India: Hampi

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The approach to the ancient temple of Virupaksha at Hampi, with its vibrant hubbub of bazaar life, is as close as the modern traveller is likely to get to stepping back half a millennium into Medieval India. But the very elements that made up this scene are being systematically cleared away by the authorities in an attempt to spruce up the site to encourage tourists. Ironically, it may well have the opposite effect.

Hampi, in the Karnataka district of south-west India, was the last capital of the great Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar. The fabulous Dravidian temples, palaces, and galleries of the markets that bedazzled travellers to the region so many centuries ago, can still be seen along the shores of the Tungabhadra River, whose waters fed the local canals and were the life-blood of the ancient city. A half-hour motorised rickshaw ride from Hospet station brings visitors past huge granite outcrops to the outskirts of the site, from where the last descent provides breathtaking views across to the towering carved gateway of Virupaksha temple – a magnificent structure that dominates all around it, and is still a lively focus for about 50,000 religious pilgrims every year.

The 720m long avenue, flanked on either side by 15th-century megalithic arcades called mandapas, is known as the ‘bazaar’. It leads to Matanga Hill, capped by another temple. The walk along the bazaar to its western terminus and the impact of the Medieval gopura (or towered gatehouse) of the Virupaksha temple is breathtaking: it is alive with people dressed in brightly coloured costumes, chickens, cows, and buffalo, as well as rickshaws, bicycles, and assorted other contrivances weaving their way through.

But all that is now changing. Local authorities began some time ago to clear away many of the intrusive bazaar stallholdings and dwellings that had grown up in the mandapas, so that the columns and shady interiors could be better seen. Instead, it has had the unfortunate effect of emphasising the building’s incomplete and ruinous state. Then, in July last year, matters worsened: bulldozers were brought in to remove the bazaar’s shops, tea houses, and dwellings that had served the needs of the pilgrims and tourists. Inevitably, the bustling dynamism and colour that evoked the true life of ancient Vijayanagara and was so enjoyed by visitors has now gone. Meanwhile, the dispossessed, deprived of their livelihoods, will almost inevitably resort to hassling visitors unmercifully outside the gates, as they do outside the barriers of the sterilised Fatephur Sikri, further to the north in Rajasthan.

Yet this is not the first adverse impact modernisation has had on the area: across the Tungabhadra River lies Anegundi, also a site of archaeological interest, where evidence of earlier settlement includes a hillfort and rock art in nearby caves. In 2009, a rushed attempt to complete construction work on an ugly iron bridge across the Tungabhadra River resulted in its collapse, and the death of eight workers.

There are still no guidelines set down for new construction in the village; there is no policy to monitor developments or services archaeologically. New ashrams are springing up without any attempt to integrate them visually into the landscape, and smaller unplanned developments just happen – planning permission being seen as just too tedious and drawn out a business to go through.

It was only at Hampi that one found a real-life living bazaar, linked with an active historic temple almost exactly as it would have been in the 14th to 16th centuries. Medieval Vijayanagara’s end was quick and violent, but it was not wholly erased. Cesare Federici, the Italian explorer, in 1567 described the city as ‘not altogether destroyed yet the houses stand still, but empty, and there is dwelling in them nothing, as it is reported, but tygers and other wild beasts’.

Vijayanagara’s destroyers, the sultans of the Deccan, chose to live further north. Abandoned, Hampi’s survival was ensured, frozen in time as a ruined Medieval city of astounding sophistication, set in its barren rosy-hued granite boulder-strewn landscape. One of many ancient writers, the Portuguese explorer Domingo P·es, described Hampi in 1520 as the ‘best provided city in the world’. Today, what was a unique living monument, linked with southern India’s greatest kings, may be reduced to little more than a lifeless ruin.

This article can be found in issue 51 of Current World Archaeology.

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