On Hampi, A Travel Essay
Once the capital city of a thriving empire, this is how Hampi unfolded for me
I got lost in Hampi. A coddled, ruined city in Western India (Karnataka), Hampi was carved into life in the 14th Century, nestled between steep, stone mountains that reach recklessly for the powder blue cosmic ceiling and curled around by the perennially boisterous and unfordable River Tungabhadra. There were, thus, strategic reasons to build, here, the ancient capital city of the Vijayanagara Empire, founded in 1336, with nature protecting it, making it difficult for incursions and impossible for invasions, and a watered land for agriculture to thrive — paddy, banana, sugarcane, chilli. The paddy fields that, even today, grow with charming abandon on both sides of the narrow road — a fresh, bright, licked green when I was visiting — is a breeding ground for flies, which at night, under the harsh, illuminating headlamp of a bike look like beads of glistening light darting towards you. My first night at Anegundi1 — opposite Hampi, this was the Northern outpost of the Vijayanagara Empire, on the other bank of the River Tungabhadra, a thriving village with an ATM today — after a grueling 17-hour train, perched pillion on my friend’s scooty curving along the roads with only the headlamp and the melting moon as guides, I thought those insects were fireflies. But when they whipped against my skin with a pressure unlike the delicate lightness of a firefly, I corrected my assumption and my stance, hiding my face behind my friend’s frame.
There were also cultural, mythical reasons to build an ancient capital city here. This was, it is believed, Kishkinda, the city where monkeys of the epic poem Ramayana lived; where Rama, searching for his abducted wife Sita, meets and enlists the help of the monkey King Sugriva and his army. The caves where events of the mythic epic took place are treated as backdrops of factual relevance, neatly explained in helpful, steel tablets of information outside caves — this was where Sugriva lived in exile; this was where Shabari, the woman who served Rama sweet fruit by first biting into it to check for sweetness, lived; this was where Rama's wife Sita dropped her jewels as she was being abducted, the lashing of her sari as she was taken creating an imprint on the cave that can still be seen today, distinguished by its quartz composition. Outside Shabari’s cave, to which I bicycled in a huff, with a hunch, I met a tired sadhu. He was from Mangalore, a nearby city, where he weathered the pandemic. He was in Hampi for a few weeks, a stopover. He would soon go on to Nepal, but he was worried about his visa. Would he need one, he asked me. He didn’t need tickets to travel on trains, his saffron garbs and one jhola was ticket enough. No inspector or collector ever asked him for tickets, only blessings. He jumps onto and off trains. He had been everywhere, he told me. Chennai? Oh the people were so rude. Calcutta? What lively Mrinal Sen film societies! When I told him I came from Mumbai, he told me that before becoming a sadhu, he tried his luck at the merchant navy like his brother. Rejected, dejected, he did the next best thing he knew. I asked him about his brother. He shrugged his shoulders. He asked me about how the movies are these days. I didn’t know where to begin. He began yawning, a puppy digging into his bag, and I took my leave.
This is a city, I soon realized, where myth melts into facts with an unquestioning ease, you would be a fool to parse them apart. Even the name Hampi is charged with mythic significance. A devout beautiful damsel, Pampa, also the ancient name of the River Tungabhadra, seduced Shiva into betrothal. She became Parvathi, and he become Pampapati — the Lord of Pampa. ‘Hampi’ or ‘Hampe’ is a Kannada form of Pampa.
An architecture student I befriended on a hot afternoon confidently told me, while checking for the pitch of the musical pillars by knocking her rings against those ornate but weathered stone columns at the ruined Achyuta Raya Temple — consecrated in 1534, one of the last grandiose temples of the Vijayanagara empire before its fall — that one of the reasons the Vijayanagara Empire ended, defeated in the 1565 Battle Of Talikota by the Deccan Sultans, leaving Hampi desolate and ruined, was a curse. The head of King Ramaraya was raised on a stake, and the troops of the victorious Sultans knocked heads off shoulders, pushed women and craftsmen into slavery, smashed sculptures, and burnt buildings. Some say the bacchanal lasted 5 months. Some say a year. What it must have felt like, to get up in the morning, every morning, and see before you a city to ruin?
It is fitting that an empire that began mythically in the imagination would end like that too. It is said that Harihara and Bukka, the brothers who founded the Vijayanagara Empire, had seen a hare standing up to and fighting a jackal at Hampi. A place where the soil urges even the weak to stand up against the strong, this must be where the empire begins. And so it began.
You can contradict facts, but how do you contradict convictions? I nodded as the student took me around to a Hanuman temple on the banks of the river where worship is still offered, where the edges of circular yantra of the main temple image is bordered with monkeys eating each other’s tails in an infinite iteration. This temple, Yantrodharaka Anjaneya, is supposed to be where his powers were most potent, the student told me before sending me off to a rocky cliff on the other side, where stones are strewn about, some engraved with 15th Century sculptures, and some with 21st Century debris. It was here that I was lost.
