The magnificent site of Hampi, in central India, was the last capital of the last great Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar. The kingdom was one of the greatest empires in the history of India, and its incredibly wealthy princes constructed Dravidian temples and palaces that won the praise of travelers between the 14th and 16th centuries.

The Vijayanagara Empire was the largest empire in post-Mogul India, covering several modern-day states. Vijayanagar means the “City of Victory.” It became famous for its support for the renovation or reconstruction of temples throughout India. It also became renowned for the re-establishment of Indian culture and its support for art, literature, and music. Vijayanagara became a byword for “golden rule,” and tales of its riches were once known beyond the shores of India.

The Vijayanagara Empire rose to power as southern powers attempted to resist the Muslim inroads into south India in the first half of the 14th century. It was a bastion of Hindu culture and nationalism for several centuries. The origin of the kingdom is surrounded by so much mystery and obscurity that many legends and accounts have grown up around it. It is certain, however, that the kingdom was established in 1336 A.D. and was completed seven years later.

Krishnadeva Raya (1509-29 A.D.) was the greatest of the Vijayanagara rulers. Under him, the empire passed through a golden age, in which he lavishly embellished the capital city, made large gifts to innumerable temples, and improved existing structures. South Indian architecture owes much to him. The empire declined steadily after his death, and Muslim rulers soon formed a confederacy against Vijayanagar. A decisive battle was fought in 1565, and when the regent was decapitated, a great confusion arose and the capital city lay undefended, open to plundering and ruthless destruction.

In essence, after several centuries of glory, the destruction of Vijayanagara by Mogul invaders was shocking and absolute. The city was reduced to ruins amid scenes of savage massacre over a period of six months after it was conquered by the Deccan Muslim confederacy in 1565. After that time, it was abandoned.

The capital of the empire was Hampi, a place that has an unbroken tradition of sanctity which continues from ancient times. The city and its environs are considered holy ground and many of its sites and names are connected with episodes of the “Ramayana,” the Hindu holy texts. In the epic Ramayana, Hampi was known as Kishkinda, a monkey kingdom.

Though Hampi still lies in ruins today, the marks of fabulous wealth and power are still very evident. It is still a well-known center of pilgrimage.

World Heritage in DANGER:
The site of Hampi was included on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1999. It was prompted by the construction of two suspension bridges which threaten the site’s integrity and dominate the landscape. The construction of a road towards one of the bridges has already resulted in the dismantling and reconstruction of an important historic monument – a mandapa (a pillared stone rest-house) – within the boundaries of the site. This dislocation signals serious problems in the implementation of cultural heritage regulations and policies.

In fact, the bridges have been under construction for about ten years now. An additional concern was raised because the construction of a road towards one of the bridges would result in a major increase in heavy goods traffic. The UNESCO stepped in to prevent construction of these bridges, and after years of negotiation, it has been decided that the bridges will be finished, but only motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrian traffic will be allowed to cross the bridge. This will facilitate crossing of the river for the locals, who must now use boats (made of plastic and coconut leaves), but will not increase the flow of heavy goods trucks and buses. This measure will help to ensure the natural integrity of the site. Some locals are pleased with the construction of the bridge, while others are not so happy. For them, it all comes down to economics. Some will benefit, while others will lose out. The bridge will supposedly be finished around September 2005 (to be seen, as other setbacks may occur…).


The scenery of Hampi was surprising. Many of the monuments were situated around the river, and large piles of giant boulders dotted the landscape. It was as if the mountains were just a mass of large, orangish boulders that someone carelessly dropped in a heap from the sky. It seemed as if almost every tree in Hampi was a banana tree, and their forests were quite dense.

The town itself was cute – rather small, and tourist-centered, with many guesthouses, restaurants, jewellery, and clothing shops. During the nighttime, you could see people sleeping outside or in beds cramped together in the open doorways of houses. The women washed the laundry on a stone slab every morning. A huge temple (the Virupaksha Temple) stood at one end of the bazaar (the main street), while a statue of the Monolithic Bull stood at the other.

Amidst all of the Hindu temples was the ruin of a Muslim tomb, and there we found 100 people of the same family in the middle of a picnic, celebrating the circumcision of a young boy. They eagerly invited us to join them for a mutton curry, and boy, was it ever good! We had to eat with the hands, mixing the curry and rice in a ball, and then trying to scoop it up in a ball. It’s harder than it sounds, and it took me ages to eat it! Contrary to many other places, there was nothing in their dress to distinguish them from the Hindus. The women even wore saris, like Hindu women, and didn’t bother about a black cloak or a head veil. The family was extremely friendly, and we spent a wonderful afternoon together.

We climbed to the top of a large hill, with a small temple at the top, for a panoramic view of the area, and as we rounded the last curve at the top of the hill, a large tan COBRA reared up in front of Stephane, hissing and fanning its head!!! Only 4 ft. away! Cobras are known to have a lethal bite, which usually works quite quickly. But if you survive a run-in with a cobra, they are said to bring you good luck! So under Hindu tradition, Stephane will have much good luck!

The site of Hampi covers an area of about 26 sq. km. Because it was so large, we decided to visit the monuments by scooter. We saw most of the sites in three full days of exhausting visiting. Some visitors stayed for an entire week – the site was really enormous! The site was not only impressive both by its enormous size and its number of monuments (about 74), but also by the state of the monuments themselves, some of which still showed great detail. Many of the images that were carved into the edifices and their pillars were images of Hindu gods, of Buddha, of real and mythological animals, of warrior-gods and warriors, and of dancers.

