A history of Hampi, India: The last great Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar
By Saurav Ranjan Datta
Hampi is one of the most popular tourist destinations of India, whose popularity never seems to ebb with the flow of time. It has been included in the prestigious list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Group of Monuments at Hampi along with its earthly ruins, narrate an incredible history of a glorious kingdom whose opulence had once stunned the numerous visitors who were lucky enough to visit it at the zenith of its power. According to the citation of the UNESCO Heritage Site portal, the following definition is very apt to express its grandeur:
‘The austere, grandiose site of Hampi was the last capital of the last great Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar. Its fabulously rich princes built Dravidian temples and palaces, which won the admiration of travellers between the 14th and 16th centuries (CE). Conquered by the Deccan Muslim confederacy in 1565, the city was pillaged over a period of six months before being abandoned.’
True to the above words, though the site is in ruins today, it still reflects the lyrical beauty of a kingdom whose economic prosperity had enabled the flourish of art and architecture, which have endured the ravages of time. Though the history of Hampi is inextricably intertwined with the rise and fall of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire, it had an existence before that major epoch of Indian history.
The name Hampi has mythological connotations, probably justifying its ancient existence. As per a myth of Hinduism, there is a legend that one of the trinities ‘Lord Shiva’ was not initially interested in getting married in his early life. Hence, his consort Goddess Parvati, in order to bring the Lord into a life of a householder, did severe penance at the Hemakuta Hill in Hampi. Her ascetic lifestyle and dedication gradually impressed Lord Shiva and they were married. Therefore, this place came to be known as Pampakshetra in ancient times. Pampa is another name of Goddess Parvati in Hinduism. According to the local dialect, the name gradually became Hampa (from Pampa) and then Hampi as is known in current times.
There are some other mythological stories too associated with Hampi. According to one of the epics of Hinduism – The Ramayana, there was a kingdom of the monkeys known in India as the ‘banars’ and the kingdom was called Kishkinda. This kingdom aided the hero of this epic ‘Lord Rama’ (who was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, another of the three trinities of Hinduism), to rescue his wife Devi Sita from across the ocean from the demon king of Lanka – ‘Ravana’. This Kishkinda kingdom was supposedly based around the modern day Hampi. This was the place where Lord Rama had a rendezvous with the monkey army before they embarked on their journey to beat the evil Asuras (demons) in their approaching battle to regain the queen.
There are several other mythological stories with this place and all these folklores are a testimony to the fact that this place was always important to the local populace from time immemorial. The ancient history of Hampi has been obscured until now and requires further research and archaeological evidence. However, the mighty Maurya Dynasty once governed it at a time before Christ was born. The place has a mention in one of the Ashokan rock edicts. It has also been mentioned in the subsequent centuries after the Mauryas under different South Indian kingdoms. However, the place became important and acquired prominence of its own, when two brothers by the name of Hakka and Bukka, laid the foundations of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire.
In Indian history, the Sultanate of Delhi was trying hard for a long time to annex the whole of South India. Nevertheless, around 1335 CE, the whimsical Sultan Mohammad Bin Tughlaq during his raid to the South, had to make a sudden retreat to Delhi due to an outbreak. Taking this as a sign of opportunity, the Kampili Kingdom which was based in the Tungabhadra River, and which was devastated by the armies of Tughlaq earlier (making even their women commit ‘Jauhar’, a kind of mass suicide to save the honour rather than disgraced), rose in revolt.
So around 1336 CE, the brothers Hakka and Bukka, who earlier probably served the Hoysala or the Kaktiya Empires as generals, were sent by Tughlaq to Kampili to govern that place. Therefore, from the ruins of an earlier kingdom grew the independent Vijayanagara Empire, enabled by those two brothers. Hakka and Bukka were the sons of Sangama and hence the dynasty came to be known as such. According to sources, they had actually named their kingdom as Vidyanagara (City of Knowledge) after Sri Vidyaranya, their spiritual teacher. In due course of time, it came to be known as Vijayanagara (City of Victory).
