Hampi: An erstwhile metropolis of trade, religion, festivals and fortification

A beautiful spread of ruins and tales arising from those; engulf an entire region’s history. Such is the story of one UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Hampi ruins—A group of monuments, which are the structural remains of the capital city of an erstwhile Southern empire, ‘Vijayanagara’ that existed from 1336 to 1646 CE.

This area and its surrounding regions, earlier, however, were ruled by many dynasties like the Western Ganga dynasty, the early western Chalukyas, the later Chalukyas, the Hoysala dynasty, the Kampli chiefs and some others, before the Vijayanagara Empire came to rule it. After the Vijayanagara Empire was established here, the region was ruled by four dynasties: Sangama, Saluva, Tuluva and the Aravidu dynasty. Stories associated with its rulers and their descendants are many, and the more we know about them, the more inquisitive we become.

One particular emperor, from the Tuluva dynasty, successfully ruled the region and left an indelible mark in a span of a few decades. He was Krishna Deva Raya; a king of many abilities and sharp intellect, whose name holds a prominent place in India’s history books and during whose reign, the city truly flourished. Apart from him and prior to his rule—Deva Raya I and Deva Raya II were two other powerful rulers of the area, who too, carried out much construction and growth within the city.

A lot of development-oriented work in Hampi, by its many rulers, was carried out—from the expansion of the city; to encouraging general welfare, trade and refinement in art and culture; supporting its armies; to interaction with people from other countries and religions. Foreign travellers to the city, during different time periods, have marvelled over the city’s enamoring richness and incandescence in its entirety. Chronicles of their travels divulge first hand details of the vibrant life of Hampi.

However, once Krishna Deva Raya died, which was due to ill health, no one after him could rule Hampi the way he had. As a result, this abundance came to an eventual decline, when the city was deplorably invaded, plundered and desecrated by the Deccan Muslim Confederacy in 1565. They looted and mutilated the city for about six months—such was the wealth of the metropolis.

To understand Hampi’s once active existence, it is important to go past this terrible destruction, and see how it lived, especially during Krishna Deva Raya’s rule. To do that, seeing the ruins in person, as they are now—silent in narration, yet speaking unabashedly of how it may have once been for its dwellers—becomes imperative.

Travelling back in time

The city continues to be preserved for the wealth of knowledge it brings forth—about a lost kingdom of treasures, and a metropolis of trade, religion, festivals and fortification. Following the path of this understanding, one needs to step back in time.

If the aura of a place, could have a texture, like fabric, then Hampi would be pure silk, even in its current ruined state.

Banana plantations and hay fields greet you, as you move into Hampi land. Further on, you are welcomed by a bevy of stones, boulders-on-hills, and valleys. Hampi is divided into the sacred and the religious center. There are hundreds of monuments here, situated alongside hills, rivers and many neighbouring villages.

Hampi, located by the Tungabhadra River can be traversed on foot, on a moped, or in a car, but you would still have to walk a lot. Pampa is the former name of the river, and the name Hampi or Pampa Kshetra was derived from this. What emerges as you move through the ruins is an organized setup of buildings—religious, military, and civil—apart from other structures.

Existing structures are representative of local life within the area, because their very presence demonstrates what the various royalties created, and what the military and civilian population were part of and pursued.

Glory of temples

An overwhelming number of big and small temples, expansive temple complexes and within them, deities in stone, other related exquisite carvings and beautiful sculptures are breathtaking. Additionally, unique decorated stone pillars, auxiliary structures, giant towers, entrance gateways, tanks near temples, other detailed stone embellishments—are also evidence of the strong and vital influence of religious, artistic, ceremonial and ritualistic practices within the city.

Furthermore, many temples, monolithic structures, a broad range of narrative carvings on the walls of temples, suggested the import of making such mammoth temples, which overshadowed so many other structures within the city. Clearly, life in Hampi flowered under the religious beliefs of the locals and the rulers. It is well known that people from other religions were also accepted within Hampi. So, harmony, within the city gates, was maintained.

The Virupaksha temple complex, predating the Vijayanagara rule, and still an active temple in Hampi; Hazara Rama temple, a temple for the Ram aspect of Vishnu; Krishna temple, are some of the main temples here. Along with these, the Ranga temple, an underground Shiva temple, Badavilinga, the towering, but marred statute of Lakshmi Narasimha, even a Jain temple, present the significance of religion within this former capital.

Idols of Kadalekalu Ganesha (Elephant God), on the Hemkuta Hill, Sasivekalu Ganesha, in another part, showcase how massive structures were created out of a single piece of rock. Parts of these temple complexes; also contain numerous carvings, of mythological importance. In fact, the epic ‘Ramayana’ is carved on the main sanctum and the boundary walls of the Hazara Rama temple. These carvings point to the belief of the kings and the locals in Hindu mythology. Hampi, also known as Kishkinda Kshetra, is considered to be the birthplace of Hanuman, a revered figure from the Ramayana.