Within the seven lines of fortifications in Hampi lie the splendid remains of palaces, gateways, and temples (as well as three temples that are still in use). Some of the more interesting monuments are described below:

The Queen’s Bath is built in an Indo-Islamic architectural style and has a plain exterior and ornate interior. It is surrounded by a moat that once ensured fresh water, and has a 50-ft. long swimming pool, arched corridors, projecting balconies and lotus-shaped fountains that once sprouted perfumed water.

The Hazara Rama Temple is a small but highly ornate temple that is believed to have been the private place of worship of the royal family. Its name means “the temple of the thousand Ramas.” The chief attraction is a series of scenes from the Ramayana carved on two of the inside walls of the mandapa (hall). The temple is a veritable picture gallery. In the center of the hall are four exquisitely carved and polished blackstone pillars. The exterior enclosing walls show rows of elephants, dancing girls, infantry, horses, and scenes from Krishna-lila. Many of the sculptures are well-preserved. For me, this temple was as nice as the Vitthala Temple. A guard took us on a small tour of the underground portion of the temple. A small torch lit the way and showed carved pillars and rows of bats hanging upside down. Many of the temples must have had these “hidden” corridors that couldn’t be seen from the outside, as they all had the same musty smell.

The Lotus Mahal is a two-storied open pavilion shaped like a lotus flower from the top. It has 24 square pillars carrying beautiful recessed archways in perfect symmetry, and the upper storey has a number of balconies. It was the summer palace of the queen. Nowadays, the interior is very plain. It is one of the finest structures at Hampi.

The Elephant Stables, like the Lotus Mahal, also reflect an Indo-Islamic architecture. Built in the 15th century, it is a long, rectangular dome building that housed 11 elephants in separate compartments.

The Ganigitti Temple is a Jaina temple whose architectural style is typical of the early Vijayanagar period. It is known for its simplicity of form and design. A huge lamp-column at the entrance has an inscription stating that it was built in 1385.

The Lakshmi Narasimba is a huge 6.7-m. tall monolith of the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. It is a carefully carved icon that was hewn from a single boulder in 1528. The figure is seated on coils of Adishesha, the sacred guardian snake of Lord Vishnu, and has seven heads of a snake as a hood. Though now badly mutilated, the statue is still one of the most striking figures at Vijayanagara.

The Shiva-Linga temple just next to the image of Lakshmi-Narasimba is a small single-chambered Shiva temple containing an enormous 3-m. high linga with part of its base permanently under water. A linga a sacred statue (phallic symbol) associated with the god Shiva. Worshippers laid flowers and incense on the linga and threw money into the pool. An old man, wearing a torn and ragged piece of cloth around his waist, acted as guardian over the linga.

Not far from the Shiva-linga are two huge stone images of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom and fortune. One is the Sasivikalu Ganesha, ironically named the “mustard seed;” hence, the Mustard Ganesh. It is a 2.4-m. tall statue carved of a single stone. The second Ganesha is the Kadalekalu Ganesha, a monolith carved in the round out of a massive boulder. It is a huge seated god 4.5-m. high and is housed in a large shrine in the back of an open hall that has beautifully carved and well-preserved pillars.

There are numerous shrines and groups of early temples on the Hemakuta hill, just behind the Ganesha statues. Their superstructures are formed into stepped pyramids. Most of these temples do not have any icons in the sanctum. Groups of these temples date from about the 9th to the early 14th centuries and form one of the earliest group of structures at Hampi.

The King’s Balance is an interesting structure. Consisting of two carved granite pillars supporting a stone beam, this is where the kings were weighed against gold, grain, or money during auspicious occasions, such as coronations. Their weight in gold, etc. was then distributed to the poor.

The most magnificent monument at Hampi is the Vitthala Temple complex, which portrays the pinnacle of Vijayanagara architecture. A storied structure forms a gateway and many open pavilions and halls with carved pillars stand in the complex. In front of the shrine stands a great hall. Resting on a richly sculpted base, its roof is supported by huge pillars of granite, each consisting of a central pillar surrounded by detached shafts, all cut from a single block of stone. Unfortunately, several of the carved pillars were attacked so brutally during the Muslim invasion that some of them are barely more than shapeless blocks of stone. The hall contains 56 musical pillars, which have different intonations when hit properly. Some of the pillars contain figures of women, dancers, and drummers. The ceiling is carved with lotus-motifs. The central court of the complex is now roofless. One of the most remarkable features of the Vitthala Temple is the stone chariot that stands in front of the main hall. It is pulled by carved stone elephants and its wheels still revolve.

Of all the temples in Hampi, only three are still in use. The first one, the smallish Uddhana Virabhadra Temple, has an electrical drum, cymbal and bell set that is played every day.

The second one, the Malyavanta Raghunatha Temple, had several porches, where some worshippers meditated or slept. The main sanctum is decorated with colored tinsel and loudspeakers still wrapped in plastic. There were several cows in the courtyard and many monkeys playing on the rooftops here. Strange-looking fish and marine monsters decorate its outer walls.

The third temple, the Virupaksha Temple, is the main worshiping temple and faces the entrance of the Hampi Bazaar. It is considered the most sacred of the temples at Hampi. It has a 120-ft. tall tower and nine stories on its main entrance gate. It has an outer courtyard and an inner court, with a large number of subsidiary shrines. You could see that the statues of some of the gods had costumes “in-waiting,” to change periodically or for special occasions. Many monkeys played together in the trees and on the temple rooftops. An elephant was chained in a vestibule of the outer courtyard. It was considered holy and painted in various colors. The elephant was taken out twice per day, and a large crowd gathered at night to worship it. Dating back to the 11th or 12th century, parts of the temple are older than the Vijayanagar kingdom itself.