Among a surreal landscape of golden-brown boulders and leafy banana fields, the ruined “City of Victory,” Vijayanagar, better known as HAMPI (the name of the main local village), spills from the south bank of the River Tungabhadra.
This once dazzling Hindu capital was devastated by a six-month Muslim siege in the second half of the sixteenth century. Only stone, brick and stucco structures survived the ensuing sack – monolithic deities, crumbling houses and abandoned temples dominated by towering gopuras – as well as the sophisticated irrigation system that channelled water to huge tanks and temples.
Thus, most of Hampi’s monuments are in disappointingly poor shape, appearing a lot older than their four or five hundred years. Sadly, a misguided government plan to turn the whole area into a sterile heritage enclosure (see Sacrilege in a sacred setting) has started to devastate the core area of Hampi Bazaar as well. Yet, at least for the time being, the serene riverside setting and air of magic that still lingers over the site, sacred for centuries before a city was founded here, make it one of India’s most extraordinary locations. Many find it difficult to leave and spend weeks chilling out in cafés, wandering to whitewashed hilltop temples and gazing at the spectacular sunsets.
Although spread over 26 square kilometres, the ruins of Vijayanagar are mostly concentrated in two distinct groups: the first lies in and around Hampi Bazaar and the nearby riverside area, encompassing the city’s most sacred enclave of temples and ghats; the second centres on the royal enclosure – 3km south of the river, just northwest of Kamalapuram village – which holds the remains of palaces, pavilions, elephant stables, guardhouses and temples. Between the two stretches a long boulder-choked hill and scores of banana plantations, fed by ancient irrigation canals.
According to the Ramayana, the settlement began its days as Kishkinda, ruled by the monkey kings Bali and Sugriva and their ambassador, Hanuman. The unpredictably placed rocks – some balanced in perilous arches, others heaped in colossal, hill-sized piles – are said to have been flung down by their armies in a show of strength.
The rise of the Vijayanagar empire seems to have been a direct response, in the first half of the fourteenth century, to the expansionist aims of Muslims from the north, most notably Malik Kafur and Mohammed-bin-Tughluq. Two Hindu brothers from Andhra Pradesh, Harihara and Bukka, who had been employed as treasury officers in Kampila, 19km east of Hampi, were captured by the Tughluqs and taken to Delhi, where they supposedly converted to Islam. Assuming them to be suitably tamed, the Delhi sultan despatched them to quell civil disorder in Kampila, which they duly did, only to abandon both Islam and allegiance to Delhi shortly afterwards, preferring to establish their own independent Hindu kingdom. Within a few years they controlled vast tracts of land from coast to coast. In 1343 their new capital, Vijayanagar, was founded on the southern banks of the River Tungabhadra, a location long considered to be sacred by Hindus. The city’s most glorious period was under the reign of Krishna Deva Raya (1509–29), when it enjoyed a near monopoly of the lucrative trade in Arabian horses and Indian spices passing through the coastal ports and was the most powerful Hindu capital in the Deccan. Travellers such as the Portuguese chronicler Domingo Paez, who stayed for two years after 1520, were astonished by its size and wealth, telling tales of markets full of silk and precious gems, bejewelled courtesans, ornate palaces and fantastic festivities.
Thanks to its natural features and massive fortifications, Vijayanagar was virtually impregnable. Yet in 1565, following his interference in the affairs of local Muslim sultanates, the regent Rama Raya was drawn into a battle with a confederacy of Muslim forces to the north and ultimately defeated. Rama Raya was captured and suffered a grisly death at the hands of the sultan of Ahmadnagar. Vijayanagar then fell victim to a series of destructive raids, and its days of splendour were brought to an abrupt end.