Exploring The Ruin City of Vijayanagara

For anyone with dreams of Indiana Jones-style adventuring, the Hampi ruins provide the perfect setting -- an ancient city with isolated ruins scattered among impossibly balanced wind-smoothed boulders and immense stretches of verdant landscape. Listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site, various excavations have uncovered evidence to suggest that Vijayanagara was occupied as long ago as the 3rd-century-B.C. Mauryan era. During early medieval times, armies were regularly dispatched to the Deccan by the Delhi Sultanate as part of its campaign to establish an empire that would encompass the whole of India. During one such campaign in the early 14th century, the invading forces captured Harihara and Bukka, two princes of Warangal, and took them to Delhi, where they fell in with the Sultanate. This allegiance eventually saw Harihara being crowned king of the region that is today known as Hampi. In celebration, Harihara lay the foundations of Vijayanagara, his new capital, on the southern banks of the Tungabhadra. His brother, Bukka, succeeded him 20 years later and ensured widespread support by issuing an edict that granted all religions equal protection. The monarchs who followed extended patronage to all manner of artists, poets, philosophers, and academics, effectively making Vijayanagara a center of learning that, in its grandeur, captivated visitors from as far away as Arabia, Portugal, and Italy.

The kingdom reached its zenith during the reign of Krishna Deva Raya (1509-29), when international trade flourished under progressive commercial practices and foreign trade agreements. Early accounts of the city tell of its massive fortifications, broad boulevards, grand gateways, efficient irrigation systems, and splendid civic amenities. The kingdom of Vijayanagara fell in 1565 when five allied Deccan sultans laid siege to the city, which they then apparently ransacked -- their soldiers looting, killing, and destroying at will.

While some of the individual ruins can only be visited upon purchase of a ticket, most of Hampi is a veritable free-for-all, with tame security in the form of a handful of guards at the major monuments. This means that you can mix and match your itinerary as you see fit, moving between the different locations in a taxi or -- if you're up for it -- on a bicycle. Before you set off, pick up information or engage the services of an official guide from the government tourist office in Hampi. You can see Hampi's highlights in a morning if you set out early enough. However, it's spread over a vast area, and exploring can be quite exhausting, particularly in the midday heat -- don't overdo it, or even the most impressive monuments begin to look like more of the same. In fact, with Vitthala Temple now illuminated at night and plans afoot to light up more of Hampi's main monuments, it may be worth returning at twilight.

Hampi Bazaar is a broad, dusty boulevard lined with stalls and restaurants. It leads to the entrance of Virupaksha Temple, which predates the Vijayanagara kingdom yet remains a center of living Hindu faith (even though Hindu idols have been removed from the surrounding temples). Virupaksha's towering goparum is lavishly sculpted and rises several stories; within its courtyards, monkeys and children careen around ancient pillars, while a sad-faced temple elephant takes tips for much-rehearsed blessings granted with her trunk. In the far right corner of the complex, tucked within a chamber, look for the shadow of the main goparum, which falls -- miraculously, it would seem -- as an inverted image on the temple wall, created by light passing through a small window. South of Virupaksha Temple is a temple housing a massive Shiva lingam (phallic symbol) standing in a pool of water. Carved from a single rock, the lingam is adjacent to a fantastic monolithic statue of Narasimha, the man-lion avatar of Vishnu. Although partially damaged, the one-piece carving dating to the early 16th century is one of the finest sculptures at Hampi.

Some distance from the bazaar, on a high elevation, is the spectacular Vitthala Temple, dedicated to an incarnation of Vishnu, and one of the most fabulous and famous of Hampi's monuments. One of Hinduism's most enduring images, an ornate stone chariot, is found here. With solid stone wheels that can turn on their axles, the chariot faces a shaded dance hall where ancient musical dramas were once played out and from where you can now enjoy panoramic views of Vijayanagara. The pillars of the temple are commonly referred to as "musical pillars," each one producing a different note when tapped.

Nearby, the King's Balance was once a scalelike instrument used to measure out grain or even gold against the weight of the king. The weighed item was then given to the priests (or to the poor, depending on your guide's story).

The royal enclosure incorporates the ruined palaces where the Vijayanagara kings would have lived and held court. Not much survives, but you can still visit Hazara Rama Temple, where the royals went to worship, a small stepped tank, and Mahanavami Dibba, a platform where performances and entertainments were held. On the outskirts of the royal complex, you need to buy a ticket to see the zenana enclosure, where the two-story Indo-Saracenic pavilion known as Kamala (Lotus) Mahal features massive pillars, delicately punctuated arches, and fine stucco ornamentation; its unusual design blends elements of Muslim and Hindu architecture. Within the same enclosure are quarters believed to have been used by Hampi's Amazonian female guards, described by several Portuguese travelers. Just outside the enclosure are the superb domed Elephant Stables.

13km (8 miles) east of Hospet, Belary District. Guides can be hired through the government tourist office in Hampi Bazaar for Rs 300 half-day and Rs 500 full day. Entrance to Virupaksha Temple Rs 2; 6am-12:30pm and 2-8pm. Entrance to both Lotus Mahal and Elephant Stables Rs 220; 8am-6pm. The Hampi Festival takes place Nov 3-5.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.