Hampi: Where mythology, history and today coexist

Vali and Sugreeva. Relief at the Hazara Rama Temple, Hampi

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 vanar Vali 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 RamayanaAnegundi, 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.

Remains of the bridge across the Tungabhadra connecting the old capital, Anegundi, and the new capital, Hampi, of Vijayanagara

Hampi was also home to the composer, Purandara Dasa (1484-1564), widely regarded as the father of Carnatic Music. He travelled extensively throughout the Vijayanagara Empire composing and singing songs in praise of Krishna, and spent the last years of his life at Hampi, singing every evening at the banks of the Tungabhadra. A pavilion/hall, called the Purandara Dasa Mandapa, has been built at the spot where he used to sing. Unfortunately, the Mandapa was under the waters of the Tungabhadra when our tour group visited the place, with only the top of the Mandapa peeking out of the river (see the photo below).

The Tungabhadra River at Hampi. The submerged structure in the picture is the Purandara Dasa Mandapa. Anegundi is across the river--the hill in the background in Anjaneyadri, the hilltop where Hanuman was born.

But what defines Hampi today and what makes it a UNESCO World Heritage site is the ruins of the erstwhile Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1646), which unified the whole of Southern India under its rule. Four dynasties ruled the Vijayanagara Empire over these 300 years. Founded by two brothers, Harihara and Bukka of the Sangama Dynasty (1336-1485), they were followed by rulers from the Saluva Dynasty (1485-1505), the Tuluva Dynasty (1505-1570), and the Aravidu Dynasty (1570-1646). Krishnadeva Raya is, arguably, the best known ruler from this Empire. And why not? Under his rule (1509-1529), the Empire reached its zenith in all fields—arts, culture, good governance, trade, foreign relations and successful military campaigns. Hampi was the capital and the showpiece of the Empire.

Typical landscape at Hampi: ruins and granitic hills
Rock-cut steps on a hill at Hampi

Much of what we know about the Vijayanagara Empire and its rulers, today, come via Kannada inscriptions and accounts of travellers like Domingo Paes, who visited Hampi in 1520. These accounts have extolled the beauty and grandeur of Hampi’s temples, its thriving art and cultural scene, the benevolence and justness of its rulers, as well as the facilities for the citizens of the Empire. Hampi was also an important trading centre for horses, elephants, and precious stones with traders coming from as far as Portugal, Persia and Arabia.

The Krishna Bazaar at Hampi used to trade in precious stones

But this prosperity was not to last for long. The Vijayanagara Empire was a barrier to the expansion of Islāmic rule to the southern parts of India, largely because of the might of the Empire and partly because the various Islāmic kingdoms were too busy fighting each other. But by the mid-1500s, the Ahmednagar, Bidar, Bijapur and the Golconda kingdoms—collectively known as the Deccan Sultanates—had stopped warring with one another and united with a single goal in mind: to destroy the Vijayanagara Empire.

On January 26, 1565, the mighty Vijayanagara Empire was routed by the collective and united armies of the Deccan Sultanates. The Battle of Talikota, as it came to be known, resulted in complete victory for the Sultanates and death of the Vijayanagara ruler, Achyuta Raja. What followed then was the pillaging, plundering and burning of the Vijayanagara kingdom in general, and Hampi in particular. I fail to understand how the very same Sultanates, which built such outstanding examples of Islāmic architecture in their kingdoms (eg. Bijapur), could deface such beautiful monuments. The temples, in particular, bore the brunt of the destruction. Every temple was broken into, its carvings defaced, the main deity destroyed completely or taken away, the gold and jewellery looted… Some reports mention that the looting and pillaging continued for 6 months!

Today, Hampi is full of ruins of temples and other monuments. The exact number of such temples varies depending on the source. Some say 23, some say 40, some say 25… When asked, our guide said crisply, “Many.” That certainly went a long way to put an end to the speculation about the number of temple ruins in Hampi!