Hakka ascended the throne as Harihara I. Due to his capable administration, the kingdom expanded and flourished. He ruled until the year 1356 CE. After him, his brother came to the throne as Bukka Raya I and ruled until 1377 CE. Under him, the empire further expanded. After them came the other prominent rulers of the Sangama Dynasty including Harihara II, Devaraya I, Devaraya II and many others. The last effective ruler of the Sangama Dynasty was Virupaksha II who was extremely cruel and was eventually overthrown and killed by his son with the help of one of his generals called Saluva Narasimha in 1485.
Saluva Narasimha gradually became powerful and came to the throne. He founded the Saluva Dynasty. However, the Vijayanagara Empire saw its most glorious period under King Krishnadevaraya of the Tuluva Dynasty who ruled from the year 1509 CE. Krishnadevaraya has been extolled in glorious terms by his contemporaries, especially by the Portuguese travelers Domingo Paes and Fernao Nunez. He was declared to be a figure of striking personality, intelligent, gallant warrior, wholehearted scholar and a great patron of arts. In the words of the scholar ‘Robert Sewell’ who enlightened the Western World about Vijayanagara, this is what he said about King Krishnadevaraya in his acclaimed book:
‘Krishna Deva was not only a monarch DE JURE, but was in very practical fact an absolute sovereign, of extensive power and strong personal influence. He was the real ruler. He was physically strong in his best days, and kept his strength up to the highest pitch by hard bodily exercise. He rose early, and developed all his muscles by the use of Indian clubs and the use of the sword; he was a fine rider, and was blessed with a noble presence, which favorably impressed all who came in contact with him. He commanded his immense armies in person, was able, brave, and statesmanlike, and was a man of much gentleness and generosity of character. He was beloved by all and respected by all.’
Krishnadevaraya’s reign was also a period when art and literature reached a proverbial golden epoch. His military conquests equally saw the kingdom spreading far and wide. His younger brother Achyuta Raya succeeded Krishnadevaraya. The Vijayanagara Empire quickly descended into decline after the Battle of Talikota in 1565 CE, where an alliance of the Deccan Sultanates defeated the King Rama Raya.
Most of the details of the Vijayanagara Empire, have been gathered from the accounts of travellers like the 16th century Portuguese traveller Domingo Paes. After visiting Vijayanagara, he wrote down his thoughts in his Chronica dos reis de Bisnaga, which provides us a fascinating account of the various aspects of that kingdom. Besides, the much earlier Abdal Razzāq, an envoy of Sultan Shah Rukh, the Timurid ruler of Persia, made a trip to India in the 1440’s and left us accounts of Vijayanagara too.
Today’s Hampi bears the ruins of that great empire. The site is situated in the Tungabhadra basin of the modern day Indian state of Karnataka. These ruins were surveyed and then brought to the public attention for the first time, by the first British Surveyor General of India, Colin Mackenzie, in c.1800.
Some of the architectural marvels that one gets to see at Hampi today are Virupaksha temple complex, Lotus Mahal complex, Pattabhirama temple complex, Krishna temple complex, Vitthala temple complex, Narasimha, Ganesa temples, Hemakuta hill monuments, Achyutaraya temple complex and many more of them. The total site is spread over 24 hectares. These monuments probably possess a language of their own, which beckons us every time to witness their beauty and grandeur. Our posterity too must preserve these monuments, for the future to understand our past.
About the author
Saurav Ranjan Datta lives in Kolkata, India. Saurav is a writer for several national & international publications and a content researcher for many TV shows. Saurav is a management graduate by education and has worked in the corporate world for the last 15 years in senior positions. He has written a complete travel booklet for Outlook Publications and has contributed to an anthology of poems by the name of Harmonious Symphonies. His new book, Maidens of Fate, has just been published. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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