One fine day in November, 2019, I found myself turning the pages of Raghu Rai’s coffee table book Vijayanagara Empire. My birthday was just around the corner and it was that time of the year when I decide the place where I’d like to be on my special day. Before I could reach the second half of the book, I knew that it was going to be a Hampi birthday for me this time.
So I booked an overnight bus to Hospet from Bengaluru and took a KSRTC bus from Hospet to Hampi. The bus dropped me towards the western end of the Hampi Bazaar near the Virupaksha Temple.
While most tourists stay on the southern side of river Tungabhadra, which is home to the majority of the monuments and temples, I chose to put up at the hip Virupapura Gadde or Hampi Island, where people my age like to stay.
To reach the island, one needs to take a short boat ride to the other side of the river. The first boat leaves around 7am while the last leaves around 5.30pm. I took some photographs of Lakshmi, the star elephant of Virupaksha Temple, who was out for a bath at the river with her mahout. There couldn’t have been a better start to my birthday. I ditched the motor boats for a coracle boat ride to the other side of the river, which is a quintessential Hampi experience.
I wanted to begin my exploration of Hampi on a spiritual note and seek blessings from the almighty for a new year. Cycling through gorgeous roads lined with palm and banana trees and paddy fields on either side, I reached the base of the Anjanadri Hill. Believed to have been the birthplace of Lord Hanuman, the hill stands in the centre of Anegondi area. Perched atop the hill is the Hanuman Temple. It was quite a climb to the temple, 575 steps to be precise. And the utterly gorgeous view that I got on reaching the top made it absolutely worth the effort. While the main shrine houses a Hanuman icon carved out from a rock, there’s a smaller shrine too dedicated to Ram and Sita. I sat on a huge boulder and savoured the splendid landscape dotted with granite rocks and boulders. Hampi had already begun to grow on me and I was loving the vibe.I rode back to my guest house and took another boat ride to the other side. My temple run continued with the iconic Virupaksha Temple. It is said that the temple has been welcoming devotees since the 7th century AD, making it one of the oldest temples in the country. Many sub shrines, pillared halls, flag posts and massive gateways have been added over the centuries. The sanctum sanctorum is surrounded by a corridor and houses Virupaksha’s idol in the form of a linga. Next to the main shrine are smaller shrines dedicated to Virupaksha’s consort and other deities. I was supremely impressed with the temple’s architecture and aesthetics. And this was just the beginning.
My next stop was the Kadalekalu Ganesha statue that has been carved out of a huge boulder. I have always been intrigued by how things and places get their names. This statue gets its name from the stark resemblance Ganesha belly bears with a Bengal gram or kadalekalu in local parlance. The statue stands as the centrepiece of a hall dotted with slender pillars featuring intricate carvings. A bit south of this temple stands the giant monolithic Sasivekalu Ganesha statue, which resembles a mustard seed or 'sasivekalu'. What intrigued me about this statue was the snake carved around the deity’s tummy. Legend has it that once when Ganesha ate too much, he tied a snake to his tummy to prevent it from bursting.
I called it a day and headed back to my river-facing guesthouse just in time to catch a stunning sunset with a glass of chilled beer. The birthday party was on. The rest of the evening was spent making friends and memories over alcohol and travel stories.
I had kept day two to tick of all the must-visit spots from the list. I took a motor boat for a change and reached the Hampi Bazaar. I was a tad hung-over and not in a mood to cycle 10 kilometres to reach the Vitthala Temple. So I hired an autorickshaw. Perhaps Hampi’s most flocked-to tourist spot, the Vitthala Temple is known for its iconic stone chariot. Constructed on a rectangular platform, the chariot is a gem of stone carving. Its base platform is embellished with carvings depicting battle scenes and its wheels feature ornate floral motifs.Remains of paintings on the carvings of the chariot can still be seen at some parts of the chariot. The chariot is being pulled by two elephants, which are believed to have replaced two horses. Also of special attraction at the temple are the hundred pillared pavilion to the main temple’s southwest and the eastern and northern gateways carved with depictions of Lord Vishnu and his other forms.
On exiting the complex, I headed to the King’s Balance, which stands right behind the temple. Also known as Tula Bhara, this five metre tall balance was used to weigh the king with gold, silver and precious gems and stones, which were later distributed to the priests. We then left for the Royal Enclosure, which served as the seat of power and housed the king and his queens. It was home to around 45 impressive buildings including durbar halls, temples and stepped tanks among others. I visited the Hazara Ram Temple here. It’s one of the few temples in Hampi known for its imposing bas-reliefs that wash its outer walls. The temple gets its name from the thousand Rama figurines carved on the Ramayana panels on its walls.A dusty path then led us to the Zenana Enclosure, where I visited the Lotus Mahal. Its distinct style of architecture came as a refreshing departure from the temples. What set it apart from the other monuments in Hampi was also the fact that it was made using lime mortar and bricks. Its archways and the domed balcony resemble a half opened lotus, hence the name. The palace is a reminder of the ingenuity of the artisans who built it, thanks to its architecture, which is a seamless blend of Hindu and Islamic styles.
I then paid a quick visit to the Elephant Stable, one of the least deteriorated monuments of Hampi. It features a row of domed chambers, where the royal elephants were parked. There are eleven chambers in total, with the central one being the most impressive. Its tower resembles that of a temple, while the others confirm to Islamic style of architecture. This was followed by a visit to the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, famous for housing Hampi’s largest statue. Also known as Ugra Narasimha (ferocious Narasimha), the statue is that of the half man and half lion Narasimha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who sits in a cross-legged position on the coil of a seven-headed snake. The temple also houses a huge stone shivalinga.I was fatigued and went back to my guesthouse for lunch, which was a wholesome south Indian fair. My host treated me with a cuppa strong filter coffee, which was exactly I needed before checking out from the guesthouse. I bid him a goodbye around 5pm and took one final coracle boat ride. I wanted to spend the last stretch of my two-day-long trip catching an ethereal sunset from the Matanga Hill. Being the centrally located and highest point in Hampi, it offered unmatched views of the picturesque environs. The hill also finds a mention in the Ramayana as the hermitage of Sage Mathanga. The sky was a beautiful mix of tangerine and pink as dusk approached.
Given Hampi’s incredible wealth of heritage, it would take me several trips to do justice to this amazing land and its myriad monuments. I have also decided on spending more time at the Matanga Hill on my next visit. I left Hampi and also left a part of me there. I have to go back to collect my heart.