Hampi: Pride of the Vijayanagara Empire



Sit atop Matanga Hill at Hampi and gaze at the beautiful, fractured landscape below. As your eyes grow accustomed to the oddly-shaped granite boulders that blanket the plains, you begin to pick out temples, tanks, towers, palaces, markets and myriad other structures that rise out of the giant rocks scattered across the countryside as far as the eye can see. At dusk, the dying rays of the sun turn rose gold into a golden rust and then grey, before the sun sets on the erstwhile capital city of the Vijayanagara Empire, just as it did, one last time, around 450 years ago.

Hampi is located in Bellary district of Karnataka, on the south bank of the Tungabhadra River. After this grand and prosperous capital city came to an abrupt end in 1565 CE, the empire lingered elsewhere, its eventual fall in the 17th century signalling the end of a golden era. Leading one of Southern India’s greatest empires, the Vijayanagara kings had turned Hampi into one of India’s richest medieval-era cities, which attracted traders from as far as Persia and Portugal. For over 200 years, these kings ruled much of South India till their capital at Hampi was sacked and abandoned in 1565 CE.

Boulder strewn landscape of Hampi
Boulder strewn landscape of Hampi|Wikimedia Commons

Why was this empire so successful and what is its story?

Early History

Hampi is said to derive its name from ‘Pampa’, a local folk deity who is believed to have sat on the hills here in meditation, in pursuit of Shiva who she wanted to marry. According to legend, she did marry Shiva, who is locally known as ‘Pampapati’, or the ‘husband of Pampa’.

Interestingly, on the other side of the Tungabhadra River lies the village of Anegundi, identified as ‘Kishkindha’ or the ‘kingdom of Bali’, the monkey king of the Ramayana. This is said to be the birthplace of Hanuman, a deity worshiped across India, and there is a temple dedicated to him atop a hill in the village. Anegundi was the first capital of the Vijayanagara Empire for a short while before it was shifted to Hampi.

Ashoka’s rock edicts have been found in Bellary district of Karnataka, indicating that the region was part of the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BCE. After this, the territory came under various dynasties such as the Kadambas (4th-6th Century CE) Chalukyas of Badami (6th Century CE), Rashtrakutas (8th Century CE), Hoysalas (11th Century CE) and Yadavas (12th Century CE).

In the early 14th century, peninsular India was invaded by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate, particularly those of Alauddin Khilji and Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The local rulers were defeated and the region remained under the Sultanate’s control for 20-30 years.

In 1347 CE, in his revolt against Tughlaq, a military general from Badakhshan (in present-day Afghanistan), Alauddin Bahman Shah, established the Bahmani Sultanate in the Deccan. It later split into five different dynasties, namely Ahmednagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda, together called the Deccan Sultanate.

But in the deeper south in Karnataka, five brothers managed to seize control. Two of them, Harihara I and Bukka Raya I, founded the Sangama dynasty (1336-1485) in Central Karnataka. This was the first in a series of four dynasties that ruled the Vijayanagara Empire, starting circa 1336. The other three dynasties were the Saluva (1485-1505), Tuluva (1491-1570) and Aravidu (1542-1646). All four dynasties, over the years, brought the whole of southern India under their control.

The reasons for the empire’s success were many, not least of which was the protection it provided against invasions from the Muslim Sultanates of North India. It leveraged the growth in the trade network at the time, benefitted from the excellent diplomatic and administrative skills of its kings, and encouraged art, architecture and literature to thrive.

Map of Hampi published in 1820
Map of Hampi published in 1820|Wikimedia Commons

Dawn of an Empire

As the Vijayanagara Empire prospered, its capital Hampi grew into a grand city with forts, palaces, temples, farms and markets. There was trade with Persian and European cities through the ports of Mangalore, Barkur, Bhatkal and Honavar. In 1441, Timurid ruler Shah Rukh of Persia sent Abdur Razzaq as an emissary to Vijayanagara. In his travelogue, he writes that the “city is built in such a manner that seven citadels and the same number of walls enclose each other”. Of the renowned Vijayanagara bazaars, he wrote, “each class of men belonging to each profession has shops contiguous, one to the other; the jewellers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds”.

