My first trip to Hampi took place over a long, empty weekend. It was the kind of south-Indian November where the sun and the clouds played their everyday magic, allowing for long, winding strolls through the ancient ruins.
Back then, with a less than vague idea of the Vijayanagara Empire, I was anything but a discerning traveller in Hampi. The smartphone invasion was a few years away and my shoestring budget was not enough for a guide. As the bus wound its way through the deserted streets of Hospet, the sun crawled out of the night, and I got my first glimpse of what was to be a fascinating destination. I haggled over the price of a map I could barely comprehend, and set out to explore this landscape of pot-bellied rocks and intricately carved temples.
My first stop was a row of symmetrical chambers with rounded ceilings. I didn’t need the sign to tell me these were the elephant stables of old. I wandered through these inter-connected halls and stared up at the hooks in the centre of the domed ceilings. ‘That’s where the mahouts would fasten the ropes that kept the royal elephants from leaving.’ A guide frowned at me as he described the architecture of these halls to a group of paying tourists.
I wandered off and stood rooted two hundred meters from one of the entrances to the Virupaksha Temple. I found it hard to believe this colossal structure dated back to the 7th century. I was enamoured by the fractal carvings on its walls and pillars. The aesthetic sense of these anonymous artisans was at par with their geometrical precision making the entire structure look like a breathing sculpture.
I spent close to an hour gazing at the stone chariot located inside the Vittala Temple Complex. The ornate carvings on the base depict scenes from mythological battles and the chariot itself seemed as if it could simply roll off the dais. The chariot resembled a miniature Dravidian temple because of its carvings. I resisted the urge to run my fingers along the designs afraid I might damage what is easily one of the most riveting sights of Hampi.
After a point, I found myself in a haze that stems from peering directly at Hampi’s leftover architectural brilliance. I followed a group of tourists making their way to the summit of Anjaneya Hill. Arrows painted on boulders, and monkeys chattering among the branches, led me to a clearing. From that vantage point, littered with tourists like me, the sky was swathed in purple, birds swooped like shadows across the glistening horizon, and the Tungabhadra snaked its way across the paddy fields. I knew, then and there, this was not going to be my only visit to Hampi.
Since that first spur-of-the-moment trip, I’ve read as much as I could find about the Vijayanagara Empire, its blistering rise as a medieval utopia and it’s ferocious downfall. The next couple of times I visited Hampi, I found a renewed sense of discovery and admiration for this group of monuments. Memories of that first visit are still fresh in my mind because they represent a moment in time when I stumbled upon living artifacts of a nearly forgotten era. In spite of being clueless in Hampi, its beautiful ruins got me hooked to a history, both magical and tragic.