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Travel: A Vision of Vijaynagar

June 2007
Travel: A Vision of Vijaynagar

I stepped off the bus in the morning at Hampi Bazaar, a place so bewilderingly strange to Western eyes that I could hardly believe I was seeing it. There was a double row of broken columns, the equivalent of several blocks long. Though now roofless, you'd call it an arcade if you saw it in Italy or at a California mission. The columns were huge. They stood as much as five or six feet apart, and, in places, two or three ancient steps still led up to a floor paved with granite slabs.

Then I walked on. After a while, instead of dust, I was walking on a domed surface like a great lava flow, shiny and bald and immense. In my sandals, I skimmed over the dome of black rock and, as I did so, I caught a glimpse of the river. Along the river, strewn about on the landscape, were huge boulders of shiny black rock. They were so immense I couldn't really believe they were there. It was as if Brahma himself had spilled a bag of black marbles as big as automobiles, as houses, at random, along the river where no trees, no grass, no weeds grew. It was a landscape so desolate, so cataclysmic that I knew even five hundred years ago it couldn't have been that much different. Why had the Telugu princes, Harihara and Bukka, founded here the capital of what was to become the largest Hindu Empire in Indian history?

My young Israeli adviser had understated it when she said, "There's nothing like it."

To step into Hampi, the modern name of the remains of the bazaar of Vijayanagar, was a little like traveling in space only to find Mars had long since been colonized, civilized to the point of wonders beyond belief, then abandoned and squatted-in by man's modern cousins. To step out from Hampi was like arriving on the moon, unreal landscape in every direction, perhaps early mappings for 3001. Still skidding across the immense black dome, I soon came upon the King's Balance where plaques told me it had originally been a scale on which the king sat on one side and his loyal subjects filled the other side with gold. It was a structure somewhat like a guillotine, or a Tori gate, with no visible weighing pans to sit in. Beyond it stood the Vittala Temple, like a three-dimensional mandala, like a vision, an illusion, or a mirage in the dust and haze of India.

I had never before seen filigree in stone. The temple, for the most part, was a vast, wall-less building, crowded with clusters of columns, maybe three, maybe five to a cluster. Each cluster was crowned with a capital of intricate stonework so delicate that I, who have tatted lace with silk thread, thought my work quite crude by comparison. Carved into and around the columns were gods and goddesses, demons, elephants, horses, beasts both mythical and real, peacocks, parrots, and plants that flowered with eternal blossoms. The ceiling was coffered and crisscrossed with yet more stone-carved lace. The stone itself was a soft gold color, perhaps flecked with mica, as it shimmered in the sun. I stood in a gossamer golden temple made of stone, awestruck.

Someone near me said, though not to me, "Slap the stone." And they did. The columns began to sing. It appeared the columns were tuned like organ pipes. Music could be played upon them. I slapped with the light upward motion I had just seen. A deep rich tone rang in the columned court, evoking even with my light touch, harmonics from its neighbors. Was it middle C? I do not know. I hit again, another column, a higher tone. In and out among the multifaceted columns, I wandered round and round, testing their pitches, dazzled by their beauty. What wizard musician had designed them? What Stradivarius had built them? Who had gone and left them standing there, dust-blown in the blazing sun, beside the river of huge black stones?

I went down to the Purandara Dasara Mandapa that stood partly in the river where a little grass grew, clumps of weeds along the shore, a scrubby tree or two, and a dozen kids at least, young and lean and dark, yelling, jumping up and down, and diving into the water. They careened into the black river from the bits left of the ancient stone bridge as well. What is a mandapa? A temple it seems. It was black, carved, perhaps from the indigenous stone, and very dark inside where the sunlight didn't reach and the kids didn't go.

It was there in the cooling shadows someone surprised me: "Did you like the stone chariot?" in English.

"What stone chariot?"

"By the Vittala Temple. The wheels are twice as high as you are."

I had been so intrigued with the Vittala Temple I had missed the stone chariot. I returned to gaze upon its amazing wheels. Made of stones, indeed, they could not have weighed less than a ton each, and yet, with a touch of the finger, they could be set in motion to revolve! Each spoke of each wheel was carved as delicately as a spoon's handle, its filigreed body carved, too, of golden stone. It sat there in the sun, the most ornamented cart I had ever seen, modeled on the wooden chariots used to carry images of the gods in festival processions, gigantic, and at least four hundred years old. How could I comprehend such elaboration and abandonment?

There were very few people about. The little map I had torn from the guidebook indicated it was about a 9-kilometer walk around the road that now circled what was left of Vijayanagar, a city, it said, that had once covered 33 square kilometers.