Two of the many Kannada inscriptions at Hampi
Two of the many Kannada inscriptions at Hampi|Wikimedia Commons

Portuguese trader Domingo Paes, who visited Hampi around 1520, writes that it was a bustling city comparable to Rome, with abundant vegetation, aqueducts and artificial lakes. His visit coincided with a boom in infrastructural development at Hampi, under its greatest and most famous king, Krishnadeva Raya (r. 1509–1529).

With wealth and prosperity, art and architecture flourished and evolved into its own unique style here. In fact, in the buildings of Hampi, you can see Buddhist, Jain, Islamic and Hindu elements, showing the influence of a mixed culture. The magnificent and elaborate structures here were built across 200 years and can be divided into civil, military and religious, spread over 4,100 hectares.

Queen’s Bath
Queen’s Bath|Wikimedia Commons

Civil Monuments

The civil monuments, like the palaces and mansions, unfortunately, faced enemy wrath and there is barely anything left, except for a few stone basements. The surviving civil buildings include the Queen’s Bath. It is a large, square structure with a plain exterior and an ornate interior. There are decorated corridors with projecting balconies, the inner arches of which have Indo-Islamic influences. There’s also a Lotus Mahal, where water circulation was designed to cool the air during summer.

Lotus Mahal
Lotus Mahal|Wikimedia Commons

But among the most impressive courtly structures at Hampi is the Gajashala or the elephant stables. They comprise 11 large stalls with lofty, domed roofs.

Elephant stables
Elephant stables|Wikimedia Commons

There are also ruins of a celebratory platform called the Mahanavami Dibba, a very rare structure in India. The two lower levels are made of granite and have reliefs of marching animals including elephants, horses and camels.

Mahanavami Dibba
Mahanavami Dibba|Wikimedia Commons

Reliefs on the south side show musicians and dancers, including female stick-dancers. The third-level reliefs show a battle procession, couples and scenes of common citizens celebrating Holi (Vasantotsava) by throwing water at each other.

One of the watchtowers
One of the watchtowers|Sriharsha

Military Monuments

Of the extant military fortifications at Hampi, the most fascinating are the massive walls, watchtowers and strong gateways, ornately embellished and high enough to enable elephants to pass through. The walls have plenty of reliefs of Hanuman or Bheem.

Religious Monuments

Of the religious architecture at Hampi, the bulk of the temple complexes belong to the Vijayanagara period and style, but a small number dates back to earlier times. These monuments are found side by side with later structures, and offer a valuable contrast.

Temples of Hemakuta hill
Temples of Hemakuta hill|Wikimedia commons

Most of these early structures are the Jain temples on the Hemakuta hill. Immediately to the north of this hill is Hampi’s most-visited Virupaksha or Pampapati temple, which is still in use.

Virupaksha Temple
Virupaksha Temple|Wikimedia commons

Virupaksha, a form of Shiva, was the tutelary deity of the royal family. The temple has a 160-foot-high gopuram (entrance tower). But the must-see of this temple is the ranga-mandapa and its ceiling, which boasts some of the original Vijayanagara paintings.

Vijayanagara paintings on the ceiling
Vijayanagara paintings on the ceiling|Wikimedia Commons

The figures depicted include Vishnu Dashavatars and Arjuna shooting the matsya-yantra to win the hand of Draupadi. The temple complex also has segments of Durga, Shiva and Pampa Devi temples that go back to the 11th century CE.

Achyutaraya temple complex
Achyutaraya temple complex|Wikimedia Commons

One kilometre east of Virupaksha lies the Achyutaraya temple complex dedicated to Vishnu. The temple gateway shows the Vijayanagara dynastic emblems – a boar from Varaha, a sword, the sun and the moon.

The most magnificent of the temple complexes at Hampi is the Vitthala temple. The main shrine was built as early as 1505 CE.

Garuda chariot and Vitthala temple entrance
Garuda chariot and Vitthala temple entrance|Wikimedia Commons

The stone chariot in the complex, which is dedicated to Garuda, has become virtually synonymous with Hampi. The mandapa in the complex has 56 carved stone beams of different diametres, shapes, lengths and surface finishes that produce musical sounds when struck. Interestingly, recent excavations in its vicinity found Neolithic, handmade pottery.

Hazara Rama Temple
Hazara Rama Temple|Wikimedia Commons

The most ornate temple is the Hazara Rama temple, which has extensive artwork on both inner and outer walls depicting scenes from the Ramayana.

