More by accident than design, we had saved what was reputed to be the most outstanding monument in Hampi as the last stop of our tour. This was the Vithala Temple, a World Heritage monument that is widely regarded to represent the apogee of Vijayanagara architectural style.
Although very little is known about the circumstances under which the temple was originally built, construction was probably begun in the Fifteenth Century under King Devaraya 1422-1446. Substantial additions to the temple were subsequently made during the reign of King Krishnadevaraya (1509-1529), whose wives are believed to have funded the Eastern and Northern gateways and presented gold vessels to the shrine. Krishnadevaraya’s two successors Achyuta and Sadasiva are also said to have contributed towards the construction of the temple, as well as many leading courtiers and ministers.
Probably because of the collapse of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1565, the temple complex were never actually completed, though a local myth has a more interesting of somewhat less plausible explanation for this. Apparently the temple was built to house the famous image of Vithala (Krishna), an aspect of Vishnu that was at the center of a cult among the local cowherds in Hampi, located at Pandharpur near to modern-day Mumbai. But when the deity came to look at his new abode he refused to move there because he thought it was too grand for him and decided to remain at his own much humbler home.
It’s not too difficult to imagine why the deity would have felt so uncomfortable, for as beautiful as the Vithala Temple complex is, it’s also a fitting memorial to the wanton extravagance that was one of the key factors behind the spectacular collapse of the Vijayanagara Empire. The expense incurred in constructing its buildings using the finest materials and craftsmen must have been simply staggering.
After entering through the East Gate, we were presented with the sight of the rear of the temple’s famous Stone Chariot standing in front of the main hall, which is known as the Maha-Mandapa.
Constructed out of granite blocks so finely assembled that some people believe it was carved from a single rock, the Stone Chariot is a perfect reproduction of a conventional wooden temple chariot. It even has revolving stone wheels adorned with lotus motifs – though these days you are not allowed to touch them because the axles have been worn away to an alarming extent, either as a result of erosion or constant spinning by generations of pilgrims seeking religious merit.
The Stone Chariot is built on a rectangular platform that is adorned with mythical battle scenes, and has two stone elephants standing in front of its entrance ready to pull the vehicle. The fact that they were added later does nothing to detract from the effect.
Built in the Dravidian style of South India, the main hall of the temple was constructed using hard granite and features four open halls facing north, south, east, and west. Among these the northern, southern, and eastern halls are still intact, while the western hall collapsed, probably during the destruction of the capital.
The main hall stands on a richly carved platform richly decorated with a procession of geese, elephants, and horses and their trainers, with the odd dancing girl thrown in for good measure.
But the real highlight of the main hall is its 56 stunningly carved giant monolithic pillars, including some that emit musical notes when tapped just like the ones we had seen earlier in the Virupaksha Temple.
The carvings and sculptures on the pillars are grouped in themes. Those in the eastern hall feature sculptures of musicians, drummers and dancers, while the ones in the northern hall are decorated with carvings based around stories related to Narasimha, the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu, who was also the subject of the huge stone monolith we had visited earlier.
The pillars in the southern hall are perhaps the most dramatic, however, with fierce giant leonine Yalis crushing the poor tiny elephants trying to escape from underneath them.
Nearby were a number of other quite enchanting structures that would also stand out in their own right if it wasn’t for the stunning beauty of the main hall, most notably the graceful Kalyana Mandapa, which contains a dais in its center for the reception of images of the temple deity and his wife during their annual marriage ceremony.
The Vithala Temple certainly provided a rich sensual feast to close our tour of Hampi with, though probably it was a little too sumptuous to fully digest after seeing so many other magnificent sites beforehand. That said, there’s no denying that the Vithala is an absolute masterpiece and a lavish testament to the creative vigor and stunning artisanship that sprang from the Vijayanagara Empire.