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Poetry in stone

July 19, 2011

Sunrise over Hampi. A Karnataka Tourism advertisement inspires the reader to “Discover New Worlds”

While leafing through a travel magazine with information on nearby weekend destinations in South India, I turned a page only to have my jaw drop at the sight of this magnificent sunrise over a city carved out of stone. Destination: Hampi. We had been contemplating visiting Hampi or other similar historic sites when in Bangalore (Halebidu, Belur), and seeing this photo sealed the deal for us on where to go! An amazing resource for everything you’ve ever wanted to know on Hampi is this website.

Approximately a 6 hour drive North from Bangalore, the city of Hampi lies amongst the ruins of Vijayanagara, the grand capital of King Krishnadevaraya’s empire, along the Tungabhadra river. Hampi derives it’s name from Pampa, which is an old name for the Tungabhadra river. Hampi is very popular with travelers looking to explore and learn about the bygone era of royal kingdoms, kings, queens, the artisan people, their culture and way of living. We were already planning on visiting family in Dharwad, so a detour to Hampi, a mere 3 hour drive away was easily doable. With only 1.5 days to see Hampi, we were hoping to explore as much of the city as possible. As you have rightly guessed, this is not even close to enough time. But all that we did get to see in these two short days made for an amazing and very memorable experience.

Bangalore to Hampi

Hampi was recently listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This means the tourism infrastructure and maintenance is now much better than what it used to be years ago. To a farmer trying to make his livelihood there, a pile or stones is just that – a pile of stones. Whether they have intricate carvings of historic significance on them or not, is not of much importance when one is trying to earn a livelihood and feed their family. So for many years, as the bustling cities around Hampi and Hampi itself grew, the stone mandapas on the mountains and carved dancing girls on the stone walls and the walls of Hazara Rama temples depicting the story of the Ramayana, painstakingly carved out of granite – were silent witnesses to all that modern growth brings. Even now when you drive to the main site of Hampi, you pass many other historic sites, with ruins of temples and mandapas, carved splendidly, surrounded by the bustling sprawl of city life, cars, modern houses, people. We saw one structure of mandapas with a stone roof, converted into a handy parking garage for visitor cars. But the main site has been preserved well, with security and infrastructure to allow travelers to experience the historic city to the fullest.

A Nandi bull carved on a boulder, half submerged in the Tungabhadra river

Everywhere you go in Hampi, you will not escape the sense of richness and grandeur that must have prevailed in the kingdom of Vijayanagara at it’s prime. Hundreds of artisans, sculptors and artists toiled over many many years to produce some of the most beautiful, intricate, breathtaking carvings and temples and architecture, which to this day survives mainly because they were all painstakingly carved out of solid rock. Time and tide have done little to alter the artistic sensibilities of Hampi.

Dancing girl comes to life, carved into one of the temple pillars

Wandering inside the sprawling metropolis the first time is like traveling back in time.  You can almost hear the trumpeting of horns as they welcome the royal family, with gloriously decorated elephants and horses, and the cheer and applause of the people as their beloved king and queen go by. King Krishnadevaraya was a lover of good things in life, including good art. He ensured that many of the artisans and architects in his kingdom were kept happy and busy creating the most beautiful city in the world, coming to life out of solid boulders. A city which time and tide would never be able to transform into dust, a city which would remain standing forever. And so it does, to this day.

Virupaksha temple from Hemakuta hill

The Virupaksha temple, is one of the longest running active temples in South India, has been so from even before the founding of the Vijayanagara empire. The aroma of incense, flowers and camphor fill your nostrils as you step into a darkened chamber and listen to the priest chanting his hypnotic mantras to appease the gods. Virupaksha temple is right in the middle of the small bustling market area that has sprung up to provide everything you would need as a traveler/tourist. Maps, guides, restaurants, souvenirs, even stores selling colorful, comfortable pyjamas which we saw many wearing as cool cotton cover ups to beat the heat.

