An ambitious restoration project aims to breathe life into the ruins of the Vijayanagara empire
V Shoba | 24 Jan, 2020
Stone chariot at the Vitthala Temple in Hampi (Photos: Harsha Vadlamani)
A LONG THE SOUTH bank of the River Tungabhadra in Karnataka, boulders seem to inhale and exhale with the rasp of the water. People, some crouched like little nandis on top of the amber rocks, come here to float in molten time. The river is liquid history. In Hampi, it not only shaped the cultural beginnings of an age of abundance and prosperity between the 14th and the 16th centuries but also acted as a natural barrier against Bahmani invasions from the north of the Raichur doab. This is also the spot where the river meets a physical setting of the gods and nourishes the vividly imagined landscape of Kishkindha, the monkey kingdom from the Ramayana. It is legend that Shiva, in the form of Virupaksha, needed to wed the river goddess Pampa to become Pampapati, the lord of Hampi and the chief deity of the reigning kings of Vijayanagara. Every numinous ruin, every granitic outcrop that ever became a touristy emblem of Hampi was therefore birthed in these waters. A good tour guide would take you on a 2.5-km-long journey upriver from the sacred centre of Hampi —the temple of Virupaksha—to that of Vijaya Vitthala, whose musical pillars and monolithic stone chariot are emblazoned in the popular imagination of Vijayanagara as a repository of medieval art and tell you how the Tungabhadra was a carrier of civilisation and its waters managed through a sophisticated system of weirs, canals, lakes and aqueducts. But it is not so much the river or the surrounding hills that inform the modern understanding of Hampi. Hampi today is a solid, sensory world, a brown sea occasionally interrupted by tousled banana and sugarcane fields, a place with a particular kind of light, a particular kind of moisture in the air, a particular sky under which you walk, weaving through the inevitable crowds hoping to savour a lone moment with the past. Nowhere else in India can you, armed with a bit of history and plenty of imagination, experience a medieval capital city and walk past pavilions and platforms reminiscent of Persepolis, worship at temples that had witnessed the rise and fall of dynasties and rest in the shade of yawningly empty mandapas. On the edge of knowing, you try to touch everything—fine stucco figures, monolithic bulls and elephants, minimalist pillars—as though a touch could transport you to 1500 CE when this rocky country in Ballari district in north Karnataka was a thriving city of 500,000, the second-most populous city after Beijing and likely the richest in India.
A splendid kingdom—“Such that the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it in the whole world,” exclaimed Abdul Razzaq Samarqandi, the Iranian ambassador to the Deccan—that fell to ruin after antagonising the Deccan Sultanate, whose rulers formed an unlikely coalition to overthrow Aliya Ramaraya in the battle of 1565, Hampi-Vijayanagara has become a blueprint for the epic sadness of a Hindu rajya truncated by an Islamic cataclysm. It was variously interpreted for posterity, most famously by British historian Robert Sewell, who in his book A Forgotten Empire (1900), called the kingdom a ‘Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests’. Ideological stakeholders like the Sringeri Mutt—one of whose gurus, Vidyaranya, is said to have advised the first rulers of Vijayanagara, Harihara I and Bukkaraya I of the Sangama family, to establish their empire in Hampi around 1336—further coloured the narrative of a ‘Hindu golden age’. VS Naipaul, who found the Taj Mahal ‘so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long’, wrote beautiful passages about the kingdom in the Deccan that had ‘committed from the start to the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and culturally and artistically it preserved and repeated; it hardly innovated’. In fact, even now, the story of cultural annihilation frames nearly every guided tour of Hampi’s attractions. But this is set to change: discerning domestic travellers are rediscovering their own Hampi and trained tour guides adopting inclusive cultural texts that acknowledge the prehistoric rock shelters and megalithic burial chambers in the vicinity, as well as the influence of Islamic and Jain cultures on Vijayanagara. “It is unfortunate that most guides mislead people with tall tales even as the government is yet to come up with a uniform text. I make it a point to talk about the dependence of Vijayanagara on Muslim military specialists and horse traders, for instance, and Islamic architectural influences as can be seen in structures in the royal enclosure such as the Queen’s Bath and the Lotus Mahal and the Elephant Stables,” says P Hussain, 44, one of 200-odd government-certified guides at Hampi.
