Yes, it was a city. But that’s selling it short.
It was the namesake capital of the Vijayanagara Empire in India. A place of unimaginable wealth. A seemingly impregnable fortress with seven walls that ringed streets dripping with diamonds, rubies, pearls, emeralds, the porcelain of China and the perfumes of Araby.
At its height in 1500 AD, it spanned 155 square kilometres. Stone aqueducts fed fresh water to some half a million people. It was the second-largest city on Earth, behind only Beijing.
And then it fell.
Just 65 years later, one of the greatest cities the world has known was ground into the dust. Its towers toppled, its buildings burned, its temples looted. The capital of an empire that had stood for two centuries, abandoned and left to the tigers. A city of kings, all but forgotten.
What happened to Vijayanagara, the ‘city of victory’? How does an empire rise to control the whole of South India, build monuments and palaces – and then fade to nothing? How is it now that the people of the quiet riverside village of Hampi, located halfway between Bangalore and Hyderabad, are making a life in the ruins of a once great civilisation?
Vijayanagara was founded in 1336, when a group of Hindu rulers from South India banded together to fend off the Muslim sultans to the north. And all the building blocks are there, quite literally. Ascend to the top of one of the hills of Hampi – Malyavanta, Hemakuta or Matanga – and you’ll understand.
The ruins of the empire sit in a lush valley, bounded by rivers to the north and south and girdled by a staggering mass of bouldered granite. Boulders sit on top of each other in physics-defying implausibility, worn into curious shapes by billions of years of erosion.
It’s these boulders which the people harnessed to create their kingdom. Together with the iron-rich soil, they had everything they needed to hurry along the billion-year process of shaping rock.
And shape it they did. Granite is everywhere in the remains of the empire. Blocks a metre long by a half-metre thick line the walls of the city, built into and around the boulders they sprang from. Tall columns stand throughout Hampi, forming shopping arcades for the market streets which line the approach to every temple in the city, stalls which once glittered with jewels, silks and fruits. And then there are the temples themselves: from the simple and unpretentious to the entirely ornate.
The high watermark of the style lies at the Vitthala Temple, built in the decades surrounding the height of the empire. It’s a sculptural showcase of power, a complex in which no surface is unadorned with gods, creatures and humanity. The temple contains the massive Stone Chariot, an ornately carved giant carriage that’s Hampi’s primary claim to fame (it’s featured on the Indian 50-rupee note). And you have to understand: carving granite is hard. The stone is unforgiving. It flakes and chips. A single wrong strike and you’re starting over again, but with a smaller piece.
I am not learning this alone. My guide is Nagendra B, a historian with the Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace resort, just a few minutes’ drive from Hampi. Over a series of guided walks (and a brief journey by coracle), I learn about the creation – and the dissolution – of a civilisation.
Nagendra beckons me to a carving in a temple wall, one I’d just breezed past. It seems indistinct, confusing, a mistaken mass of some animal or the other.
‘This carving shows why Hampi was successful,’ Nagendra explains. ‘These two creatures share a single head.’
He covers half of the carving with his hand and an elephant swims into focus. ‘This is the elephant, representing the king and the nobility,’ he says.
He covers the other half and a bull stands out in relief. ‘And this is a bull,’ he notes, ‘representing the people. It’s only when they’re working together, as one, that civilisation succeeds.’
In Vijayanagara, the bull and the elephant came apart. The great king Krishna Deva Raya died in 1529 and was followed by a weaker ruler, and a weaker one after that, then a weaker still. The vassals of the state started jockeying for position – and in 1565 the sultans of the north, sensing an opportunity, made war once more.
Nagendra shrugs. ‘With empires throughout history, how else do the rich lose power? Traitorous men and kings who do not keep their people happy.’
The king marched to battle with 100,000 men. He did not return. The defeat was absolute and the triumphant sultans came for an all-but undefended city. Over the course of a brutal five months, Hampi was razed into the earth. Its riches – and they were extraordinary – went home with the victors.
The city died.
The empire moved capitals. It limped on for another 80 years, a shadow of its former glory. Hampi remained empty. An abandoned city, a parable for the risks of power and ambition – had anyone been left to remember it. Two years after the sack of the city, an Italian traveller reported that it was home to nothing but ‘tygres and other wild beasts’.
Eventually, people returned. But not to live in the grand city. Farmers, not kings, used the granite they found strewn on the ground.
‘My grandfather is from Hampi,’ says Nagendra. ‘His home was built with that stone.’ Even today, many buildings in Hampi are built around those columns, the gaps filled in by whitewashed brickwork – just as the builders of Vijayanagara flowed their granite walls around the boulders far more ancient than they.
The remains of the city were charted by the British in 1800. But, says Nagendra, it wasn’t until India’s independence in the mid-20th century that archaeological efforts – the cataloguing of some 1,600 surviving forts, temples, aqueducts and more – began in earnest. The area became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1986 but remained quiet: an under-the-radar destination for backpackers, barely known even within India.
Yet now there’s change in the air. The people of Hampi village are set to reach a settlement that will relocate them from the site, allowing the archaeologists in. A year and a half ago flights were launched from Bangalore and Hyderabad to the local airport, transforming a punishing seven-hour drive into an hour-long air journey. Roads are being improved: by next year the ride will be just four-and-a-half hours. And more is on the way: ‘Hampi by Night’, an illuminated (and narrated) tour of the monuments, as well as adventure sports like paragliding.
The Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace is another example. Opened three years ago, it’s a luxe resort designed in the Indo-Islamic style of Hampi, taking direct design cues from the royal buildings which remain standing. Beyond the suites and the infinity pools, it’s working with the local community to provide a sense of history to all who visit: to ensure that unlike 400 years ago, the city is remembered.
Hampi will not remain a lost city for long. The people are returning.
But not just yet.
Nagendra takes us on a trek along the riverside of Hampi at sunset. We turn a corner and come out on to the vast market street of the Achyutaraya Temple, lying in a narrow valley between ubiquitous granite hills. The air is quiet and the palm trees wave. We are alone: our only companion is a dog who followed us from the river. The sunset blooms the buildings into orange. We feel like explorers, discoverers. The first to set foot in this place since the fall of an empire.
The first to rediscover a lost city.