There 30 sites on the UNESCO world heritage site list (cultural) from India and another 48 on the provisional list. This is just a minuscule of all the heritage sites in India protected by the archaeological survey of India (ASI) and respective state archaeology departments. In a country that is blessed with an abundance heritage sites, what makes Hampi standout? Why should Hampi be on your must visit list? Is Hampi worth seeing? In this article we explore these questions.
Many of India’s glorious cities of the past survive in some form within the modern urban sprawls of today. Sites like Old Delhi, Panjim are good examples of how the new and old parts of cities co-exist. These sites have never been completely abandoned, people have lived and replaced parts of old with the new, these sites have seen continuous change. In India we even have cities like Varanasi or Madurai that have over 2000 years of continuous history. After the raid following the defeat at battle of Talikota in 1565 CE, the medieval city of Vijayanagara was completely abandoned and never rebuilt or re-urbanised again. What was once amongst the richest & most populated city states of the world, turned into rural hinterland that grew paddy, sugarcane, corn & banana. And set amongst this rural hinterland was the slowly deteriorating remains of once glorious city. Since almost no modification / alteration / renovations were undertaken by anybody, stylistically these ruins are very authentic to how they were originally made. At its peak of power and influence, the city was spread over 250 square kilometers along with its suburbs.
Today an area spread over 42 square kilometers is protected as UNESCO world heritage site. Most heritage sites in India will comprise of single monument or structure, some of them will be a collection of structures, here in Hampi there are over 1500 heritage structures that include temple complexes, ancient markets, aqueducts, water tanks & irrigation systems, royal & public baths, administrative & ceremonial structures, zenanas & palaces, military & defensive structures, stables for elephants, residences of nobleman. No where else in India will you find such an expansive heritage site. This is why we refer to Hampi as an open air museum!
There are some 29 villages within the protected core zone of the site amongst the ruins, people living in these communities are an important part of this site, the festivals they celebrate, their traditions and livelihoods are deeply influenced by their shared past and proximity to the medieval capital city of Vijayanagara. This is why Hampi is often referred to as a living heritage site. Along with enjoying the sights of Hampi, one can immerse oneself in the culture of this place through its people.
Prehistoric human population thrived in this region since at least 1000 BCE. The earliest residents here were nomadic cattle herders, who would seek shelter in the natural caves of the area during monsoons. Megalithic burial sites, cave dwellings, Neolithic tool making sites, Petroglyphs, Ash mounds, Prehistoric cave art are found aplenty even today amongst the boulder hills of Hampi. With iron age, came better tools suitable for agriculture, we also see landscaping for water storage and irrigation during this period.
Urbanisation started around 5th or 6th century. A river goddess in form of Pampa devi was worshiped and a shrine built on the banks of Tungabhadra. Small village settlements cropped up in the area along the river bank like Anegundi, Kampli. By 8th century Shaivism had spread to the area and co-opted other religious sects with establishment of Virupaksha Shrine. Over the next few centuries the religious influence and importance of this shrine kept growing with patronage from successive Kings and Dynasties including Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas & Hoysalas. With founding of Vijayanagara in 14th century the region saw unprecedented growth and glory for 220 years.
After the sacking of the city at hands of the Deccan sultanates, the region went back to its rural agrarian ways. Control of region changed hands between Nizams of Hyderabad, to Marathas and then to Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The Ghorpade family of Marathas had a big influence on the architecture styles of 17th century in the area. Even today you can see old homes and palaces in villages around Hampi with Maratha influence. In 1799 the area came under British influence. In 1800, Colin Mackenzie surveyed Hampi and wrote that the site was abandoned and only wildlife lived here. By mid 19th century more visitors arrived with early camera technology. Alexander Greenlaw captured 60 calotype photographs of temples and royal structures that were standing in 1856. These photographs were held in a private collection in the United Kingdom and were not published until 1980!
For centuries Yogis & Mystics have come to Hampi to meditate, to be initiated into sadhana, to join communes, to debate other philosophers and poets. Some of these Yogi’s have consecrated incredibly powerful temples all around Hampi on top of hills in a yantra like geometric configuration. Many of these shrines are still around and vibrate with incredible energy.
Pampa Mahatme, a sthala purana narrates the story of Girija Kalyana and its connection to Hampi. This is the origin story of the famous 8th century Virupaksha Temple shrine which is still active to this day. For people here these are not just stories, they live and experience the grand wedding of Shiva & Parvathi (Pampa Devi) every year, it is part of their living tradition.
Hampi and surrounding villages together are believed to be the Mythical Kingdom of Kishkinda mentioned in the great Indian epic – The Ramayana. In the fourth chapter of Ramayana, Rama arrives in Kishkinda in search of his abducted wife. Different sites associated with this part of the story are located here in Hampi and surrounding villages.
One of the first thing one notices as they enter Hampi, is its awe-inspiring landscape filled with uniquely shaped boulders stacked on top of each other. These readily available rocks were used as the primary building material for the Temples in Hampi, as pillars, lintels, roof and so on.
Hampi is located on the Deccan plateau, which is one of the oldest and most stable geographical formations in the world. Due to magmatic action, older gneiss rocks were transformed into granite during the later archean period (3600 to 2500 millions years ago). What started off as large monolithic granite hills transformed into boulders, slabs with interesting shapes due to the weathering by the elements along the natural fractures in the rocks.
Through human ingenuity and hard work this dry arid landscape was transformed into lush river valley by people of Vijayanagara. The boulder hills provided natural defence against invaders. Today this is a rich agricultural belt that is able to harvest upto 4 or 5 crops in a year. The area is home to a variety of endemic as well as migratory species of birds. The river ecosystem supports river otters, crocodiles and many species of fish. The boulder hills are home to sloth bears, leopards, fox and other wild animal species.
Hampi is a multi-faceted destination. Whether you are a heritage enthusiast or an adventure seeker, whether you seeking spiritual connections or engage in local culture, whether you are seeking a wilderness experience or a relaxed time with loved ones, Hampi has something for everybody. So stop thinking about it and start planning your trip!
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