The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi, Karnataka was the illustrious capital of the erstwhile Vijayanagara empire before it was plundered by the Deccan Sultanates and abandoned in the 16th century. Today a large group of stunning Dravidian temples and palaces are all that remain of the last great Hindu kingdom of India. Their majesty continues to draw curious travellers the world over. A bicycle ride through the ruins unlocks some of their many secrets. By Shikha Pushpan
What is today earmarked as an anicent village in Karnataka in southern India was once twice the size of Paris and the second largest city in the world after Beijing. Hampi was the celebrated capital of the Vijayanagara empire, which created an epoch in the Deccan plateau or southern region of India from the mid-14th to 17th century with its efficient administration, vigorous overseas trade, and an unprecedented adulation for arts and literature. The traces of the Vijayanagara craftsmen’s architectural brilliance can be traced across Hampi’s boulder-strewn landscape.
A few miles away from these ruins sits the Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Hampi, my base for the trip, and an extension of Vijayanagara architecture. With a gearless cycle, a jumbo tumbler, SPF50 sunscreen, and a sunshade hat, I set out to navigate the arid landscape of Hampi and unravel its many secrets, one stop at a time.
Stories In Stones
Start your day with the first rays of the sun to enjoy exclusive access to the Vijaya Vittala Temple in the Vithalapura suburb. Considered the most ornate example of Vijayanagara art, the 16th-century temple is housed in a sprawling complex surrounded by compound walls and three gateways, alongside several other smaller temples, pavillions, enclosures, and halls. The temple is located 10 km from the main town; therefore, it is advisable to start early to avoid the harsh sun and reach the complex just in time to be among the first few visitors. The intricate, multi-storeyed gate of the Vijaya Vittala Temple rises at the end of a two km-long path, which earlier served as the Vittala Bazaar, a popular site for trading of horses among locals and foreign traders. What used to be pavillions selling diamonds and other gems lie in a dilapidated state today, parallel to the nearby River Tungabhadra. Park your bike at the dedicated parking lot and either walk or take an e-rickshaw to reach the temple complex set against a chain of boulder hills. Inside the temple complex, the iconic stone chariot— built out of giant granite blocks and carved with mythical battle scenes and floral motifs—welcomes visitors. This is one of the three famous stone chariots in India, the other two being in Konark (Odisha) and Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu). The Maha Mantapa or the elevated main hall lies in the inner courtyard of the temple complex and comprises four smaller halls—each supported by decorated pillars featuring intricate carvings depicting scenes from the everyday life of a Vijayanagara local. However, the most amusing section is the Ranga Mantapa, where 56 pillars produce different musical notes, giving the popular moniker, ‘musical pillars’. The architectural brilliance behind these pillars remains a mystery. The Kalyana Mantapa and Utsav Mantapa are equally evocative for their rich carvings. The place deserves a good three to four hours of your time.
Relax & Rejuvenate
The ride back to the hotel can get a little overwhelming if you’re visiting in summer months. Take a small detour and ask locals for directions to Hampi’s most popular restaurant, Mango Tree and spare some time to stretch your legs on one of the floor cushions. The place serves delicious local delicacies and other offerings, such as paneer sizzler and tomato cheese spaghetti. Slurp down a glass of mango lassi before you venture out again. The road to the hotel passes through small villages and hamlets; therefore, expect a bumpy ride crossing tiny bridges, streams, and huts of workers employed with the nearby Jindal Steel plant in Bellary. Back at the hotel, recharge your batteries with a leisurely Ayurveda treatment by two experienced masseurs at Vaidyasala.
