop-cum-houses and spartan guesthouses that line the length of the village.

Despite its trifling geographical span, Hampi’s spellbinding landscape is speckled with such an unbelievably outlandish number of medieval shrines and residential annexes that it is preposterous to even think of stepping into the gorgeous village sans a well-defined map specifying the physical divisions of the entire area and the key landmarks. Anticipating business and shoving and shouting to get hired, local guides who also double as auto rickshaw drivers distribute rudimentary maps free of cost at the bus stop itself and clamor around the visitors. However, for a serious sightseeing/documentation visit, it is advisable to be armed with a highly detailed map, such as the one available here –

Beautiful relics from a golden age - Plasterwork patterns, Hemakuta Hill shrine

Marking the precipitous length of hill sides, protruding from the jutting edges of great boulders, surmounting the pinnacles of lofty precipices and even popping up in places that would seem inaccessible to anything but monkeys and birds – hundreds of miniature shrines and rudimentary simplistic pavilions, crafted from granite slabs and varying minutely by degrees in terms of their spatial plan and dimensions, dot the entire village and its surroundings environs. Majestically towering over the entire settlement as if attempting to soar even higher than the surrounding hills is the impressive 52 meter (160 feet) tall gateway (“Rayagopuram”) of Virupaksha temple. For the sake of classification, the entire locale is cursorily divided by archaeologists into three sections – the populated zone around Virupaksha temple, the “sacred center” and the “royal center” (subdivided further into “royal residential center” and “royal ceremonial center”); apart from these, three of the hills – Matunga, Hemakuta and Gandhamadana – comprising the immediate natural defensive ring around the impregnable settlement too are sprinkled with an astonishing quantity and diversity of shrines and pavilions and one wonders that if these mere unexceptional remnants, irreversibly ruined and decayed, are such an impeccable source of astonishment and admiration to all beholders, how visually magnificent, culturally advanced and architecturally dexterous would have been at its apex the empire that fashioned these! One conservative estimate puts the number of shrines and rudimentary pavilions (“mantapa”) supported on granite pillars in and around Hampi at around 3,000, of which approximately 1,500 are still existential in their entirety with little or no damage suffered as a consequence of the Islamic invasions or elements of nature. However, except for the noteworthy Virupaksha temple universally acclaimed as a living monument, none of these shrines presently house sacred idols nor are they employed for worship.

A million miniscule details and myriads of visual permutations

It is said that Virupaksha temple was adoringly consecrated on the spot where Goddess Parvati/Pampa and Lord Shiva were traditionally married in the auspicious presence of the entire Hindu religious pantheon – celestial deities, intimidating demon lords (“Danavas”), powerful sorcerer mendicants, fiendish goblins, terrible ghouls (“Pisachas”), serpent deities (“Nagas”), voluptuous damsels (“Apsaras”), divinely gifted musician-dancer centaurs (“Gandharvas”) and mystical sages and their similarly spiritual wives. The original, simplistic shrine, conceived and constructed around 7th century AD, was manifolds enlarged and beautified by Proluganti Tippa, an officer in the court of Deva Raya II, and later was expanded furthermore to its present magnificent proportions and endowed with its richly textured gateways by Krishna Devaraya upon ascension to the throne. And although parts of the sacred enclosure have been grotesquely painted and hideously embellished several times in the name of restoration/conservation by the temple authorities, the shrine still retains plentiful of its intended grandeur and continues to evoke an unbridled sense of wide-eyed awe in every visitor. I had intended to stay in Hampi for two days and considering the proximity of Virupaksha temple to the overflowing settlement and the endless groups of locals and tourists slithering their way in and out of the huge ten-tiered gateway, I instantly decided that in order to have clear uncrowded photographs, I’ll have to wake up very early the next morning and visit the temple before any of the other tourists make their appearance. And despite being bone-tired from the intense walking and trekking stretching across several kilometers of the village and neighborhood hills, I did wake up at 4.30 am the next morning and reach the temple at 5 (it was barely a stone’s throw away from the modest guesthouse I was staying in – in fact, the graceful apex of the temple’s massive gateway was visible through my window and the powerful incandescent bulb surmounting its crown appeared like a solitary beacon during the dark of the disturbingly silent night and threw pointed shards of orange-yellow light to illuminate my room).

Sacred symmetry

In the absence of any other soul except the chattering monkeys, the pigeons flitting between the pillars and the beggarly bearded man struggling to sell marijuana, standing at the threshold of the hallowed enclosure delineating the temple’s sprawling peripheries, one unconsciously realizes the unequalled gravity of the shrine’s stateliness – dedicated to Virupaksha, the benevolent aspect of Lord Shiva (although literally the word translates to “He of the three eyes and features dreadful to behold”), the central shrine is enclosed within two huge rectangular courtyards whose boundaries are composed of strikingly symmetrical colonnades proudly displaying their delicately sculpted granite pillars flamboyantly painted orange and red. The central shrine itself is so evocatively spellbinding that one instinctively leaves the camera aside for several moments and begins to visually drink in the unparalleled artworks, the imaginatively conceived mythical creatures and the painstakingly chiseled mesmerizing pillars – the staircases are flanked by sharp-fanged, serpentine dragons and the two prominent front-facing pillars ornamentally transform into life-size mythical “Yali” (entities possessing the body of a lion and the tusks and trunk of an elephant) leaping from the back of a roaring elephantine “Makara” (entities possessing the body of a fish, the face and tusks of an elephant, the limbs of a lion and the tail of a peacock) while both their physical features mutate to depict intense conflagrations of exquisite flourishes; the incredible magnitude of the innumerable exceptional sculptures and line motifs employed in the construction of the remarkable second line of pillars of the meticulously detailed shrine is bewilderingly fantastic – momentarily, one forgets that the entire outstanding edifice is constructed from granite, an extremely resilient material tremendously difficult to carve and fashion into sculptural filigrees and artworks. Immaculately framed by stately pillars, the glorious shrine eventually crystallizes along its roof into an enviably sophisticated painted fresco (“Ranga Mantapa”) portraying myriads of mythological scenes and legends. But the vivid blossoming of poetry does not merely cease in stones but permeates even the minutest of crannies of the temple complex.

Convergence of history, mythology, architecture and sculptural and paintwork art - Ranga Mantapa, Virupaksha temple

Its brick and mortar superstructure flawlessly adorned with decorative pilasters, statues of celestial guards and large alcoves inset with captivating depictions of several deities, another excellently adorned gateway built immediately besides the central shrine leads to a cluster of over twenty dilapidated miniature shrines lining the sides of an enormous stepped tank (conspicuously marked with hideous red and white vertical lines) revered as Manmatha Honda that is believed to be a natural depression that filled with the molten residues of the surrounding hills and boulders when they were instantaneously seared by the blazing intensity of Lord Shiva’s third eye while he furiously scorched Kama Deva to cinder.

Parting on a saddening note though, the temple’s in-house elephant, which is trained to bless patrons with its trunk in exchange for small sums of money, seemed strangely, disconcertingly hyperactive even this early morning – perennially chained to the colonnades near the entrance, it spent the entire time I was in the complex swaying around in semicircles, hopping from one front foot to another and steadfastly refusing to take cognizance of the presence of noisily exclaiming visitors even when they headed too close for comfort – perhaps a terrible, possibly unforeseen consequence of being confined to such a small space with little or no company and/or indulgences through most part of the day.

Religion-sanctioned cruelty and deprivation?

Facing the iconic Virupaksha temple is the broad, terribly ruined Hampi Bazaar (10.6 meters wide and 732 meters long), a cluster of pavilions composed of crude granite pillars that originally accommodated scores of well-stocked shops and formed one of the major thoroughfares of the grand capital. Impressive even in its ruined state, the bazaar literally forces one to pause and wonder what an indelible riot of colors, fragrances and sounds the scene would have been when rich curtains would have been stretched between the individual shops and the crowd, sprinkled here and there with Portuguese traders and mercenaries but primarily comprising of the local population and merchants from several countries professing to several faiths and conversing in several languages, dealt here in spices, textiles, pearls, jewels, foods, fruits (and surprisingly roses too!) amidst a raucous milling of gawking pedestrians, swift horse-mounted riders and traders shepherding oxen and camels bent with heavy sacks of grains and spices. And the regally-attired royal family too would have frequently traversed through on lavishly adorned elephants or chariots followed by a train of courteous servants and famously decorated royal guards mounted on well-bred steeds!

“The bazaars are extremely long and broad.. Roses are sold everywhere – these people could not live without roses, and they look upon them as quite as necessary as food.. Each class of men belonging to each profession has shops contiguous the one to the other; the jewelers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds.
– Abdur Razzaq

Without any further diversions, reverting again to Day 1 of my Hampi sojourn – following my early morning arrival at Hampi bus stand via the overnight journey from Bangalore (KSRTC Non A/C Sleeper bus, Rs 650/person inclusive of taxes), I immediately checked into a very down-to-earth guesthouse (with large unadorned rooms and layers of dried palm fronds lining the roof to keep the temperature from rising – certainly a uniquely rural experience!) and proceeded to reserve an auto rickshaw guide who would, for a princely 750 bucks over the course of next five hours, show me around the aforementioned three geographical divisions littered with hundreds of Vijayanagar-era monuments and shrines.

Classical architecture - Kadlekalu Ganesha temple

The “sacred center” is contiguous the bus stand and encompasses within its ill-defined frontiers numerous religiously and iconographically prominent and historically important temples besides scores of long abandoned, highly dilapidated shrines, gateways and pavilions.

Dedicated to the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of auspiciousness, good beginnings and knowledge, the interestingly christened Kadlekalu Ganesha and Sasivekalu Ganesha (“groundnut Ganesha” and “mustard seed Ganesha” respectively!) were so named because of the resemblance of the huge monolithic sculptures to the grains referenced. The idols were carved out of single pieces of boulder in situ and while the first is enshrined within a very confined sanctum adjoining a large singularly well-proportioned hall lined with surprisingly intricately carved pillars, the second (which is visually more thrilling considering that the swollen Ganesha idol is so conceived as to depict along its posterior side the outline of Goddess Parvati’s voluptuous figure rendered nearly inconspicuous on account of the plump Ganesha affectionately sitting in her lap!) is simply enclosed within an unostentatious pillared pavilion and was commissioned in AD 1506 by a prosperous trader in memory of Emperor Narasimha Raya II (reign AD 1491-1505).

Slightly further exists the massive, considerably well-preserved Krishna temple dedicated to the ostentatious playboy-strategist-statesman-cow herder-warrior-philosopher who supposedly lived some 5,000 years ago and is regarded as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Flanked by fairly large and mesmerizingly adorned subsidiary shrines, the central temple sits within a huge courtyard accessible via a literally colossal granite gateway surmounted by an exquisite brick and mortar superstructure that now merely survives in miserably decayed fragments but is nonetheless testimony to the incomparable skill of the craftsmen who had the sheer imagination and tenacious dexterity to conceive and execute such sophisticated embellishment of geometric line patterns and elaborate sculptural artwork.

