Between Ruin and Glory: A Journey to an Enchanting Space

From the enchantment that dwells in her mind about her four-day tour to Hampi, Sourabha Rao tries to haul out the emotions that swelled in her when she was there and wonders how they change every time she tries to summon them up to the form of written word.

The four days were days of delirium, because the idea of time became even more of a complex one to comprehend.

Cut away from the routine, entering that part of Hampi where the ruins are, was like slipping into an era in the past: becoming a contemporary of emperors and subjects of the then Vijayanagara, whose land was guarded by the confluence of rivers Tunga and Bhadra on one side, and defensible hills formed by rocks and boulders on the other three sides.

Already afflicted with an amusing cognitive dispute, when the magnificent gopura of the Virupaksha Temple loomed into view, I knew there was going to be no recovery from the unbearable joy of walking the same streets and temple alleys and pillared mantapas that were once, for all you know, trodden by the Vijayanagara kings and queens and the brilliant artists who created such marvels out of nothing more than stone and concrete.

 

© Neeta Shankar

© Neeta Shankar

 

There’s a dark room in the Virupaksha Temple complex where the reflection of the regal gopura looks inverted on a wall. This isn’t co-incidence or too charming an architectural accident; it was built with precise calculation at a time even before Leonardo da Vinci had put such an idea on just paper, theoretically, and there are books that discuss the science behind this arrangement.

When I walked out of the Virupaksha Temple after sitting by the pushkarini on whose tealy waters trembled the reflection of the raaya gopura (the ornate, monumental tower built at a temple entrance), my vision was treated to the Bazaar Street.

What’s the point of giving up on grand delusions when I was in the land where gold, diamonds and precious stones were sold on the streets, like it was that simple?  So, I tricked my mind to hallucinate such a scene, almost hearing people bargaining and the sound of diamonds being weighed and banter in the background.

This fantasy was soon shaken up by what a friend had to say about the omnipresent rocks of Hampi: “How have they silently existed like this for ages, almost mocking the laws of Physics? I imagine a terrifying domino effect if even one gives up on how it has been so far.”

I trembled at the thought, but we had walked further enough to see the Tungabhadra River flowing with such grace, she rewrote the definition of the word for me.

There’s another temple that hid behind the Kodanda Rama Temple, in the shade of a tall fig tree. It was hard to miss the latter because it’s on the main path, but the Yantrodharaka Anjaneya Temple was just the kind of offbeat place I yearned for.

I remember climbing up the stone steps leading to a narrow white-washed passage, and walking past it was like crossing a threshold to even more ancient a time, when sages lived simple lives in huts and such primitive dwellings by the riverside, meditating under the Ashvattha, contemplating the meaning of the life here and the life beyond death. The crimsons and pale greens of the tender leaves of this sacred fig tree added more colour to my hopeless romanticism, and I wondered if it was places and experiences like these that made us realise that to be spiritual in one’s ways of living had nothing to do with one’s faith, or the lack of it, in a religion.

 

© Rajiv Shyamsundar

© Rajiv Shyamsundar

 

The gopura of the famous Vitthala Temple was not intact unlike that of the Virupaksha Temple. And this filled me with a bit of resentment even before I entered this temple complex: if art such as this couldn’t stop humans from wreaking ruin for the sake of land and power, what else possibly could? It was a numbing conundrum that the same species blessed with such creativity as building a town like Hampi was capable of destroying it as well.

 

© Rajiv Shyamsundar

© Rajiv Shyamsundar

 

Inside, the idol of Vitthala wasn’t found in the temple sanctum, and most of the idols were defaced, brutally beheaded, many of them even stolen. But soon enough, I tided over the wave of resentment to reach the shore of fascination, and found my jaw dropping at the sight of the renowned stone chariot, which was juxtaposed by pillared complexes where famous artists and dancers are known to have performed during festivals and other celebrations.

 

© Neeta Shankar

© Neeta Shankar

 

I was then feeling the rush to stand on the huge stage called the Mahanavami Dibba which was used by the kings to watch the celebrations of the nine-day festival, Mahanavami. And when I did, later that day, feeling dizzy with all of the open space around it, I was devastated by how calmly all the ruins had remained, how they simply were.

