Wandering through crumbling ruins of former glory set amidst lush green rice fields and surrounded by hills of strange boulders, a visit to Hampi feels like stepping into the heart of a lost kingdom. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the hundreds of ruins of the once-mighty Vijayanagara Empire lie dotted around the tiny village of Hampi in India’s Karnataka state. The spectacular temples and monuments and other-worldly landscape have placed Hampi firmly on India’s new hippie trail – and it was one of my favourite places in the whole subcontinent.
Hampi’s monuments and ruins
Although Hampi was inhabited much earlier, the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire ruled from here for over 200 years from the mid-1300s. Geographically, it’s clear why the area was chosen: the river and surrounding rocky hills give the place a sense of enclosure, while the flat lands are lush and fertile. It’s a really bizarre landscape, very sparsely inhabited, and feels moon-like somehow. We rented a scooter, and zooming through this strange scenery to visit ancient temples was just so much fun.
Vijayanagara was quite the city in its day. Home to half a million inhabitants around 1500AD, it was the second-largest city in the world after Peking (Beijing). Its army boasted over 1 million soldiers, dominating right across southern India. Its economy was largely agricultural and the empire traded far and wide, reaching China, Persia, Burma and Palestine. In 1565, the city was defeated by Muslim sultanates from the Deccan; its ruins were discovered in 1800 by a Scot from the Outer Hebrides, Colonel Colin Mackenzie, on behalf of the East India Company.
Today, hundreds of monuments have been excavated. I’ll highlight just the main few here.
Hampi’s main Virupaksha Temple
The enormous Virupaksha Temple (above) is right in the centre of Hampi village, towering above its tiny streets. Believed to have been in constant use since the 7th century – long before the Vijaynagara Empire – it’s still a functioning temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and a profoundly important pilgrimage site. It is a stunning temple, really quite overpowering, and my favourite in India.
The temple complex is large, with several ante-chambers and pillared halls displaying some spectacular stone carvings. There’s a room at the back of the temple, easy to miss, in which you can peep through a pinhole to see an inverted image of the main tower – like a periscope.
In Hampi, expect to see monkeys frolicking around the temples and cows plodding through the streets (one actually ran into me!). But the Virupaksha Temple also has its very own temple elephant, named Lakshmi (the Hindu goddess of wealth). She appeared in good health, but bear in mind the appalling reputation of the lives of India’s captive elephants.
Everyday, Lakshmi goes down to the river to bathe, usually early in the morning. Ask in the temple the night before or just hang around by the river and you might get a glimpse of her frolicking in the water.
Just outside the Virupaksha Temple stand the ruins of the old bazaar, around 1km long (below). There, we were approached by an extremely knowledgeable (and formally accredited) guide, who took us on a four-hour tour of Hampi’s other ruins. You can do this by bicycle or rickshaw – I opted for the latter due to the heat, but the tour was well-planned with only a few minutes’ cycling between stops. I think it cost around Rs.400.
My favourite monument was the beautiful Lotus Mahal (above), part of the Zenana enclosure, a secluded area for royal women. Our guide pointed out the mixed Hindu and Islamic architectural influences. Next to this stand the Elephant Stables (below), 11 enclaves once home to the royal elephants. There’s also an interesting photography exhibition, comparing photos of Hampi taken in the mid-nineteenth century with today.
Other highlights within this former ‘Royal Centre’ included a stepped tank, which served the royal quarters and shows how well-irrigated the system was, and a beautiful carved statue of Vishnu from 1528 (both below). Slightly further north there’s the impressive Vitthala Temple, which has a famous stone chariot and pillared temples – while this temple is often paraded as Hampi’s most spectacular, I personally found the central Virupaksha Temple more striking. Also keep an eye out for the Hazara Rama Temple, which presents the stories of the Hindu epic Ramayana carved into stone along its walls.
With just a few hours I felt that we barely scratched the surface, given how large the excavated area is – anyone particularly interested in archaeology or this period would want to spend longer than a few days exploring.
My tips for visiting Hampi
- Hampi is a bit tricky to get to. The village is a 20-minute rickshaw ride from the nearest train station, Hospet, which is a six-hour journey from Goa. Worth the trek, however.
- Hampi is divided by the Tungabhadra river, with no bridges but a rickety ferry to divide the two. Tourists can stay on either side of the river, but this takes a bit of forethought: the southern side has all the monuments, the main village and connection to the road to the train station, but the northern side is more of a ‘hippie scene’, with a more spectacular landscape and much, much quieter.
- On the northern side of the river, it’s super fun to rent a scooter and zoom around the strange countryside; there are several temples to visit. But on the southern side renting a scooter is not allowed, I presume for the livelihoods of the rickshaw drivers.
- Possibly the best restaurant in the whole of India is Hampi’s “Mango Tree”, south of the river. The walls and ceilings are draped in different saris, and the food is cheap and absolutely delicious – I had coconut curry, chapatis and a coco-banana milkshake. Yum!
- Hampi is firmly on the tourist trail and full of guesthouses, but the quality leans more towards hippie than luxury. Tourist shops flood the tiny village’s few streets and the wares are noticeably cheaper than many other places around India.
- I recommend getting a guide, as there are very few information signs at Hampi’s monuments. We paid around Rs.400 for a half-day tour, and the guide was very knowledgeable and professional. Most monuments are free or very cheap entry, but the Lotus Mahal and Elephant Stables require an extra ticket (Rs.500 I think), which is also valid for the Vitthala Temple.
- For more historical detail check out the summary by UNESCO and this detailed list of Hampi’s monuments.