Flawless - The Krishna temple

Commissioned by Krishna Devaraya in AD 1513 to enshrine an idol of “Balakrishna” (infant representation of Lord Krishna) that he had brought from Udaygiri (Orissa) as a commemorative trophy following his victorious incursion against the powerful armies of Suryavanshi Pratap Rudradeva Gajapati (reign AD 1497-1540), the sovereign of Kalinga-Utkala (comprising the whole of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and parts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa), the entire edifice and its subsidiary mini-shrines are defined by a visually subdued and ethereally graceful profusion of unbelievably delicate stone carvings, impossibly fine stucco detailing and numerous (much dilapidated) multi-tiered elongated “shikhars” (elongated domes) – unmovably awestruck at the very threshold of the courtyard after observing the exceedingly skillfully finished floral scrolls which convolute and twist into a sculptural rococo depicting mischievously playful antics of Balakrishna inset within rounded panels interspersed by the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu and a plethora of faintly noticeable vine creepers and subtly tantalizing flourishes, one is tempted to believe that it is not granite that one is touching and feeling for such flawlessly precise designs cannot possibly be carved on such severely unmalleable stone! Not unlike most shrines in the ancient capital however, the sanctums of the temple and each of its sub-shrines are now bereft of their consecrated idols – what was spared by the iconoclast Muslim armies has long since been transferred to different museums ranged throughout the country to disseminate historical information about Hampi and Vijayanagar Empire – which however does at times and to a seemingly insignificant but occasionally heartfelt extent, seem to be at the cost of the voiceless local shrines back here in the idyllic ruins.

An Emperor's tribute - Central shrine, Krishna temple

In 1986, the extraordinary cluster of medieval monuments at Hampi was accorded the enviable UNESCO World Heritage Site status. In 1999 however, it miserably sneaked its way to the list of World Heritage in Danger because of unsatisfactory maintenance and pressing infringement from nearby urbanization and commercial development. Since 2005, a partnership forged by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), World Monuments Fund (WMF), National Culture Fund (NCF), Global Heritage Fund (GHF), Jindal South West Foundation (JSW) and Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority (HWHAMA) has been painstakingly endeavoring to conserve and restore these monuments through the employment of 3D laser mapping, structural stabilization interventions, site planning guidelines, horticultural landscaping and traditional brickwork construction practices to recreate the damaged stucco panels and sculptures and physically stabilize the gateways and the towers besides constituting a more visually enhanced composition. Presently, the gateway of Krishna temple and the sanctum of Vitthala temple (more on that later) are ensconced within thick webs of cladding and scaffolding and it is wholeheartedly hoped that, like a butterfly gently and victoriously emerging from its cocoon, the monuments post-conservation would once more be the topic of unreserved appreciation and well-deserved accolades.

Across the road from the temple exists its associated gargantuan bazaar where traders and merchants would gather every Monday to deal in grains. Now relegated to vegetation and weed-infested shrubbery, the entire area appears strangely sanitized of all humanity – most tourists are content to click a photo or two from the road level itself and seldom does anyone head down the massive granite slabs that ostensibly function as immense, uneven staircases. It’s a shame actually – concealed behind the bazaar, camouflaged with all the rough-textured, unevenly-hewn granite columns that constitute the latter is the temple’s associated sacred water tank (“pushkarni”) – a pristine rectangular depression brimming with dark green-colored water around which flutter monotonously faded-yellow butterflies and stream lines upon lines of ants marching forever to seek hunt and activity. Egrets and bitterns waddle in the corners or settle down on the despondently ruined pyramidal roof surmounting the heartbreakingly beautiful pavilion existential like a marooned island in the center of the tank. Away from all mankind, away from the ceaseless drone of unsettling noises and disturbances of tedious everyday life, away from every single kind of pressure – sitting down in a corner of the bazaar opposite the tank is explicably peaceful.

Tranquility! - Pushkarni, Krishna temple

Impenetrably surrounded by endless expanses of bountiful banana plantations (so that’s why there is such an overwhelming abundance of simians here!) and heralded by several more abandoned shrines and massive gateways that encompass entire two-way roads between their ends, slightly further on along a dirt track crisscrossed by brimming and gurgling water canals exists a constellation of some of the most recognizable landmarks dotting Hampi’s landscape and its imperial iconography. Glorious within its cramped square shrine and celebrated for the intricacy of its well-defined stone features and exquisite ornaments, essentially the first and foremost to be physically witnessed and literary documented would be the momentous Lakshmi Narasimha monolith commissioned by Krishna Devaraya in AD 1528. Terribly fierce and unimaginably powerful, Lord Narasimha, the perennially infuriated anthropomorphic semi-lion, semi-human incarnation of Lord Vishnu, originated to protect devotees from terrible demons and is here depicted with fearsome bulging round eyes and a particularly vicious smile baring his exceedingly sharp fangs, regally seated on the thick coils of the seven-hooded eternal primordial serpent Sheshanaga (considered independently to be a physical manifestation, an admirable brother and a faithful devotee of the former by several legends) whose seven heads also form a protective canopy above the Lord to shield him from the elements. The entire is envisaged within a simplistic arch, a “makara torana”, emerging from the cavernous mouths of small makaras on each side before eventually culminating into an apex constituted by a “kirtimukha” (the ferociously wide fanged, lion-like face of an all-consuming demon conceived and originated out of thin air by Lord Shiva to destroy other, mightier demons) very nearly merging with Sheshanaga’s hood. The sculpture’s four arms as well as the image of Sri Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity and the consort of Lord Vishnu, which sat on Lord Narasimha’s thigh and which now merely survives as a mutilated fragment of a bejeweled arm still lovingly encircling the Lord’s back, were brutally destroyed by the iconoclast Muslim soldiers during the final ravaging of the city.

Fierce and yet spellbinding - The Lakshmi Narasimha monolith

For lack of better words to describe this shamefully gruesome facet of Hampi’s immediate history, I plagiarize my own words from the article about the unbelievably majestic Hoysaleswara temple in Hassan district (refer Pixelated Memories - Hoysaleswara Temple complex, Halebidu) –

“It (the shrine) is at once a discovery of ancient Hindu imperial magnificence and bourgeois grandeur and also of the cruelest of illusions that the unrelenting passage of the sands of time could wreak on unsuspecting humans – the illusion originating from hope, from belief, that even though we might wither and die and decay, our mere creations, be they sculptures carved in perennial stone or words in timeless literature, will survive the ravages of time and the exploitation and imprudence of fellow individuals.. Could not those soldiers, those seekers of worldly plunder, timeless fame and religious redemption, sense the intricacy of the stone jewels that I was looking at? Could they not visualize the sweat and labor of the sculptors who meticulously and laboriously toiled on crafting these? Could they not notice the enchanting textures, the ethereal impressions imbibed in stone by those expert craftsmen hopeful of being remembered through their hypnotizing creations, if not their mortal names and meager origins? How could they have failed to be mesmerized?

The Badavilinga temple adjacent is unusual – the massive granite monolithic Shivalinga (the universal, terribly austere rounded-pillar representation of Lord Shiva) has been conceived such that it is skirted by a narrow canal drawn from the Tungabhadra river and consequentially a major portion of it is submerged underwater throughout the year. The 3-meter tall Linga projects from an equally oversized circular base (“Yoni peetha”) and is inscribed very superficially with the pattern of the Lord’s three eyes. Local folklore goes that the temple was constructed by an underprivileged peasant woman, hence the nomenclature – “Badavi” translates to poor. The superstitious also believe that if one could throw a coin so that it stays on the Linga’s rounded pinnacle, the devotee’s heartfelt dream would come true – the atheist in me considered that a waste of both time and coins and moved on – I was in hypnotic mythological Hampi, what more could I ask for?! “If dreams were made of stone, it would be Hampi", is how they promote the place after all.

Unparalleled exquisiteness! - Subsidiary shrine, Krishna temple

Endowed with a large hall composed of ornately carved pillars, Chandikeshwara temple is not unlike most other shrines and pavilions scattered throughout the settlement’s landscape except for the case of its mistaken identity – while its present nomenclature attests to its association with Lord Shiva, the sculptures and stone embossments gracing its pillars and sanctum are certainly concomitant to Lord Vishnu and the life and times of his various incarnations and devotees.

Uddana Veerabhadra aka Mudduviranna temple, still revered by locals and painted and repainted and embellished enough times to lose its original royal character and architectural texture, is dedicated to Lord Veerbhadra, an aspect of Lord Shiva or technically the personification of his indignant rage, that originated from his furious, all-incinerating third eye (or his mouth or a lock of his hair – the various epics differ on the minutest of details!) following the suicidal immolation of Goddess Sati, with the resolute purpose of destroying the meritorious proceeds of Daksha’s sacrifice in addition to those disdainful deities who did not indulge him, the omnipotent, omnipresent primeval universal force, their sincere offerings.

Correlating monuments - A representation of Lord Veerbhadra in Kadlekalu Ganesha temple

The lore of Veerbhadra’s origins, relatively little known, especially in the north, is considerably remarkable, especially as described in the unequaled epic Mahabharata (which does not however mention Goddess Sati’s sacrifice, but barely skims the surface with the insults offered to Lord Shiva by Daksha Prajapati) –

“Mahadeva (Shiva) created from his mouth a terrible being, a living embodiment of his wrath, whose very sight could make one's hair stand on its end. The blazing flames that emanated from his body rendered him exceedingly awful to behold. His arms were many in number and in each was a weapon that struck the beholder with fear. In energy, strength, and form, that being of immeasurable might and energy, and of immeasurable courage and leonine prowess, resembled Mahadeva himself who had created him – he came to be called by the name of Veerabhadra – that dispeller of the Goddess's wrath. That mighty being then set out, desirous of destroying the sacrifice of Daksha. He created from the pores of his body a large number of spirit chiefs known by the name of Raumyas. Those fierce bands of spirits, endued with terrible energy and prowess and resembling Rudra himself on that account, rushed with the force of thunder to Daksha’s sacrifice, impelled by the desire of destroying it. Possessed of dreadful and gigantic forms, they numbered by hundreds and thousands and filled the sky with their confused cries and shrieks so that the noise filled the denizens of heaven with fear. The very mountains were riven and the earth trembled. Whirlwinds began to blow, oceans rose in a surge. The fires that were kindled refused to blaze up, the sun became dimmed and the planets, the stars, the constellations and the moon no longer shone – a universal darkness spread over earth and sky. In consequence of Rudra's wrath, every one of those gigantic beings looked like the all-destructive Yuga-fire. Agitating the celestial troops they caused them to tremble with fear and fly away in all directions.

Glitter glimmer - Inside Uddana Veerbhadra temple

The 16-feet high four-armed image of wide-eyed mustached Veerbhadra, wrapped in glittering tinsel, glimmering clothes and garlands of vibrant orange marigolds and flawless white jasmine, is depicted as bearing a sword, a shield, a bow and arrows. Continuing with the thread of the legend – Lord Shiva, pacified following the devastation of Daksha’s sacrifice and the annihilation of several deities and mythological celestial beings, brought them each back to life but in his disgust replaced the decapitated head of Daksha with that of a goat. Here, a goat-headed tiny Daksha is depicted deferential and worshiping Veerbhadra, an image also evident in several shrines and pillar embossments across the length of Hampi, but seldom perceived considering that in terms of physical appearance and ornamentation, Veerbhadra conspicuously identifies with every other significant Hindu deity.

Not very far from here can be traced the land-submerged outline of Prasanna Virupaksha temple (lit., “Delighted Virupaksha”) and its subsidiary shrines, easily discernible against the vibrancy of brilliant green grass around (and upon!) them – for some indiscernible reason this unusual underground shrine, again dedicated to Lord Shiva and chronologically dated to 14th-century, was built within a large artificial depression. Consequentially, it was later partly buried by eroded soil and even now remains flooded to some extent throughout the year. Wide uneven stairs lead down to the level of the solid granite gateway (said to have been a later addition) and from here again the temple is still significantly lower. Inexplicably so, especially considering that the shrine was regally patronized and Emperor Krishna Devaraya had stipulated the revenue from several villages including the rural settlement of Nagalapura (which he had established to impress his favorite wife Nagala Devi), the numerous slender pillars supporting the roof are very crudely sculpted and bear extremely unsophisticated divine figurines.

