As we walked out of the Virupaksha Temple past the ramshackle shops and broken-down buildings lining both sides of the main street running through the legendary Hampi Bazaar, I found it very difficult to imagine that this was once the center of one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world before its destruction in 1565.
But this is how Ludovico de Varthema, an Italian traveler, who visited the Hampi in 1509 described it: “The size of the city I do not write here, because it cannot all be seen from any one spot, but I climbed a hill whence one could see a great part of it. What I saw from thence seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight… The people in this city are countless in number, so much so that I do not wish to write it down for fear that it should be thought fabulous; but I declare that no troops, horses or foot, could break their way through any street or lane, so great are the number of people and elephants…. The streets and markets are full of laden oxen without count, so that you cannot get along for them.”
Nowadays, however, while vestiges remain of the “beautiful street of very beautiful houses with balconies and arcades” that de Varthema saw just outside the Virupaksha Temple, the bazaar has become but a shadow of its former self with its once bustling markets, which according to de Varthema made Hampi the “best provided city in the world”, replaced by a few desultory cafes and tourist shops and its once huge local population dwindling to a handful of people, supplemented only by a trickle of pilgrims and tourists during major religious festivals and the tourist season.
How did this happen, I wondered as we strolled further down the main street in the bazaar. But even the history books do not given an adequate explanation as to how the Vijayanagara army consisting of over 150,000 soldiers collapsed to defeat against a smaller Muslim army at the Battle of Talikota on January 26, 1565 – allowing the victors to march unopposed on the city where for a period of five months, to quote from “A Forgotten Empire” by the Victorian writer Robert Sewell: “with fire and sword, with crowbars and axes, they carried on day after day their work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city; teaming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged, and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description.”
After being accosted by a rather bizarrely dressed individual who pushed us to pay him a few hundred rupees for the privilege of taking his photograph, we walked about a kilometer along the main thoroughfare towards Matanga Hill, the site of an old sanctuary dedicated to Virabhadra, a great warrior created by Shiva to guard him who defeated Vishnu and Brahma in Shiva’s war against Daksha, the chief of the gods.
Along the way, we passed by a number of old mandapas (halls) featuring tall columns with elaborately carved parapets on top. Our guide explained that these were probably built in the early 19th century and were used as accommodation for important visitors during religious festivals. These days, some of these buildings are being utilized as shops and museums, while others provide homes to squatters who have come to Hampi from other areas in search of jobs and tourist dollars.