Vijayanagar, the City of Victory

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Vijayanagara rose from the granite riches of the Deccan Plateau as the imperial city of South India. Between 1336 and 1646, the empire flourished. Trade with China, Persia, the Middle East, and Europe from its Indian Ocean ports sent its spices, gems, and timber throughout the world. These were the 'Indies' that Columbus was seeking via a western route.

Descriptions of this capital, defy logic in terms of their grandiose and flowery writing--a city full of diamonds, gold, and roses. Nevertheless, the ruins of the Royal Center and the Sacred Center of this city conjure feelings of something that was once powerful and sacred.

Arriving by bus with a bus of locals, Natsu from Japan, and Rupa, an Indian-German, I looked around and the dozens of ruins, surrounded by an entire city stretching for tens of square kilometers across a rugged terrain of granite boulder outgrops. As Natsu had only one day to visit, we watched the sunset and sunrise from the hilltops near Hampi, the small town now existing in the heart of the ruins.

Rupa and I stayed a while longer, so for a couple of days, we explored the ruins, ate under the shade at the Mango Tree restaurant or at Vicky's Guesthouse rooftop restaurant, and drank lassies in the hot sun. At mid-day, the sun baked the rocks, so we visited the ruins during the morning and evening, when the sun was more forgiving.

One day we took a bike ride through the Royal Center, where immense city walls, palace remains, an elephant stable, an underground temple, and several royal temples cover a vast area. Rupa was riding a neon-purple bicycle named "Miss India," which became her nickname as we biked from place to place. In the evening, we walked around Hampi's main street in search of the best lassie to quench our thirsts. I drank four lassies, a slight overdose, to recover from the heat, although lassies don't really quench your thirst.

Other times, I walked around the ruins alone, for a different feeling, stopping at the goddess temple next to the Tungabhadra River, where fishermen cast their nets and the energy of the land was strong. This was a good place to contemplate the way the temples blended with nature. A line of mud showed where floods deposited silt in one riverine temple. Still another temple gopura, the Virupaksha Temple, seemed to jut from the granite itself.

Aside from the vastness of the city ruins and attempting to picture what the city was like five hundred years ago, before it fell into decay like all empires eventually do, I was interested in the prolific bas-relief carvings adorning the columns. Hexagrams, pentagrams, decagrams, avatars of Vishnu, people in various forms and personalities, flowers, trees, and more graced almost every column, carved from slabs pried from granite boulders. Islamic and Chinese motifs also graced temples and mahals, and some carvings reminded me of Egyptian or Christian motifs ("is that Horus?"). These carvings told of the people in the past, their myths, and their relationship to nature, to other lands, and the spirit.

The carvings of Yali also caught my attention. These mythical beasts guard most of the temples of Vijayanagar. It seemed as though these beasts as well as the lion and Vishnu's avatar as the Man-lion Narasimha dominated the theme of many temples. The Yali reminded me of Mr. Potato Head, in a way, a mythical toy. "I think the rhino nose and its horn is best," said one priest. "No way...definitely the elephant trunk."

Still, I was most intrigued at the temples that blended with the landscape and the carvings on boulders, sometimes hidden, sometimes more obvious. The architects and stone carvers of Hampi definitely wanted people to observe in many different ways.

In the end, Vijayanagar, which means "City of Victory" experienced defeat, and the capital sits abandoned as testimony to Southern India's rich history. From here, I will begin exploring India's south, so this was a good place to begin.
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Where I stayed
Vicky's Guesthouse
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