Singular! - The Prasanna Virupkasha temple

Streaks of light filtering through between the pillars, rendering immaculate reflections in the crystal clear water and creating patterns of painfully harsh light and equally blinding shadows, tend to ensure an unusually memorable visual composition. The gloomy and moist conditions however are particularly conducive for the settlement of bats in the nooks and crannies and the obscure darkness-shrouded sanctum. Consequentially very few visitors step as far as the pillared hallway and unfailingly rush out almost immediately if they ever do – hence therefore, clean compositions, bonus for a punishingly compulsive photographer like me! The severely austere shrine was very recently, and commendably so I must add, restored and renovated, although I seriously have not the slightest clue as to why ASI perpetually allows tufts of grass to take root and colonize the roofs of most of the shrines and temples (including this one). A scathing article published in sarcastically refers to these as the “Hanging gardens of Hampi”! (Refer - "Hanging gardens of Hampi! Grass grows on 473-year-old World Heritage site despite Rs 14.87 crore being spent on renovation"). I had some very enlightening conversation with a couple of young ASI conservation authorities from Bidar (north Karnataka) involved in the sketching and planning the preservation and restoration of several recently excavated, collapsed pavilions in the immediate vicinity of Virupaksha temple and I must admit I totally overlooked asking them about this – not that they would have known anyway considering they are at break-neck speeds shuttled from one monumental destination to the next all over south India as soon as one conservation project is accomplished and another is initiated.

At least here grows no grass! - Northern gateway, Virupaksha temple

From here, the “royal center”, the devastated citadel of the empire, is located a kilometer further along the numerous curves and bends of the road as it slithers its way between banana plantations, the occasional solitary abandoned shrine literally reeking of wild post-apocalypse, post-humanity loneliness, and massive confused and tumbling mass of rocky denuded hills composed of large boulders uncontrollably stacked with little regard for rules of physics and geometry. Enroute, one can repetitively observe the small square holes drilled equidistantly into granite boulders by Vijayanagar-era craftsmen-sculptors. Economical beyond measure, they did not wander far and wide in search of diverse construction materials but uncomplainingly utilized whatever was plentifully available around them. Guided by an interesting, highly practical technique, they would continuously pour water over wooden pegs driven into these small holes pierced along the boulders’ sides and, as the water-soaked wood expanded, the boulders would eventually unfailingly split into flat surfaces along these closely-spaced serrations. Occasionally, when clean sliced edges were not required, they would gently but doggedly wedge the rocks apart along these perforations to neatly break them in two. However, the use of granite had its drawbacks – unlike chloritic schist (soapstone) or sandstone, it could not be articulately chiseled and shaped into subtle filigree work or gorgeous, minutely detailed sculptures. What the craftsmen therefore had to sacrifice in terms of miniaturization and excessive ornamentation, they compensated through the massiveness of sculptures and clean delineation of features and functions.

Ruins of an empire - Remains of the Noblemen’s quarters

The thoroughly excavated and then forgotten Noblemen’s quarters and Dannayaka/Danaik’s enclosure (derived from “Dandanayaka” (Commander-in-Chief of the troops)), the area where the administrative offices and extravagant residences of civil bureaucrats, provincial governors and high-ranking military officers of the empire were located, exist in an utterly dejected state of ruination, surviving merely as an overabundance of fortifications and foundations of palatial residences, unending rows of stables and staircases terminating in sudden limbo – more often than not, it is these forgotten monuments, rarely tread by visitors, ignored by conservation authorities and therefore untouched by the garish application of plaster and paint that goes about in the name of restoration in our country, that anomalously throb with a plethora of tales regarding their long forgotten past and hold in their decrepit bosoms multitudes of stories and lore regarding the city’s existence and development and their own commissioning and construction. The honks of vehicles and the perpetually incessant chatter of humanity is perceptibly lost on the way to this virgin corner, modernity is left behind; melodiously calling to their companions, brilliant red birds and vividly colored butterflies flutter from the brambles and massive serpentine segments of cyclopean walls constructed from large greyish blocks of granite indifferently guard this patch of wilderness. Occasionally, just occasionally, one might come across another person who would be equally surprised on spotting another soul in this distant patch of relentless wilderness and ever-reclaiming vegetation. Sadly though, the only tales these residential annexes recount is of dread and wretched destruction, of all-consuming fire and cultural and architectural darkness – it is said that such was the grandeur and opulence witnessed here that when the entire area was set afire following the ravage and the plunder perpetrated by the exultant armies of Islam, the opulent residences, impressively built of expensive sweet-smelling sandalwood and sumptuously drenched with lavish tapestries and curtains, ceaselessly continued to burn for several days!

But the wilderness does hide a few eye-opening gems. A strong square watchtower, resembling a bastion more than a soaring tower and for some unknown reason referred to as “Muhammadan Watchtower”, possesses well-executed low semicircular domes and projecting arched windows (“jharokha”) supported on stoic stone brackets. From the shape of the windows, the raised platforms in front of them and the particularly massive nature of the stone brackets and the tower itself, there seems little doubt that guns were mounted on these platforms and ammunition was stored within the stronghold itself.

Solid - The Muhammadan watchtower

The tower leads further on to another case of mistaken identity – the so called “Idgah” mosque – a large hall accessible via three arched openings with two projecting flanks of wall on either side displaying huge ornamental cusped arched alcoves. Even if one ignores the characteristically Hindu carved stone moldings encapsulating the base of the structure which depict voluptuous celestial dancers, numerous meditating sages and valorous soldiers battling lions along with rows of geometric and floral scroll bands (all of which would be unthinkable of in a mosque considering Islamic injunction against any sort of depiction of life and beings), an onlooker standing opposite the structure faces north and not west (the direction of Mecca) like one would have were it a mosque.

The octagonal, vertically prominent “Band tower” watchtower nearby boasts of some of the most exquisite exemplars of incised plaster craftsmanship – the ornamental arches surrounding the windows ornately transfigure into a sculptural rococo of meticulously detailed swans and elaborate vegetative scrolls of floral flourishes supported upon decorative pilasters while highly embellished medallions superfluously compete for attention with rows of artistic curves although the place of honor unquestionably belongs to the singularly gorgeous, highly eloquently patterned brackets that support the slightly slanting eaves (“chajja”). Certainly suggestive of an unbelievably enthralling amalgamation of elegant Hindu artistic sensibilities and strikingly symmetrical Islamic pattern motifs, this is undeniably one of the most articulate monuments in all of Hampi.

A jewel in the wilderness - The Band tower

A short walk away, the small but highly ornate Hazara Ramaswami temple (“Shrine of the one thousand depictions of Rama”, which we, for some reason discernible only to my exceedingly talkative but very knowledgeable and soft-spoken guide, covered later) can unmistakably be endowed with the sobriquet “Ramayana verbalized in stone”!

“The Hazara-Rama temple is a veritable picture-gallery and its walls and pillars represent a highly artistic and magnificent attempt to capture in stone the immortal legends of the Ramayana.
– D. Devakunjari, “Hampi” (ASI, 1998)

Every conceivable surface of the shrine is adorned with an unmentionably vast collection of richly-carved reliefs describing the narrative of the epic Ramayana, the tale of Lord Rama, the mythological ideal king-statesman-warrior-son-husband and a supposed incarnation of Lord Vishnu – moreover, such is the attention to the minutest of ornamental details that the extraordinarily accomplished artists introduced in their craft that one can be forgiven for believing that the patterns and mythological lore are carved not in unyielding stone but malleable wax! Indeed so enormous is the quantity and such exceedingly noteworthy is the ornamental nature of the figures and embossments that even though the temple was originally so christened considering its proximity to the imperial palace’s courtyard (“Hajara”), it nonetheless came to be referred thus as an allusion to the fantastically incredible number of sculptures it depicts. Admirably contrasting against the uninterrupted orange-brown monotony of quartzite, exquisitely carved and meticulously polished heavy black stone pillars support the shrine’s sanctum, presently empty and unused. The enchanting shrine is said to have been commissioned by early Vijayanagar emperors and several later additions, as determined from the epigraphical impressions and the transitional features displayed by the temple and its subsidiary shrines, were financed by Emperors Deva Raya I (reign AD 1406-22) and Krishna Devaraya.

Ramayana in stone

Nearby, the multistoried painted and gilded palaces and royal residential mansions extolled by contemporary historical writers were levelled in their entirety by the Muslim aggressors. Derelict fortifications and numerous watchtowers, impressive even as skeletons of their erstwhile militaristic splendor, surround the remains of the judiciously spaced foundations of several regal edifices – luxurious palaces, safeguarded treasuries, thoroughly adorned Zenana quarters (residential annexes for the royal ladies) – which would have exemplified the exalted manifestations of grandiose Vijayanagar-era non-religious architecture.

One of the finest edifices in all of Hampi and ornamentally amongst the most impressively conceived is the Lotus Mahal, also otherwise known as “Chitragini Mahal”, the critically renowned and widely photographed double-storied open pavilion constructed in quasi Indo-Islamic style of architecture and profusely decorated with elaborate incised stucco ornamentation climaxing into fairly realistic arching horse-shaped (or probably Yali-shaped, considering that the beast’s face and limbs have been shattered) brackets supporting the eaves (“chajja”), elegantly sculpted floral medallions and widely-acclaimed bands of scrollwork depicted emanating from the vicious jaws of a dragon and diligently drenching the contours of the cusp arches. Each corner protrusion of the staggered-square symmetric structure is surmounted by an unusual ornate pyramidal stepped dome. It goes without saying that when the structure retained its original artistic impressiveness – the plasterwork decorations, painted sculptures and multihued friezes – it would have been an imposing edifice both in terms of architectural brilliance and artistic gaiety. The only blemish in the otherwise perfect monument – judging from the way the clumsy staircase has been constructed externally hugging the structure, it comically seems that the architect had earnestly failed to acknowledge the necessity for the same and added it later as an afterthought!

Lotus Mahal - Postcard perfect (if I may say so!)

A gateway built into the fortified walls leads to a rectangular enclosure in a corner of which are situated the lofty and dignified royal elephant stables – eleven huge, externally homogeneous, interconnected halls crowned with ribbed domed roofs and much adorned with plasterwork patterns and surface motifs. A square turret-like superstructure surmounts the flat central chamber and on either side symmetrically complementarily the domes have been constructed in uniquely different architectural styles – plain semicircular, fluted plump and rounded stepped pyramidal. On the inside, the stables are so massive that one suspects they can easily accommodate two elephants, but then of course these state animals too would have been pampered like royalty with delectable food and jewel-studded gold ornaments. The inner surface of each dome too is crafted with plasterwork in unique decorative features and small human-sized openings connect the stables to one another so the elephants’ retainers could enter and egress through each without bothering to open the colossal wooden gates (since destroyed).

Perpendicular to the stables and some distance away from them is another long rectangular building said to be the guards’ quarters where resided the palace retinue of royal guards and the king’s favorite charioteers and palanquin bearers. Surrounded by a lofty colonnade whose thick cubical pillars support amongst themselves gently rounded ogee arches, this Gothic-looking monument too, like Lotus Mahal, is out of bounds for ordinary visitors.

