[2009-01-01] Hampi

Anusha and I recently visited Hampi to take a short break. Hampi is what remains of Vijayanagara, the capital of the Vijayanagara empire. It is about 350 kms north of Bangalore and is famous for its splendid ruins. Many of these ruins are very well-preserved and are made of granite that is found in abundance in the surrounding hills.

Hampi can be reached from Bangalore in about seven or eight hours by road and about nine and a half hours by train. It is just a village - the nearest city is Hospet, which is about 12 kms away and has the nearest railway station. The Hampi Express is a convenient overnight train to travel between Bangalore and Hospet.

Hampi does not have the greenery, the mountains, the rivers or the oceans of the usual tourist hot-spots. You see instead silent ruins nestled among boulders on hills besides the Tungabhadra river. Many of the ruins have exquisite sculptures made out of granite and are evocative of the splendour of the Vijayanagara empire.

The art of the sculptors is not just visible in the temples, the palaces and the markets. You also get to see it in some of the most unexpected of places: a boulder on a hill, a rock-face on a bank of a river, a stone on the pavement of a street, etc. Whether these were used for practice by apprentice sculptors or were parts of unfinished projects, you get the impression that this was a city where art flourished everywhere.

The village of Hampi is based around the ancient Virupaksha temple dedicated to Shiva. This temple has apparently been in continuous service since the 7th century. Like many of the major temples in southern India, it features a huge and intricately-decorated gateway ("gopuram").

Close to the Virupaksha temple is the Hemakuta hill. This hill has more than 30 temples constructed in various architectural styles and dedicated to various deities. It provides a nice view of Hampi as well as the surrounding areas. A bit further on from the Hemakuta hill is the Krishna temple. This temple features some beautiful carvings and sculptures.

The ruins of palaces can be found in the Royal Enclosure that lies some distance beyond the Krishna temple. This is where the king and the nobles used to live. Among the more interesting features of this area are an underground meeting chamber, an aqueduct, an elaborate stepped tank and a high platform for the king to greet his subjects.

Near the Royal Enclosure is the Zenana (Ladies') Enclosure. Apart from the ruins of some more palaces and an impressive stable for the royal elephants, it contains the intriguing Lotus Mahal that was perhaps used as a meeting place for the ladies.

As impressively beautiful as these ruins are, they still pale in comparison to the Vittala temple. It can be reached in about half an hour from the Hampi bazaar by walking east along the side of the Tungabhadra river and en route you encounter the ruins of quite a few temples and other buildings. This is the temple that houses the famous stone chariot that has become emblematic of Hampi.

This temple is richly decorated with intricate artwork. Every pillar, wall and ceiling is a tapestry of beautiful carvings and sculptures. There are niches in the ceiling in this temple that supposedly held precious stones. It was created when the Vijayanagara empire was at its zenith.

Many of the pillars in this temple have other little pillars surrounding them. These are popularly known as "musical pillars" since they emit different notes when struck. Insensitive tourists have damaged some of these pillars trying to hear these notes, so striking them is now strongly discouraged.

One of the notable things in Hampi is that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been restoring and preserving many of the ruins. It has constructed pillars that prop up ruins that would have otherwise collapsed (though some of these pillars appear quite discordant with the original pillars). It has been recreating the fortifications around the city of Vijayanagara. It has excavated and restored a beautiful stepped tank in the Royal Enclosure that was otherwise completely buried under the ground.

Even though Hampi attracts a lot of tourists, especially foreigners, there are no good hotels in Hampi. It has only small lodges and guest-houses for accommodation. Since we went during the peak season and almost on a whim, we found it really difficult to book an accommodation. We managed to get a room in Ranjana Guest House (+91-8394-241696) run by R. V. Dass and his family in Hampi and fortunately for us, it turned out to be fairly clean and comfortable. It was also very convenient since we didn't have to keep going back and forth between Hampi and Hospet every day like some of the other tourists.

Though the restaurants in Hampi ostensibly serve quite a wide variety of food (Tibetan, Indian, Israeli, Italian, Mexican, etc.), the quality leaves much to be desired. Mango Tree, surrounded by a banana plantation, seems to be one of the more popular restaurants with the tourists and serves passable food. You get to eat facing the Tungabhadra river while sitting on the floor and fending off fruit-flies. New Shanthi restaurant seems to be popular as well and features some psychedelic paintings, trance music and corresponding lighting.

It gets quite hot and sunny in the afternoon in Hampi, even during the winter. You might want to take a cap, goggles and sun-screen lotion to protect yourself against the sun. Since you will have to walk around a bit in Hampi, you should also take along comfortable clothes and footwear. You will also need to drink lots of water. The Hampi bazaar unfortunately does not have the normally well-known brands of purified water and only stocks water from brands like "Flair", "Kemp's", etc. On the other hand, you can get a lot of great coconut water from vendors near almost every major ruin.

You really need more time than the two days we spent there to absorb the beauty of the place. You would otherwise just be running from ruin to ruin, giving everything a cursory look and might end up suffering from "ruin fatigue".

I have created a Picasa web-album that has some more pictures of Hampi.

(Originally posted on Blogspot.)

Other Posts from 2009