Hampi – The Pearl of Karnataka, India

Friday, 10 January 2014

From chapter 10 of the book “Elegance and Dignity – Stories from India”

Hampi is a village in northern Karnataka State of India, on the banks of Tungabhadra river and within the ruins of Vijayanagara, the former capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. The city of the ancient Vijayanagara continues to be an important religious centre, housing the Virupaksha Temple, as well as several other monuments belonging to the old city.

In the area is located a large number of buildings and monuments that originally belonged to the ancient city and Hampi is located in the centre of the ancient site of Vijayanagara. Ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.

The central areas of the city, which include what are now called the Royal Centre and the Sacred Centre, extend over an area of at least 40 km². The natural setting for the city is a hilly landscape, spotted by numerous granite boulders. The Tungabhadra river runs through it, and provides protection from the north. Beyond the hills, on the south bank on which the city was built, a plain extends further to the south. Large walls and fortifications of hewn granite defended the centre of the city. The city flourished between the 14th century and 16th century, during the golden age of the Vijayanagar empire. During this time, the empire was often in conflict with the Muslim kingdoms which had been established in the northern Deccan. The victorious Muslim armies proceeded to raze, depopulate, and destroy the city and its Hindu temples and icons.


Even if the empire continued to exist, thereafter it went through a slow and long decline, the original capital was not reoccupied or rebuilt. It has not been occupied since.

Recently, several projects to redevelop the area have been put in place, the bazaar area that occupied the first row of columns on the sacred avenue has been reallocated. This has caused riots and protests, but it was one of the crucial steps to redevelop the area for tourism, supported by UNESCO itself. Hampi receives thousands of tourists (the last decade has been a boom time for tourism in Hampi, with the visitors on the rise from one million to 1.3 million between 2009 and 2010), but the highest percentage is made of pilgrims attracted to this holy place, not of foreign tourists. Tourism has the potential to become a resource for local development by improving living standards and rising the level of infrastructures and services, yet it can also be detrimental to the area and the society it supports.

The concentration of population and of tourism activities within the most sensitive area has, in the recent past, resulted in several conflicts of varying degree and nature. Unregulated development, uncontrolled expansion of tourism activities, rural-urban migration, shifting of livelihood, changes in lifestyles, fragmentation of the social structure specially at the household level, these are the big risks.

Ruins of the ancient city as well as temples, or what remains of them, are still inhabited places, daily used by the population and the visiting pilgrims. There are also many homeless people who sleep here, even families, you see them in the evening while preparing their simple beds made of towels and gathering around a little light or just staying under the moon. The tropical climate encourages this lifestyle and ensures acceptable outdoor living conditions, except in the monsoon season. It is an India out of time, seemingly indifferent to its modernism, simple and naive. These places are considered sacred and many go there for pilgrimage, they sleep wherever is viable.

The Tungabhadra river was the lifeblood of the capital. Many well-developed channels brought water to the capital. These channels also fed cultivable areas of the walled city and beyond. The features were so advanced to be maintained by the Tungabhadra River Authority in their projects of 1950. The conservation and recycling of water had acquired enormous importance in arid areas.

There were several irrigated areas within the walled city making the fortress very self-sufficient and able to withstand long sieges. Rivers and collection tanks, today as in the days of the Empire, occupy a vital role for irrigation as well as for the local ecosystem, in many regions of South India.


They are a source of drinking water for rural communities and for their livestock as for fish-farming, but also to recharge the groundwater, to control floods, etc. However, the most significant supply has drastically decreased due to various socioeconomic and institutional factors, particularly due to changes in the pattern of land ownership, caste, class configuration. Too much emphasis is given to the sewer systems and to exploitation of groundwater. These valuable resources are in a state of collapse, contributing to an increased vulnerability during drought.

Vijayanagara kings were known for their (Hindu) religious patronage, and it is mostly likely that their emblems too reflects their affiliations. The Royal insignia of the Vijayanagara kings spots 4 elements: Sun, Moon, Dagger and Boar. The most unusual for an ancient Indian emblem is the image of a boar, though it is a significant symbol in Hindu Mythology. The third avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu is in the form of a boar (Varaha).

The mythical layer of Hampi has some strong association with Ramayana. In the sacred cave different modern icons are to be seen: Ganesha (the elephant) and Shiva (with the trident). Symbolically Shiva is often represented with a phallic icon called Linga, it is to be found often  in front of the ancient temples.


Just off the tourist tracks, in the countryside, life seems to be hanging at the time of the Vijayanagar. In the empire, most of the people lived on the cultivation of rice, wheat, ragi, cotton, sugarcane. There were plantations of coconut, areca and betel. The Portuguese influence introduced the cultivation of onion, tobacco and nutmeg. The magnificence of that time is lost but this is where the most important challenges for the future of the site are to be faced, which is very important from the point of view of nature and landscape conservation. Here we meet again those communities we have defined as preindustrial. They alternate with modern and crowded city, having with them commercial connections. However, the lifestyles of the poorest villages are anchored to a bygone era.

The farming villages are places that are not overrun by garbage and pollution, where traditional methods are still used for irrigation, crops and pasture. Work is done by humans and animals, using a simple plow. Countryside, however, has not gone unchanged throughout the infamous green revolution.


Intensive crops, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were the ingredients of this "green revolution", sadly encouraged in many countries of the developing world. Here too, many farmers are returning to a sustainable approach to agriculture. Rice cultivation is particularly abundant and heavily dependent on monsoon and therefore on climatic factors that regulate them. One of the worst problems brought about by the policies of "development" is the introduction of eucalyptus plants (a plant native from Australia), that have literally dried up streams and groundwater.

Temples and rice fields, orchards, expanses of sugar canes, reminiscence of the colonial era, palm trees and banana trees, pilgrims and sadhus, farmers immersed in emerald fields, monoliths. Visions that follow each other and rise imagination. This place undoubtedly has a unique and indescribable charm.


©2013 text and photos by marco palladino – all rights reserved

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