Royal Hampi is almost synonymous with Krishna Deva Raya, Vijayanagara Empire‘s best known king, who ruled from 1509–1529. Though there were many kings before him and a few after, most people associate everything with the Empire to Krishna Deva Raya. Lokesh, our local tour guide, was no exception—after a general introduction to Hampi and the Vijayanagara Empire, all his stories began and ended with Krishna Deva Raya!
Royal Hampi is instantly distinguishable from the other ruins at Hampi, largely due the different design elements used (for example, the Indo-Islamic architectural style of the Queen’s Bath), the delicate embellishment (for example, the Lotus Mahal), and of course, the royal size (for example, the Mahanavami Dibba).
When our group disembarked at the Royal Enclosure from our vehicles, I don’t think many of us were sure as to what we were going to see beyond a high wall in front of us and some large blocks of stones lying here and there. As our group gathered around Lokesh for his orientation talk to the Royal Enclosure, none of us paid much attention to those blocks of stones. I was too busy looking around here, there, everywhere—except at my feet, which were just inches away from the massive “block of stone” shown in the picture below.
Where do I begin writing about Hampi—its many stories and histories, its kings and legends, its glorious past and ultimate ruin, its temples and other monuments, and its present day avatar. At the beginning, of course !
By Hampi (which is situated on the banks of the river Tungabhadra), I not only mean present day Hampi, but also the region around it.
Many millennia ago, the area was called Kishkinda or Kishkindanagari. This was the kingdom of the vanarVali and later his brother Sugreeva, and home to the vanars who formed the bulk of Rama’s army in his battle against Ravana in the Ramayana. Anegundi, the birthplace of Hanuman, is also located in this area. Anegundi was the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, before it was shifted to Hampi. One can still see the remains of old stone bridge connecting the old and new capitals.
A drive through sleepy hamlets, lush green fields and the village of Aihole (pronounced I-ho-lay), brought us to another heritage temple site dating from around the 5th century.
Known as Aryapura in ancient times, Aihole occupies a unique place in the history of temple architecture in India. It was the site for experimenting with different temple-building styles by the early Chalukyan kings from AD 450 to 750. This experimentation began in Aihole, continued at Badami and finally culminated at Pattadakal. Our guide told us that the ruins of a temple, probably dating back to pre-Chalukyan times, had been recently excavated in Aihole. The present-day village settlement and agricultural lands were coming in the way of a full-scale excavation.
There are around 120 temples of varying styles and sizes in Aihole (all built from the same local red sandstone). I tried to imagine 120 temples, each with a unique architecture and failed. But I could imagine the whole area being turned into an architectural laboratory or a workshop, with architects and sculptors being invited over and given a site for constructing a temple. Just imagining the creative buzz in the area was enough to give me a high! Unfortunately, our group had the time to visit only one site, which had about 4 temples of such varying styles that it was astonishing and gave a glimpse into the kind of experimenting that was promoted and encouraged.
The Ganges or the River Ganga is considered to be holy to Hindus. And in Varanasi or Benares, the Ganga is considered to be at its holiest. Do you know why? It is because the Ganga’s flow is uttarabhimukhi or from South to North there, as against the usual West to East, or the less common East to West. I learnt about this piece of trivia when I visited Pattadakal.
Pattadakal is a small village in North Karnataka, situated on the banks of the river Malaprabha. It is a rather unremarkable looking, dusty village, made remarkable for one thing—the Malaprabha is also uttarabhimukhi here. This unique feature was considered an auspicious sign by the rulers of the Chalukya dynasty, thereby singling it out for royal attention.
And what an attention Pattadakal got ! The Chalukya Kings chose Pattadakal as the site for their coronation ceremonies. Being lovers of art and culture, they also chose Pattadakal as the site for building a unique temple complex that would blend the architectural and artistic traits of the northern and southern styles of temple-building that was in vogue in the 8th century. Eight temples were built on one site as a group, while two other temples were built some distance away in Pattadakal. This group of monuments at Pattadakal are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The two Bhootnatha Temples of Badami are located in one of the most picturesque settings that I have seen in my travels. In the photograph below, the Agastya Teertha or lake is spread out with the Bhootnatha Temple on the eastern bank visible somewhere near the centre of the photograph. Though I had seen pictures of the Agastya Teertha and the Bhootnatha Temple in a similar setting, the feeling of “Wow” is quite different when you see it yourself, than the “Wow” you feel when you see a photograph.
The Bhootnatha Temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva—Shiva in the form of the God of souls, spirits and ghosts. Built out of red sandstone probably sourced from the surrounding hills, the two temples are placed opposite one another at the eastern and western banks of the Agastya Teertha. The approach to the Agastya Teertha and the Bhootnatha Temples from Badami Caves is via a narrow and winding path that passes through a village.
It was around 5 pm when we arrived at the banks of the Agastya Teertha. From there we could see both the Bhootnatha Temples. The sun, which had been playing hide and seek with the clouds and us the whole afternoon, came out for a brief while. Almost on cue, the strains of a shehnai began, probably played from western Bhootnatha temple. The strains soon grew louder and discernible as Raga Sarang.
The first time I heard about Badami was in my undergraduate Geology class nearly 20 years back. It was a class on the Geological Time Scale and we were being shown slides from various parts of India and the world as examples of different geological time periods. I still remember the Badami slide from that class—the sheer red sandstone cliffs, silhouetted against a deep blue sky. It was love at first sight.
At that time I had absolutely no idea that Badami was also the location of rock-cut cave-temples dating from the 6th century. I got to know about this only a couple of years back, when one of my brothers visited the cave-temples of Badami and shared his photographs. Now, it was love at second sight!
When the opportunity to visit Badami, along with other heritage places in North Karnataka, as part of an organised tour group came up, I grabbed it with both hands. I applied for leave from work a full month in advance, juggled deadlines, prayed hard, etc., etc.
Bijapur was our first halt and after an overnight stay in that town, we left early next morning for Badami, with a short halt at the Almatti Dam Gardens. By noon, the red sandstone cliffs of Badami appeared in the horizon. There is an interesting reason as to how Badami got its name. Someone in the historical or mythological past, and I don’t know who, felt that the red stones were the colour of badam or almonds. And hence, the name!