Virupaksha temple, Hampi

There are numerous places one can stay overnight when in Hampi, including the nearby town of Hospet. However, if you’re planning on doing sunrise/sunset hikes and want to stay closer to the magnificent ruins and the bazaar area, there’s no better choice than the plethora of family-owned guesthouses inside Hampi itself. With terrace views of the Virupaksha temple and Hemakuta hill beckoning guests, many friendly families make a brisk business as they rent out rooms in their mansions, meals included, for an affordable price. Definitely call ahead to make reservations, as these places fill up during the peak summer months of travel. We stayed at Padma guesthouse in the Hampi Bazaar area, right next to Virupaksha temple. This is the most convenient area to stay at, since the Hampi bazaar is always bustling with activity and is a fun place to explore in the evenings. Many of the sights (Virupaksha, Hemakuta, Matanga Hill) are all within walking / bicycling distance.

Alternative options include staying at the city of Kamalapura (a few kms away) or in Hospet (12 kms away) or across the river at Virupapur gaddi, which means you have to cross the rumbling Tungabhadra river in a primitive round cane boat to get to the site. An enticing option for real adventurers! Of course, the real charm is staying in Hampi itself, and nothing comes close to beating that experience!

Stone mandapas cast long shadows on Hemakuta Hill, behind Virupaksha temple, Hampi

After exploring Virupaksha temple and admiring the craftsmanship on the temple walls and the carvings of gods and goddesses, we went to the small hill behind the temple, named Hemakuta Hill. There are many stone mandapas still standing on this hill, casting long shadows on the granite mountain as the sun began to set. Smaller temples and gopuras (stepped roof of a temple) rose in the distance. Several mandapas lined the pathway up to the top of the hill making it an easy and scenic climb. Tour guides are available and you can get a full-day tour which would provide a ton of info on the history and culture and also cover a lot of area. We decided to take our own time and not rush from place to place. Hemakuta Hill has a “Sunset Point” on top, highly recommended for seeing glorious sunsets over the city. We stayed for the sunset and it was completely worth it. From the top, one has a vantage viewpoint over the vast fields of banana and sugarcane in the distance. It is a very peaceful and calming experience. There are other people on the hilltop, also there to watch the sunset, but a hush falls over everybody as the mellow sunshine gets warmer, brighter and more beautiful as the glowing orb dips beneath the horizon, to the tune of a thousand chirping birds, all on their way home.

Sunset over Hampi from Hemakuta Hill

The Hampi Bazaar area has streets and back alleys lined with dozens of restaurants to choose from. Plenty of south-indian delicacies to fill your tummy after a day of clambering over the ruins. One place in particular is the Mango Tree restaurant, which has a set meal (thali) that comes with plenty of generously portioned side-dishes to make a complete meal – veggies, lentils, tortillas, rice, rasam, yogurt, dessert, juice etc.

Lunch Thali at The Mango Tree restaurant, Hampi

If the above looks like too much food (trust me, it isn’t), then you can opt for smaller dishes at the other restaurants, and go a-la-carte. They cater to all by providing a mind-boggling array of cuisines. We didn’t get a chance to try out some of these exotic-sounding cuisines this time around, but looking forward to it the next trip. See the next photo and you’ll know what I mean!

Everything from Israeli to English, what a selection of cuisine, truly a “world” restaurant!


Abandoned temples and crooked trees atop Hemakuta Hill

As we walked along, one question that we kept asking is how on earth these huge boulders were transformed into such beautiful structures, with nothing other than bare hands and primitive tools. There were no power-drills and cranes at that time to do the heavy-lifting. These people must have had some endurance, conviction and patience to work on these buildings and sculptures for years at a time. Amazing. And as we later found out, their methods were very interesting!

Boulder being prepped for a bigger purpose. This one appears to have been a tough nut to crack!

The way the artisans of the Vijayanagara empire used to get huge boulders into manageable pieces for sculpture and carving is to drill these small holes in a row in a section of the rock. The holes were filled with wooden pegs, and water was poured over the pegs into the holes continuously for a long time. The wooden pegs would eventually expand and the boulder would split neatly along this edge into smaller pieces with flat faces. This is how they were able to transform …

This to …

… this! Wow!

