Heritage site Hampi is second on NYT's top 52 travel destinations

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Travel enthusiasts around the world anticipate New York Times' list of 52 destinations to visit each year. A comprehensive list, it incorporates the most interesting places which have enthralling experiences to offer. This year, celebrating the 'architectural legacy' of Hampi in Karnataka, NYT has placed it second on the list. The UNESCO World Heritage site has been a favourite holiday destination for many but it recently became highly accessible due to the opening of an airport just 40 km from Hampi.

If your wanderlust is triggered by this historical site full of ancients palaces and temples, here's all you need to know for planning a trip.

The immortal Hampi

hampi-sunset

The capital of the mighty Vijayanagara empire; the city that vyed with Rome for the attention of traders and travellers; the seat of art, literature and architectural finesse; the shining star on the map of the medieval world – Hampi is equal parts fantasy and history. A UNESCO World Heritage Site located in East-Central Karnataka, the flourish of its art defies time. No less of a marvel in its ruined state, here’s a quick tour of the wonderland of Hampi.

The birth

The origin of Vijayanagara Empire is shrouded in mystery. The most favoured theory suggests that Harihara I and Bukka I, deputies of Muhammad Bin Tuglaq, founded the Sangama dynasty here in the 14 century. They were sent by the Sultan to put down a rebellion that broke out in the Hoysala kingdom. They succeeded in suppressing the rebellion, but laid the foundation of an independent kingdom. The sovereign territories of the Hoysala empire extending to the banks of river Tungabhadra were chosen by the Vijayanagara kings to build their capital. Hampi was established as a city of great architectural beauty in 1336.

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An exceptionally planned city, Hampi had designated spaces for palaces, temples, stables for the royal elephants and horses, gardens and orchards. In the 1500s, Hampi was renowned as one of the largest and richest cities of the world; traders and travelers likened it to Rome and flocked to the city to partake of its prosperity. The empire had its golden age during the reign of Krishnadevaraya. He built the famed Vitthala temple with its Garuda shrine in the form of a stone chariot – the imagery most associated with Hampi. He renovated the Virupaksha temple believed to be built as early as the 10th century CE.

The kingdom went on a downward spiral after Krishnadevaraya. His brother, Achyutadevaraya, was nominated by the king as his successor. He was followed by his nephew, the boy king, Sudhasivaraya. Krishnadevaraya’s son-in-law Aliyaramaraya utilized the opportunity to wield power his power over the kingdom. When it was time for him to hand over the reins to Sudhasivaraya, he threw the king into prison and took over the throne. The Deccan Sultanates took advantage of the rift within the kingdom. The mighty Vijayanagara was routed by the combined armies of the Sultanates in the Battle of Thalikota in 1565. The illustrious capital city of Hampi was plundered and razed by the invading army.

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Reduced into ruins, Hampi fell into a long period of darkness; wild animals roamed the once magnificent site. The region fell into the hands of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan of Mysore during the 18th century. When Tipu Sutan was defeated and killed in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War, the region came under the control of the British East India Company.

Hampi lay forgotten till the Scottish Colonel Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India, surveyed the ruins in 1800. The site was extensively photographed for the first time by British amateur photographer Alexander Greenlaw. He created a set of 60 calotype photographs of the temples and structures in 1865, which led to a revival of interest in the medieval city.

Alexander Rea, an officer of the Archeological Survey of India, published his survey report of the site in 1885, which was followed by other insightful documents written by Robert Sewell in 1900 and A H Longhurst in 1925. The Vijayanagara Research Project, kicked off in the 1980s, continue excavations at the site to unravel facts about the illustrious city of Hampi. The ‘Group of Monuments at Hampi’, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, defies time and draws thousands of people to it just as it did during the days of glory.

The streets of today's Hampi

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Though in ruins, Hampi emanates an air of prosperity. The populated regions around the heritage site are lined with houses. The traditional ‘kolam’ designs adorn the courtyards of homes; wayside shops greet visitors with hot tea and chilli bajji. The locals make a living by taking visitors on guided tours around the site.

