“On the Banks of the Tungabhadra” is a historical novel in Bengali penned by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, who perhaps is better known to readers outside Bengal as the creator of the detective character Byomkesh Bakshi. In the novel, the web is spun around a story that the ruler of Kalinga offered his daughter in marriage to Krishnadeva Raya – the greatest of the rulers of Vijayanagara – in a bid to secure Kalinga from annexation by its more powerful neighbour. Such marriages among royal families were quite common.
Krishnadeva consented to the marriage, but was “too busy” with the affairs of the state to come down to Kalinga for the wedding. Hence the princess, escorted by a posse of soldiers and retinues, undertook a long journey to Vijayanagara by boat. The story has many twists and turns to make it highly interesting. But one must read the novel to know more of that.
Well, this wonderful piece of ‘fictionalised history’ made me curious about Vijayanagara kingdom that ruled for over 200 years from 1346 till 1565, when its capital Vijayanagara was razed by the combined forces of Bidar, Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmed Nagar and Berar. I also wanted to see the world famous temple architecture of Pattadakal, Aihole, Somnathpur, Belur and Halebid, as well as the caves of Badami.
Ananthakrishna, my close friend of nearly 40 years, and his wife Jyotsna had been asking us to visit them in Bengaluru and Mysore. However, that opportunity came just 30 years after they had first invited us to visit them! Not only did they host us but they also accompanied us to all the places we visited during this trip. That was a bonus as Krishna also was an excellent guide where we did not hire a professional one.
Five days are hopelessly inadequate even for a whirlwind tour of Karnataka, which has so much to offer. But on this trip our main aim was to see the places of historical importance, to the exclusion of the beautiful forests, hills and coastal areas of Karnataka, which we hope to see during some future trip.
The Hampi Express reached Hosapete early in the morning. It was from here that we were to see Hampi and other historical sites over the next two days. Our hotel’s travel desk arranged for us a car to visit most of the important sites at Hampi, Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole.
Hampi, the site of the ruins of Vijayanagara, is just about half an hour’s drive from Hosapete. Our guide told us that the ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site, were spread over an area of nearly 15 square miles.
The Virupaksha Temple, Hampi
We started with the Virupaksha Temple, the only functional temple in the complex. it is a Shiva temple dating back to the 7th century according to some sources, and is definitely much older than the Vijayanagara empire.
A Gallery of the Virupaksha Temple
The partially ruined Vittala Temple, famous for the Stone Chariot in its complex, was our next destination. The temple has no idol in it, but it can easily be imagined that it must have once been alive with the footfall of devotees, chanting of mantras and everything else associated with worshipping in any other Hindu temple. The highly ornate main mandapam or Central Hall of the temple is awe-inspiring with its grand design and beautiful pillars exquisitely carved with mythological figures.
Entrance to the Vittal Temple
Carvings on the Pillars inside the Mandapam
The Famous Stone Chariot
Contrary to popular belief the Stone Chariot of Hampi is not ‘carved out of a solid block of rock’, but is built of slabs of granite. The joints are concealed by artistic designs. It is in fact a shrine dedicated to Garura and is said to have been inspired by the Chariot of the Sun Temple of Konarak.
To our query as to why the chariot is drawn by elephants instead of horses, as seen elsewhere, our guide pointed out that originally there were horses, which were partially damaged. “The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) put the elephants there”, he added. In fact it was clear that the rear portion of horses were indeed there, now eclipsed by the elephants. The small elephants are so incongruous with the huge chariot, I kept them out of my frame.
Later, I came to know from a 2014 article titled “A Mistake of Elephantine Proportions” in the indiatimes.com that the elephants were probably placed in front of the chariot in the 1980s when the ASI attempted to ‘rebuild’ the broken statues and images at Hampi using concrete. That was only stopped and the site saved from the thoughtless act only after the famous litterateur K. Shivaram Karanth sent a long telegram to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi! We should be thankful to Karanth for saving the Hampi ruins from “restoration and development”.
Among the innumerable statues and images spread all over the archaeological site at Hampi, two Ganesha images – the Sasivekalu Ganesha and the Kadalekalu Ganesha deserve special mention.
Carved out of a single block of rock, the 8ft statue of Sasivekalu Ganesha is not only huge, but is also quite unique in that it has a snake around its belly. A folktale tells us that Ganesha, the ever gluttonous god fond of modaks, once had eaten so many of them that his tummy was going to burst! He then tied a snake around to save himself.
In front of the Sasivekalu Ganesha
But the real colossus of a statue is the 15ft Kadalekalu Ganesha, also a monolith, and is one of the largest Ganesha idols in India.
The Kadalekalu Ganesha
Another fine specimen of Vijayanagar sculpture that draws the attention of every visitor is the huge statue of Ugra Narasimha.
The Ugra Narasimha statue at Hampi
Before going around the “Royal Area” of the Hampi Ruins, we visited the beautiful Hazara Rama Temple. It was once the private temple of the kings and the royal family of Vijayanagara. It has some wonderful bas reliefs and wall panels depicting the story of the epic Ramayana.
Wall Panels and Carving on Pilars of the Hazara Rama Temple
Standing amidst the vast remains of the palaces, fortifications and other structures within the “Royal Area” of Vijayanagar one can easily imagine the past grandeur of the edifices, and the prosperity of the capital city before it was totally destroyed, razed to the ground and thoroughly vandalised.
A portion of the vast remains of Vijayanagar
Still, the ruins leave the visitor absolutely amazed. Of the partially destroyed structures that still dot the area, most fascinating are the huge raised platform – perhaps the kings’ court was located there; the Queen’s bath inside the ladies’ quarters, and the stepped tank – excavated by the ASI. The Lotus Mahal and the elephants’ stable are other notable structures.
Ruins of the Grand Platform
Views of the Lotus Mahal
The Queen's Bath and a view of the Courtyard
The Elephants' Stable
The Beautiful Stepped Tank
Vijayanagara was famous for its bustling markets. They were very large roofed structures with numerous pillars. A few of them still exist, but the view is marred by ugly shanty-shops that have come over in front of the ancient structures.
A view of the Covered Markets of Vijayanagara
An intriguing feature of the Hampi landscape are the huge boulders that are strewn all over the place. Some of these rocks are quite apparently parts of the demolished fortification of the capital.
The region where Hampi is located today, is a very ancient and holy place according to mythology and Hindu scriptures. The famous capital of the Vanara (monkey) Kingdom, Kishkindha, mentioned in the epic Ramayana is said to have been located on the opposite bank of the Tungabhadra. However, on this trip we restricted ourselves only to the historical sites of Hampi.
The visit to Hampi left a mixed feeling. I was happy to see one of the most famous historical places of India; but the ruins also reminded me of the utter transience of everything, even of the strongest of empires. This glumness was only dispelled by the steaming hot coffee which we had at a road side shop. As our car left Hampi, I dozed off, thinking about the marvel that was Vijayanagara.