The Vitthala temple complex, a temple for the Krishna aspect of Vishnu, the largest temple in Hampi, is set atop a hill; the complex has an entrance tower, and inside the temple compound is the main mandapa, which at present, is being renovated. Supporting structures, beautiful carvings and musical pillars further embellish the complex’s existence. There is a stone chariot, in front of the main temple.

Close to this temple complex are other temples like the Yantrodharaka Anjaneya temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the Vishnu temple, and the Vishnu inscribed temple. In fact, you will also see the ‘King’s Balance’ here, where the King would weigh himself in precious jewels and gold, and would distribute it to the priests, on occasions like eclipses.

These temple structures are glowing examples of the worshiping and spiritual nature of royalty and citizens. These temples were also one of the centers of economy since they owned a lot of land and resources. These temples were possessors of immense wealth and perhaps, even acted as treasuries.

Sifting through bazaars

Vast array of bazaars—semi-intact structures, broken and whole constructions—vacant and empty, are a direct evidence of the city’s inclination towards trade, and its associated methods.

The bazaars range from small ones to those covering large fields. As shared a local guide with me, ‘the bazaar called the Krishna bazaar, which is right in front of the Krishna temple, was a trading place for diamonds and other gems.’ Standing in front of it, one can easily imagine how it may have been for the traders, and the buyers, then.

The Pan-Supari bazaar, or the betel leaves and the Areca nut bazaar, lay in a battered condition—while some pillars still stand, most of the area has been destroyed, and one can see the slight remains of a modest Shiva temple, within the bazaar. There are a number of other bazaars, in Hampi, including the Achyuta Raya temple bazaar and the Hampi bazaar.

Traders from Portugal, Persia, Italy, even Russia, came to Hampi and have chronicled the grand lifestyle of the city. Domingo Paes, a Portuguese traveller who had visited the metropolis around 1520, had compared Hampi’s size to that of Rome. He wrote about what he has seen in Hampi: its lavish markets and fairs, its rich merchants, streets, row houses and even its food. He wrote about its irrigation and its many ports where the Portuguese had set up factories. In fact, he went as far as saying that everything on earth was available here, including citrons, limes, oranges, grapes, even jewels and stones, and many other things. His accounts are one of the most detailed and well explained.

It is known that such was the wealth of Hampi that gold was openly sold in the market, like any other product. Pearls and emeralds, too, were part of the trade on goings in Hampi. Close to the Vitthala temple, remains of another bazaar, where horses were said to be traded, exist. In addition to these marketplaces, a mint was also part of the city.

During Krishna Deva Raya’s rule, this trading-oriented city, developed and thrived. Cotton, spices, and textiles were traded with the Europeans. The Portuguese traders and the king shared a good and friendly relationship, which thrived on mutual benefit, and exchange of goods, continuously took place between the two. The Portuguese, particularly traded horses for acquiring many items from Hampi.

Alongside trade; agriculture, craftsmanship, music, dancing, poetry, even storytelling and many other occupations, helped the city grow in wealth and status. The city saw its ultimate prosperity during Krishna Deva Raya’s rule from A.D. 1509 to around 1530.

A confluence of mixed art and secular architecture

Other than trade, the rulers also promoted art, culture, architecture, knowledge and literature. One can only gasp at the architecture of those times, rivaling even the charm of advanced work in cities now. Dravidian temple architecture and Indo-Islamic architecture, which was later incorporated into some of the main royal structures, are found in Hampi. The art and architecture here, evolved over a period of time, under the umbrella of the many dynasties that ruled the region.

Other than the presence of temples; buildings dedicated to royalty, such as the Zanana enclosure, Lotus Mahal, King’s audience hall, Queen’s bath, royal bastions and pavilions, an underground shrine chamber, elephant stables, for the King’s elephants, are some of the royal remains in Hampi.

Presence of residential blocks, recreational areas, was also a part of the layout of this great civilized territory. An important structure here is the Mahanavami Dibba—a royal platform—where royalty sat during yearly festivals like Mahanavami, when Goddess Durga was worshiped, and Dussehra was also celebrated, while processions passed. It is also home to a beautiful set of carvings, depicting animals and humans.

Here and maybe even in the middle of bazaars and elsewhere, other festivals were celebrated, where people danced and sang, and, wherein, world travellers and European traders were entertained and shown the might of Hampi.

Such encouragement of art and culture, architecture and construction, would have created many sources of livelihood for ordinary citizens.