Enormity exemplified - The elephant stables

Some distance away, apart from mere ruins and foundations of only a few of the minor edifices, significantly little survives of the lavishly fabulous ceremonial enclosure where were concentrated the famed imperial civil buildings. The most conspicuous edifice that instantaneously dominates the field of vision is the enormous terraced pyramidal stone pavilion called the “Mahanavami Dibba” or “Dasara Dibba” that played a prominent part in the historic nine-day celebration of Navaratri festival. Referred to as “throne platform” in contemporaneous literary records, the 12-meters tall three-tiered elevated podium, established soon after the unprecedented victory of Krishna Devaraya against the Orissa Gajapatis, was once crowned by a substantially large, gorgeously painted and decorated, several-storied wooden pillared superstructure from where the emperor and the royal family along with foreign dignitaries and ambassadors would relish the religious festivities interspersed by standing performances by jesters and dancers. Sadly however, no trace of this superstructure pavilion has survived. In the intervening space surrounding the throne platform were erected smaller decorated pavilions by eminent military commanders and court officials from where they would enjoy the extravagant spectacles along with their families and guests. The granite superstructure of the elevated platform was concealed under a thick encasement of dark-green chloritic schist (soapstone) boldly-carved with elaborate friezes representing fierce battle scenes, retinues of foreign ambassadors, rich caravans bringing forth supplies of camels and Arabian horses, charging elephants, exotic and often mythical beasts and contemporary socio-cultural life and occasions interspersed by scroll bands of numerous perceptibly different geometric and floral patterns and smaller inconsequential figurines and dancers. The exceptional physical scale and extraordinary artistic conception envisioned by the superiorly talented artists is in equal terms a delightful composition and heartfelt anguish for photographers – there simply is not enough space around the tapering tiers to photograph for posterity enough of these acclaimed sculptured panels! Standing on the uppermost level of the soaring pavilion, one can observe the ruins of palaces and audience chambers encircling it and endeavor to visualize what they might have appeared as in their original glory when they still possessed their handsomely painted and exquisitely plastered enclosing walls and ornamental pavilions and the opulently bejeweled emperor walked these steps along with his retinue of colorfully-attired ministers and chainmail-outfitted soldiers.

Imposing! - The royal ceremonial platform

Immediately opposite Mahanavami Dibba are the remains of the emperor’s hundred-pillared audience hall referred to as “Bhuvana Vijaya” and “The House of Victory”. Merely extant as pillar stubs and remnants of staircases, the grandiose audience hall was originally flanked on one side by the Zenana quarters which are described by contemporary chroniclers as possessing thirty five streets of single-story houses where resided the queens’ handmaidens and personal servants. Adjoining the other side of the audience hall was the paved courtyard where jugglers, dancers, wrestlers and other such entertainers presented their performances and the vassal chieftains, affluent nobles and foreign dignitaries collected to publicly present their extravagant gifts and pay the accumulated revenue.

“This king has a house in which he meets with the governors and his officers in council upon the affairs of the realm. They come in very rich litters on men's shoulders.. Many litters and many horsemen always stand at the door of this palace, and the king keeps at all times nine hundred elephants and more than twenty thousand horses, all of which are bought with his own money.
– Duarte Barbosa, Portuguese visitor to Vijayanagar (AD 1504-14)

Separating the regal audience hall and the ornate granite foundations (27 meters X 18 meters X 1.5 meters) of the king’s (since annihilated) palace is an unusual, trivially small underground chamber, composed entirely of black-green soapstone, that has very constricted and gloomy staircases leading to it and similar passages lining it. The exact nature and purpose of this edifice is not known, however conjecture is that it functioned as a personal shrine constructed thus so the emperor could escape the scorching summer heat. I really do wonder how did (do?) the resilient inhabitants of Hampi tolerate the overabundance of granite around them – it literally does blindingly bedazzle one at times and the mirages caused by the overheated surface air further compound the issue! The shrine however is puzzlingly dated to the reign of Chalukya Dynasty (AD 543-753 and 973-1189).

Perplexing lines and gorgeous symmetry!

Past the aforementioned private palace of the king is an extensive set of flawless dark green diorite stone steps, said to have been prefabricated and planned before being assembled here, culminating into a beautiful, symmetrically perfect step-well reminiscent of the majestic wells of the parched desert plains of Rajasthan-Gujarat. Nearby are the remains of a large public bath and several decorative pavilions. The entire area is lush with vibrant greenery. Brilliant yellow flowers speckled with myriad shades of orange and red flutter against the wind while multi-hued butterflies wantonly flit around mirroring the wayward movements of the masses of fluffy grey-dappled white clouds overhead. Scattered against the unending sheet of golden-brown and green are tiny bluish flowers arising from and around tiny crevices in the stone foundations as if nature has relentlessly determined not to let waste the magnificent edifices commissioned by the Vijayanagar emperors but to employ them as veritable flower vases as a testimony to its own relentlessness and invincibility. In the background, past the enclosure’s peripheries determined by a stretch of cyclopean fortifications and rows of soaring coconut palms and massive trees with gnarled branches standing sentinel-like, loom the pristine blue ancient hills, appearing straight out of an immensely skilled painter’s canvas – untouched, virgin, the dense vegetation shrouding their entire enormous being reverberating with the furious chirping of a variety of birds. One wonders if once upon a time, the entire parched and scorched settlement of Hampi, blindingly glinting gold against the gradually-weakening autumnal sun, also possessed thickly-wooded forests and luxuriously rich water-intensive crop fields of sugarcane, roses, bananas and rice and appeared as lush and inviting as this horticulturally landscaped and archaeologically preserved zone.

“The space which separates the first fortress from the second, and up to the third fortress, is filled with cultivated fields and with houses and gardens. In the space from the third to the seventh one meets a numberless crowd of people, many shops, and a bazaar.. In this agreeable locality, as well as in the king's palace, one sees numerous running streams and canals formed of chiseled stone, polished and smooth.
– Abdur Razzaq


The Vijayanagar kings of the Sangama Dynasty extensively exploited the hydrological environment to its maximum to enable efficient irrigation of expansive agricultural land inside the city. Furthermore, water was directed to the urban areas for domestic use through an elaborate system of water channels and numerous impressive tanks and stepped baths were also constructed to ensure regular supply in blistering summers as well. Indeed, dissecting the spread of the aforementioned greenery in the royal core is the “Hiriya canal”, a raised, microscopically inclined aqueduct that happens to be one of the most outstanding waterworks employed by them in order to draw irrigation water from several wells in order to render cultivable the valley encompassing the entire region from the “sacred center” to the “royal center”.

Originally existential as an attractive component of the royal residential enclosure, the notable “Queen’s bath”, a large square structure with unexceptionally plain exteriors and remarkably ornate interiors, is presently housed within a manicured garden enclosure of its own and therefore irretrievably separated geographically from the larger heritage zone by unstructured undisguised modern intrusions such as a small settlement and a major metaled road as a consequence of which there is an undeniable element of being overboard in an undesirous way so that the gorgeous monument is often missed by many tourists and architecture and history enthusiasts. The 15 meters square and 1.8 meters deep bath encompassed within for the convenience of royal ladies is surrounded by fragmentary remnants of decorated corridors liberally wreathed with variegated stucco scroll bands, dexterously executed elaborate rosettes, floral medallions, numerous geometric motifs and tall projecting windows (“jharokha”) supported upon ornamental stone brackets shaped like drooping trumpet flowers.

The Queen's bath - Reminiscent of playful royal frolics

It was afternoon now, the sun was immersed in a game of hide-and-seek with slightly drizzling purple-blue clouds and I had been exploring the ruins (and dragging the poor consenting guide along as well) for over four hours with nothing except a couple of cold drinks and a few cigarettes to go on. I had rain-drenched and broken my poor old camera on my last trip to Hassan (*a moment of silence* – it had always proved to be faithful till its much-mourned sudden demise which left me pathetically bereaved!), so this time I had its battery and memory cards along with the ones that came with the new camera, however scenic little Hampi boasts of such a dazzling assortment of strikingly wild natural landscapes and unmistakably handsome monuments that even my second battery was close to draining away entirely by now! Given the abundant concentration of monuments, I realized that despite being seriously sweaty and hungry it would undoubtedly be far better to walk than to order the auto rickshaw to stop (and move out of the view) every single occasion a mediocre shrine or a tiny pavilion caught my fancy. Having informed the guide of the same, we proceeded towards the Gandhamadana Hill (upon whose crest exists the aforementioned, ethereally beautiful Vitthala temple), on the way very briefly halting at Ganagitti Jinalaya and Talarigatta gateway.

Sculptural extravaganza! - At Hazara Rama temple

Historical records establish that immediately following the establishment of the Vijayanagar empire at Hampi, the followers of Jainism, who already resided here and undertook physically punitive penances, were severely persecuted by Hindus and it was only in AD 1368 that a strictly maintained reconciliation was established between the two faiths by Emperor Bukka Raya (reign AD 1356-77) and thereafter an undisturbed peace prevailed which is lent irrefutable testimony by the considerable number of Jain shrines scattered throughout the contours of Hampi’s punishing physical landscape. Were it not for the tiny seated figure of a long-eared Jain Tirthankara above the lintel superimposed with three successively smaller umbrellas above his head and a yak-tail flywhisk on either flank, it would have been nearly impossible to establish that the Ganagitti temple is a Jain shrine – the severely austere rectangular edifice, dedicated to Kunthunatha (the 17th Tirthankara of Jain faith) and commissioned according to an inscription to the effect in AD 1386 by Irugapa, the Commander-in-Chief of Emperor Harihara II (reign AD 1377-1404), possesses architectural features indistinguishable from the more simplistic Hindu shrines dotting the picturesque village – an inverted T-shaped structure supported by unadorned cubical pillars realizing three identical shrines facing the central hall which is preceded by an open pillared pavilion thereby effecting an almost cruciform plan devoid of any sort of sculptural art form apart from the miniature one previously described and the arched alcoves built into the singular brick and mortar terraced superstructure over the pillared pavilion hall. The sanctum too is empty, however what is even more interesting than the unremitting sternness of the architecture is the shrine’s nomenclature – “Ganagitti” literally translates to an “oil-woman”, however why the handsomely somber temple was referred thus has been lost in the relentlessly ceaseless sands of time which sooner or later obliterate every act, edifice and memory.

Austerity - Ganagitti Jain temple

Talarigatta gateway formed a fragment of the fortified capital’s northeastern defenses besides, as the name suggests, functioning as a toll gate on the arterial highway that mapped the garrisoned citadel to the riverfront and the old capital at Anegundi across. Uninformed of the militaristic historicity of the site and the numerous gruesome battles fought around it, one might naively argue that Hampi, endowed with near-invincible natural strategic strength both by the wide and torrential Tungabhadra and the impassable hill ranges that surround it on all sides and whose denuded massive boulders offer little in way of concealment, does not need human defense works. The first battle for ultimate control over Hampi-Anegundi, mythological nonetheless, is mentioned in the Ramayana as the family feud between the mighty Vanara warlord twins Vali and Sugriva in which Sugriva was decisively defeated and contemptuously banished from the simian kingdom. Flash forward to the medieval ages, the fabulous amassed wealth and the unbelievable grandeur of Vijayanagar Empire relentlessly attracted the Islamic armies which would often navigate over the river through shallow fords to challenge the gargantuan imperial armed forces, therefore necessitating the construction of several lines of defenses and well-garrisoned outer earthworks described by every fascinated contemporary chronicler.