Hampi-Vijayanagara has become a blueprint for the epic sadness of a Hindu Rajya truncated by an Islamic cataclysm
On one end of a long, contiguous stage that has come up in the impressive Elephant Stables enclosure, a diminutive man in a yellow hoodie shouts a war cry and battles a weaker opponent, who falls easily. The actor, convincing although not in costume, plays Kumara Rama, the chieftain of Kampli and a patriot who may have inspired the founders of Vijayanagara. At the other end of the stage, his men, armed with wooden swords, clash with the forces of the Delhi Sultanate, driving them back inch by inch. Every year, the government stages a production, starring 100-150 locals, of the story of Vijayanagara as part of its two-day, event-filled Hampi Utsav. Usually conducted in November, the Utsav, which draws over 500,000 visitors, was held on January 10th and 11th this year. Like others before him, Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, inaugurating the festival, called for preserving the “symbol of glorious tradition that is Hampi”.
This is also the time of year when auto drivers and local youth moonlight as baying guides and spin yarns about Chinese dragons, buried treasure and a secret pact between Saivites and Muslims to decimate Vaishnava temples. Dodge them as you would the multilingual sibilations of touts selling harem pants and mandalas. With the exploration of Hampi by archaeologists John M Fritz, George Michell and MS Nagaraja Rao in the 1980s, and their campaign to showcase its wonders to the Western world, tourism began as a trickle and soon swelled after the establishment of a bus route from Goa in the early ’90s. Over a million visited Hampi last year; the traffic is only set to increase, with regular flights from Bengaluru and Hyderabad to the corporate airport of Vidyanagar on the Jindal Steel Works campus less than an hour’s drive away and premium resorts and hotels coming up on the periphery of the protected area. “I always advise guests to come in the monsoon months,” Hussain says. “Hampi doesn’t get a lot of rain. False propaganda in the media about floods damaging the main structures badly hurt tourism here from August to October last year.”
To the serious explorer, Hampi’s heritage sprawl, unmatched in scale and splendour, is an invitation to draw connections between past and present, ideas and actions, individuals and communities, landscape and life. For the spiritually inclined, it is a place of cosmic immanence as well as a value system grounded in the assumption that a good state—what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls ‘the theatre state’—must mirror the divine order of the universe. Hampi had been a part of the kingdoms of Kadambas, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Hoysalas and Yadavas, but no one had celebrated its sacred geography the way the kings of Vijayanagara did. According to the Rayavachakamu, an account in Telugu written during Krishnadevaraya’s time, Vijayayanagara was founded close to Matanga hill because of the symbolic protection promised by the eponymous sage to Sugriva. Other hills in the area are dotted with temples and legends from the Ramayana: Malyavanta, where Rama and Lakshmana waited out the rain en route Lanka; and to the north, Anjanadri, revered as the birthplace of Hanuman. “Religious tourists are discovering Hampi beyond the main Shiva temple. Maharashtrians come to pay respects to Vitthala and north Indians come looking for places associated with the Ramayana. At the same time, we now have a new breed of domestic travellers who come not just for the temples, the history and heritage, but also for the landscape, the river, the paddies and a sense of quiet. They stay longer, try to visit offbeat sites, make friends with locals and experience Hampi the way the first foreign travellers probably did,” says Lokesh PN, Chairman, Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority (HWHAMA), the nodal agency for developing and regulating the site.
The agency has immediate plans to introduce hot-air balloon rides in partnership with a Rajasthan-based adventure company and year-round water sports in the lakes of Hampi, install 385 new monument signages with relevant cultural text provided by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, launch an app to identify structures and flag off a long-anticipated Hampi-by-Night tour. The signages alone will cost Rs 2 crore, but the HWHAMA has Rs 25 crore in reserves, says Lokesh. Constituted after Hampi was placed on the list of ‘world heritage sites in danger’ in 1999 on account of the informal urbanisation along the ancient bazaar near Virupaksha temple and due to the construction of two cable-suspended bridges across the Tungabhadra, the HWHAMA is reviled by hundreds of locals who were displaced from the core zone in one fell swoop in 2011. With the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) now working on renovating stone structures on the market street, heaps of rubble and cement bags crowd the view of the main gopuram where gold and diamonds were once sold. “As of now, some 80 monuments inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list come under ASI’s protection. The remaining structures are under the protection of the State Department of Archaeology and a few fall under the purview of the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act. Our job is to coordinate among these agencies and local stakeholders and to ensure there is sustainable development of the site,” says Lokesh. “Things take time at a World Heritage site. That is an undeniable reality,” says Krishna Kumar, Project Director of Innovative Lighting Systems, the company that envisaged and won the Rs 11.5-crore contract for Hampi-by-Night eight years ago. In January, Kumar will finally get to take tourists on a 3-km-long route from Virupaksha temple to the Gejjala Mandapa, partly on foot and partly by battery-operated vehicles, for a tour of over 20 monuments illuminated at night. “This is a phenomenal tourism product and it will change the dynamics of travel to Hampi, where the days are hot and there is nothing to do at night,” Kumar says.