An easy walk. I set off down a country road, whose soft beige-colored dust edges merged with the land. With the major ruins at my back, I began to walk through weedy land dotted with short trees. On my right cultivated fields began, and after not too far, on my left, appeared another bazaar, like a skeleton of Hampi. It had the huge double rows of columns, long paved walkways, broken and weed-grown steps, and not a soul around. Here, if one paused to hear the slight sound of the wind playing about the columns, one could dream the marketplace that was: the silks and spices that must have been for sale, the jewels glinting in the sun, the exotic fruits and vegetables, the people from as far as Rome, Venice, Tibetans with their tasseled umbrellas. I could imagine the rugs that must have been for sale in 1509. I closed my eyes and saw in technicolor the merchants, the sari-clad women, the opulence, the wandering goats, the cows, heard the noise, smelt the smell of India. But in fact there was no scent here in Vijayanagar. I opened my eyes again to the short trees, the weeds, and the columns—some of which were there and some that had vanished.

I walked on and on, seeing scattered ruins here and there: a suggestion of a wall, a mound that had perhaps been a building. A sugarcane field on my right. I went through a vast crumbling gate and the road turned into desert, wide fields of nothingness. In the hot sun I was in bliss. I love the desert and the nothingness of blowing sand. I chanted Hari Krishna, and other bhajans I had learned at an ashram, to the landscape. I was alone beneath the ruined wall that followed my path on the crest of the hill to my right and the desert extending out to what I could not make out on my left. In its day, they say, Vijayanagar had seven concentric lines of fortifications around a half million people.

The rocks. There were no more of the building-sized black rocks to be seen. Why choose, I wondered, to build something as exquisite as the Vittala Temple among the uninviting rocks? Fortifications? Very likely. My little map said there were more ruins ahead, so I walked on, across a vast barren stretch of rocky ground. There were, read the map, other ruins out there to my left, but they were too far away to see. To my right the hill rose. I walked on and on through the heat and dust. For me it was like heaven. Had I been foolish to try a full circumnavigation? Nobody else seemed to have chosen my route.

Then to my right the hills tapered down, and the same barren rocky ground stretched itself on all sides, and emerging from it, I could see, on the left, a long way off the dusty road, buildings the same color as the land.

I left the road to cut across the intervening sand. I had to put my sandals on again, for the stones beneath the sand, some far bigger than marbles, hurt my feet. I had not seen any of the black rocks since leaving the river. Why were the huge black rocks only along the river? I would never know.

What had looked like a village from a distance turned out to be the King's Palace, the Lotus Mahal, the Hall of the Victory, Dasara Platform, and Hazarama Temple. Even rinsed of their facings, rinsed right down to the same dirt across which I trod, they still had an elegance to them, with their fine straight walls. A winged roof still sheltered one tower, but the three-story stairway leading up to it was exposed to the elements. For the rest, you could wander in and out of the doorways and, in most of the buildings, in and out through the walls. The buildings had fallen to ruin. And the most beautiful building of all, with its long row of curved stone walls, like enormous cylinders set side by side, was the elephant stables. Each of its domes roofed a huge round room where, presumably, each elephant had a kingdom to itself. I ran my hands along the walls, murmured words to hear them echoed by the domes, stood enthralled.

There were a few people here, like me, walking in and out of the ruins. All of us were silent in the deserted grandeur, gazing at the faceless buildings, marveling at the colossal remnants of what had been the capital of an empire, a city surpassing Rome.

At the end of the road, the circuit should have brought me back to Hampi, to the market, to the bazaar, but I did not recognize my surroundings. The road did not make a perfect circle was all I could guess; maybe it was a spiral. It did not meet its beginning. But, to my astonishment, there, to my left, higher than anything else in all the landscape, towered the Virupaksha Temple with its eleven-story gateway glistening white in the last rays of the setting sun. It was so immense, so carved with figures, that I wondered how I had missed it on my arrival at Hampi?

It was in such fine repair that I thought, at first, it might have just been built. I walked down into its courtyard, under the heavy roof, to view the three-story gateway that led into the inner temple. I looked about in disbelief. It was not so finely carved as the Vittala Temple, but there was a plaque indicating it was even older than the Vijaynagar Empire. It was overwhelming in its extent. How had I not noticed it? Unless I return to walk the dusty roads, tap again the singing columns, I may never know more about what I have seen, where I have been.

---Jan Haag

Jan Haag is a travel writer, novelist and poet based in California. A version of this article appeared in India Perspectives.

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