When we turned round the corner, we were greeted with the sight of two immense wooden chariots standing outside the entrance to the Virupaksha Temple in preparation for the Holi Festival, which takes place on the full moon in March each year to say farewell to winter and welcome the spring and summer.
As the oldest and most sacred temple in Hampi, the Virupaksha is extremely popular with Hindu pilgrims and attracts huge crowds from all over to India to its festivals, the most important of which is the betrothal and marriage celebrations for Virupaksha and Pampa that are held in December each year.
The story of Virupaksha and Pampa is central to understanding the history of the temple and its mythical origins. Virupaksha is the name given to Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction, to whom the temple is dedicated. Pampa is said to have been the ancient name of the River Tungabhadra, but it is also the name of a daughter of the Hindu God Brahma, who looked after the rishis (holy sages) in the area by bringing them flowers and fruit to them. The rishis were so impressed by the young woman’s devotion that they offered her a boon, and she asked them for the hand of Virupaksha, who after she had completed the required penances married her as a consort.
The temple also features a shrine dedicated to another of Shiva’s consorts, the goddess Bhuvaneshvari, who is known for her great beauty and cooperated with the Shiva in the creation of the physical cosmos.
The entrance to the Virupaksha Temple is dominated by the imposing 50 meter tower of the gopura (entrance gateway). Apparently this is a fairly new structure compared to some of the other buildings inside the temple, dating back to the nineteenth century, but is based on Tamil prototypes from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Just after passing through the gopura we came across a unique three-headed statue of Shiva’s mount, the bull Nandi. In keeping with Hindu tradition, the bull’s heads are facing the inner sanctum of the temple, indicating that his actions are dedicated to God. The three faces are believed to represent the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva as well as the past, present, and future.
After passing through the gopura, we entered a spacious rectangular court bounded by high walls. After purchasing our tickets, hiring a guide, and removing our shoes we went through the much smaller inner gopura into the main temple complex. This was built for the coronation of the emperor Krishnadevaraya in 1510, and is an authentic structure from the Vijayanagara period.
Once we got inside the complex, there were yet more statues of Nandi in a small mandapa(pavilion) right in the center of the main square. Just behind the Nandi mandapa we came to a beautiful open pillared hall, known as the MukhaMandapa or Ranga Mandapa, which leads to the entrance to the inner sanctum of the temple. Like the inner gopura, this was built for the coronation of the emperor Krishnadevaraya in 1510, and it features 38 pillars featuring quite stunning carvings of Yalis and Makaras, two mythical beasts, as well as scenes from Indian mythology.
In this photo you can see a Yali rearing from the stone with its front paws held up and its fierce lion-like head and protruding eyes and fangs. Further inside the hall you also see warriors riding the Yalis into battle. According to Indian legend, Yali combine the speed and carnivorous appetite of a lion with the tusks and trunk of an elephant, and are used in temples to symbolize humanity’s struggle with the elemental forces of nature. Makaras are aquatic creatures, in contrast, and carvings of them can be seen beneath the Yalis.
Some of the pillars at the front of the hall were also specially hollowed out, with each one giving off a different note so that music can be played with them. The mathematics and craftsmanship that went into building these must have been quite amazing, but according to our guide has unfortunately has been lost in the passage of time.
As we went further into the interior of the hall, we saw a series of vibrant paintings on the ceiling portraying the marriages of Virupaksha and Pampa and Rama and Sita, as well as some scenes of Shiva. According to our guide, these were painted during the nineteenth century renovation of the building – though some scholars do speculate that they may have replaced paintings originally done during the Vijayanagara period.
After making a brief detour to take a look at the temple drum and bells, we went into the inner sanctum to see the shrine to Virupaksha where the priests were carrying out a ceremony to the deity. Then we went round to visit the much smaller shrines dedicated to his consorts Pampa and Bhuvaneshvari, where devotees were also worshiping.
From the Pampa shrine, we passed through a nearby entrance to the Manmatha tank, which was once the main bathing place for temple visitors but is now very dilapidated. There were a number of smaller shrines along the west bank of the tank that are no longer in use and are believed to date as far back as the ninth century.
After all the majesty and mystery of the temple itself, this provided a rather anti-climactic end to our tour of the Virupaksha; now it was time to explore the sights of the fabled Hampi Bazaar.