I had walked twenty minutes along the river, from the crowded density of temples to a wilderness of just boulders. Just boulders. Piled one above the other. You could not walk or stroll here. You had to jump, strategically, from one polished stone to the next, making sure you don’t slip and your slipper doesn’t tear. In the cracks between the stones you could sometimes hear hisses. Occasionally a lizard would whip its tale before running away in fear. The sun was lashing hard its noon-light extravagance. Every few minutes, tired, scalded, I would climb the rocks towards the River Tungabhadra and dip my twig dry feet in its cool, eddying waters. It was like thirst being quenched. I couldn’t walk along the river throughout because those rocks were mossy, slippery. I had to keep coming in-land, navigating the dry stones. I was in search of the Kotilinga.
That morning my friend dropped me off on his sputtering bike at a temple before he zoomed off to work, telling me that whatever I saw, I shouldn’t miss the Kotilinga. I trailed through the stone mountains, climbing up, seeing spittles of cactus shooting up from the crevices of rocks, spider webs softly blowing in silken splendour in the early afternoon breeze, and then climbing down the mountain. A long, white hot afternoon lay stretched out ahead of me. I had chanced upon the architecture student, who had shaken some faith into me and then sent me off, and now I was lost. It took me almost an hour to reach this place, where everywhere I look I could only see stones, and through gaps, the bursting river.
It is the first thing you will notice when you enter Hampi. All the granite stone mountains — brown, ochre, grey, pink — that look like they were placed there by some grand architect, polished boulders fitting comfortably into the crevices of other boulders, or piles of rocks that, in the words of a guidebook, “seem to have been thrown down by some primeval cataclysm”. But this was all nature. The granite terrain here is one of the most stable, formed under the Earth’s surface 3-3.5 billion years ago, then pushed up, then weathered down by wind, rain, sun, that make the big boulders look like they are perched precariously, about to fall off, onto your head. But they are secure where they are.
The Kotilinga I was in search of is an elusive thing. My friend told me nothing about it, just that I had to see it. The student, who had been living here for a month told me that it was only after a few visits to the area, that the Kotilinga — literally, a crore Lingas, the penis-shaped symbol of Shiva — showed itself. All these Lingas are carved into the stone floor, and so can’t be seen from a distance. The architect pointed at a bunch of rocks in the great distance and told me, behind those you will find it. There was no one else to guide me. No road marker. After almost an hour, I thought of giving up. I saw a ruined temple on top of the stone deluge and climbed up towards it, wondering perhaps with a top-view I could spot the Kotilinga. I couldn’t.
Instead, I saw this sculpture of Anantashayana, Vishnu resting on his bed of snakes on the cosmic ocean, with his two wives Sridevi and Bhudevi at his feet, and Brahma emerging from a lotus that is tethered to Vishnu’s navel. I was reminded of a folk tale my professor told me, of how before Vishnu would make love to his wife, he would shut the lotus so Brahma, the creator of the world, would curl up into the lotus to give Vishnu the privacy he needed. How old could this sculpture possibly be? Just strewn about, in the middle of nowhere, a sculptural marvel. As I dipped my feet, again, into the cool river, on the other bank I saw a sculpture of a Nandi, the bull of Shiva, nestled between stones.
In the evening, when I told me friend I couldn’t find Kotilinga, he told me that wasn’t the point. It was that feeling of abandoned, unrestrained beauty with bursts of history that he wanted me to see, and most importantly, feel. No guide will tell you to walk this path, strewn with as many falls as hisses. The architect also only found this place when she saw a bunch of local kids smoking weed on a rock. She assumed, this must be Kotilinga. She wasn’t wrong.
I often wonder what to do with history and heritage. What do we get by preserving it the way we preserve it today, by keeping it within manicured lawns, promoting it through well produced ads that energize a churn of tourists who walk around, sometimes bored, sometimes weeping, sometimes like me — both. Hostels and hotels mushroom, heritage rooms with expensive service come up, a boom in local employment selling coconut water, sugarcane juice, soda, cigarettes. In Aihole, a town with 6th Century ruins nearby — to reach which my friend and I had to take four buses, from Gangavati near Hampi to Kushtagi, from Kushtagi to Ilkal, from Ilkal to Amingarh, and from Amingarh, in one of the most rickety kilometers of bad road, finally to Aihole — an autodriver told me how the local heritage hotel was being built by keeping the local villagers out. It was being built for years, refurbishing an old fort, and not a single villager was even allowed to peek inside. Is this part of the preservation project? What are we preserving? For whom? For what? Walking around we would see men and boys sitting around the veranda of these temples which are strewn about, smoking, speaking, or on Sunday mornings we would see women lashing soaped clothes on these rocks. Is living among 6th Century ruins like it were part of your house not another kind of preservation we should cherish and let be?