In the defense of a timeless city

The Tungabhadra River, close to Anegundi, and massive surrounding hills protected Hampi from either side. Once man-made fortifications were also put in place, the ruling kings could carry out administrative and development work with ease. Under the aegis of the ruling king, revenue was procured through various sources, as trade-profits and taxes. Krishna Deva Raya was known to use parts of this, to strengthen his armies. Fortification of the city seems to have been done on a large scale. There are some watch towers too, here.

Some of the royal enclosures, markets and other dwelling grounds were also fortified, to withstand invasions. Thousands of elephants and innumerable army men, on foot and horses, were kept and maintained, to protect the vast kingdom.

There are many aquatic structures, like the stepped tank, within Hampi. Charting a clear design of water channels and irrigation facilities would not be an easy task for a simple traveller, but there was an organized plan in place, to facilitate water supply for agriculture, as well as for its people; a plan, which has been outlined by experts in recent times. The entire population of Hampi would definitely have depended on it, especially, under arid weather conditions.

Preserving what remains

General information about the monuments is made available to visitors, through inscriptions on plaques next to the preserved structures, including detailed maps, set down by the preservation associations. You can also find original inscriptions, commemorating occasions, in the local language, in some places.

The archeologists in the region continue to excavate the site looking for more possible archeological findings from the erstwhile civilization. With the support of many preservation affiliations, they also aim at protecting Hampi from further deterioration, and from any kind of man-made threat to the ruins.

Deputy Superintendent, Site Manager, WHS Hampi, Bangalore circle, Mr. N.C. Prakash shares important information on the local life of Hampi. He says, “Trade was a major wealth generator for the city. Hampi traded spices, food items, semi-precious and precious stones, gold and silver with the Portuguese and Arabs for horses, camels, oil, and other items. There was a lot of seafaring in Hampi. Goa and Mangalore were the major ports during that time, but there were some minor-ports, too. Europeans and other world traders accessed these ports to enter Hampi via land.

There are different structures here, including varied architecture. The Lotus Mahal was like a resting place for the queens, with a garden outside, and the Zanana enclosure was also meant for the queens; in fact, even now you can see platforms inside the enclosure, where the queens stayed and had their palaces. There are many watchtowers and other constructions within the area, as well.

The ruling king was the main controller of wealth and money—he had different departments for matters concerning the city and other regions; such as the revenue department, which was used to allocate resources to maintain the city’s strong army and for other requirements of the city. The temples were also wealthy. In fact, the mandapas and additional structures within these temple complexes were not only intended for religious practices, but they were also meant for social gatherings, schooling, and were also used for conducting marriages. Sanskrit and other languages were also taught here. The existing community was very wealthy.”

An unending powerful legend

The city’s wealth came from many sources, and interlaced with these sources were the lives of its kings, queens, and its people—artisans, craftspeople, musicians, dancers, farmers, labourers, officials, the army, merchants, noblemen and others. These sources of wealth were indirectly a result of the local traditions and routine life followed, and rules and norms and regulations, set down by the ruling king.

Perhaps only the governing classes, enjoyed a major chunk of the riches, but given Hampi’s resources, there would have been general prosperity everywhere. Prosperity in Hampi was the result of synchronicity between its powerful rulers and those they ruled combined with methodical planning and the balance of power and compassion.

Invaders diminished the city, but Hampi’s powerful influence could never be erased by them. Even after the battle of Talikota in 1565 A.D., many positive changes occurred within South India, because migration took place, as a lineage of rulers, and other people, travelled away from the old capital, giving rise to settlements in other areas, because of which a reformation and revival of art and culture and music happened; along with further expansion in the form of the emergence of the Nayaka dynasties, who also built grand temples in many parts of Southern India. Therefore, the decline of Hampi wasn’t the end, but the beginning of growth in other locations of South India.

A visit to the ruins opens an illusionary portal of sorts, where the past meets the present, and whatever the city wishes to show, it will.

To explore the quondam local life of Hampi is equivalent to unravelling the threads of a large golden knot, one thread leads to another and then to another. Practically, it is from the preserved remnants that an enchanting panoramic narration of life in the city, comes to light, and can be interpreted in many ways—all conjuring similar stories.

Selected links for an extended journey into Hampi:

[1] ASI website, which has pictures of Hampi:

[2] A list of rulers of the Vijayanagara empire:

[3] Chroniclers:

[4] Water management practices at Hampi:

[5] What happened to Hampi after the invasion:

[6] Krishna Deva Raya and some more details about him:

[7] Portuguese report of a Vijayanagara festival:

[8] Chapters on the book called “A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar),” by Robert Sewell:

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