By The River
Hampi is located on the south bank of River Tungabhadra, which once along with the boulder-strewn hills formed the northern barrier of the Vijayanagara capital. While the kings constructed a host of irrigation channels and aqueducts, a highly networked water supply system fed the man-made water bodies in the urban core of the palace area—many of these ancient canals are still in use for irrigation purposes. The river flows down the eastern slope of the Western Ghats into Karnataka and is best explored via a trek or a ride on a traditional coracle. While locals still use these bowl-shaped country boats as a mode of transport, boatmen offer short trips to and from Kodandarama Temple for intrepid travellers (along with their bicycles or motorbikes). The 10 km bicycle ride to the temple takes about 40-50 minutes. Book a coracle ride just in time for the sunset and watch the saffron sun set against a landscape dominated by granite in varying shades of grey, ochre, and pink.
Dine Under The Stars
Arrive back at the hotel to be welcomed by the soothing sounds of flute and aroma of fresh sandalwood. As part of the sandhya (evening) ceremony, the hotel’s courtyard reverberates with the melodies of flute played by a local musician. Ask the concierge to arrange a private dinner in a mandapa, inspired by the Rayas of Vijayanagara, near the bigger swimming pool and watch the night sky cast a spell as you enjoy a decadent four-course meal of local favourites, such as korri gassi and kane rava fry.
While the Vijaya Vittala Temple is dedicated to Hindu Lord Vishnu, the Virupaksha Temple worships Hindu Lord Shiva and has been functioning ever since its inception in the 7th century. Unlike the Vijaya Vittala Temple, the shrines and halls in the Virupaksha temple complex feature colourful murals and stucco work on the walls and ceilings. It is a 10-km ride from the hotel and takes about 45 minutes on an early morning trip. It can also be reached via Hampi Bazaar or a descend down the Hemakuta Hills. Park your bike and opt for a heritage walk with an experienced guide to understand the stories behind the numerous shrines, pillared halls, flag posts, towered gateways, and the large temple kitchen. Start exploring from the nine-storeyed east-facing giant tower, which leads to the first courtyard, and further on to sanctums, royal corridors and mantapas featuring large halls with 100 pillars. The Sasivekalu Ganesha, Kadalekalu Ganesha, and Hemakuta temples behind the main temple complex demand a visit if you’ve a couple of hours in hand. The Virupaksha Car Festival held every year in February is a big crowd-puller.
The Vijayanagara kings were believed to have secular views—a fact evident from the Indo-Islamic style of architecture at the Zenana Enclosure. Situated 4 km from the Virupaksha temple, this requires a ride through the city corridors to reach the fortified complex, which earlier housed the royal ladies, including the Queen, and eunuchs. The Zenana Enclosure consists of Lotus Mahal, Queen’s Bath, Water Pavillion, and Watch Towers. Just outside the Zenana Enclosure lies the Elephant Stable, which once housed the royal elephants in its 11 domed chambers. These domes were designed in a variety of shapes, such as octagonal, circular, ribbed, drum-shaped and fluted, and are counted among the best surviving heritage structures of the Vijayanagara empire.
Of Kings & Queens
A little farther from the Zenana Enclosure and the Elephant Stable is the Royal Enclosure. Accessible by bike or a short walk, this is where, hundreds of years back, kings were coronated and ornate festivities held in public view. In its prime years, it housed as many as 45 buildings including the durbar halls, platform, tanks, underground chambers, and temples. The Mahanavami Dibba is the tallest structure in the area and the first thing you notice in the Royal Enclosure. Also called the Great Platform, this was used by kings to watch the Dusshehra and Navratri festivities, and hundreds of years later by locals to watch magical sunsets. Also, in the compound is the Pushkarini stepwell (also referred to as Stepped Tank for its five-tiered layout). Besides being an integral part of people’s socio-cultural life, it was also a popular venue for annual boat festivals. Admission into the stepwell is restricted to the public now.
Take a break from sightseeing at the Akash Art Gallery & Book Stall in the Main Bazaar. The place specialises in precious stones and journals on Hampi and India. The owner gives free city maps, along with gorgeous postcards. The Vittala Temple and Virupaksha Temple have small stalls in their vicinity selling souvenirs, such as Lambini products and small leather bags.