10-11: Hampi

by - January 18, 2014

Day One: The Religious Centre

The boulder fields around Hampi
Hampi, about equidistant between Hyderabad and Bangalore (and, while a long way from both, not much closer to anywhere else of interest), is a small village that sits surrounded by the ruins of the city of Vijayanagara.  We would be staying in the major town of Hospet, about 20 minutes’ rickshaw drive from Hampi, for the next few nights.  The city of Vijayanagara (literally ‘city of victory’) was once one of the world’s great settlements - in the year 1500 its population of half a million was second largest in the world only to Beijing and was twice the size of Paris.  Situated in what was once a volcanic area, the unique, boulder-strewn landscape that once made the site easy to defend is now a remarkable tourist location.  The geography of the region would make it worth visiting in itself and when combined with the ruins of the ancient city, Hampi is probably the biggest attraction to the south of India - as well as a bit of a backpacker haven.

Virupaksha Temple (with Hampi Bazaar adjacent)
The remains of the ancient city are roughly split into two - the religious section, full of temples and markets and the royal section, full of palaces and administrative buildings.  Only the buildings that were made from durable stone remain, so there is little evidence of where the 'common people’ used to live.  As we had taken a while to get up in the morning (after our late arrival from Hyderabad) we arrived in Hampi Bazaar (the centre of the village) at around midday and decided to explore the closer religious section.  This began with the temple of Virupaksha (costing an astonishing four pence to enter), one of the few temples that remains functioning in the area.  We were told that Hindu tradition states that once a statue has been broken it cannot be worshipped anymore - and as Vijayanagara was raided several times before its eventual fall, many of the religious temples are no longer venerated.

Remains of an ancient market street
From here we wandered reasonably aimlessly to the east, following the path of the river.  The ancient city was once such a vast sprawl across the boulder fields, that it was possible to get away from the crowds and find your own little section of ruins.  In some ways it reminded me of Pompeii in its scale.  The religious section contained seven major temples, each of which had a parade of markets associated and we spent the afternoon moving from one temple to the next, using the easily distinguishable markets to guide us around.  The most famous of the temples, the Vittala Temple, is located about 2km east of Hampi Bazaar and was the only one that required an entrance fee.  The temple contains the iconic 'stone chariot’ monument in its main courtyard - a carving of a chariot that once had stone wheels that moved.

The stone chariot

The Tungabhadra river
After visiting the Vitalla temple, definitely the most impressive of the ruins we had seen so far, we made our way back along the banks of the river to Hampi Bazaar.  Along the way we were repeatedly approached by children who wanted us to take their photos and see themselves in our cameras - a bit different to the other places we had visited where everybody wanted us to be in THEIR photographs with them.  There were a few other ruins and temples to the north of the (apparently occasionally crocodile-filled) river, which were reachable via basic coracle-style boats.  We were, however, quite exhausted after the bus journey and decided to leave Hampi Bazaar earlier rather than sooner to go back to our wonderful hotel, The Malligi, where our swimming pool awaited us.

Day Two: The Royal Centre

The Lotus Palace
Monolithic Statue
Where our day yesterday had focussed on the religious centre of Viyanagara (within walking distance of Hampi Bazaar), today was to focus on the old royal centre which is further afield.  We had been approached at the tourist information centre yesterday by an official guide who was trying to get a group of tourists together for a cycle tour of the royal centre – which sounded ideal to us, so after an early breakfast we headed over to Hampi Bazaar for 9.30.  Our cycling group was remarkably international – with a single representative from Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Germany, New Zealand, Russia and the UK, ranging in age from a few students to a fifty year old careers advisor on sabbatical.  The journey started off with a big hill climb but from there onwards was flat and the surface was, on the whole, pretty good.  The first few sights were reasonably close to Hampi Bazaar and our guide explained to us the history of some of the temples and shrines – how the broken statues could no longer be worshipped, but that some of the unbroken temples were popular with locals still.  The conservation authorities have had to battle with local residents over preservation of the ruins and there have been some forced evictions of shopkeepers who had set up in the ruins themselves.  Hampi Bazaar is a bustling little settlement and the ruins have already been flagged up as ‘endangered’ by UNESCO.

The Queen’s Bath
After this last collection of temples we cycled for about 2 kilometres towards the Royal Centre.  On our way we stopped off at the Queen’s Bath - a building that looked simple from the outside but inside was decorated in a characteristically elegant Islamic style.  This areas was far larger in scope than the religious centre, but was also not as well preserved.  The main reason for this was that while the foundations and lower structures of the buildings here were made from long lasting stone, the remainder of the structures were made from wood and have therefore long gone.  The most impressive part of the area was the old water storage tank – a deep square tank with interesting geometric patterns that is so well preserved that it looks like it is a reconstruction.

The city water tank
The Royal Centre
The group then made its way to the old female section of the palace, where the wives of kings and high ranking soldiers were ‘kept’ when the men were off fighting battles.  The women’s quarter was apparently guarded by an elite force of eunuchs.  The centre of this section was the ‘Lotus Palace’ designed to look like a lotus flower – the national flower of India.  To the south of the women’s section were the elephant stables.  The royal army would have contained hundreds and hundreds of elephants but these stables only had room for those belonging to the eleven most important riders.  To a westerner, a stable implies somewhere that isn’t particularly dramatic but then, you forget how big elephants are compared to horses – the amazing structure was one of the most impressive that we had seen.  From here our little group headed slowly back to Hampi Bazaar, through beautiful, shaded banana plantations.  We ate lunch as a group – the first time that we had really found other tourists to get talking to, which was very pleasant.  Myself and Sergei felt that we had seen enough of the ruins and therefore took it easy in a café for a few hours with our books.  We wanted to hang around until dusk to watch the sun setting over the bizarre Hampi landscape – a landscape that I decided dinosaurs would look right at home in.  As we sat watching the sun go down we were accosted by a brave monkey that, amusingly, grabbed Sergei’s food bag and stole his Galaxy chocolate bar – proof of how mischievous they are.

The Elephant Stables
With that, we had finished our time in Hampi and I have to say it is one of the best places that I have come across on my travels.  The only ruins that can compare are those at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but somehow Hampi is more impressive due to its surreal, boulder-strewn surrounding landscape.  While two full days were enough to feel satisfied we hadn’t missed anything, we could happily have spent a little bit longer exploring ruins a bit further afield on bikes – or riding down the river on a coracle.  Unfortunately though, time dictated that we had to continue our journey south.

Sunset at Hampi

You May Also Like