As the dust rising from the muddy terrain settles, I look at the towering edifice in front of me with awe and wonder despite the scorching sun hitting my eyes. Virupaksha temple stands majestically amid the ruins narrating the stories of the kings of the Vijayanagara Empire–a testimony to the golden period in the history of south India.
Situated in the northern part of Karnataka, the picturesque, sleepy town of Hampi are every backpacker’s dream, a pilgrim’s solace and a historian’s delight. Perhaps, no other place along the length and breadth of India romanticises the bygone era like the ruins of Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the banks of the River Tungabhadra, surrounded by hills stands the historically rich Hampi, home to some of Vijayanagara’s architectural marvels, including the Vittala and Virupaksha temples. The timeless ruins steeped in history speak volumes about the empire. Ratnakar Sadasyula in his book City of Victory: The Rise and Fall of Vijayanagara says: “For three centuries, the Vijayanagara Empire, stood like a mighty bulwark, protecting the Hindu dharma in the South and in the Deccan. It stood like a rock against the Muslim invasions that had ravaged and destroyed large parts of the North. Today it exists only in stones and stories, but its legacy would forever be remembered.”
Most of the art and architectural masterpieces created by the kings of Vijayanagara were destroyed by Islamic invasions. Virupaksha temple, on the other hand, seems to symbolise a phoenix rising from the ashes. On the south bank of Tungabhadra, the temple stands unperturbed by the blowing wind overlooking its contemporaries in ruins. This seventh-century temple which is dedicated to Lord Shiva has an interesting legend to it. It is said that the name Hampi was derived from Pampa, the ancient name of Tungabhadra. Pampa also happens to be the name of Lord Brahma’s daughter who was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. Impressed by her dedication, Shiva granted her a boon and Pampa asked Shiva to marry her. Hence, Shiva is also called Pampapati. Even to this day, their betrothal ceremony is part of the annual festivities in Hampi. With time, Shiva became popular as Virupaksha in Hampi. Virupaksha means oblique-eyed. The temple is dedicated to this incarnation of Shiva.
What started off as a small place of worship is, today, a magnificent temple that houses the idols of the god and the goddess known to belong in the seventh century. In the following centuries, the temple was made into a sprawling complex with towered gateways, pillared halls, flag and lamp posts. Inscriptions on the temple date back to the 9th and 10th centuries. There are murals inside the temple portraying stories from the Mahabharata.
Most of the remains in Hampi narrate folklores from the Vijayanagara Empire and some delve into mythology. Legend has it that Hakka and Bukka, the founders of the empire, spotted a hare being chased by a hound during a hunting expedition. Surprisingly, the meek hare became brave and chased the hound. This took the duo by surprise and they narrated the unusual sight to their spiritual guru Vidyaranya. He believed that this place had something special to offer and advised his disciples to shift their capital there. This is known to be the beginning of a golden period in the history of Hampi. It also marked the start of a glorious empire that ruled Hampi for the next 200 years.
On one hand, history talks about battles fought by these kings against their enemies. On the other, about the spectacular architectural capital of the empire. Art and architecture got their due in this town of boulders. But, nothing lasts forever.
The Vijayanagara Empire was defeated by the kings of Deccan sultanates who plundered and looted the palaces, temples and massacred people. The empire fell, people fled and cities wore a deserted look. What remained were the mute stone structures narrating stories of the rise and fall of a human civilisation and of the town that survived more than just time.