The landscape is desolate and eerie, littered with scattered temple stones and boulders as large as houses. In the far distance, I watch ambitious hikers that appear as tiny as ants, slowly approaching a few haphazardly leaning columns that once supported an impressive temple. Near me, a few visitors wander slowly around similarly ruined structures, picking through a plaza of carved stones worn down by centuries of neglect.
Now eerily desolate and echoing with subdued voices, magical Hampi was once the seat of a mighty empire, a medieval-era metropolitan hub bustling with commercial, spiritual, and political activity. After a disastrous military defeat, the empire crumbled, vanishing in just a few short months. This bloody history settles like a physical weight over the land, muffling conversations and subduing even the raucous, omnipresent monkeys feasting on coconut offerings. Despite the remote location and sometimes hostile environment, visitors are continually drawn to Hampi’s extensive ruins and sprawling landscape. Foreign tourists and local schoolchildren, distinguished researchers and amateur archaeologists — we are all brought together to this unforgettable site.
Wealth and Wonder
Built between the 14th and 16th centuries, the temples and palaces of Hampi are stunning for their intricate carvings and ornate decorations. Yet the ruins are remote, and the relatively difficult journey discourages some visitors. However, Hampi has never been a backwater. Once the seat of the Vijayanagar Empire, Hampi at its peak was an impressive medieval city, second only to Beijing in size and splendor.
Socially diverse and religiously tolerant, the Vijayanagar empire’s seat was a metropolitan hub that attracted travelers from around the world. Wealthy merchants traded at the bazaar, which buzzed constantly with economic and social life. The wealth of Hampi attracted large crowds and a vibrant society, but it also brought the unwanted attention of greedy enemies. As a result, Hampi was also a city constantly under threat. After repelling centuries of attacks, Hampi finally fell under a combined onslaught of five medieval dynasties, which won a decisive battle in 1565 CE.
Defeat and Destruction
Defeat was brutal. For six months, the victors massacred local residents and looted everything of value. Buildings and artifacts too large to steal were smashed with crowbars, destroyed with axes, and burnt in massive fires. Any remaining pieces of these once-stunning buildings were scattered to the winds.
Every structure — each intricate and beautiful palace, temple, and statue — was destroyed. From a teeming center of culture and economic activity, Hampi became a razed shell of its former self.
Today, the remains of the Vijayanagar Empire are still very visible throughout this area. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1986, Hampi includes the ruins of over 1,600 structures, including forts, temples, shrines, stables, and palaces. My visit to Hampi covers two days, with a full schedule of site visits — yet I still feel like I only begin to scratch the surface of this stunning area. There are more temples and ruins than I can count. Each unassuming mound of boulders reveals itself to be the remains of an ancient structure. I visit massive temples, marvel at looming statues, and am awed by minute details carved with skill and precision onto every column and corner.
One of the most memorable experiences is traveling on a coracle boat. Traditionally built of reed, saplings and hide, these bowl-shaped boats now ferry tourists from the Kodandarama Temple to our nearby project site, the Chandramauleshwar Temple. There, I meet a sadhu with a beaming grin, happy to pose for a portrait.
I explore the Chandramauleshwar ruins, talk with the local craftsmen, and eventually return to the coracle. My boatsman slowly paddles down the Tungabhadra River past yet more collapsing temples and haunting columns that hint at the buildings long since gone. Eventually, we rejoin the other coracle boatsmen, who greet us and continue to sit patiently by the river, waiting for the next tourists to ferry across the ages to a time of imperial splendor.
A Future of Hope
These waiting boatmen will be encouraged by Hampi’s projected future. As the population of India continues to grow, tourism is expected to expand in tandem with the rising number of inhabitants. The overwhelming majority of visitors I saw in Hampi were domestic tourists, traveling from the far corners of this vast subcontinent to visit one of its most famous sights. Official statistics affirm my observation; India’s Ministry of Tourism reported an 11.6 percent growth in domestic tourism between 2015 and 2016, and some sources estimate an increase of up to 25 percent in domestic tourism for 2017 and 2018.
This rise in tourism will no doubt be seen at Hampi, where the ruins — dramatic evidence of past wealth, splendor, and eventual destruction — already draw enthusiastic crowds throughout the year. I am lucky to have visited this magnificent site and eager for others to experience its history as I have.
About Global Heritage Fund (GHF)
Global Heritage Fund’s mission is to sustainably preserve the most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in developing regions of the world. With this mission, it also works to empower local communities through heritage preservation. Believing in a future that is beyond monuments, GHF partners with local people, communities, organizations, and governments to both preserve the heritage of the past and ensure that it is a beneficial part of the present.