“How about Hampi this weekend?” I got a random message from my friend Priya one evening.
“What are you talking about? What is Hampi?” I replied without thinking.
“Are you kidding? There’s a city called Hampi,” Priya messaged back.
I must admit that I had not heard about Hampi before that message from Priya. I grew up in Nepal in the pre-internet era, and my knowledge about India was limited to the history of North India. At most, I was aware of Tipu Sultan from the South but that’s about it.
Learning that right before the rise of the Mughal Empire in India, there existed an equally powerful Empire called the Vijayanagar Empire in South India, was interesting to me. I immediately agreed to visit the place.
We boarded an overnight train from Bangalore to Hospet, which is eight miles from the city of Hampi. This was in early November, and the city was preparing for its large-scale cultural extravaganza festival, called the ‘Hampi Utsav.‘
A group of local teenage boys was also traveling with us in the same passenger car. They looked like young local actors going to perform as they were practicing their lines loudly.
Out of curiosity, I asked a young boy next to me, “Are you performing?”
He nodded and replied, “Yes, I am Hakka.” He then pointed at his twin brother and said, “He is Bukka.”
“Hakka and Bukka? That’s your name?” I asked.
He laughed and then pointed at another boy and said, “He is King Veera.”
“No, I am Mohammad Bin this time,” the other boy immediately corrected in a soft voice. All the boys started laughing and remarked teasingly, “You don’t look like Mohammad Bin.”
“Who was Mohammad Bin?” I asked again.
“He was the Sultan of Delhi,” someone, who was listening to our conversation, commented from the upper berth. He was Giri, a local historian from Bangalore, who frequently organized short historical plays during Hampi festivals.
We continued watching the young boys practicing their lines. Suddenly, a boy next to us raised his wooden sword and shouted two lines, which we did not understand. We looked at Giri, who was more than happy to translate.
“He is shouting for unity.”
“Yes, that’s the story of our play. Some 700 years ago, Hindus in South India were not united and were fighting against each other.
“Things changed when forces of Muhammad Bin, Sultan of Delhi, started invading the south region.
“While all other Hindu kingdoms had already fallen, a certain King Veera stood strong, trying to unite all Hindu kings and chieftains. He too failed.”
“Then what happened?” Priya asked.
“Then Hakka and Bukka happened,” Giri replied, looking at the twins, who were busy practicing their lines. Giri looked at us again, narrating the story of his play,
“King Veera was sort of a mentor for Hakka and Bukka,” he changed the topic and asked, “Have you watched Braveheart?”
“Movie? Mel Gibson’s Braveheart? William Wallace?”
“Yes, Hakka and Bukka were like William Wallace. They went to different places inspiring and mobilizing a significant number of enthusiastic youths to fight against the Sultan.
“The only difference is William Wallace was caught and executed. These brothers were never found. They managed to cease Sultan’s forces and created a new Hindu kingdom called Vijayanagar Empire.”
“Is that what your play is about?” we asked.
“Yes, with several poems dedicated to the victories of these two brothers.”
We reached Hospet in the morning. We saw a local guide Mani, who was in the train station looking for tourists. We decided to approach him.
“You need to pay Rs. 500 for the whole day, and I will show you five places.”
“Let’s start with the Vitthala temple. Everybody goes there,” he suggested.
While we were traveling to the temple, Mani pointed at a statue and said, “That is the statue of King Krishna Deva Raya. He built most of the temples here. You know, he did all types of hard exercises. He woke up early and developed all his muscles.”
“You seem to be fascinated with the muscle of the King,” Priya interrupted, winking at me. Mani smiled and said, “Why not? He was the most powerful. He was our Lion King.”
We entered the Vitthala temple. We were surprised witnessing the enduring structures, an ornate stone chariot with solid stone wheels.
Mani pointed at a shaded dance hall with beautiful stone structures and elaborate carvings. He said, “Ancient musical dramas were once played out there. Those pillars of the temple are musical pillars.”
He tried to demonstrate how the pillars produced rhythmic musical sounds when struck with a thumb. Unfortunately, the temple was too crowded, and we did not hear any music.
The rest of the day, we explored other monuments, palaces, gardens, military structures, and temples of the city such as Virupaksha temple, Hampi Bazaar, Queen’s Bath, Elephant Stables, Hazara Rama Temple, Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, etc.
Mani continued narrating his stories, “There is a local folktale. These kings spent so much money on these temples. Even Lord Vishnu started getting uncomfortable with the extravaganza of these temples, and decided to leave this Kingdom, leading to the fall of the Empire.”
It was now time to bid goodbye to Mani. Before parting, he suggested we visit Matanga hill to witness the sunset. We climbed on top of a rock, stood tall, and stared at the magnificent city of ruins that lay scattered amidst giant boulders.
Both Priya and I were in our deep thoughts, looking at the ruins that said so much about the grandeur splendor and fabulous wealth the city once enjoyed.
“Nothing is permanent,” I whispered, still staring at the ruins.
“With so much pompousness and display of power, also comes arrogance. That must have led to its fall,” Priya replied in a grave tone.
Priya was right. In 1565, the last ruler Rama Raya, known for his arrogance and indifference, underestimated the rising power of the alliance of Deccan Sultanates. Unprepared, in the iconic Battle of Talikota, he was killed. The enemies entered the city that had not prepared itself for war. The city was plundered, looted, burnt, and destroyed. Overnight, the inhabitants fled, the royal families disappeared, and the enemies returned with stolen treasures.
Slowly, people forgot about this majestic city of Vijayanagar, and it remained isolated and defeated for centuries lying in the ruined state in which it lies to this day.
If you want to visit Hampi, I found the following sites very helpful.
I highly recommend this book ‘A Forgotten Empire’ by Robert Sewell . Robert Sewell was a historian from the 19th century, and his specialism was the Vijaynagar Empire.
One last suggestion: Please read the history of Vijaynagar Empire prior to your visit, especially about the most popular 16th-century Emperor Krishna Deva Raya, who is widely considered the greatest ruler of the Empire.