Thursday, March 15, 2012

Resplendent Ruins of an Extinct Empire – Personal Photo Album Part 14

[I had prepared this post for uploading before going into a major surgery to save whatever sight I was left with in my left eye after a development last year.  While awaiting the outcome of the surgery, which can be known only after several weeks, I had a major shock with my right eye apparently following suit, but it now appears that the damage is much less than originally feared despite the highly disturbing nature of the symptoms.  I hope to regain a reasonable degree of normalcy in a couple of months and carry on with my work as usualI also hope that one of my major hobbies doesn’t suffer the same fate as the extinct empire I have written about here.]


There is always something poignant about any civilization that, having had a sustained and glorious past, finds itself slowly or rapidly on the decline and eventually ends up in ruins, to be remembered only as a historical curiosity.  This is what any visitor to Rome or Athens is bound to notice, a city full of relics of a bygone era, punctuated by the rise and fall of a mighty empire, one of the cradles of ancient civilization.  Similar is the case with Hampi in south-central India, once the epicenter of the thriving Vijayanagar Empire, now a heap of ruins desperately striving to survive even as a tourist attraction under Unesco protection as a World Heritage Site.

The Vijayanagar Empire, founded on the banks of the river Tungabhadra in 1336 by two brothers popularly called Hakka and Bukka, believed to be commanders in the army of the Hoysala Empire, lasted over three hundred years.  The ruins of Hampi are the best known signposts of this empire which reached its pinnacle of glory during the rule of the great Krishnadevaraya (1509-1529), marked by widespread support to the arts, architecture, literature, painting and music, and distinguished by the presence of the legendary Tenali Ramakrishna, the resident court scholar and wit around whom some of the most illuminating stories have been woven.  The decline of the empire started after Krishnadevaraya’s glittering reign and the beginning of its end was marked by the military defeat of its then ruler at the hands of the marauding Deccan sultanates in 1565.

Despite the efforts of conservation groups bolstered by Unesco’s support and the archaeology department’s own protective measures, Hampi generally presents a sorry picture.  Like most of its neighborhood, It is located in a rather desolate environment in rocky terrain with sparse vegetation, Hospet being the closest town and well connected to most other places by road and railway.  Unfettered illegal mining and quarrying activity in nearby places, with its massive impact on the district’s ecology as a whole, is threatening to denude the Hampi ruins further.

I have visited Hampi on numerous occasions; one of the most memorable was in February 1980 when I watched the great total solar eclipse on the 16th  afternoon from the nearby Tungabhadra dam site.  My last visit during which the pictures of this album were taken was on a brilliantly beautiful and sunny day on 28 November 2005.
Hampi, a Heritage of Ruins

Here is a Google Earth view encompassing most of the ruins of Hampi spread over quite a large area surrounding the Tungabhadra River.  It requires a whole day to explore, especially if one takes to doing so by leisurely walk, which is indeed the best way to see the ruins.  By the way, the description ‘ruins’ is not applicable to all the places and structures; some of them are in a good state of preservation even now.  Most of the places of interest are concentrated in the lower left quarter of the picture as well as to the right of the upper part.  The pathways are very clearly identifiable and negotiable.

[As in my previous albums, all pictures are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window]

As with most places of historical interest in the subcontinent, the most glaringly noticeable structure is a temple with its tall and stately gopuram, the Virupaksha Temple whose complex is captured in the next picture from the nearby Matunga hill.  The desolate open space in the foreground and the hilly terrain in the background serve to highlight the overall character of Hampi.

The next picture gives a zoomed-in view of the Virupaksha temple with its typical Dravidian style architecture.  The sculpted figures are best seen in their rich detail when the picture is blown up to its full size.

The next picture from the Matunga hill shows two distinctly different types of temples, the traditional type to the far right and the more prominent one to the left which is reminiscent of the temple architecture seen in Orissa.  They belong to a small group called the Hemakuta temples on the Matunga hill.  The short sturdy granite pillar visible in the foreground here is also seen in the first picture, indicating that they were shot in diametrically different directions.

The next picture shows a short, well maintained pathway leading up to a temple housing a stone statue of Lord Ganesha housed under a pillared enclosure.  The first of the three signboards seen on the left, erected by the Archaeology department, shows a map of Hampi and the second gives a brief description of the idol of Ganesha.  The water tank seen to the left of the temple was being used to water the lawns, a useful device though not a pretty sight.  The well maintained lawn is a feature repeated in several other places in Hampi.

