The empire is long gone. Its relics scattered across a breathtaking boulder strewn landscape once chosen for its impregnability.
But Hampi’s stones – those chiselled by man into intricate divine forms, as well as those worn smooth by the elements – whisper stories.
And it is the stories that imbue these ruins with magic. Aided in large part by fleeting mental imagery from a 1970 Kannada biopic on the Vijayanagara empire’s greatest ruler – Krishnadevaraya – that appears to have left as much an imprint on my subconscious, as the stories of the famed courtesan of Awadh!
The history of the land predates that of the capital city. Much of it intertwined with myth and folklore. The name itself is derived from the legend of Goddess Parvati’s human birth as Princess Pampa, and her long penance to win Shiva’s attention. Hence Pampavati, corrupted to Hampe and Hampi.
Hemakuta (golden hill) gets its name from the shower of gold that is said to have rained upon it on the event of Shiva’s acquiescence. The site of their divine nuptials at the foot of the hill, marked by the sanctuary of the imposing 7th century Virupaksha temple.
Another legend suggests Anegundi, the original capital of the Vijayanagara empire on the opposite bank of the river Tungabhadra, is Kishkinda: the mythical monkey kingdom of the Ramayana, and home of Hanuman (Hanumantha in the South) – the monkey God.
The boulders used by the monkey army in the building of the legendary bridge across the strait (to Lanka), most likely came from here, (the hows of their transportation all the way to the Southern coast, best left to faith).
The region fell into obscurity until 1336, when Hakka (Harihara I) and Bukka (Bukkaraya) – laid the foundation of an empire (at the spot where a hare they were hunting turned around and chased their hound!) whose imperial hold was to stretch across all of South India and upto Orissa towards the North. The history of the sibling founders is clearly yet to be established, although I, (being a native of Karnataka) am naturally biased towards the Kannadiga theory.
It is the stories of this renaissance empire birthed and nurtured in the Tungabhadra valley – of valiant, secular kings and their bejewelled consorts, of bustling bazaars brimming with gemstones, of the loves and lives and art of the people that populated it- that are the most captivating. Almost all pieced together from the observations of foreign visitors.
The most evocatively detailed are those of Portuguese (the colonial power was a natural ally in the common fight against neighbouring Islamic states) soldier Domingo Paes, whose visit between 1520 – 1522 during the reign of Krishnadevaraya, chronicles the zenith of Vijayanagara influence.
“The city of Bidjanagar is 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 world. It is built in such a manner that seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other.” ~ Abdur Razzak, Ambassodor from Persia
“In this city you will find men belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it has, and the many precious stones there … the streets and markets are full of laden oxen without count, … and in many streets you come upon so many of them that you have to wait for them to pass, or else have to go by another way……This is the best provided city in the world.[…]” ~ Domingo Paes
“I climbed a hill whence I could see a great part of it; I could not see it all because it lies between several ranges of hills. What I saw from thence seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight.” ~ Domingo Paes
The glory lasted but a couple of brief centuries. The death knell struck by a confederation of five Deccan Sultanates at the battle of Talikota in 1565. Temples were desecrated, rich coffers plundered, sandalwood palaces razed to the ground.
At the end of the brutal sacking, only the Virupaksha temple – one of few Shiva shrines in this land of Vishnu worshippers, that had existed here in a humbler form long before the arrival of the Rayas – survived inexplicably unscathed. The last Rayas limped along in alternate capitals until the 1660’s*. None possessed the skill or statesmanship to rewrite Vijayanagara destiny.
The ‘City of Victory’ was abandoned. And forgotten. Quite like other glorious cities elsewhere.
Up on Matanga hill, I gaze down at the rows of reassembled pillars of the courtesans’ bazaar, faintly reminiscent of the agoras of Athens. The roofless Achuttaraya temple to the right, nestled in a verdant valley ringed by swaying palms, appears straight out of a (less aggressive) Cambodian jungle. At far left, the Tunghabhadra’s glassy surface shimmers in the weak sunlight as she cuts through the granite outcrops of the city that owes her its name from when she was christened after a Goddess princess.
I feel the echoes.
*The Rayas continued to hold large tracts of land across South India, including the three mile strip acquired by the East India Company in 1639, to set up Fort Saint George, the core of Madras City (present day Chennai).
Disclaimer: Our stay in Hampi was hosted by Orange County Resorts.