Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hampi- Deccan KIngdom ruins still astonishes

Under a blue, blue sky in Karnataka lies a dramatic landscape. The waters of the powerful Tungabadra River flow amid vast grounds scattered with gargantuan boulders of fantastic shapes and sizes. Some lie helter-skelter, as if thrown by giants in playful disarray, some stand poised precariously on other stones, looking as if a puff of wind might topple them, although in reality they are solid, immovable, frozen in time and space.

This is Hampi, erstwhile capital of the once renowned Vijayanegara empire, which held sway in the Deccan from 1336-1565 A. D and whose origins were as sensational as their end. It used to be known as Pampakshetra from Pampa, which was the ancient name of the river.

The kingdom was established by Harihara and Bukka who were originally taken as prisoners by Mohammad Bin Tughlak when he made inroads into the south in search of its fabulous treasures. The two went to Delhi and made their mark on the emperor who then sent them to the south to quell a rebellion.

They took this opportunity to break away and formed the Vijayanegara empire. After almost 300 years of glorious rule, it came to an inglorious end when in 1565 at the battle of Talikota, the Sultans of the Deccan united to raze and ravage the empire. The ruins slumbered in the sun, lost to civilisation for a long time until excavations were undertaken to uncover the grand buildings, vestiges of a once potent kingdom.

Picking my way through the turbulent rocky terrain, I came across many other curious stone formations. There were little cairn-like compositions which I believe were left behind as offerings for prayers for children which were fulfilled. Slabs shaped like banana leaves with depressions for food, much like thalis and a big stone trough for horses and elephants with a hole for drainage were lying around.

The ruins of Hampi are spectacular: the opulent palaces, the magnificent temples, the massive fortifications and the harnessing of the stones for irrigation purposes in the form of aqueducts, drains and tanks which would impress even a modern engineer in terms of foresight and planning. The rulers combined utility with aesthetics as in the stepped tank, with the steps geometrically and arrestingly composed in small pyramids, with each block of stone bearing an inscription in Kannada, detailing its precise location in the scheme of construction.

Writings of foreign visitors in the 15th and 16th centuries describe the numerous canals and huge tanks both for irrigation and for supply of water to the capital. Increased irrigation meant increased revenue meant the wherewithal to make city more beautiful. The main canal is still in use in parts and can be seen flowing through the valley.

Two immense statues have been carved from granite boulders. One is the monolithic Ganesa and the other is Ugranarasimha, the half man-half lion incarnation of Lord Vishnu who emerged from a pillar at dusk to save his devotee Prahlad from the arrogant and evil machinations of his father Hiranyakasipu. Ugranarasimha is seen with Mahalakshmi seated on his lap; unfortunately the statue has been mutilated.

The temples are exquisite in form and execution. My favourite is the Hazara Rama, a rectangular shrine which served as the royal temple. Built mostly by Krishnadeva Raya, it has fine carvings in friezes, and retains a hallowed, mystic aura as it lies dreaming in the sun. There are four black pillars, gleaming with the patina of age and workmanship: they have geometrical squares alternating with cylindrical shafts, all carved.

The pillars of the Vitthala temples are magnificent. The shafts of the columns in the outer facade of the front mantapa, when tapped gently used to emit musical notes, which according to the guides, used to be heard for miles around. Elsewhere pillars are decorated with forms of Narasimha or yalis or dancers with musicians. There is also the celebrated stone chariot in front of this temple. Its stone wheels, shaped like the lotus, used to revolve. It is a miniature ratha.

The Virupaksha temple is impressive with towering gateways. The temple is supposed to have existed before this era and is associated with the goddess Pampa. Legend has it that she did penance here by the river which used to bear her name to win Virupaksha or Siva.

Almost all the major temples have paved courtyards, used as bazaars. The bazaars of Hampi were famous. They had pillared galleries on either side which must have been used as stalls for goods. Travellers write of precious stones such as diamonds, rubies and pearls, cloths of various kinds, fruit and horses : in fact it was a lively thriving bustling city.

Other structures catch the eye. The King’s Balance, in which he weighed against gold and diamonds which were then distributed to the people, the Mahanavami Dibba - a stupendous platform about 5300 square feet rising in a series of sculpted terraces. From here the kingmonarch of all he surveyed as he sat with his foreign guests and favoured nobles to watch the Dasara processions and festivities. The carvings on the walls of the platform are both decorative and droll, as the one of the foreign dignitaries, complete with imposing walrus moustaches.

The zenana enclosure reveals a mix of Islamic and Hindu styles which verifies what one historian says of the Vijayanegara policy. They entered into matrimoniHampi-Karnataka-Tourismal and military alliances with Muslims. Muslim gunners and archers helped in the army while horsemen tamed and trained horses from Arabia, Persia and Portugal. The elephant stables clearly reveal Islamic features in their 11 domed stalls with arched intercommunicating doorways.

Other structures are the queen’s bathing places, plinths of palaces that once stood proud and tall, and the Lotus Mahal, with its arched cusped doorways open to the breezes which cooled the flushed cheeks of the royal ladies who reclined there. It is now forbidden to enter the Lotus Mahal to prevent more desecrating graffiti.

The best way to see Hampi is to walk among the ruins so that there is ample time to not only take in the details of the architecture and ornamentation, but to evoke in the mind the beauty of the life that must have existed here.

For to be in the Hampi ruins especially at sunrise or sunset, when the walls of the buildings catch fire and glow in ethereal pink is to go back in time to the glorious era which is described by the 15th century traveller Abdu-ur-Razza: “The pupil of the eye has never seen a place like this and the ear has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it.”

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