The burnt entrance tower to the Krishna Temple

Most temples were set to fire, but since they were built of granite could not be burnt to the ground. Only the temple towers, which were made of brick, suffered structural damage. However, one temple escaped this carnage at Hampi—the Virupaksha Temple, perhaps, the oldest temple in Hampi and which pre-dates the Vijayanagara Empire. Built entirely of granite, the local stone, the imposing and grand entrance tower is nearly 165 feet tall. The Temple enshrines the local deities of Pampapati (Shiva) and Hampamma (Parvati).

Virupaksha Temple, Hampi, as seen from Hemkuta Hill

And why did the Virupaksha Temple not suffer the same fate as other temples in Hampi? According to our guide, there is a sign of a wild boar or varaha, which formed part of the royal emblem of the Vijayanagara Empire, at the entrance to the Temple. For Hindus, the varaha is an avatar of Vishnu, and thereby holy. On the other hand, Muslims consider the boar/pig as an unclean animal, and therefore un-Islamic or haraam. It was this sign, which stopped the Muslim invaders from entering the temple and destroying it.

Sunset at Hampi. View from Hemkuta Hill

Today, picture-perfect Hampi and its imposing monuments or should I say ruins, as well as its mythology and history are a big draw for visitors. Like in the past, Hampi receives hordes of them from all over India and the world to look at the ruins with awe and reverence.

The Virupaksha Temple is at the centre of present-day Hampi, and the Hampi Bazaar outside the Temple has shops selling all manner of Indian kitsch! I wonder what Domingo Paes would have to say about Hampi, were he to visit it today. I wonder what the tourists have to say. I wonder what the stones of Hampi would have to say about their surroundings, if they could speak!

P.S.: This visit was part of a tour organised by Doreen D’Sa of Doe’s Ecotours. She can be contacted at does_ecotours@yahoo.co.in. Our group spent two half days exploring the ruins of Hampi, which can be roughly divided into two parts: Royal Hampi and the Temples of Hampi. Though our organised tour group could not to see all the temple ruins in Hampi, we did see some of the better known and more accessible ones. We breezed through the Badavilinga, Ugra Narasimha, Kadalekalu Ganesha, Hemkuta, and Sasivekalu Ganesha Temples, and spent more time at the Krishna, Virupaksha, Vittala, Hazara Rama, and the Ganigatti Jain Temples. My next few posts explore both the royal and spiritual parts of Hampi. Do come back to read more about Hampi’s ruins.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Read more about my trip to Hampi in the following posts:

6 thoughts on “Hampi: Where mythology, history and today coexist

  1. HAMPI reminded me especially of the history of how a thriving empire who was for the good
    its people of my motherland IRAN-PERSIPOLIS. It was also burnt and destroyed/defaced. Now all remains is ruins, but thousands of tourists visit and marvel at its grandeur like HAMPI.


  2. What a lesson in history. You need to share this with school kids who find it hard to understand why they are studying the subject. I enjoyed lingering over every line, and the photos are awesome indeed. Can i share this post on my wall. History comes alive in your words and the the desire to go see it is rekindled.
    Keep it coming Sudha..loved this one..


  3. Great work Sudha. I have arranged 3 tours to Hampi and about 48 tours in India, but I still have to see such a well written blog. Thanks for the documentation and the photos.

    On my first tour of Hampi in 2006, we walked right up to the Purandara Dasa Mandapa. The next year because of the floods the Mandapa was half covered with the waters of the Tungabhadra and we could not reach it. This year the whole structure was submerged. If you wish I could email you the photo of 2006.

    Keep up the good work Sudha. Such a delight reading your blog



  4. During the battle of Talikote, it was Aliya Rama Raya (the last emperor of Vijayanagara empire) who died and not Achyutha Raya as you’ve mentioned. For more details, you can read Girish Karnad’s historical play – Rakshasa Tangadi which was based on Richard Eaton’s book and Persian historian Shiraaji’s works.


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