“The powerful Hindu Sultan possesses a numerous army and resides on a mountain at Bichenegher (Vijayanagar). This vast city is surrounded by three forts and intersected by a river, bordering on one side on a dreadful jungle, and on the other on a deep gorge; a wonderful place and to any purpose convenient. On one side it is quite inaccessible; a road gives right through the town, and as the mountain rises high with a ravine below, the town is impregnable.
– Athanasius Nikitin, Russian traveler (AD 1468-74)

Talarigatta gateway - Seamless fusion of form and functionality

Slightly beyond Talarigatta gateway, the rock-strewn dusty path leading to the amazingly well-preserved Vitthala temple does not permit admission to vehicles except cycles and governmental battery-operated tourist buses whose every act of locomotion humorously becomes engulfed in a cloud of all-pervading orange-brown dust of their own rendition – it was at this point that I bid goodbye to my baffled guide who, although comprehensibly pleased, could not fathom why one would prefer to walk all the way back afterwards when they can roam about in an auto rickshaw.

Along the way one comes across a classical raised open pavilion known as “Gejjala Parankusha Mantapa”, a small shrine lined with pillars transformed to mounted horses and therefore christened “Kudure Gombe” (“Toy horse”) mantapa and a few lesser, inconsequential pavilions thickly engulfed by a sea of banana plantations where roamed about dogs that (horrors of horrors!) instantaneously took a dislike to me and began barking ferociously!

Sri Vijaya Vitthala temple, dedicated to Lord Vitthala/Vithoba (fervently revered in the Maratha-dominated regions of Maharashtra and northern Karnataka, but rarely encountered outside), an aspect of Lord Krishna, the flamboyant playboy-strategist-statesman-cow herder-warrior-philosopher incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is heralded by the miserable remnants of a handsome thoroughfare (945 meters X 396 meters) lined with huge colonnaded marketplaces and an immensely pretty sacred water tank (“Lokpavani”). Close by exists the so-called “Shiva temple”, which however is actually a contemporary compact shrine consecrated to Brahma Vitthala, the deity’s another form. The surprisingly sudden advent of twilight imparted a reddish-orange glow to every edifice and the vast dusty plains that are discontinuously shrouded with lush green grass where large stone pillars and the forgotten remains of the fallen pavilions do not carpet the ground. Shadows began to gradually lengthen, impressively camouflaged chameleons swiftly dashed about the rough grey rocks and staircases and the entire area resounded with the ear-splitting boisterous cries of multi-hued birds returning home to their little ones and the intermittent neighs of dozens of inferior-bred horses nuzzling each other and sprinting around the colonnades and the water tank. Somehow strangely, the continuously streaming crowds of humans simply ceased to matter as the shrine and its various unbelievably magnificent features lethargically became engulfed with traces of darkness.

“The existence of the temple may be traced at least to the time of Devaraya II (AD 1422-46). Though the general opinion is that the temple was neither finished nor consecrated, epigraphic and literary evidences show that it remained in worship at least till the time of the battle of Rakhasi-Tangdi. The Vitthala temple portrays the high watermark of perfection of the Vijayanagara style, and one may well say that there is no other building which could stand comparison with its florid magnificence.
– D. Devakunjari

Flourishes, patterns and unbelievable sculptures - Inside the Vitthala temple

The remains of the exceedingly ruined superstructure of the temple complex’s substantial gateway explodes into a pinkish-red conflagration of richly textured sculptures illustrating numerous singularly unique, artistically evocative and breathtakingly realistic representations of powerful heavenly gatekeepers, anthropomorphic entities, ascetic saints engrossed in millennial contemplation, exaggeratedly attired royalty and voluptuous, finely proportioned celestial damsels crafted to erotic perfection. It is no coincidence that here too is portrayed the famed “Shikarika” (“Huntress”), previously photographed by me in her extraordinarily vividly-detailed expression at the unsurpassably graceful Chennakesava temple of Belur (refer Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple), as symbolic of the auspicious divinities associated with fertility and their inclusion in the context of the philosophical understanding of existence.

Unarguably the most spellbinding edifice envisaged during the reign of Vijayanagar Empire, the temple is undeniably an epitome of religious architecture and sculptural art, accommodating within its superlative being hundreds of perfectly-described sculptural portrayals of mythological deities, anthropomorphic entities and mythical creatures besides well-chiseled geometric and floral patterns bursting into an enviable rococo of wildly ecstatic foliage, overhanging pinecones and a never ending profusion of flowers and fruits.

Flamboyance! - Gateway, Vitthala temple

Each composite pillars (“Aniyottikkal”) metamorphoses into a vividly-detailed cubical pillar shaft enveloped along the entire span of 360 degrees by the introduction of an infinite variety of slender decorative columnettes, intricately fashioned celestial dancer-musicians, rearing ferocious lions, Yali figurines (entities possessing the body of a lion and the tusks and trunk of an elephant) and iconographic sculptural portrayals of divine adventures and events as described by the numerous epic scriptures, besides the widely renowned corner monolith composite units 3.6 meters tall which encompass numerous solid cylindrical granite “musical pillars” or “Sa-Re-Ga-Ma pillars” which when tapped can resonate to four (Sa, Re, Ga, Ma) of the seven basic musical notes and provide indisputable testimony to the unparalleled sculptural and acoustical knowledge of medieval Hindu architect-craftsmen. The musical pillars till date perplex scientists and engineers who tenaciously continue to conduct resonance and material composition studies in an attempt to understand how these were envisaged and constructed so as to resonate at a certain frequency – a striving for understanding rendered even more challenging considering that the intricate knowledge prerequisite to determine the presence of silica-rich granite stone and sculpting it has since been sadly lost and so is the inherent musical ability and inclination to thread into an aesthetic composition the sonorous notes from these marvelous pillars.

One would not be resorting to hyperbole in stating that the highly ornate temple and its associated subsidiary shrines and freestanding pavilions are amongst the most extraordinarily impressive edifices to be built in the country and it is explicably impossible to condense into mere words the unequalled prowess of the sculptors and the fantastical magnitude of the innumerable spellbinding sculptures admirably employed by them in the construction of the gigantic shrine.

Poetry in stone! - Tales from the eventful life of Lord Krishna, Vitthala temple

Interestingly, although most historians consistently maintain that the gorgeous shrine was never completed and deified since it was continuously being embroidered with sculptures and superfluous embellishments by a succession of enthusiastic rulers, local lore points to a more alluring tale, undoubtedly a sentimentally delectable product of the boundless imagination of an excessively flattering poet – it is said that the shrine was specially built for the famous image of Lord Vitthala at Pandharpur (Sholapur district, Maharashtra) and the eminent deity, assuming physical form, himself came to examine the progress of the construction, but despite being impressed beyond measure he refused to relocate saying that the shrine was too grand an abode for him and he preferred his own humbler sacred home at Pandharpur! A portion of the awe-inspiring (though probably structurally unstable) sanctum had collapsed ages ago and some sections of it were being conserved now. The ASI guard was extremely busy preventing people from walking in; thankfully however, after many disagreements, he did allow me to peep in from a corner for two entire minutes after I expressed my unavoidable requirement for photographs.

Despite the exaggerated ornamentation, the intriguing musical pillars and the presence of identical visually-uplifting pillared pavilions flanking the overwhelmingly impressive central shrine which undoubtedly betrays unequalled charisma despite being irreversibly ruined and narrowly confined within a miserably desolate heritage zone, the architecturally extravagant temple cannot be considered the epicenter of Hampi’s world-renowned attractions since that eminence unanimously belongs to the sprawling, lesser ornamented Virupaksha temple, unquestionably a celebrated living monument located in the heart of the settlement and fervently revered by dedicated pilgrims travelling to it throughout the year from far and wide. This interesting anomaly is, I believe, universally witnessed in most cities of ceaseless antiquity and excessive architectural and religious heritage – for instance, Delhi where Humayun’s otherworldly magnificent, although lifeless, mausoleum complex competes for renown and patronization with the multihued Nizamuddin Dargah complex effervescent with an intermingling of myriads of emotionless histories, mythical legends and enriching flavors (both gastronomic and cultural!), or Calcutta where the grandly opulent Victoria Memorial looks on to the ancient Kalighat drenched with the blood of innumerable sacrifices since time immemorial to quench the primordial Goddess’ relentless bloodlust.

Granite turned malleable!

In and about the temple are over a score inscriptions dated from AD 1513 to 1564 recording the substantial expansion and embellishment of the shrine and endowment of the revenue of several villages for its maintenance by Krishna Devaraya in AD 1513, the construction of the outstanding gateway and the betrothal of expensive gifts by his two queens Chinna Devi and Tirumala Devi, the numerous magnificent structural additions commissioned by his step-brothers and successors Achyuta Devaraya (reign AD 1529-42) and Sadasiva Raya (reign AD 1542-70), besides numerous grants and lavish gifts made by private individuals and eminent military commanders and ministers. The supremely exquisite pillared hall adjoining the sanctum was added in AD 1554. It is conjectured that originally the elegant temple and its sub-shrines were gorgeously painted multihued with special brilliantly vibrant highlights reserved for the more exemplar sculptures and artistic features while the exteriors were drenched with a minute layer of reflective golden-brown copper, perhaps like the repetitively paint-smeared Virupaksha temple where gaudy blue and cream-white plasterwork claddings enclose the fragile old sculptures and several shades of white, red, yellow and orange are splattered over the grand gateways and soaring flag towers. Affirming the presence of foreign traders and dignitaries and honoring eminent ambassadors, one of the flanking pavilions even depicts on its sculpted pillars representations of mustached Portuguese horse traders with unsheathed curved swords and well-dressed, top-hatted Persian merchant-travelers riding intricately carved, ferocious rearing lion/Yali figures.

A procession of stone sentinels come to pay their tributes!

Standing opposite the central shrine and corroborating the legendarily unerring dexterousness of the craftsmen, who saturated the settlement as well as a numerous other south Indian cities with their delightfully inscribed, ethereally beautiful raw stone monuments, is Karnataka tourism’s renowned icon and Hampi’s architectural highlight – the intensely sophisticated stone chariot that is so tastefully conceived, excellently proportioned, finely crafted and imbibed with superb painstakingly emblazoned flourishes that every onlooker is rendered unmovably transfixed with wide-eyed deferential bewilderment and wondrous admiration. The many layered edifice is indescribably evocative – one might go even as far as terming it richly haunting – in that it instantaneously becomes irretrievably burned on one’s retinas and arises every single time one reminiscences the affable memories of the romantic ruins. And that’s not the end of its ceaselessly astonishing conception and embellishment – the joints between the various granite panels are so exceedingly fine and skillfully concealed that it justifiably appears monolithic! Furthermore, faithful pilgrims have always believed that religious merit may be accrued by turning round the chariot’s stone wheels which are independent of the chassis – the government regrettably delayed its reasonable order to permanently cement them and was propelled to action only following the wearing away of the axles to an alarming degree. Undetected by most, the small elephant statuettes depicted pulling the substantial chariot are actually later additions and, if observed carefully, one can still notice the fragmented rear legs and tails of the horses that were formerly existential here.

Karnataka's most iconic monument - The Stone Chariot, Vitthala temple

Like all major temple complexes in Hampi, Vitthala temple too had a large sprawling village – Vitthalpura – circumambulating it which supplied it with the revenue and the everyday necessities like flowers and vermillion for the idols of the deities, food and recreation for the priests and sculptors/stone masons for additional constructions and necessary repairs. The village is no longer in existence, not the slightest trace of it survives except for the cursory mentions in historical epigraphs and literary documents, which does make one pause and wonder at this disturbing facet.