The stone Ganesha idol, for some obscure reason called the Sasive Kalu (mustard Seed) Ganesha, in the pillared enclosure is shown in full in the next picture.  It is at the foot of the Hemakuta hill.  Nearby (not shown here) is another large statue of Ganesha called Kadale Kalu Ganesha.

The next picture presents the contrasting views of a well maintained lawn and greenery in the foreground against the backdrop of a massive rocky structure appearing to be propped up by some huge natural boulders.

The following picture is a head-on view of the Virupaksha Temple seen in two earlier pictures.  If Hampi is the epicenter of the Vijayanagar Empire, this temple can be said to be the epicenter of Hampi. The road leading to it is spoiled by ugly and disorderly shops and stalls on both sides, something that is inescapable in most such places in the country and deliberately avoided in this picture.

Slightly out of the way, one of the largest and best known stone monuments in Hampi is the statue of Ugranarasimha shown in the next picture, with telltale evidence of some of the destruction wrought on it.  I didn’t find any better shot of this in my album and luckily my presence in it doesn’t seem to detract too much from this fabled statue.  If anything, it serves to highlight the structure in its true perspective.

One of the more spectacular edifices of nature in the rock-strewn ruins of the empire is a huge natural archway formed by two gigantic boulders shown in the following picture.

The next picture is a harmony of contrasts, with the neat man-made rows of sculptured figures on a stone monument on the left, nature’s own handiwork in boulders on the right, accentuated by the beautiful lawn in the foreground against clear blue skies in the background.

Hampi is replete with numerous robust stone pillared enclosures housing a variety of objects and open on all four sides, presumably to let in both light and air in plenty.  Here is one such structure in all its raw splendor.  Incidentally, the place is oppressively hot during summer.

Despite the rather poor condition in which one finds it, the Lotus Mahal is one of the most mesmerizing and beautiful structures in Hampi, indeed of any place in the country I have visited.  Here is a view of it amidst picturesque greenery and appearing to be shepherded by two great trees.

Another impressive structure despite its worn out condition is the Elephant stables shown in the next picture.  While the sign board is welcome, the partial, haphazard, ugly and mindless fencing in front of it is not only totally unnecessary, but also a downright insult to one’s aesthetic sense.

The following building with some impressive greenery and lawn on its front lies perpendicular to and to the right of the elephant stables.

The next picture features a subsurface rain water storage tank with some incredibly ornate and beautiful inverted pyramidal and tiered steps.  What makes it so very attractive is perhaps the symmetric stone steps laid out with such pleasing symmetry.  Observe an aqueduct running perpendicular to it on the ground at left and a large stretch of lawn behind the tank.  Observe also the stone-walled boundary and the rocky ruins beyond.

The next picture shows a large pyramidal three tiered platform, called Mahanavami Dibba, rising to a height of about 8 meters, with each tier of the platform adorned with sculptured figures in the characteristic style of Vijayanaagar architecture.  In the hay days of the empire it was being used for important public occasions involving royalty.

The next picture takes the viewer close to the Tungabhadra River and the large stone pillared Purandara Mantapa on its southern banks.  The view of the surroundings from here is a strange mix of serenity and ruggedness, the latter marked by the huge rocky hill in the distance and the boulders on the other side of the river.  The picture shows a few people putting the river waters to some very mundane use, unimpressed by the historic importance of the locale.

The Vittala Temple Complex

The quadrangle seen prominently at the top right of the Google Earth map houses the Vittala Temple complex, whose architectural style is characteristically different from the rest at Hampi, closer to the Hoysala style seen in temple complexes like Belur and Halebid, but with open sides.  This is easily the most impressive sight in Hampi and worth all the effort to reach it at its rather distant location from the rest of the ruins.  Here is a picture of the temple with the fabled monolithic stone chariot in the foreground.  The chariot has some resemblance to the one in Konark in Orissa, but much smaller and not quite so impressive.

The following picture shows a different and a vastly more impressive view of the temple. The intricate stone carvings, particularly on the clustered pillars, are breathtakingly beautiful.  The smaller pillars in each of the clusters produce a distinctive musical note characteristic of a popular musical instrument when struck with any hard substance such as a piece of stone.

I sign off with my last picture of this album, set in the Vittala temple complex, where for once nature takes precedence over human handiwork.  The center of attraction here is surely the magnificent tree, with its grotesquely twisted root and branches, giving an overall impression of awe and splendor very much in consonance with the resplendent ruins of the extinct empire.  I don’t think it is anywhere nearly as old as the principal architectural splendors of Hampi, but looks capable of surviving longer than the empire itself did.

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