Hampi, the ancient city on the territory of the former capital of Indian region called Vijayanagara, was the milestone of our trip on The Golden Chariot train.
Although it’s included in the UNESCO World Heritage since 1986, it’s not the first travel destination that pops up into your head when you think about India. That’s a pity, because it’s one of the most magical and stunning places in this country.
Now, take a cup of tea and relax. I’m taking you for a walk through the oriental world of Hindu diversity.
We reach the place in the morning, before the biggest afternoon heat. For a few minutes we’re climbing up the slope of once monumental city built among the hills.
It was founded in 1336 on the right bank of Tungabhadra River in a picturesque neighborhood of banana plantations. However, its flourishing period wasn’t long. In the second part of the 16th century it was attacked by the Muslims and destroyed. Only few temples and intricate irrigation systems survived.
However, several unbelievably beautiful buildings remained until today, giving the visitors a glimpse of the Hampi splendor.
Now, try to focus for a moment. Learning the Hindu pantheon of gods and understanding who was with whom, what for and why is quite a challenge. Anyway, let’s try to catch up.
The name Hampi stems from Pampa, an ancient name of Tungabhadra River. However, Pampa is also a daughter of Brahma, the god of creation. She was a devoted worshiper of Shiva, the god of destruction. Being impressed by her devotion, Shiva offered Pampa many blessings and decided to marry her. This place became known as Pampakshetra (the land of Pampa) and Shiva changed the name to Pampapathi (the wife of Pampa). The Hemakuta Hill in Hampi is the place where, according to mythology, Shiva did penance before marrying Pampa.
And here another character appears – Kama, the god of love. He felt sorry for Pampa waiting for Shiva, so he decided to wake Shiva up from a deep meditation he was immersed into. It evoked the wrath of Shiva, it was so great that he decided to burn Kama with his third (fiery) eye.
Rathi, the goddess of passion and the wife of Kama, begged Shiva for mercy and bringing Kama back to life. Shiva showed his mercy and brought Kama back to life, but only as a bodiless spirit.
When it comes to Shiva and Pampa’s marriage, it ended happily. Gods in heaven showered the site of marriage with gold. That’s why the mountain in Hampi is called Heamakuta, which literally means “a pile of gold”.
All these places are of the great religious importance to Indians in South India, especially to Shiva worshipers. It’s also the place of their pilgrimages.
We don’t manage to get down towards the monumental Virupaksha temple, because we get surrounded by a group of beautifully dressed Indian women, inviting us to take a photo with them. It’s the main difference between the south and north of India. People are more open in the latter. They smile, ask who you are and what are you doing in their country. Their attitude is never intrusive. They are willing to meet other human beings. I love such moments and smiles caught in the photos.
The city ruins take up about 26 square kilometers. We travel by bus, but a great idea is to explore the area on a bike.
The Virupaksha temple emerges among the lonely rocks. It’s dedicated to Shiva. It’s the only place in Hampi which is still used and visited by numerous pilgrims from all around India. You can sense the aura of religion and experience it during morning and evening arati prayers. You can have a close look at Hindu rituals, full of flowers and candles.
The temple consists of two baileys. The way there leads through high gopurams – very high, tapering towers divided into many stores which diminish in size as the gopuram tower narrows. They are the entrance to the temple. These gopurams are extraordinary – shining in gold under the blinding sun, overshadowing the rest of the area. They’re almost 50 meters tall and have as many as 11 stores!
We stroll through the baileys, admiring decorated with sculptures columns of mandepa – Hindu sacred building, typical for South India. Some of them have as many as 1000 columns!
Between them there are monkeys having the time of their life. Those animals apparently rule this place. One of them has just stolen an orange from someone’s backpack and ate the stolen trophy just in front of me. The world of people, animals and gods. Everything blends here. It’s diversified and yet creates one coherent reality.
Only a famous Hindu holy cow is missing from this perfect picture. However, before I have a good look around, there is one, entering the temple area. It stands across the entrance, making it impossible to enter or exit the temple. No one dares to rush the animal, so we kindly wait for it to change the position.
In Hinduism, cows are considered holy and they are greatly respected. People respect them because these animals are helpful and important to people – they give milk, work on the fields and their droppings are used as a fuel. Cows are also appreciated because of their gentle nature. They are seen as “guardians” or mothers. Cows are honored in the society and many Indians don’t eat beef. It constitutes the core element of Hinduism, ahimsa – forbidding to hurt animals.
Three kilometers to the southwest of Kamalapuram village, stretches the so-called royal area – palaces, elephant stables, guardhouses and temples.
We stop by the Kodana Rama Temple, which is frequently flooded by the river. Its key element is an enormous monument of Lakshmi Narasimha, probably the best-known symbol of Hampi. Narasimha signifies a half man and half lion and it’s the fourth Vishnu incarnation.
The next site is absolutely amazing: Lotus Mahal or Lotus Palace. The name is derived from the lotus flower that inspired the beautiful shape, arches and balconies. Did I tell you that Hampi is hiding so much of oriental magic?
The architectural style is a combination of Islam and Hinduism styles. And, as it usually happens with cultural blends, the result is mesmerizing.
The purpose of the building isn’t really known. However it’s assumed that it was reserved for the royal family women.
Just behind the palace, there are spectacular and startling royal elephants stables. During the period of Hampi glory, the animals were used for fights. They also underlined the power and prestige of their owner. In fact, elephants are still used during processions, weddings, religious and civil celebrations.
It’s already late afternoon, when we walk to Vittala Temple through a 2-kilometer path that used to be a horse market.
The heat has gone. The light is just perfect. The sun puts some delicate light on empty at this time complex. It looks mysteriously and majestically, in the middle of nowhere. It’s absolutely true that this temple is considered one of the most spectacular buildings in Hampi. Even the location is picturesque, near the bank of Tungabhadra River.
There is also a stone carriage for elephant on the bailey. It’s so immaculately carved, that it seems as if it was made out of one block. However, if you come closer, you can distinguish a few elements perfectly joined together, what is even more astonishing.
The musical pillars inside the temple make another surprise. People played on them by hitting them with wooden blocks. Depending on thickness, the pillars made various sounds.
It’s impossible to imagine how much hard work and time did the people put into creating these buildings. Each of them is truly unique. It seems that even the tiniest detail is carved with incredible fantasy.
Our day ends up with a beautiful sunset over the river. We take our shoes off and dip our feet in the cool water. The sky is a riot of orange shades. The birds twitter around and the swift-flowing stream of the river calms the thoughts.
Understanding Hampi demands the imagination, silence and a moment of reflection.
Exactly the same things are essential after the whole day of exploring this unique city. The place with such a rich and colorful history stimulates your senses. It takes you to a completely different reality. An incredible world of colors, flavors, splendor and bottomless luxury.
It’s definitely one of my favorite places in South India.
*Photo credits: Ministry of Tourism, Govt of India / Jinson Abraham