“It is a curious fact that, although the temples, palaces and civil buildings were built on such a lavish scale, the domestic dwellings and private houses must have been of the poorest description as no trace of them other than the ruined car streets survive. It is unlikely that the Muhammadans would have troubled themselves about wrecking these when there were so many more valuable buildings to destroy. In all probability, the dwellings of the humbler classes were even more squalid and ill-arranged than they are in any big city in India at the present day. The glowing accounts of the "beautiful streets with very beautiful houses with balconies and arcades" which the old chroniclers have furnished us with, relate almost exclusively to the few car streets of the larger temples. One would imagine that even these descriptions were rather overdrawn judging from the style of the houses that still remain in Hampi Bazaar, which is said to have been the finest street in the city.
– A.H. Longhurst, “Hampi ruins, Described and Illustrated” (1998)

A little corner in the lap of nature - The Brahma Vitthala temple, roughly flanking the erstwhile Vitthalapura settlement

Surrounding the Vijaya Vitthala temple, numerous ruins in various stages of decay and disintegration do survive. The most conspicuous of course are the numerous shrines protruding from almost every corner and claiming as their own even the slightest of the plain patches along the undulating barren hill surface. A few extremely plain open pavilions, derelict crumbling colonnades and imposing double-storied gateways flanked by sentry posts too do pop-up along the boulder-strewn hill ridges leading onwards to the peacefully serene banks of the sluggishly meandering river Tungabhadra. The most curious monument however is situated only a few dozen meters south-west of the Vitthala temple – the "King's Balance" was employed on especially auspicious occasions like coronations, marriages, lunar or solar eclipses and important festivals and celebrations for the ceremonial purpose of “Tulapurushadana” whereby, accompanied by the sanctified chanting of the ancient Vedic scriptures, the immeasurably wealthy emperor, regally attired and armor-clad, would be dutifully weighed against his own weight in gold, jewels, pearls and grains of which the former would then be conferred upon high-ranking Brahmins and the officious priests of important temples and the latter would be distributed amongst the distressed poor (which goes on to reveal that the illustrious Vijayanagar Empire too was far from utopian and served the avaricious interests of the pompous clergy over that of the neglected underprivileged).

“He who weighs against his own person in gold and distributes it among Brahmins will extricate his forefathers from ten generations (past and present) and from all misery.
– Danasagara, 11th-century Hindu scriptural manual

The balance consists of a large stone beam designed to appear like the crown of a miniature temple gateway spanning two elegant granite pillars and possessing along its underside carved stone rings where were affixed the pair of scales for the purpose of the religious ceremony. The brothers Krishna Devaraya and Achyuta Devaraya are historically recorded in inscribed legends to have generously undertaken the ceremony following their coronations and military victories, donating immense sums of priceless jewels and pearls.

Relic from a forgotten past - The King's Balance

From here on begins the trek down the incredibly scenic Gandhamadana Hill, a tiring journey over ridge paths that are interwoven with narrow tunnels bored through between the boulders and grass-carpeted pathways skirting the ravine only by a hair's breadth and commandingly overlooking the majestic flow of Tungabhadra. The company of crumbling shrines and abandoned pavilions is an unspoken but much appreciated constant, so is the deafening racket raised by the roaring wind whistling between tree tops and beautiful avian species of myriad hues swooping from shrubbery to another. Excluding a few exceptions, the numberless shrines and pavilions – Kodandarama temple, Yantroddharaka Anjaneya temple, Varaha Perumal temple, Tirumangai Alvar temple, Rama Vitthala temple, Hastagiri Ranganatha temple, Purandaradasa Mandapa and Narasimha temple amongst others – simplistic in construction and ornamentation and ruinously weathered by the inexorable ravages of time and nature, aren’t worth pondering over and commenting. A congested pathway through the boulders built by and christened after Kampabhupa, son of Emperor Harihara II (reign AD 1377-1404), needs to be managed on the way – certainly a terrifying experience considering that the cave-like cavity appears extremely claustrophobic and one keeps imagining that even the slightest of earthquake tremor will easily collapse the entire mountain on the trapped visitor – plus there are the occasional frighteningly huge (half a feet long at the least!) black centipedes also slithering around, seemingly confused about which side of the handsome hill they actually want to be!

Kampabhupa's pathway - Terrifyingly claustrophobic!

The green-tinged river, dreamily reflecting the listless movements of featureless clouds overhead and the shapes and contours of the hill boulders flanking it, sluggishly flows on in a perennial undertaking to meet the sea and in the process renders its enormous flood plains bountifully fertile. Occasionally and only momentarily, its waters might be disturbed by the ripples enveloping the coracles (shallow round boats fashioned from thin bamboo strips and then layered with treated leather and coats of water-resistant tar) cheaply hired by tourists to cross over to old untouched Anegundi on the other bank. Nirdesh Singh, a dear friend, mentor and an infinitely better writer compared to me, has beautifully documented Anegundi's history and monuments on his blog here – - Anegundi Fort and Origin of the Vijaynagara Empire. Twilight was slowly beginning to gather its dark covers and distant rays of soothing red-orange sunlight, fighting a losing battle, were beginning to dissipate rendering the entire river front a breathtakingly multihued picturesque landscape, the whole hillside appearing as if sprinkled down and condensed like chunks of chocolate frosting – dark green stained larger, smoother boulders underneath surmounted by thousands of immense lighter brown irregularly shaped masses of rock, the entire framed by the delineation introduced by the green (gradually turning blackish) forest cover and the orange-red skyline. Against the brilliant purple-blue sky overhead, a pair of sleek-tailed, light green parakeets tinged with brilliantly vibrant reds, oranges and blues would occasionally take flight across the wide river, quickly rolling, diving and swooping acrobatically, singing paeans of inextinguishable love to each other. A virgin patch of picture perfect magically blissful heaven on earth! Standing on a boulder and seeing nature’s unequalled palette unfold, one desires never to leave.

But back to the jarring reality, the second camera battery too died just about then and as a rapidly advancing twilight began to settle over the village and the last of the tourists disappeared in their guesthouses or hopped on buses back to nearby district of Hospet, I walked downhill and then along the meandering pathway crisscrossing the valley between Gandhamadana and Matanga hills intending to return the next morning to explore Matanga Hill as well.

Twilights in Hampi can be terribly solemn

As previously mentioned, nights in Hampi are characteristically slow and silent and therefore appear far, far longer than they actually are. Following an entire day of running about exploring and trekking, as soon as I sat down at a roadside eatery near the guesthouse with a cigarette and coffee, I realized my joints were aching terribly and a groggy tiredness had begun to manifest itself slowly as well – nothing one could not sleep off in a couple of hours. Three hours later, 10 pm by the dot, following a two-hour nap and a very late delectably good north Indian meal (delicious and aromatic garlic naan and wok-stirred kadai chicken consisting tender well-roasted chunks of chicken dunked in mouthwatering gravy) at “Bamboo House”, a dimly lit rooftop restaurant with cushions and bolsters strewn about a large dining area open to cold breeze on all four sides except for a few light curtains fluttering about, when I ventured back on the streets, recharged camera in hand, to click the faintly bluish glow attributed to the colossal tower of Virupaksha temple by the many incandescent tube lights illuminating the area around it, I could not spot a single soul on the streets except for a few restaurant and souvenir shop owners/caretakers sitting idly by or gossiping, a couple of tourists streaming in for a good night’s sleep and of course, the beggarly bearded (and now incredibly stoned) man still struggling to sell marijuana outside Virupaksha temple (“Hey! Which country, man? Want some marijuana? I have – very good quality.” (It did actually turn out to be of pretty decent quality when I shared some the next day with another tourist.)). Two-faced Hampi is unquestionably a spooky ghost town when the tourists disappear, a fact also resonated by my frustrated guide perturbed about the lack of avenues for livelihood in the off-season.

Beacon in the dark

The temple nonetheless does look relatively more impressive late at night, towering over the sleepy settlement like an immense beacon distantly glowing blue-black, however there is a limit to how many angles and compositions one can click it from, especially if one is the only person roaming around the streets and the deafening silence and the abnormal solitariness, broken only by the high-pitched orchestra enthusiastically conducted by hundreds of frogs and grasshoppers, is actually strangely unsettling. Three quarters of an hour later, after much roaming about with only a few discreetly soundless and suspiciously identical cats (or maybe there was just one idiotically roaming around in circles!) and wide-eyed bovines for company, I was obliged to call it an early night and ended up spending a couple of hours consulting maps and engrossed in a book I purchased at Virupaksha Bazaar (“Hampi: World Heritage Area” by Dr. C.S. Vasudevan and Melukote Muralidhar – barring few grammatical mistakes and dull repetitions, a seamless and quick read possessing an immensity of details and some stunning photographs clicked from unique perspectives). I fell asleep chuckling at myself for missing the obvious allusion to “Breaking Bad” by the numerous mouthwatering restaurants and cafes in this holy town which, in keeping with the local religious tradition of avoiding non-vegetarian fare, refrain from serving chicken but instead have “pollos” on their menus!

As already described, I was up and about pretty early the next morning to comprehensively explore and photograph the ancient Virupaksha temple. Following a quick south Indian breakfast thereafter (at Sagar Restaurant, a small, incredibly cheap street-side shack managed by several old and very thoughtful ladies) and check-out from the guesthouse I had lodged in, I headed back up the inclined, extraordinarily featureless plain rock sheet that is the hallowed Hemakuta Hill whose lower slopes, where are located the aforementioned classically constructed and vernacularly christened Kadlekalu Ganesha and Sasivekalu Ganesha temples, have already been incorporated within the “sacred center”.

"Let me adjust this crown" - Another ordinary day at Sasivekalu Ganesha temple

Commanding a majestic panorama of the entire settlement, including the entire vast expansiveness of Virupaksha temple and its enormous pyramidal tower projecting perpendicularly straight from the bedrock underneath, a trek along the sheer granite cliff skirting around Kadlekalu Ganesha temple leads one to a cluster of thirty-three unsophisticated pre-Vijayanagar temples (predominantly dedicated to Lord Shiva and his immediate family, dearest followers and mightiest manifestations) chronologically dated to 9th-14th centuries and compositely classified as “Hemakuta Group of Temples”. Ranging from exceptionally simplistic, almost rudimentary, pavilions and massive buttressed gateways to unadorned comparatively larger shrines (these too displaying considerable spatial, architectural and artistic diversity, right from the floorplan (single cell (“ekakuta”), double identical (“dwikuta”) or triple-cell cross-shape (“trikuta”)) to the presence of associated adjoining pillared hallways and whitewashed surface plasterwork disposition), these neat little shrines dot the entire sacred hill surface and present several hundred possibilities in terms of composition and perspective to a photographer. Moreover, trekking the steeply inclined hillside and juggernauting one’s way from one revered structure to the next is definitely adventurous, especially with the swift fingers of relentless wind coursing through one’s hair and clothes – though a point of restraint, in certain sections the rugged surface is considerably slippery as a consequence of the slow seepage of rainwater accumulated in the numerous deep surface undulations and one can never be too cautious while navigating these!

Against a rugged backdrop - A rudimentary shrine and a buttressed gateway, Hemakuta Hill

While the rudimentary pavilions are simply a delight to observe and photograph juxtaposed against the background of boulder-composed hill outcrops or other edifices nearby, the place of honor belongs to the conspicuously out-of-place triple-celled shrines surmounted by minimally ornamented pyramidal stepped roofs (“Kadamba Nagara shikhara”) that were inspired by and christened after the singularly unique style of architecture popularized by the ancient royal Kadamba Dynasty (reign AD 345-525) which is categorically regarded as the first indigenous sovereign state to rule a major portion of Karnataka (and therefore be incontestably considered the imperial precursor of Vijayanagar Empire). A commemorative inscription engraved on one of these triple-celled edifices notes that its construction was commissioned by Vira Kampiladeva, son of Mummadi Singeya Nayaka, the courageous warlord of the state of Kampili who fiercely resisted the barbaric Muslim onslaught. A spooky small little temple dedicated to Sri Prasanna Anjaneya (or Lord Hanuman – the noblest and wisest of Vanara commanders, allegedly capable of flying across continents, changing his dimensions from minute to colossal, tearing apart immense mountains and defeating entire legions of demonic armies and contemptuously hurling them around with his tail – as he is referred to in south India, an etymology derived from his mother Anjani who is said to have lived in a small undisturbed cave in mystical Anegundi), graced by a vibrantly painted embossed image of his, is still venerated fairly regularly and its decrepitly crumbling walls and diminutive pyramidal roof are therefore coated with layers of whitewash little by little peeling away to reveal the haphazard layers of stone underneath. In the vicinity are numerous small votive Shivalinga commissioned by enthusiastic devotees. A miserably ruined shrine nearby slowly being overtaken by dense foliage still retains fairly well-preserved remnants of painted plasterwork depictions of charging adorned elephants and bearded devotees venerating a Shivalinga, compelling one to wondrously consider if each of the edifice here too was once such gracefully painted and ornamented.

