I think about these words often, a quip that stuck with me from my very first art history course. We were studying architecture found at Hampi, the opulent and glamorous capital city of the Vijayanagara kingdom, when Professor Kerin noted that even the less ornate temples were making a political statement—perhaps to throw off invaders who wouldn’t bother looking in understated places? As an example, she showed slides of the Hazara Rama Temple, found in the royal sector of Hampi. Since that class period—almost four years ago—I’ve been planning to see the Hazara Rama temple and the entirety of Hampi in person.
Unfortunately, Hampi isn’t the easiest place to travel to—it’s a half-day’s train journey from Bangalore, which is the closest big city to fly into. Otherwise, it is well connected by bus and train but the journey can be a long one. I recruited my grandpa for the trip and we both took a night train from Hyderabad to Bellary, a mid-sized city just an hour’s drive away from Hampi. A fair amount of my maternal family lives in Bellary so along with some sightseeing, I got to spend time with my aunts and cousins and even met my new niece who had just turned 6 days old!
We left Bellary before dawn and arrived to see the sunrise over the majestic Virupaksha temple. The temple is one of two major temples (the other being the Vitthala temple) that were regularly used by the Vijayanagara public.
After having darshan, tata and I decided to hike the 3 km or so to the Vitthala temple—over the course of the day, we walked over 15 km and I was beyond impressed at tatagaru’s ability to keep up. Despite being 81 years old, he can hike up a storm. The Vitthala temple complex was magnificent—one of the most picturesque locations in the entire city. We ended up joining up with a solo traveler, Kumar, who knew a fair bit of history and geography and talked to us about how in ancient times, Hampi was none other than the region of Kishkindya from the Ramayana.
Because of Kumar’s interests, we ended up adding a few places to our tour that have links to the mythical Kishkindya: the Malyavanta Raghunatha temple (where Ram and Lakshman are said to have taken shelter during the monsoon), Mathanga hills (where Sabari’s guru Mathanga used to meditate, etc. These connections were incredibly interesting—and relevant to my research. The concept of sacred geography (conflating space with myth and religion) is a complicated one as it’s hard to understand whether rulers were truly aware of the historical significance of a place or were simply creating political legitimacy by creating a visible link—usually through temple building—to ancient kingdoms and powerful gods.
Some of my favorite places that we visited during the day included: the Queen’s bath, a beautiful structure with underground water supply, the Lotus Mahal, one of the purest examples of Indo-Islamic hybrid architecture, the massive royal elephant stables, and of course, the Hazara Rama temple. The fact that all these structures were constructed in permanent materials speaks to the economic clout of the empire and the fusion of styles and the different religious structures present (Jain temples, mosques, etc.) shows how Hampi really was a cosmopolitan city. In accounts from foreign diplomats of the age, it is noted that Hampi is magnificent. An account from Domingo Paes, a Portuguese man who visited Hampi in 1520 CE reads, “In this city you will find men belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it has…”
Hampi holds a special place in my heart because of King Krishnadevaraya who is said to be one of the most benevolent and courageous kings in Indian history. He also happens to be Telugu (it’s actually an ongoing debate whether he was Telugu or Kannadiga—but he did patronize a lot of Telugu literature and usually had temple inscriptions carved in Telugu as well). While I love studying about the Mughals and Rajput kingdoms, I experienced a fair amount of Telugu and South Indian pride while in the city.
An incredible place and definitely worth a visit—I know that I’ll have to come back to Hampi someday.