By Sharon St Joan
Centuries ago, as today, travelers waited at crossing points to go across the Tungabadra. Nearby are stone platforms no longer in use where the heat of the Indian summer was broken by leaves overhead as they rested in the shade waiting for their turn to cross the great river. Round boats called coracles would carry them to the island just across the way.
A few yards downhill was a small shrine to Ganesha where they could ask the God’s blessing for their trip.
From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, Hampi was the great capital of the Vijanagara dynasty, which ruled all of south India. Many of the citizens had leisure time; they were well off, and their city, estimated to be three times the size of Paris at the time, may have been the largest and wealthiest city in the world.
The British economic historian, Angus Maddison, has described India as the richest country on earth for well over a thousand years, possessing from one quarter to one third of the entire global wealth – until the advent of the British.
How short our memories are that some of us do not even think of the ancient lands of Asia, Africa, and South America in any way other than as “developing” countries struggling to catch up.
The Tungabadra is a broad, pale, blue-gray river, wide, as many Indian rivers are, nearly a mile across, it winds its way along the border of Hampi, narrowing and deepening, as it runs through a gorge with spectacular huge boulders on either side. These boulders, scattered throughout the area, are a distinctive feature of Hampi. Some are as big as houses; looking for all the world as if a giant hand has swept them up and dropped them again in great heaps; they line the roadsides, as well as the horizons, in towering piles.
A beautiful river with many small green islands, the Tungabadra, along with the amazing boulders, forms natural defensive barriers that helped protect the city for hundreds of years — reasons that this site was originally chosen to be the capitol of south India.
The line of the Vijayanagara kings who ruled this area began with two brothers, Harihara I and Bukka Raya I. It is said that, as boys, they were enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam, in 1327, when their father was taken prisoner by advancing forces.
The two boys grew up, took back their freedom, and in 1336, they set up their capitol city at Hampi, and spent the rest of their lives staging a firm resistance to the Moslem intruders who were sweeping down the western regions of India from the north. The line of rulers and the empire they established held its ground against repeated incursions for around two hundred years.
Even though the city of Vijayanagara, or Hampi, was eventually overrun, the brave centuries-long stand of the Vijayanagara kings and their people meant that regions of India’s far south, like Tamil Nadu and Travancore (which was divided up later in the twentieth century), were able to retain their freedom, and unlike the central and most of the northern states, were never taken over and ruled by invaders.
Since the sacking of Hampi in 1565, the city has never been rebuilt. No one lives there now, but the area has many people all the same. Tourists visit, especially from all over India. Guides offer their services, there are cold drink stands, and young boys, some clearly destined to be future entrepreneurs, sell guide books.
No small family houses remain at Hampi, but hundreds of fascinating stone structures still stand in the approximately two mile by three mile area south of the river, which is a UNESCO heritage site.
Many of the temples have been excavated in recent years, and archeological work is ongoing. One can walk up sloping rock hills to visit palaces, giant sculptures, and beautiful sites of worship, peering into the windows of the past. Long stone bazaars now stand empty – once they thronged with crowds where merchants sold diamonds, rubies, and gold; others fruits and vegetables, or simply trinkets and bangles.
An impressive 162 feet high dam has been built on the Tungabadra River to provide electricity and irrigation to the region around Hampi. Completed in 1953, it creates a large reservoir and the dam itself is lit up at night with colored lights. Despite the dam and the seemingly huge quantities of water, the area is suffering from a severe drought.
Trees dot the hillsides, some with leaves faded from the lack of rain. There are many date palms too, not originally native to south India.
In the fading light of the sunset, one can sense the presence of ancient spirits among the immense sculptures and temples; in them the glory and majesty of this great empire lives on. There is a gentleness in the beautifully carved sculptures and a lingering memory of the heroic strength of those who fought well to defend their land.
Top photo: The Tungabadra river where people can cross by boat to an island.
Second photo: A Ganesha shrine.
Third photo: Huge boulders, a natural feature of this region.
Fourth photo: The Tungabadra where it widens.
Fifth photo: Boys selling guide books.
Sixth photo: Tourists and a toppled pillar.
Seventh photo: This used to be a row of shops.
Eighth photo: Palms around a little shrine.
© Text and photos, Sharon St Joan, 2017