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Travel
April 14, 2011

The Remains of the Days

Text and Photographs by Sona Bahadur

Hampi is a tale of many cities, historic and mythic, real and imagined. Meandering through its spectacular ruins, Verve feels awe, wonder, delight and some regret

The rock opera of Hampi unfolds with the bizarre logic of a dream. Traditional notions of time and space collapse as characters from every age – past, present and mythic – make their appearance on its rugged stage. Rama, Sita and Lakshmana along with monkey god Hanuman, oblique-eyed Virupaksha and his consort Pampa and Vijaynagar kings Devaraya and Krishnadevaraya all put up stellar performances. Then there are the gazillion yalis and makaras – legendary leonine and aquatic beasts – who grin fiendishly at camera-happy tourists and pilgrims from just about everywhere

Perched on the steep granite elevation of Hemkunta Hill, I gawk at the haunting panorama that brings a live 3000 years of human history. The relics of temples, pavilions and gateways here belong to the medieval city of Vijaynagar but Hampi’s mythic incarnations – monkey country Kishkinda and Shiva’s land Pampakshetra among others – trace its origins to a far more ancient antiquity. Raghunath Temple on Malayavanta Hill is where Ram and Lakshman are said to have stayed during the monsoon before invading Lanka. And Anjeneya Hill across the Tungabhadra is believed to be the birth place of Hanuman.

The prehistoric terrain heightens the epic drama of the ruins. Precariously perched boulders look as if about to roll over any minute. The result of millennia of erosion by the elements, the giant rocks appear to me like a million men and women petrified in their tracks by the curse of some raging sage or snake-haired Medusa. I gawk some more.

As my guidebook confirms this is no ordinary place. According to a fourteenth-century legend, local chieftains Harihara and Bukka reported to their guru Vidyaranya that during a hunting expedition a hare chased by their hound suddenly turned around and bit the hound. Vidyaranya saw this as prophetic and envisaged an empire that would preserve ancient Vedic traditions and withstand the sultanate of Delhi. Vijaynagar lived up to the prophecy becoming the greatest Hindu empire in the Deccan plateau for the next two centuries (1336 AD – 1565 AD) reaching its zenith under the reign of warrior king Krishnadevaraya.

In its heyday Hampi was a bustling metropolis with stunning temples, palaces and markets. Today it’s a giant jigsaw in rock best seen on foot and led by serendipity (and a local guide if you must). Perched dramatically on a sloping shelf of granite that rises steeply from the Virupaksha complex, Hemkunta Hill’s austere temples and giant monolithic Ganeshas resonate with a powerful spirituality. Walking along the slope, the frangipani trees and brilliant blue sky form a painterly backdrop to an ancient double storey gateway.

The soaring gopuram of the Virupaksha temple beckons as I wind my way towards the living shrine which draws throngs of Shiva devotees. Beyond the temple passageway, past the Nandi pavilion and dipa-stambhas I find myself in an enclosure of great beauty and spiritual import. The mandapa with its stunning ceiling of primary-hued paintings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology reminds me, oddly, of Sistine Chapel. Different styles, same joyous verve.

Being in Hampi is like being in a million places in a million different ages. The dancing scenes of the Vasantotsava festival painted on the Mahanavami plinth conjure up a mood of Roman Bacchanalia and an apsara with floral earrings becomes a Caryatid from the Erechtheion. The quadrangle at the Royal Enclosure transports me to the Agora at Ephesus. At Vitthala Temple the florid sculptural style of the pillars stands in striking contrast to the plainness of the Doric columns at The Acropolis. But the yalis fit right in with the unicorns and centaurs.

The aesthetics of the monuments are breathtaking. The Hazara Rama Temple with its graphic depiction of the Ramayana in relief carvings, the Mahanavmi platform with its hunting scenes, the iconic Garuda chariot at Vitthala Temple, the giant monolithic Narasimha, the secular architecture of the Lotus Mahal, the fluted arches and capped domes of the elephant stables. As I discover during my three-day visit, there is enough history in Hampi to consume months, indeed years, of sightseeing.

To me the most evocative ruins are the ones that are the least documented – the umpteen small nameless shrines, the pillars without roofs, the abandoned gateways and watchtowers. The suggestive power of the relics is infinite. Filling in the scenes to claim some aspect of the ravaged landscape as one’s own is a large part of the magic of being in Hampi. Close your eyes and you feel the pulse of a forgotten world – the pomp of ceremonial parades, the jangle of a devdasi’s anklets, the bustle of the Hampi bazaar, the rustle of fine silks.

Glimpsed through the mind’s eye, its rubble populated by characters from the imagination, Hampi becomes a unique and personal journey. I see it as a vibrant cosmopolitan empire at a time when bigotry was rampant elsewhere in the world. The generous spirit of Krishnadevaraya still pervades the secular land where Arab traders and Portuguese sailors roamed freely in the markets, Jains built their own temples and Muslim army soldiers of a Hindu king took their oath of allegiance over the Quran.

The last episode of Hampi’s Vijaynagar chapter was cataclysmic. The city was occupied in 1565 AD, its palaces set on fire, its temples and deities razed to the ground. After being pillaged and looted for six months by the neighboring Deccan Sultanates, Hampi was abandoned by its people. For centuries it became the forgotten empire till its history was pieced together by nineteenth century archeologists and historians. UNESCO World Heritage Site status was conferred on it as recently as 1986.

I feel a stab of regret as I sense the forces of acquisitiveness and revenge at play in the demolition of Hampi, much like the hacking of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban. In a long line of destruction from the Kalinga War to the Cultural Revolution, Hampi’s ruin embodies man’s age-old impulse towards megalomania and bigotry. How little has changed through the centuries.

As the sun sets behind the boulder-strewn Malayavanta Hill, the ghosts of a bygone era flit by whispering strange secrets. I’m left with the lingering feeling that the final act of Hampi’s opera has yet to be played out.

One day the yalis and makaras will raise their heads and roar against intolerance. The prehistoric stones will scream for perestroika.

The hare will take on the hound again.

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