One of the Ramayana panels
One of the Ramayana panels|Wikimedia Commons

The black polished stone pillars in the hall have well-chiselled bas-reliefs of Ganesha, Mahishamardini, Hanuman and many avatars of Vishnu.

Black polished stone pillars at Hazara Rama temple
Black polished stone pillars at Hazara Rama temple|Wikimedia Commons
Bala Krishna temple
Bala Krishna temple|Wikimedia Commons

The Krishna Temple has an inscription of Krishnadeva Raya, dated to 1513 CE, recording that an image of Bala-Krishna, which he had brought from a temple in Udayagiri during his Odisha campaign, was enshrined in this complex. However, the image is not at the Chennai Museum. One of the sub-shrines in this complex is of Subrahmanya seated on a peacock. The presence of a Subrahmanya shrine in a Krishna temple is unique.

Statue of Narasimha
Statue of Narasimha|Wikimedia Commons

The same king also commissioned the famous monolithic Lakshmi Narasimha statue in 1528, which can be found among the ruins at Hampi. The deity is seated below a makara-torana and there is a seven-hooded snake above the head.

Pushkarni, Hampi
Pushkarni, Hampi|Wikimedia Commons

Not very far is a large Pushkarni or a public utility, stepped water tank with an artistic pavilion in its centre. There’s also an intriguing underground Shiva temple with a Linga, but it remains mostly flooded. There are also two monolithic Ganesha statues called Kadalekalu (Bengal gram) Ganesha and Sasivekalu (mustard seed) Ganesha. They are thus named based on the shape of his belly.

Ganagitti Jain temple
Ganagitti Jain temple|Wikimedia Commons

Besides the Hindu temple complexes, there are also Jain shrines. The Ganagitti Jain temple can be dated to 1385 and is dedicated to the 17th Tirthankara, Kunthunatha. In front of it is a monolithic lamp pillar. An inscription here states that the temple was built in 1385 by Iruga, the minister of Bukka II, during the reign of Harihara II.

King’s Balance
King’s Balance|Wikimedia Commons

The other notable structures at Hampi include what is popularly known as the King’s Balance. It is believed to be a tulapurusha-dana for weighing the king against precious gems and metals during auspicious occasions like a coronation. One of the pillars has a bas-relief depicting a king and two queens. There are also remnants of a 14th century stone bridge laid across the Tungabhadra River by Kampabhupa, brother of King Harihara II.

The Fall of Hampi

The golden age of Hampi was between 1360 CE and 1560 CE. But through this period, there were continuous conflicts between the Vijayanagara Rayas and the Deccan Sultans. The Rayas successfully managed to keep the Sultans at bay for many years, fighting each of them individually. Finally, in the decisive Battle of Talikota, which was fought 200 km north of Hampi, the Vijayanagara army under Aliya Rama Raya was defeated by an alliance of the Deccan Sultans in 1565 CE. Victorious, the enemy armies stormed Hampi and the Vijayanagara Empire’s most glorious city was sacked and destroyed. It is said that the city burnt for six months after the war.

On hearing of the defeat, Aliya Rama Raya’s brother, Tirumala Deva Raya, the Regent, fled with a small contingent and it is said that the wealth from the treasury was taken to the town of Penukonda, in Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh, not far from present-day Bengaluru, where he also died. After Penukonda, the remaining royals decided that the capital should shift further south, where it would be relatively safe from invaders. Thus, in 1596 CE, Chandragiri, in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, became the new capital and a part of the grand Vijayanagara Empire continued to exist for another 81 years.

One of the many markets of medieval Hampi
One of the many markets of medieval Hampi|Wikimedia Commons

But Hampi remained abandoned and in ruins. Later, treasure seekers and vandals further sacked the city. Holding the ruins of more than 1,000 structures, Hampi was rediscovered in 1799-1800 by Scottish Colonel and antiquarian Colin Mackenzie (later the First Surveyor General of India), who uncovered it from the dense forest that had concealed it for more than 200 years.

He prepared the first sketch map of Hampi, which is today preserved as a part of a folio in the British Museum. In 1815, Mackenzie had a section in his collection of manuscript materials titled ‘Memoirs for the History of the Beejanugger Government of the Carnatic.’ Soon Hampi was brought under archaeological excavations, each season unearthing new monuments and secrets that wow history enthusiasts and common folk to this day.

Cover Image courtesy: Vinoth Chandar

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