The Story of Hampi

Much has been written about, Hampi – a UNESCO World Heritage City in South India. Parallels are drawn to Angkor Wat in Cambodia or to Rome, by visitors and historians alike, while describing its temples or the historical ruins.

What is perhaps not clear is the context to the area and its unique place whether in terms of geography, history , architecture & culture. So I’ll try to attempt it in a small blog if possible. 

The Hampi monuments that we see today are spread across an area of 16 sq mi (41 sq km). Of course the older 16th century city was much bigger; much of it is now gone save for a few temples nestled among smaller towns between Hosapete (Hospet) and Hampi. 

When you visit the heritage area, the first thing that strikes you are the small hills that are spread across the ruins. These are not plain hills but look like huge boulders gathered up as a pile. The areas of Hampi are planned between such boulder like hills. These boulders of Hampi are dated to about 2.5 to 3 billion years which takes one back to a pre Cambrian age (i.e. before the making of the continents). The unusual boulder shapes are not due to volcanic eruption but due to slow weathering of the hills over a huge period of time. Hampi boulders are one of the oldest formations of the world and are a part of the Dharwar Craton, a continental crust that is the oldest part of India. Much of the rocks of Hampi are granite hills. Not just Hampi, but the nearby towns of Anegondi, Gangavati are also home to such unusual huge boulders.

Hampi or Hampe is a derived word of Pampa who is Goddess Parvati, the wife of Shiva, who is known as Virupaksha here. The city was a holy place and referred as Pampapura during the Chalukyan era (6th -8th centuries) & as Virupaksha pattana during Hoysalan era, i.e. until 1300s.

The fact that this place was also a part of the Kingdom of Kishkindha (from Ramayana), the home of the Ape like brothers, Vali & Sugriva & the strong Hanuman gives this place an additional aura of holiness. Even today, thousands of pilgrims visit the Virupaksha temple, by the river, Tungabhadra, on the holy days, inspite of the scorching heat of April (goes above 40 deg C).

But what attract most tourists are the 14th – 16th century monuments – temples, market streets, royal forts and ruins. Walking through these areas gives a feel of Roman ruins. Hampi with the river on one side and the strong hills surrounding it was an ideal place for a city in the medieval times when South India had lost all its major Hindu Kingdoms, Kakatiyas, Hoysalas & Pandyas, its political stability & its wealth to two invasions from the North. It was a rude shock not just politically but also culturally. The cruelty of the wars, especially on civilians shook the society and the last major ruler, Ballalla III of Hoysalas dying to save Madurai was a terrible tragedy. Safety from the new conquerors was a main issue. So when a small kingdom of Anegondi declared itself independent, its ruler Bukka shifted across the river and built a new city, Vijayanagara, that was fortified by many rings of fort (the European travellers describe it a 7 ringed fortress though we can only spot 3 today).

This city was named Vidyanagara & later Vijayanagara (City of Victory), under which umbrella, much of South India was included .

Vijayanagara is today used as the name of the dynasties who ruled from here, the capital & the empire too.

With its beautiful planned royal areas, the suburbs with magnificent temples, planned streets abuzz with trade from across the world, it was known across the world from Europe to Arabia and the Eastern countries. 

Remember, the 1400s, was the time when Portugal had found a sea route to India. European spice trade rose, Arabian spice trade fell but its horses were in great demand for South India which still had to contend its Deccan neighbours and keep them at bay. These were the times when horse power (pun intended!) changed the fates of battles.

The rule that lasted for a over two centuries (200 years is a huge time!) gave the much needed stability to much of South India, even though the capital waged wars with its northern neighbours constantly. It is one such war after nearly two centuries that it lost and the city was vandalized. The fall is not just sudden but gradual as it gave rise to smaller kingdoms that fought not only their immediate neighbours but the rising rulers called the Mughals from Delhi, to keep their rule autonomous.

But back to Hampi. This beautiful city and its society & culture would have gone unnoticed if not for the writers – merchants, court scribes, poets, royals – who have written about different aspects of the society. The stories constantly tell us about the wealth of the market, the vastness of the city, the beautiful mansions of the rich, the blend of Hindu  & Persian architecture (Prof Settar calles this Vijayanagara Bahamani fusion), the many gods and their temples, the festivals, the political angle and of course the food. Some statements from the diaries of the travellers across the centuries.

“Oh! Soumitri, see the forest of Pampa, the auspicious one in its appearance… where the mountains or trees shine with their mountainous peaks” – Rama describing (to Lakshmana) the mountains & trees of Pampa, Valmiki Ramayana

“..Traveling about three hundred miles inland(from Goa), we arrived at the great city of Biznegalia(Vijayanagara) situated near very steep mountains. The circumference of the city is sixty miles, its walls are carried up to the mountains and enclose the valley at their foot, so that its extent is thereby increased.” – Nicolo Conti, Italian (1420, during the reign of Devaraya I)

“..It is built in such a manner that seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other. Around first citadel are stones of the height of a man, one half of which is sunk in the ground and the other rises above it.”

“From the third to the seventh fortress, shops & bazaars are closely crowded together. By the palace of the King there are four bazaars situated opposite to one another.”

“In this charming area, in which the palace is contained, there are many rivulets and streams flowing through channels of cut stone, polished and even” – Abdul Razzaq, Persian, (1442-44, during the reign of Devaraya II)

“The houses are thatched but nonetheless are very well built and arranged according to their occupations, in long streets with many open places.. there is great traffic and endless number of merchants and wealthy men, as well among the natives of the city, who abide therein as among those who come thither from outside, to whom the King allows such freedom that every man may come & go and love according to his own creed without suffering any annoyance” – Duarte Barbosa, Portuguese (1501, during the reign of Vira Narasimha)

“When the time of the principal festival arrives, the King comes from the new city(Hosapete) to this city of Bisnaga (Vijayanagara), since it is the capital of the Kingdom and it is custom there to make their feasts and to assemble. For these feasts are summoned all the dancing women of the kingdom in order that they should be present and also the captains and kings and great lords with all their retinues.” – Domingo Paes, Portuguese (1520-22, during the reign of Krishnadevaraya, the Augustan era of Hampi)

Today, it’s known for heritage tourism & religious festivals. It’s also a popular place for bouldering and wildlife tourism (it is a sloth bear & leopard habitat & is home to a variety of birds). So, travel, rediscover Hampi in your own way.

ByPoornima Dasharathi

Blog & Image Copyright: Unhurried


Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kanda

A Forgotten Empire – Robert Sewell

Hampi – S S Settar


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