As domestic travellers discover their own Hampi, trained tour guides include cultural texts that acknowledge the influence of Islamic and Jain cultures
THE UNION MINISTRY of Culture plans to ‘authentically’ reconstruct 11 historical sites, including Hampi and the Indus Valley, as part of a Rs 27,000-crore, five-year project starting this year. About a quarter of this will go to the ASI, amounting to a nearly sevenfold increase in its budget. Some of this money is expected to be used to restore prominent structures in Hampi “on the verge of crumbling with the next rain”, an ASI official in Karnataka said. While the Hampi monuments are due for a makeover, restoration has largely meant ugly paint jobs and unscientific plastering known to widen existing cracks.
The idea of Hampi, when not encapsulated in one excruciating moment of rupture, is like a slow, long, luxurious book, its chapters arranged not without a certain caprice. Many characters are inscribed on these pages: Brahmins who live next to the temple and now make a living from makeshift restaurants and special pujas; residents who were moved to New Hampi and turned guides and entrepreneurs so they could continue to engage with their past; folk singers of Vitthala temple who sing of how the people of Vijayanagara, upon the king’s wishes, journeyed in a beautiful procession to Pandarpur to persuade Lord Krishna to take up residence in their town, only to find he had fled to be with his cows the very next day; native guardian deities like Uramma who continue to bless thousands of local pilgrims year after year; and Rama, Sugriva and Vali in sequinned costumes and cheap body paint, enacting iconic scenes from the epic that are inseparable from the landscape of Hampi. Purushothama Bilimale, the Kannada chair at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, says Bahurupis’ renditions of the Ramayana continue to inform the local understanding of the epic and its connection to Hampi. “This is a site where the Ramayana is orally as well as ritually reconstructed,” he says. “It is also a place of rich folk traditions and beliefs. In fact, some scholars believe that many of the mandapas of Vijayanagara were put up by visitors and commoners as memorials, not built by kings. Even today, near Achyuta temple, people arrange small stones in cairns as a tribute to the elements.”
Among the key protagonists of the kingdom ‘of palaces like autumn clouds, and music and dance all around’ is, of course, Krishnadevaraya of the Tuluva dynasty, the greatest and penultimate ruler of the City of Victory who defeated the Gajapatis of modern Odisha and the Deccan sultans and built south India’s largest expansionary polity during his reign from 1509 to 1529. That he was a patron of the arts and a lover of Telugu literature are well known, but he left his mark on the cultural legacy of Vijayanagara in several other ways. While not disavowing the family’s loyalty to Pampa and Shiva, he promoted in parallel the worship of Rama, in whose mirror image the kings of Vijayanagara were believed to be cast. He also established Vaishnava townships at Hampi, the first one at Krishnapura bounded by the Raghunatha temple, the major canal and the Virabhadra temple. Hemakuta hill, the site of several small early shrines to Shiva with pyramid-like roofs, became the dividing line between the Saivite Virupakshapura and the Vaishnavite Krishnapura. This is not to say, however, that Krishnadevaraya was not a man of multicultural tendencies. Historian Phillip Wagoner argues that latter-day Vijayanagara emperors ‘consciously claimed legitimacy and expressed political power in a way that was intelligible in the Islamicised political universe of the Indian Ocean world’. Indeed, during Krishnadevaraya’s time, courtly dress at Vijayanagara was increasingly inspired by Islamic royal clothing, temple structures aspired to copy elaborate Tamil styles and literature flowed rich and free in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada.
Hampi doesn’t get a lot of rain but false propaganda about floods damaging the main structures badly hurt tourism from August to October last year
It is hard to take a bad picture at Hampi and harder still to take an interesting one. As the sun burns its way down one of the hills in the distance, the few tourists atop Malyavanta cherish the last moments of light. The selfies are taken, the war is over and humanity has hummed on for centuries. On the spinning surface of time, the lost city of Hampi is a fixed star winking at the little lives that dream of the great ones of yore.