Virupaksha temple

Believed to have been constructed in the 10th century CE, the Virupaksha temple is the oldest shrine in Hampi. It has remained an active site of worship and the daily rituals are carried out without fail to this day. King Harihara I renovated the temple which had parts of the Shiva, Durga and Pampa temples standing from the 11the century. Krishnadevaraya made extensions to the temple and the most ornate structure – the central pillared hall – is believed to be his addition.

hampi

According to the local myth, the temple stands at the site where Kamadeva was reduced to ashes when Lord Shiva opened his third eye and unleashed his fury on him. Kamadeva, who was attempting to shoot the arrow of love at Lord Shiva to facilitate the Shiva-Parvati union, when he was turned into a heap of ash which fell in the valley of the Hemkuta mountains –the site where the temple stands. The myth is depicted in a painting that adorns the ceiling of the open hall above the mandapa.

The Tungabhadra flows close to the temple. The royal street in front of the temple is lined with the ruins of mandapas. On the eastern end are the remains of a 750-meter-long market complex built in stone – once a site frequented by rich merchants trading in gems and precious stones. A monolithic Nandi shrine can be seen near the structure.

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Visitors can trek up the Hemakuta hills from near the Virupaksha temple. The Kadalekalu Ganesha temple, which houses a huge statue of Ganesha, is on the northeastern slope of the hill. The statue, carved out a single huge boulder, is one of the largest in Hampi. It is renowned to be an excellent spot for watching sunset.

The Prasanna Virupaksha temple is yet another major tourist attraction in this circuit. Also known as the 'Pataleswara temple,' it is located below ground level and the inner sanctum remains submerged in water almost through the year.

Hazara Rama Temple

The Hazara Rama temple is the only Vaishnava temple in Hampi. Built in the early part of the 15the century by Devaraya II, the temple is famous for its lovely bas relics and panles depicting the story of Ramayana. The elegant depictions include stories related to the mythology of Dussera festival, Siva and Parvati, Mahishasuramardini, Dasavarata and so on.

hampi-complex

The Mahanavami Dibba or Dussera Dibba, a magnificient stone platform located within the royal enclosure, is the spot from where Krishnadevaraya, the most illustrious king of the dynasty viewed the Dussera festivities of his kingdom. The tallest structure within the enclosure, the dibba is considered as one of the architectural marvels at Hampi. A colossal bath facing an open pond, called the Queen’s bath, is also located within the royal enclosure.

Vitthala Temple

Standing on the banks of river Tungabhadra, the Vitthala temple is perhaps the best illustration of Vijayanagara’s sophisticated artistic sensibility. The iconic stone chariot of Hampi forms part of the Vitthala temple structure. Stone pillars are on either side of the road leading to the temple - some standing, some fallen and others in various stages of dilapidation. A paved courtyard leads to the temple which has an elaborately carved entrance. Past the entrance, you will be facing the magnificient stone chariot, which houses a shrine dedicated to Garuda.

Built during the reign of Krishnadevaraya in 1513, the chariot  is surrounded by mandapas. The largest of the mandapas, which has 56 carved stone beams that produce musical sounds when struck, is called the sangeetha mandapa. The temple, along with the Hazara Rama temple, has been interpreted by historians as a symbol of Vijayanagara’s embrace of Vishnavism after a long period of Shaivsim. Scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha, Kaliyamardana, images of Bhoomi Devi, Laksmhi Devi, Vishnu etc are carved in stone all around the temple.

The Badavilinga temple, which has the largest monolithic Shiva linga in Hampi and the Lakshmi-Narasimha statue on the Hemakuta mountains are among the many other stone structures that continue to enthrall visitors.

Matanga Hill

Located right at the centre of Hampi, Matanga Hill is the highest point in the region. The peak offers a stunning view of the whole of Hampi and is the favourite haunt of photography enthusiasts. As the story goes, Matanga hill is the mountain that was declared off-limits for Bali, the monkey prince, by sage Matanga.

A thirty-minute trek will take you to the top of the hill and there are several routes you can take. At the hilltop is the Veerabhadra temple from where one can get an unforgettable picture of the sun rising and setting on the legendary Vijayanagara empire.

What lives on in Hampi is the spirit of a kingdom that once rose like a shining star on the horizon. The Tungabhadra, witness to the city's days of glory and then its ruthless pillage, lends a certain tangibility to the surreal settings. Every visitor who leaves Hampi will be amazed at the city's ability to enthral despite the wounds; its ability to lure you back again and again.

How to reach

The nearest airport is at Ballari, 40-km drive from Hampi. TruJet recently began daily direct flights from Hyderabad and Bangalore to Ballari. The nearest, relatively major airport is Hubli which is 142 km away.

There are no railway staions in Hampi but the nearest railway station is Hospet Junction which is just 13 km away. Frequent buses are available between Hospet and Hampi throughout the day.

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