Hemakuta Hill and Matanga Hill are popular for day hikes. The sunrise atop Matanga is legendary, but we did not get a chance to see this for ourselves due to lack of time. All the main sites in Hampi are close by, although it would take longer to walk across to each, it’s easier to hop on to an auto-rickshaw to save time. We met a French tourist who was visiting Hampi for the second time, the first time being 10 years ago when he was just a young man eager to travel and see the world. Now he was much older, and had a family. He was excitedly exploring the city again to see what had changed, if anything and to relive the adventures of his youth. Atop a bicycle, he was going from site to site and planned on staying in the bazaar area for at least 2 weeks. When we told him were were going to be there for just a day, he nodded his head sadly, feeling our loss.

Massive stone statue of Lakshmi-Narasimha – A 10+ foot statue carved out of one stone!

After Virupaksha and Hemakuta, we made our way to the other must-see spots in Hampi. One of the most impressive was this 10+ foot statue of Narasimha, carved out of solid stone. This was a massive sculpture and the life-like details were mindblowing. The eyes, the expression, the deity’s seated pose, everything was carved out of one stone and this deity had Goddess Laksmi seated on his left leg, but her statue had been destroyed, probably hacked away by the Mughal invaders, who also destroyed the faces of many of the gods and goddesses carved into the walls of temples to prevent people from doing blasphemous things like idol worship.

Exquisitely carved, stone comes to life.

Signs of this type of destruction is all around, beautiful statues with faces missing, exquisitely peaceful smiles wiped away, now expressionless and mute as wars with the invaders raged on, empires rose and sank around them. But not all were subjected to such a fate. There are still many, which are thankfully intact, which a thousand hands since have touched, but not to destroy … only to caress and feel the cool granite moulded into fine details, to marvel at the lovingly created intricacies of each carving.

To touch the stone and run your fingers over each painstakingly carved detail is to reach back in time

We left the best for the last – the Vittala Temple which is said to have the best carvings and sculptures in all of Hampi. We hiked up to the temple, stopping by at several Pushkarni’s (structures created in the ground to hold water, possibly for royal baths and other purification purposes), and a temple with horses carved out of the pillars (Kudremukh – Horses face). At the Vittala temple, two things took our breath away. The ornate musical pillars and the world famous stone chariot.

Musical pillars inside the Vittala Temple

The ornate musical pillars of the Vittala Temple, are very famous and a must-see in Hampi. The stone has a property such that tapping gently on the stone pillars produces musical notes which are clearly audible .. one can play Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-Da-Ni-Sa ! These are pretty amazing to tap and listen to! Emitting musical notes is a property of the stone, not of the size or shape of the pillar carvings actually. When tapped gently, the stone in the shape of the pillar resonates and one can hear musical notes … Here’s a video of it in action –

The royal stone chariot is another marvelous piece, which is practically the mascot image of Hampi. This famed structure, carved all out of one big stone for the main chamber, and several others to make the wheels, axle – all out of stone, stands in the middle of the temple courtyard, occupying prime location. We had to wait 10-15mins for tourists who had come before us to finish taking their photos and gape spellbound at the chariot, before we could have a couple mins with it to ourselves. On close-up view, the level of detail and carving on the stone chariot, is just breathtaking. And this chariot MOVES! In ancient times, it was used to actually host the deity in the main chamber, along with the priest who would be chanting hymns for the well being of the devotees, and possibly a lot of devotees or perhaps elephants would pull the chariot forward, to go around the temple in an act of devotion and prayer. We couldn’t keep our eyes off of this glowing stone beauty. After several attempts, we were finally able to drag ourselves away from the chariot and walk around the temple courtyard, admiring all the other splendid architecture.

After spending a whole day exploring countless temples, spellbound at all the beautiful carvings and sculptures made out of solid stone, imagining what it must have been like at this bustling city at the height of it’s richness and grandeur, with hundreds of artisans, artists and sculptors carving away at these huge boulders to create what we are lucky to be able to still see and touch today – Hampi was an absolutely amazing and memorable experience. We will be back and for a longer time, maybe even get one of those bicycles like the French traveler, and spend a week in this magnificent place, soaking up a bit of our own history!


From → Hampi, India, Photography

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