Hampi – Capital of a forgotten Empire.

Can a visit to an archaeological ruins simultaneously make you marvel at the ingenuity of human creativity and lament at the destruction that we can cause due to our bigotry and hatred? If you are looking for such a place –  I would suggest Hampi.  I spent a day amidst the ruins of  Hampi and was deeply impacted by the experience.

Hampi, an UNESCO recognized World Heritage site, is one of the most searched heritage places in India’s tourism itinerary. It is situated in the Bellary district of Karnataka and is about 350 km from Bangalore. The closest city for a tourist to stay and explore Hampi would be Hospet.

Hampi – for the uninitiated, was the capital city of Vijayanagar Empire, which ruled most of southern India between 1336 AD to 1646 AD. The empire was founded by Harihara and Bukka in 1346 AD under the guidance of their teacher Vidyaranya. They named the kingdom in honor of their Teacher and Guide. Vijayanagar was one of the last mighty Indian Empire to have originated in South India. What we are left today as remnants of this glorious empire are the ruins of Hampi. These ruins provide a glimpses into the  pomp and grandeur of the era gone by.

The capital of the Empire  was built on the banks of Tungabadra, which is one of the great rivers that flows through southern India. The capitalwas developed in a rocky yet fertile area. The area offered natural fortifications due to the terrain. The local folklore states that the city was protected by 7 lines of fortification guarded by bastions and gateways. At its peak, the empire boasted an army of over 2 million men.

At its peak, Hampi was one of the richest and largest cities in the world. In the 15th century, it was one of the grandest and biggest cities. At its prime it is estimated that city housed over 500,000 inhabitants making it the second largest city in the world in the medieval era after Beijing. It is believed that this kingdom was so rich that traders used to sell diamonds and gems in bulk from open shops that occupied the street side pavilions that lined up the Bazaar streets of Hampi. Writings of medieval European travelers Domingo Peas, Nicollo Da Conti, local language literature and excavations provide insights about the city and help us to speculate about the richness and wealth that flowed through the city.

Art and architecture flourished in this empire. The temple architecture that evolved during Vijayanagar empire is a vibrant combination of various style of south Indian architecture that flourished under different kingdoms for centuries before the birth of this empire. Few of the stylistic hallmarks of the architecture are the ornate pillared Kalyana Mantapa (marriage hall), Vasantha Mantapa (open pillared halls) and the Raya Gopura (tower). Artisans used the locally available hard granite because of its durability. The architecture is also unique for its monolithic statues of Hindu Gods.  For example, the accompanying snap of the monolithic statue of Narasimha ( Man Lion God as per Hindu Mythology) which is carved out of a single hard granite rock provides us a glimpses into the architectural prowess of the artisans of this empire. Even after the empire disintegrated, Vijayanagar style of art and architecture has continued to influence and inspire the art and architecture of India  thereby embellishing the contribution the empire made towards, art and architecture.

The empire reached its zenith under the rule of Sri Krishnadevaraya who ruled from 1509 to 1530. Krishnadevaraya was  a very able general. It was during his reign the greatest military successes of the empire were achieved.  He was also a noted poet, connoisseur of art and architecture. He built the town of Nagalapura and wrote ÄmuktaMalyada – one of the famous poems in Telugu literature. His court boasted of “Ashta Diggajas” (Eight elephants) or Eight great poets each of whom have made significant contribution to south Indian literature. One of the more famous poets among these eight was Tenali Ramakrishna, who is still very popular in the local folklore and was known for his wit and out of the box thinking.

The key blow to the empire was struck during the battle of Talikota that was fought around the plains of RakkasaTangadi in 1565 AD. The battle that is believed to have involved over a million men was fought between the Vijayanagar empire and the Deccan sultanates. As the story goes, Vijayanagar empire lost the battle from verge of imminent victory. There have been many reasons propounded for this shocking defeat. These range from Palace intrigue to betrayal by key commanders at critical juncture. But there is one interesting trivia about this battle – this was probably one of the last big battles where in War elephants were used in large numbers (by the Vijayanagar empire). This battle conclusively demonstrated the superiority of a faster cavalry (consisting of fast Persian horses used by the Deccan sultanate) that outflanked the more powerful but slow elephants brigades. This proved to be one of the decisive factor in the battle.

After the battle, the Deccan sultanates invaded the city. It is believed that it took them six months to plunder the city before setting it on fire. Robert Sewell, in his book The Forgotten Empire, concludes thus – “With fire and sword, with crowbars and axes, they carried on day after day their work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged, and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description”.

Personally, it was a very humbling experience to stand amidst the ruins of  what was once one of the greatest cities on earth. As I stood on the courtyard of Vijaya Vittala temple, admiring the carvings on the stone chariot and spellbound the music generated by the pillars adorning the temple corridors ,  I could not help but marvel about what creative abilities can create and simultaneously lament at the destruction we can inflict when we are overtaken by senseless hatred.  What is disheartening to note is that even after of centuries, we have not changed much.

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