These stones never revelled in glory when they were given certain forms, and they never fretted when they were deformed. And I wondered why a world that stays so unperturbed on the outside struggles so much only inside us. If whatever happens happens in our minds, why do external influences such as these places trigger a set of emotions, questions and conflicts that nothing else does?

 

© Neeta Shankar

© Neeta Shankar

 

These questions were soon coaxed to retreat by the massive but adorable Sasivekalu and Kadalekalu Ganesha idols I later saw. It was utterly enthralling to think how these idols were carved out of huge monolith rocks and placed in manatapas built especially for them.

 

© Neeta Shankar

© Neeta Shankar

 

Then there were the Badava Linga and the popular Lakshmi Narasimha statues to fill me with more awe. I saw a bilva leaf near the Badava Linga and thought the scene was just perfect, because that’s Shiva’s favourite as mythology has it.

 

© Neeta Shankar

© Neeta Shankar

 

But Lakshmi Narasimha – he induced a terrifying wonder in me, with his imposing presence, even with a severed arm and his Lakshmi taken away from his lap. I later tried to hold as much as I could at the Hemakuta Hills, from where the upper half of the Virupaksha Temple was visible again. By this time, my feet were throbbing, but how could one miss Lotus (Kamala) Mahal, the Zanana Enclosure, the Elephant Stable, and the Queen’s Bath?

 

© Neeta Shankar

© Neeta Shankar

 

Lotus petals always in the blooming, that’s how Kamala Mahal mesmerised me with its flamboyant design. Even the elephants used by the royals of Vijayanagara lived no less of an extravagant life; one sweeping look at the Elephant Stable and you will know what I’m talking about. Beholding the Queen’s Bath, I couldn’t stop amusing myself: how awesome is it to have such a grand place for a bath every single morning! A pang of envy, I must admit, troubled me for as long as I was there. Blessed were the women of royalty, at least when it came to beginning the day like that!

 

© Rajiv Shyamsundar

© Rajiv Shyamsundar

 

Later that evening I watched the sun set from atop Matanga Hill – one of the most magical experiences I have lived. The wind was as nomadic and ruthless, and every step had to be carefully placed on the rocks, but once I found a place from where I could see the sun slithering away behind the clouds, submitting to a state of devotion to the world we inhabited was easy.

 

© Neeta Shankar

© Neeta Shankar

 

The next evening was ushered in at the Purandara Mantapa, a place that will remain extremely special to me, I being someone whose soul always basks in the blissfulness of classical music.

 

© Rajiv Shyamsundar

© Rajiv Shyamsundar

 

As history has it, the Vijayanagara rulers not only encouraged their own style of architecture, but also promoted various forms of art during their times. It was during this time that the Vedas were interpreted in simpler language for the laymen to understand the gist of them, it was during this time that Carnatic music was reworked by men of talent, and this is the place where Purandara Dasa, one of the main proponents of the South Indian system of classical music, is known to have sat by the river Tungabhadra, working on most of his compositions. You could sit at the same mantapa and hum all those ragas of joy and melancholy that rain in your heart as the river’s sweet gurgles add to harmony. That’s what I did, an experience that inspired me to even compose my own poem there:

and with a devastating tenderness
and poise
she reminds you what you easily forget:
all your soulsongs fading in discord
can still, and always, be harmonized
like the sweet gurgles of her
as she flows gently over hard rocks

It started drizzling when I was trying to hum a raga and I knew there couldn’t have been a better afterword to my Hampi journey than this one. Water falling on water, the world was now singing in a raga I couldn’t even recognise, and it was all the more absorbing even in my ignorance, my smallness.

I had to leave Hampi that night, but I knew I would come back to know more and to see more of what little I’ve known through reading about its history. There were more places that I still hadn’t seen (Anjanadri Hills, to name one), and it just became another excuse to return.

For in Hampi even stones sing, if you have the heart to listen to them and perhaps even sing along. And the bewilderment I began this story with, hasn’t ceased to exist. With that perpetual longing, I hope to go to Hampi again to come back with more vignettes.

Because when it comes to Hampi, what exists somewhere between ruin and glory is a story – a story worth telling.

 

Take a look at our upcoming Hampi Photography Tour here.

Categories: Articles, Featured, Travel
Sourabha Rao

Sourabha is a staff writer at Toehold who dexterously gives verbal form to the inexpressible, and with her passion for travel, weaves immersive stories that transcend space and dissolve time.

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