Hampi: For Visitors Only

Published: August 6, 2012 - 13:45

A visit to the ancient temple town of Hampi brings up a disturbing question: Why are its residents condemned to dreary lives amid such natural beauty and a rich history? 

Ratna Raman Hampi (Karnataka) 

Hampi, in northern Karnataka, is an ancient temple town around which modern 21st-century life sleepily meanders. It nestles in the midst of an incredible skyscape of mountains, fields, large boulders and lush vegetation, overseeing the journey of the Tungabhadra river. The Karnataka government flags off an annual Vijayanagara festival in the month of November to celebrate this spectacular World Heritage Site.

Hampi has mythological associations: this is legendary Kishkinda country where Vaali and Sugreeva – brothers and monarchs among monkeys – lived, fought, ruled and died. In the rainy season, from atop these mountains, Ram and Lakshman availed of aerial views, mournfully hoping to sight an abducted Sita. Now lush groves of plantain and fields burgeoning with produce intersperse many magnificent structures that fan out amid undulating small hills and abundant water resources, paying tribute to the work of outstanding sculptors, masons and architects from the medieval period.

At the edges of the large temple complexes are palaces with separate chambers for the king and the queen, and a magnificent set of stables for a whole lot of elephants. The accommodation is high-roofed, with stone walls with very pretty lattice work all along the ceiling, and a window, plus an entrance providing a scenic view of the gardens and the women’s quarters.

It was good to be an elephant in the Vijayanagara kingdom. This is reiterated by the enormous Ganesha statues in the main temple cluster. We view an enormous statue of Ganesha incongruously named Sasivekalu (mustard seed in Kannada) Ganesha. Were there traders and growers of mustard for whom this was the patron deity? There is yet another Ganesha, massive and enclosed within a mandapam, called Chana Ganesha because of a belly shaped like a whole chickpea. Was he propitiated by the growers of chickpeas? We do not really know, but the sculpture is imposing and delicate, the milky grey of the granite making the Ganesha look ethereal.

We encounter an angry woman who objects to shoe-shod feet. My archaeologist friend, who is actively involved with conserving monuments, explains that shoes are permitted in shrines that are not in use. The angry woman stomps off, having put forward her parochial claim. Other visitors look on bemused, but since nothing else comes of this exchange, everybody veers off into different directions.

We walk towards a large granite slope, past yet another unused site, and slowly lots of little pillared and roofed structures come into view. The views are amazing and restful, and, stepping out of the hot sunshine, we sit in the shade of a monument and eat oranges, idly watching the occasional monkey saunter by.

A circumambulatory stroll past many beautifully preserved monuments leads us to the magnificent Virupaksha Temple, which is still in use. It has its own elephant, a vivacious fellow in robust black who takes bananas from the hands of visitors and pats them on the head, exercising great discretion. The temple is grand and peopled, intricately carved and pillared, with a central pavilion housing a handsome god and a ceiling painted with intricate murals. We wait in line to enter the sanctum sanctorum with its renovated flooring of shiny grey granite tiles.

Eventually, we step out from the right side of the temple to the river’s edge, past the promenade to the wall with steps that reach down to the water. We gaze at the inspiring sight, blue water with many pavilions and cave-like structures, and large crags in the middle of the water. There are a lot of people, both residents and tourists, in regular boats and basket boats (coracles) on the water. Shady trees on the embankment shelter little wayside eateries serving snacks and tea and coconut water. The life around the river and on its promenade communicates ease and serenity.

In the rainy season, from atop these mountains, Ram and Lakshman availed of aerial views, mournfully hoping to sight an abducted Sita

This is routine everyday activity, the rhythm of visitors thronging the temple and then filing to the scenic river's edge, into a bucolic world. Having had our fill, we head back to the temple, retrieve our footwear, and emerge from the main entrance to a market that flanks both sides of the road. There are sellers of fruit and brass and prayer accessories and odds-and-ends, possibly recently displaced from a series of demolished structures all along the road. We stop at a colourful stall where a Lambadi woman sells bric-a-brac, mostly cushions and spreads and bags. We buy a few colourful, embroidered and mirror-embellished bags that recall the work of Kutch craftswomen.

The landscape is dotted with stunning palaces, fort walls with friezes of animals and mythological events, and exquisitely carved halls and marvellous musical pillars – each pillar emitting a different sound when tapped. The details on an enormous stone-carved chariot mimic a wooden chariot right down to its spinning stone wheels. At an underground site, water finds its way through conduits to the various enclosures housing sculpted forms. A giant Shiva linga stands on a floor inundated with water while next door, sits an immense Narasimha, lonely without his consort, who was pillaged from his side a few centuries ago. The hues and contours of the chiselled and sculpted granite compel and astound.

Except for brief descriptions detailed on metallic boards, nobody is around to share these powerful stories chiselled in stone. Elsewhere on abandoned platforms, where stone pillars support terracotta roofs with wild grass outgrowths, ancient men stretch out and sleep. An old woman solicits alms, prodding a severely physically challenged child with her to wobble its head as we walk in her direction. Protected monuments, the signs scream at us, and we know the protection does not extend to any of the people spending their days
beneath them.

One morning we view two imposing structures next to each other, on the Hampi road. The Anantashayana Temple was never consecrated with the idol of the reclining Vishnu. We squeeze past the huge steel gate of this protected monument, beyond the canopied front tower and step inside. An official opens the doors of the garba griha and an empty space reveals itself. Bats fly up swiftly as we enter and we gaze at a ceiling which is 125 feet high.