Singular solitude - Kadamba-style shrines, Hemakuta Hill

“Know ye this in the way that this example of mine shows:

There was a Chandala (untouchable) of the Sopaka caste, well known as Matanga, who abandoned sensual desires and reached the highest fame, such as was very difficult to obtain, and many Kshatriyas and Brahmins clamored to serve him. He having mounted the vehicle of gods entered their flawless citadel and forever and ever after lived with them in their world. His low birth did not prevent him from being reborn in the realm of the universal god.

On the other hand, there are Brahmins, born in the family of preceptors, friends of the hymns of the Vedas, but continually caught in sinful deeds, who are to be blamed in this world, and blistering hell awaits them afterwards. Their elevated birth does not save them from hell nor from blame.

Therefore, know this: not by birth does one become an outcast, not by birth does one become a Brahmin, by deeds one becomes an outcast and by deeds one becomes a Brahmin.”
– The Buddha, (Sutta Nipata, section Vasalasutta)

Majestically rising like an enormous dormant beast, Matanga Hill at the other end of the strikingly symmetrical Hampi Bazaar immediately opposite the extensive Virupaksha temple complex derives its name from Sage Matanga whose extraordinary story is recounted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two most fanatically venerated Hindu epics, and is also immortalized in the extraordinarily wise parables of the Buddha. Regarding Sage Matanga, the severe ascetic, it is documented that for several hundred years he immersed himself in fierce spiritual austerities and physical penances and only reluctantly relented when Indra Deva, the supreme sovereign over all celestial deities, blessed him with unparalleled fame for several millennia to come and the powers of flight and shapeshifting.

Guarding its domains!

Dreadfully furious as a consequence of the sacred sweet-smelling atmosphere of his peaceful dwelling being fouled when unanticipatedly fell in it the putrefying, blood-dripping mountainous carcass of Dundubhi, an armored amphibious buffalo-demon that Vali, lord of the Vanara forces, had derisively flung after the deadly, year-long battle between them, Sage Matanga irrevocably cursed the powerful king that his head would spontaneously explode into a hundred little pieces even if he mistakenly tread near the ascetic’s consecrated hermitage and the impenetrable forest encircling it. It was therefore in the dense woods around the moderately-proportioned Matanga Hill that Sugriva, Vali’s vanquished identical twin, sheltered while fleeing from his brother’s insufferable rage and met the exiled princes Rama and Lakshmana devastated by and seeking to rectify the abduction of Queen Sita.

Proximately gracing the base of the hill have been constructed several spacious double-storied pavilions, one of which houses a massive, crudely-sculpted monolithic crouching Nandi, the bull mount of Lord Shiva and a patron of spirituality and religious dedication, referred to as “Yeduru Basavanna” which roughly translates to “Lord Bull seated in the opposite direction” (i.e., opposite Virupaksha temple). Against the interesting backdrop of a heap of enormous boulders, another pavilion nearby functions as the village police station – an occupation several other monuments in the country can also attest to! (Refer Pixelated memories - Adham Khan’s Tomb and Pixelated memories - Sabz Burj, both located in Delhi). Directly behind the Nandi pavilion rises a roughly constructed wide medieval staircase, thoroughly populated with yellow-tinged chameleons and carved through the moderately inclined rock face, that leads past several inconsequential shrines, lesser pavilions and childish rock sculptures to a clearing flanked and rendered inaccessible on every side by rugged boulders and dense vegetation.

Discovery! - Achyutaraya temple

Standing here at this high altitude, surrounded only by thorny bushes, wildly twirling faded yellow and glistening black butterflies and clever chameleons dexterously camouflaged amongst the similarly-hued boulders, one gazes down at the enormous expanse of the artistically noteworthy Achyutaraya temple enclosed within two gigantically-proportioned concentric rectangular colonnades sentinel-like attending the handsome temple in the middle of lush forgotten wilderness long since abandoned by humanity and relegated to a realm of contemptuous ignorance and wretched desolation. Distressed by the sudden unwarranted intrusion, startled birds, rather firework flashes of red, black, gold and green accompanied by shrill warning cries, suddenly shoot out of the innumerable crevices and dense bushes, and having noticed the intruder hopping from boulder to stone in their midst, the reconnoitering chameleons, slyly smiling to themselves like only a agreeably satisfied reptile could smile, quickly scurry off to inform their friends and relatives.

Dedicated to the Tiruvengalanatha aspect of Lord Vishnu and commissioned in AD 1534 by Hiriya Tirumalaraya Wodeyar, a “Mahamandaleshvara” or provincial governor serving under Emperor Achyuta Devaraya (reign AD 1529-42) after whom it was flatteringly christened, the impressive shrine is an exemplar, sadly considerably less appreciated compared to its other well-known neighbors, of Vijayanagar-era architecture and refined artistic sensibilities, possessing a fantastical array of meticulously ornamented sculptures and dexterously executed wall motifs involving mythological anthropomorphic deities, mythical entities and an immense assortment of geometric and religious symbolism. That the notable shrine possesses some of the most comprehensively detailed, thoroughly ornamented sculptures carved in sheer granite is self-evident, as is the comprehension of its being subjected to a punishing step-motherly treatment by archaeological departments and conservation authorities, perhaps as a consequence of the unbelievably insignificant number of visitors and tourists ever trekking to this forlorn corner of the erstwhile vast capital. Archaeological institutes and tourists – everyone avoids the hill as if realistically terrified of being afflicted by the very curse that the sage pronounced on the invincible monkey king! Sadly of course, curse or no curse, nothing prevents thick tufts of wild grass from sprouting through the gaping crevices of the ruined gateways.

A pity that the architects and craftsmen are not remembered - Gateway, Achyutaraya temple

The magnificent temple too is surrounded by an enormous bazaar – “Achyutarayapete” (“Achyuta Raya’s marketplace”), also otherwise known as “Soolai Bazaar” (“Courtesan’s street”) since here resided the prominent prostitutes and dancing girls patronized by the powerful and affluent – like the other bazaars associated with temple complexes, the commercial establishments and pleasure pavilions here too probably belonged to the temple authorities and in all estimation the amount of rent they must have collected every year must have been considerably significant.

Horrifically, it was at this point that for some inexplicable reason the camera's batteries went off as soon as I gingerly switched it on and consequentially I was obliged (very miserably!) to sit at the small Sagar Restaurant (previously mentioned) for slightly over two hours to charge it enough to last the day. As per the original (much glossed over) plans, I had hoped to hop on a coracle and explore across the pretty river the ancient fortresses and revered temples of historical Anegundi, but now that it already was 2.30 pm, I wasn’t really confident if I’ll be able to locate and photograph all the monuments on that forgotten side and be back in time to catch my return bus at 7.30 that very evening. Therefore, I impulsively decided to instead explore the perennially overlooked outskirt villages of Kamalapuram and Kadirampuram (pronounced Kamalapura and Kadirapura), which although originally enclosed within the defensive fortifications of the capital and encapsulating within their peripheries important, regally patronized temples and frontier militaristic outposts, have long since been physically and administratively separated from the latter (despite the immediate geometric proximity) which explains that the monuments here are seldom visited by tourists and photographers and cannot be regarded as being in the pink of health, in terms of conservation and preservation – thoroughly surrounded by waist-high grasslands (and even in many cases surmounted by thick tufts of green grass too!), these are primarily used by locals to graze large herds of goats and buffaloes, or to camp in with homemade coffee and snacks to gossip and doze in.

Life - An incessant circle of endless creation and destruction

Kamalapuram is located barely 20-30 minutes away by local buses which can be availed from Hampi bus stop, though in all earnestness, it takes longer for the bus to fill up followed by the idiotic last minute decisions that another bus would actually go on that route and the one you are already sitting in will actually sojourn elsewhere. The primary attraction of Kamalapuram, considerably well frequented and properly maintained, is the low rectangular building of the tiny Archaeological Museum which faces a large manicured garden and whose four galleries as well as the adjoining garden display an assortment of sculptures and archaeological discoveries, including blackened copper plates engraved with regal inscriptions recording religious grants, rusted weaponry, commemorative hero stones and valuable gold and copper coins, unearthed in and around Hampi. However, its most appreciated highlights are the painstakingly constructed huge cartographic reproductions revealing in minute detail the exact geographical location and physical features of the numerous monumental edifices besides topographical information and the major arterial roads and pathways crisscrossing Hampi and the contiguous green villages. Interestingly, the small museum was initially established by British archaeologists and civil officers in the elephant stables and the antiques were later moved to this distant location in 1972 – necessarily a welcome decision, notwithstanding the unshakeable realization that these sculptures and archaeological finds would have been visually better presented there, considering that it did bring some tourists and archaeological officers to this far-away settlement that till date remains entirely eclipsed by its renowned neighbor and therefore almost undocumented.

Lilliputian Hampi, Kamalapuram Archaeological Museum

The modest place remains open for tourists throughout the week except Fridays, and like all ticketed destinations in and around Hampi, it too can be covered on the common ticket purchased for Vitthala temple and the elephants' stables if visited on the same day. Photography is sadly not permitted within the premises, a perplexing decision considering that the beautiful artefacts and antiques are not being touched or harmed in any way (even the National Museum at Delhi allows photography! Refer Pixelated Memories - National Museum, Delhi).

Existential in a considerably bad state of preservation, its five-storied huge gateway especially so precariously deteriorated and reclaimed by dense clumps of wild grass violently swaying with the unrelentingly furious wind that it literally appears to be perpetually susceptible to immediate grievous collapse particularly against heavy rain and harsh weather, the majestic Pattabhirama temple is located approximately two kilometers from the museum at the end of a network of successively narrowing roads in the pleasantly tranquil heart of the full flung Kamalapuram village with soothing green banana plantations and fertile vast grasslands in the idyllic background where slothfully graze hundreds of sheep and lean buffaloes with immensely long curved horns. Ignominiously relegated to the realms of forgetful ignorance and partial reclamation by all-pervading foliage, the grand shrine appears straight out of a vintage photograph enthusiastically clicked by a judicious explorer coming across a massive set of ruins long since lost to mankind – there is an undeniable thrill of immediate discovery, interminably enthused with the strangely delightful sensation that previously very few have actually tread the ground that you are treading, at least for the selfsame purpose, and as the landscape gradually evolves from featureless suburban to vibrantly vegetated with multihued beautiful butterflies and birds darting around quicker than one could photograph them and an infinite variety of plants and weeds carpeting the ground and rendering the opaque shields of trees even more impenetrable, one feels like a disembodied spirit romping about peacefully in the shadows without causing any commotion or disturbance and taking in the myriad subliminal sights and remembrances that have not changed in the slightest for over five hundred years.

