Hampi: Remembering A Forgotten Empire

It was our last evening in Hampi. We flopped atop Matanga Hill. Before us, the panorama of Hampi spread far and wide. The sun resembled a big blob of orange as it disappeared bit by bit behind the horizon. The iconic Virupaksha Temple glistened under the last rays of the setting sun, as the sounds of ‘stotram’ and bells permeated throughout Hampi. The breeze blew over the mounds of rock, carrying along with it a whiff of an era that has been lost long ago. And down there, Tungabhadra flowed, as it has been flowing for the past thousands of years and witnessing the rise and fall of a glorious saga called Vijayanagara. The setup seemed perfect to us, for relishing the captivating sunset, recalling moments of exploring Hampi, and wishing if only we were in possession of a time machine.

Hampi from above Matanga Hill
Hampi, as seen from above the Matanga Hill.

The appeal of Hampi can hardly be described in mere words. It casts a spell even before you travel there, allures you while you are immersing yourself in its countless ruins and its charm even continues to enchant you long after you return home. In a word, Hampi is an enigma. More so because its past has been molded both by the events of myth and history. Every corner of Hampi is laced with stories from legends, mythology, and history.

Sanapur Lake, Hampi
The Tungabhadra River, surrounded by the typical rocks and boulders found in Hampi.

Hampi in legends:

Many moons ago, the saga of Hampi started with a story of love. It all began when Shiva meditated on a hill here and Pampa, a reincarnation of Shiva’s previous consort Sati, fell for him. Shiva was lost in his meditation, oblivious to Pampa’s affection for him. Thereafter, Indra sent the god of love and desire, Kama, to wake him. However, no sooner had Kama shot an arrow of desire than Shiva burnt Kama to ashes by opening his third eye. Hence, Shiva received the epithet of “Virupaksha”, one with oblique eyes. Pampa, on the other hand, refused to get dissuaded by such a turn of events. Instead, she herself embraced a yogic lifestyle a la Shiva, and started her meditation. Now, it was Shiva’s turn to get impressed, who eventually agreed to marry her. On the occasion of Shiva and Pampa’s wedding, the Gods showered gold on this hill. The hill turned golden and came to be known as Hemkuta, the golden hill. Shiva was now known as Pampapati, the husband of Pampa while the place was named Pampakshetra, the place of Pampa. With the passage of time, the name Pampakshetra contorted first into the Kannada word Hampa and finally to Hampi.

Hemakuta Hill
The iconic Hanuman Temple at Hemkuta Hill.

Hampi in Ramayana:

The chronicle of Hampi is later found continued in the pages of Ramayana. During that era, Hampi went by the name of Kishkindha, the kingdom of monkeys. Kishkindha was caught in a feud between its ruler, Bali, and his brother Sugriva. The two brothers had a deadly fight, throwing boulders at one another. According to some, the typical rocky terrain of Hampi resulted from this boulder fight between Bali and Sugriva. It was during this juncture that Rama arrived in Kishkindha in search of Sita. Rama helped Sugriva to get rid of Bali and ascend the throne of Kishkindha. In his turn, Sugriva aided Rama in looking out for Sita. Afterward, he embarked on his expedition to Lanka along with Sugriva’s vast monkey army. Hampi is dotted with places that have Ramayana references such as Anjanadri Hill where Hanuman, the monkey god, was born, Sugriva’s Cave where Sugriva hid from Bali, Malyavanta Hill where Rama stayed for four months during the monsoon and so on.

Anjanadri Hill, Hampi
Anjanadri Hill of Anegundi is a perfect stop for enjoying gorgeous sunsets.

Hampi in history:

The year was 1336 CE. Two brothers, Harihara and Bukka, laid the foundation of a magnificent empire on the banks of Tungabhadra. Initially, its capital was Anegundi. Later, the capital was transferred to Hampi, which came to be known fittingly as Vijayanagara, the city of victory. Over the next 200 years, the mighty Vijayanagara Empire reached new heights under the reign of five dynasties. Owing to the successful military efforts of Devaraya I, Devaraya II, and Krishnadevaraya, the empire expanded far and wide. The victorious armies of Vijayanagara even annexed the Kalinga region of present Odisha. Not only in military feats, but Vijayanagara excelled exceptionally both economically and culturally.  Vijayanagara was the second largest medieval city. It was also regarded to be the richest city in the world. Contemporary foreign visitors even compared it with Rome. The city was also embellished with majestic temples and palaces. Furthermore, it became a hub for poets and scholars, most of whom received royal patronage.

Stone Chariot of Hampi
The celebrated stone chariot inside the Vittala Temple complex.

Then arrived 1565 CE and a battle, which brought about the decline of Vijayanagara in its wake. The five Deccan Sultanates joined hands to defeat their common enemy. In the Battle of Talikota, the Vijayanagara armies were completely routed by the Sultanate forces. What followed afterward was a merciless annihilation of the city of Vijayanagara. For the next six months, palaces were burnt, temples razed, idols desecrated, and people murdered. The immense wealth of the empire was looted. No effort of the Sultanates went wasted to erase the name of Vijayanagara from the pages of history. Thus ended the saga of a grand empire, Vijayanagara.

Ruins of Hampi
The captivating ruins of Hampi.

Hampi in present times:

Today, Hampi is dabbed with numerous relics, which serve as a daily reminder of its illustrious past. The Hampi Group of Monuments is now enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, exploring the ruins of Hampi will give you a mixed bag of feelings. As you tread the corridors of the exceptionally beautiful Vijaya Vittala Temple, Hazara Rama Temple, or Krishna Temple, you will be beaming and crestfallen at the same time. While the empty ‘mantapas’ of Achyutaraya Temple and Pattabhirama Temple will make your heart heavy.  The grand scale of the temples along with their architectural excellence and sculptural brilliance will make you amazed and proud of the heritage of our country. Simultaneously, you will be heartbroken at the sight of wrecked Gopurams and shattered statues.

Virupaksha Temple, Hampi
The venerated Virupaksha Temple, Hampi.

In fact, Hampi seemed to be covered in a veil of melancholy. Even now, Hampi’s ruins appear to lament its sad end. The lament will even seep into your heart, making you weary and also wonder how this glorious empire vanished owing to one single defeat.  The iconic rocks and boulders of Hampi resemble forlorn figures, and Tungabhadra seems a river drowned in sorrow. If only the river and rocks could speak! They carry along with them so many tales and countless incidents. 

Achyuta Raya Temple, Hampi
A bird’s eye view of the Achyutaraya Temple.

The gloomy evening was upon us. We climbed down Matanga Hill. The full moon of Kojagari was shining brightly above the Virupaksha Temple. And silence descended gently upon Hampi “like the evening dew”. While returning, we took the same winding road that we traveled in the morning. One by one, we drove by the Hemkuta Hill, Ganesha monoliths, Krishna Temple, and Narasimha statue. How wistful we felt, glancing at the monuments one last time. The breeze was still there, flurrying across the monuments as if to keep their solitude at bay. The breeze touched our faces, reminding us gently that so many stories have yet left untold. We were leaving Hampi for now but also leaving pieces of our hearts at Hampi with a promise to return.

The Floating Pebbles