I wonder, too, 600 years or 1600 years from, when people look back at the 2000s, what will they see? The author Parmesh Shahani had told me about freshlimesoda, a website he had started in the early aughts, and spent years curating and populating. The website is now ether, all the writings on it, disappeared. While trying to help him research his book Queeristan, I tried to get access to these old articles. No luck. They just don’t exist anymore. Imagine if the internet breaks down tomorrow — what will remain? The architect told me that Krishnadevaraya, the most celebrated Vijayangara king, valued stone more than gold. For gold can be melted away, but stone stands through time, even if it stands weathered, it still stands. 600 years later, we’re still visiting it like a tomb to pay our respects.
Architect Rahul Mehrotra often talks about impermanence in architecture as vital. He uses the Kumbh Mela as an example. How every few years, for the mela, an entire city erupts by the banks of the rivers, a temporary city, which after the devotees recede becomes mud and which the monsoons flood into nothingness, to be resurrected again in a few years. This, he finds the clarion call of sustainable architecture. To be willing to not hold onto anything. To create, comfortable with destruction.
The weathering of these monuments added a veneer of poetry to the sculptures one could not have planned for when creating. When I had seen Edward Munch’s The Kiss in the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (MOMA), something within me felt unsettled, invited, moved. The thickness of desire was suddenly palpable — two lovers melting into one in an act of eros. In the temples of Aihole, and nearby Badami and Pattadakkal2 the sculptures of men and women in erotic embrace were often weathered by time. Each feature of theirs, chiseled to perfection in its epoch, lay melting into the stone it was carved out of, and the lovers melting into one another. Unlike Munch, who crafted the melting, here, the sculptor was not just the artist, but time herself. I see a sculpture of a seated Buddha, but his head is cut off, one of his arms missing, his legs crossed, and the cumulative effect was of deep calm. Which author do I praise for this production of serenity?
I often didn’t know what I was grasping at or for. The first two days I was moved by the men standing in Tribhanga — a standing position, used liberally in Odissi dance, where the body bends in one direction at the knees, the other direction at the hips and then the other again at the shoulders and neck. These were masculine gods — not just masculine but fiercely masculine, like Veerabhadra and Bhairava — standing in Tribhanga, often considered feminine. Their hands on their hips. I used to stand like this as a child, a habit that was sucked out of me and ditched over the years, preferring a broad, puffed chest.
Sometimes I would stare at Mahisasuramardhini — the goddess spearing the buffalo demon dead — her face so serene in an act so violent. My friend told me that this was the sculptural greatness, a feature that showed poise, grace, and restraint even in the most violent of acts. That was the ideal. Nonchalance towards life. I saw men and women kissing in sculptures, their body melting away into vines and arabesques that would further melt into the flat polished rock. How many more decades before all of this becomes flat, featureless slabs of stone? Are we the last? Does it matter?
Before taking a bus to Hubbali, from where a bus to Bombay awaited, my friend and I went to Mahakuta, a temple in Badami. We are both convinced we hallucinated what happened next. A marriage was taking place, the Haldi ceremony underway, where not just the bride and groom, but every guest was caked from head to toe in bright yellow turmeric, with a headgear of fragrant flowers. A woman passed by me, the diamond pinprick of light from her nose ring startling me amidst all the yellow. She looked like the portraits of Goddess Amman we had in our home. Big eyes. There was a temple tank, where you give 5 Rupees to get in. The water was warm even the air above it was a frigid winter. We didn’t plan for it, but we dipped. Later, I tried squeezing every drop of water from my underwear before putting it in my bag, worried what the impending hours of travel would do to it. Finally, in Bombay, it smelled sour.
You could travel between Anegundi and Hampi by taking a ferry or a coracle across the river, but since the rains just bloated and flooded the fields and dams, the ferries were not running and you had to take a bus that would wind all around the terrain.
This was how an auto-driver described, rather succinctly, the difference between the architecture of Aihole, Badami, and Pattadakkal, cities in Western India (Karnataka) where the Chalukya Dynasty bloomed into cultural and political prominence between the 6th and 8th Centuries CE — “Aihole … primary school, Badami… secondary,” and after a brief moment to think of how he wants to take this analogy forward, “Pattadakkal… full college!” What began as a series of experiments in temple building — from hacking into the stone mountains carving cave temples to free standing structures with identifiable aesthetics — and sculptures that commenced at Aihole, the commercial center, continued at Badami, the capital of the Chalukyas, and culminated at Pattadakkal, the ceremonial center of the Chalukyas. All of this has been acknowledged by and manifested into manicured lawns and clean toilets by UNESCO’s bestowal of World Heritage Site status on Pattadakkal in 1987.