Pattabhirama temple - Lost to (almost) all humanity

Sadly though, despite its vivid ornamentation and the pillared hallways, the shrine does not really hold a candle to Vitthala and Virupaksha temples in terms of surface ornamentation and sculptural artworks, nor do its crumbling, grass-ensconced features facilitate as many photography perspectives in view of its physical immensity that very nearly renders the multidimensional individual features, such as the ruinous multi-tiered dome crowning the central shrine, incredibly distant and inconsequential.

The temple’s associated sacred water tank (“pushkarni”) is located in a secluded corner of a nearby vast grove surrounded by impermeable banana plantations and row upon row of tall coconut trees bent heavy with fruit and swaying against the furious wind. The grassy plains around the tank, dotted here and there with dark green weeds proudly flaunting their electric blue and orange flowers, support scores of cadaverous buffaloes (with massive curved horns!), absolutely oblivious to the world around them and only very sporadically giving way to the sudden temptation of taking a minute break from their continuous rumination of greedy mouthfuls of grass to adoringly gaze with slothful, indifferent eyes at the soothing violet-blue water in the cool sensuousness of whose slimy green mud they would perhaps have loved to wallow while reflecting upon the all-pervading contentedness of their uneventful lives (or perhaps thinking too would be too strenuous for these gentle, sleepy creatures who, from the looks of it, are not even in the slightest bothered about the gluttonous survivalist crows pecking on their backs or the slender egrets running around on their spindly thin legs).

In the middle of nowhere - The Domed Gateway

Nearby looms the vertically prominent “Domed Gateway”, whose 18-meter high lofty and ornate entrances were regarded as physical illustration of how the divinely accomplished Hindu craftsmen-architects transformed even the most mundane of utilitarian works into handsome exemplifications of their skills. Functioning as one of the chief entrances interrupting the formidable fortifications of the erstwhile capital, the multi-tiered gateway crowned by a low dome, conspicuous in its majesty and spatial dimensions, projects in this forgotten wilderness like a elegant relic from the glorious golden past which has altogether been totally obliterated by the inexplicable avariciousness of mankind and the furiously all-consuming ravages of endless time and ever-ravenous nature.

I could not help notice the exceedingly humble locals continuously and sheepishly observing me from the corners of their eyes as if a terrible wild animal was on loose amidst the magnificent ruins and forested grasslands even though superficially they pretended as if they could not care less for a nosy-goofy photographer stranger straying in their timeless settlement. Pinpoints of relentlessly sharp gaze prickling through one’s backside and even the most inconspicuous of sudden movements sending hormone-induced alarm triggers coursing through one’s spine – the realization of being endlessly under observation is literally as described by authors-poets for centuries. It was only later that I realized that there also was a sartorial factor that set me out from them – the perennially kindhearted people here are in reality so inconsolably poverty-stricken that they cannot even afford proper footwear and most of the time roam about, run and graze/herd their animals on the uneven, pebble and glass-shards strewn coarse roads and clearings without any shoes or slippers! And yet, considering every difficulty and injustice as the most trifling of issues, they are always soft-spoken and generously considerate of their fellow human beings, even going so far to offer fellow travelers on buses money if the latter does not have loose change to give to the conductor, and exemplify why ruinous Hampi, a resplendent paradise for backpackers and history-enthusiasts strewn about with impregnable fortifications, magnificent monuments and enormous boulders and in its entirety an impeccable, gloriously eulogized visual composition threading an abundant wealth of unsurpassed architecture, outstanding art and picturesque landscapes with impressive tales of valor and conquests, nonetheless remains a profoundly humbling experience for every visitor.

Those horns!

Requisite to a tremendously progressive pragmatic society contributing to continuous peaceful nation-building on the principles of socio-economic and religious equality in the eyes of the judiciary, even while the Islamic realms of north and central India were the quintessential enemies for the Vijayanagar empire, there wasn’t any religious animosity towards Muslims per se who did constitute a considerable segment of the fearsome military and the refined nobility. Nonetheless, very little tangential evidence survives now in the physical form of religious edifices and inscriptions to indicate the gradual percolation of Islam to southern India and the only monuments tantamount to the said conclusion are the two adjacent mausoleums, not of considerable architectural importance, existential in the featureless plain heart of a large walled enclosure thoroughly overgrown with waist-high weeds and impenetrable shrubbery and encapsulating within its peripheries the remains of an extensive Muhammadan cemetery in the contiguous laidback rural settlement of Kadirampuram.

Nothing is known concerning the histories of the personages interred in these cubical mausoleums, however, gauging from the physical proportions of the edifices, one might assume that they were eminent personalities. Faced with well-dressed stone, both monuments, not unusual from the thousands of medieval Islamic funerary structures that pepper the entire subcontinent, are nonetheless handsome structures, prominently projecting through their wild, weed-carpeted surroundings. Interestingly, the larger of the two, externally projected as a double-storied structure through the visually striking employment of narrow arched depressions, does not possess a dome but instead is open to the frolics of the fluffy white clouds against the vast sky spontaneously metamorphosing from one shade of blue to another with every passing hour.

Kadirampuram's claim to fame

It was evening already and soon enough it would be time to return to glittering glimmering Bangalore, the aggrandized metropolitan agglomeration of shimmering glass and concrete that is the IT heart of developing India. Overlooking the Hampi bus stand, upon a protuberant projection jutting against the cliff face of Hemakuta Hill, now drenched in utter impermeable darkness, I sat gazing at the gradual transmutation of the crystal clear sky to threatening purple-black accompanied by the soothing touch of slight drizzle. The magnificent hills reverberated with the muted roars of distant thunder and spears of lightning cleaved the enormous masses of thick, rain-bearing clouds overhead. In the distance, a few incandescent bulbs twinkled upon the summits of the majestic hills like fireflies threading their way in the darkness while underneath, tiny beetle-like buses and autos scurried about quickly, their headlights a flow of glowing amber lava against an endless background of purple-black. The sheer granite hill face, saturated now with several dozen old men and women who congregate here every evening to share daily gossip of business, relations, disease and deaths, and several dozen (by now subdued) monkeys acrobatically and gallantly poised along the precipitous crags and summits and possibly discussing the same topics, resounded with the continuous hum of chatter, rendered ever more cheerful by the pleasant weather. Nonetheless, a guarded suggestion of all-enveloping melancholy hung about the atmosphere – the long weekend was rapidly drumming to its inevitable conclusion and the last of the wide-eyed tourists were heading back home, soon enough the small inconsequential village would be compelled to revert to another despised phase of its ghost-town existence, numberless restaurants and guesthouses would be rendered empty, the competitive guides patron-less. Besides the monumental conservation, the government grandly envisages to develop ancient Hampi into a world-class tourist destination through inclusive development focused on geographical landscape restoration, horticultural management, access for the differently-abled, visitors' amenities and numerous social improvement plans aimed at benefiting the resident communities. On the ground however, all this is yet to materialize and there is little I could do for the beautiful World Heritage Site, encompassed within its impregnable fortifications and so enviously abounding with visually fulfilling scenery, highly embellished mythological references, cultural vibrancy of a medieval capital and delectable gastronomic haunts, except stating that very, very few ancient monuments and heritage cities shall enthrall and impress me like this hereafter. I do sincerely hope that I could do unflawed justice to its vivid description.

“Whatever force outside me moves my hand and gives me strength to dream and understand,
Let me, by grace enlivened and by skill, enliven those who lived, and those who will.
– Vikram Seth, Writer

Goodbye, old friend!

Location: Hampi is located in the district of Bellary 372 kilometers from Bangalore. The nearest township is Hospet 13 kilometers away.
How to reach: Regular buses are available from Bangalore (Majestic/Kempegowda Bus stand) to Hampi every night. One way fare for KSRTC Non A/C Sleeper bus is Rs 650/person inclusive of taxes. The frequency of buses plying between Bangalore-Hospet and vice-versa is more and one can avail those as well.
Time required to explore the settlement: 2 days
Charges/person inclusive of food, lodging and to-and-fro travel from Bangalore: Approx. Rs 4000 for a two-day, one-night stay (including the cost for hiring a guide for an entire day).
Accommodation: Spartan, simply furnished guesthouses are plentiful in Hampi. Most of these are located near the beautiful Virupaksha temple and can be booked for a day for 300-500 depending on the facilities available (room size, attached washrooms etc).
If however one intends to undertake a single-day whirlwind tour of the settlement, freestanding bath and toilet facilities (though not considerably hygienic) are also available near Virupaksha temple.
Entrance fees for the monuments: Nil for all, except Vitthala temple, elephants' stables and Kamalapuram Archaeological Museum for which entrance fees are respectively Rs 10 for domestic visitors and Rs 300 for foreigners. A single ticket suffices for all three if covered in a single day. All monuments are open everyday from sunrise to sunset everyday. The Archaeological Museum remains closed on Fridays.
Photography/video charges for the monuments: Nil for all, except Virupaksha temple where Rs 50 and Rs 500 are respectively charged for photography and video-cameras. Vitthala temple too charges Rs 25 for the use of a video-camera.
  1. It is advisable to carry sufficient drinking water throughout the stay at Hampi since the weather can get extremely punishing and cause dehydration. Comfortable footwear is also recommended since one has to walk considerably long distances across undulating topography to cover all the monuments.
  2. Virupaksha temple is still fervently revered by faithful pilgrims and footwear is not allowed within the central courtyard. The same can be deposited (for a miniscule sum of Rs 5/pair) at the makeshift counter inside the temple complex near the massive gateway. Occasionally, one might be ordered to leave their footwear outside the smaller shrines as well by wandering priests who might have taken temporary residence in them.
Relevant Links -
Other shrines across Karnataka embellished/expanded by the Vijayanagar sovereigns -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple, Chikkaballapur, Bangalore
  2. Pixelated Memories - Sri Chamundeshwari Temple, Mysore
  3. Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple complex, Belur
  4. Pixelated Memories - Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, Seringapatnam, Mandya
Suggested reading -
  1. - Article "ASI on the brink of excavating more Hampi historical marvels" (dated Jan 3, 2015) by Chetan R 
  2. - Article "ASI starts 3D laser scanning at Hampi's Vittala temple" (dated Dec 26, 2013) by Chetan R 
  3. - A History of India: Domingo Paes, Vijayanagara: "The best provided city of the world"
  4. - Article "Hanging gardens of Hampi! Grass grows on 473-year-old World Heritage site despite Rs 14.87 crore being spent on renovation" (dated Oct 4, 2013) by Vanu Dev
  5. - Article "Hampi's stone chariot set to gain new currency" (Dated July 16, 2015)
  6. - Article "Hampi is not history" (dated Nov 12, 2015) by Smita Joshi
  7. (A fascinating compilation of articles and maps regarding Hampi and its monuments)
  8. - Interactive Plan of Hampi Virupaksha Temple ceiling paintings 
  9. - Anegundi Fort and Origin of the Vijaynagara Empire
  10. - A.H. Longhurst, "Hampi Ruins, Described and Illustrated"
  11. - Birth of Karttikeya - The Slayer of Tarakasura
  12. - The Mahabharata, Section CCLXXXIV 
  13. - Article "Hampi, Machu Picchu may be twins!" (dated Aug 28, 2015)
  14. - Conservation 
  15. - Virupaksha Temple
  16. - Group of Monuments at Hampi
  17. - Ancient City of Vijayanagara
  18. - Daksha
  19. - Krishna Devaraya
  20. - Madhavacharya Vidyaranya
  21. - Tenali Rama
  22. - Vijayanagara Architecture
  23. - Vijayanagara Empire
  24. - Krishna Temple Complex, Hampi Archaeological Site