To the right of the main structure is another uninstalled site planned for the consort. We see smoky walls and an oil-blotched roof. The attendant informs us that this was the work of vandals who have since been evacuated. Parrots fly in and out of the abandoned temple walls, nesting in terracotta niches. The walls of the temple are of granite, but atop them, on roofs built with brick and mortar, are exquisite terracotta structures, both figurines and floral motifs. There is not a soul else in the vicinity.

At an underground site, water finds its way through conduits to the various enclosures housing sculpted forms. A giant Shiva linga stands on a floor inundated with water while next door sits an immense Narasimha, lonely without his consort, who was pillaged from his side a few centuries ago

We visit the Mallikarjuna temple next door. A large stone edict at the entrance is soaked in oil. Granite walls have received a makeover. Part of the wall has been whitewashed and beautiful stone carved pillars have been painted in black, red and sky blue oils. An exquisite temple from medieval times, built with material meant to last, has been gaudily decorated, reflecting perhaps the preference of the presiding priest and devotees. Prayer and worship is apparently customary but at that hour in the morning we don’t really see anyone. Four small boys crowd around us, asking for money to buy school pens. We buy them some from a well-stocked shop across the road and the owner hands over the pens, wry amusement writ large on his face.

We turn to leave. Someone calls out to us. We turn in the direction of the sound to see a man stepping out of the stonework, slowly metamorphosing into flesh. As we stare nonplussed, he introduces himself: “I am Tenali Rama,” he announces, “and news of your visit was brought to me. I was the court poet of the Pandyas, and many of my exploits live on in awful narrations on the internet.” We concur, having read of his wit and intelligence in storybooks when we were in school.

“I have some questions to ask you,” he continues, “since you come from the capital of this modern democracy and number easily among its beneficiaries.”

We pause, still dazed by the beauty of Hampi, and try to come to terms with this unexpected intrusion.

“When I was a young man,” Tenali says, “I grew up in a small cottage beside the river where my father had fields. The harvests were good and he sent me to the local gurukula to learn. I had my fill of the hillsides, the forests, the river and the green farmlands. My education enabled me to get a position at the royal court. I spent a lot of time in the huge halls and pavilions, the temples and the surrounding countryside. There was always a lot of activity. In the palaces and the temples and in the tiered marketplaces, there was the hustle and bustle of people. I don’t remember there being too much money but, being among the privileged, I invariably had access to the beautiful architecture of the city, and its remarkable landscape. It allowed my heart to remain full and my aspirations to soar.

“Today, Hampi is a World Heritage Site visited by people from all over the world. The increase in footfalls must have contributed to the lives of the locals. Most of it is like a ghost town, and in the harvest season some of its less fortunate citizens beg in and around the fringes of its ancient monuments. Beautiful lush farmlands dot its monuments. Yet, nondescript towns such as Hospet have crept up around its periphery with ugly marketplaces, squalid town squares and unplanned fruit and vegetable markets. Why should the inhabitants around Hampi lead such cramped, sordid lives? Why are they condemned to dreary lives in the midst of such natural beauty and history? Shouldn’t living next door to Hampi add to their lives? Ours is a gorgeous countryside, home to megalithic Hirebenkal and ideal karmabhoomi for wildlife enthusiasts, trekkers, campers
and climbers.”

“It is time”, he continued, “that people at the helm sought to integrate Hampi’s glorious past so as to enrich the lives of its current residents. In a modern State that promises equal citizenship, surely the pavilions and ancient markets should be restored for use by local inhabitants? Residents should be allowed to remake their lives around these monuments. Vegetable and fruit markets could be set up in the old complexes adjoining the temples. Merchant shops and eateries could come up beside the pushkarnis or tanks. Conservation needs to be inclusive of humans and many ancient markets, much older than Hampi, thrive in many modern cities all over the world.

“Many structures, now in disuse, have airy corridors and open spaces and could be important learning centres with libraries, reading and activity rooms. Large stages and open air platforms in the bigger complexes could easily be the new hub of cultural activity, fostering the growth of music, dance, art and theatre all the year round. Ruined fortifications restored to their former glory would allow residents to take great pride in this rich historical legacy. In the world’s most densely populated country, why are such extraordinary landscapes cordoned off for local residents and preserved in order to provide occasional visitors with access? How different is your administration from the despotic kingdoms of Hampi that existed earlier?”

We remain at a loss for words because we really don’t have any answers. “Think about it,” concludes Tenali. “Everyone should draw sustenance from Hampi’s rich geographical and architectural heritage. I would imagine that is what living in more equal times is about.” He vanishes into unspeaking stone, almost as abruptly as he had appeared.

We gaze at the silent walls a while. We had meant to write about the incredible scenic beauty of Hampi and the urgent need to address the absence of amenities and conveniences for privileged, occasional, visitors. The imperative to engage with the systemic shrinking of the body, mind and spirit that we witnessed
was now beginning to make itself felt. Are we the new elite, conquering landscapes and revisiting histories, impervious to the continued depredations of everyday, ordinary lives?


A visit to the ancient temple town of Hampi brings up a disturbing question: Why are its residents condemned to dreary lives amid such natural beauty and a rich history? 
Ratna Raman Hampi (Karnataka) 

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