Why Hampi Has Surprises Up Its Sleeve

Wandering off the beaten path will lead keen-eyed tourists to some hidden Islamic architectural treasures in Karnataka's boulder town.  
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Hampi’s stark ruins have inspired the works of generations of historians. Photo by: Maniyarasan

In the last 10 years that I have been visiting Hampi, I have learnt one thing—any attempts to experience the entirety of this medieval city in one trip is futile and bound to leave you exhausted. You have to let it grow on you. It is a relationship which needs to be nurtured. Every time you think you have seen enough, it teases you with new revelations and intrigues you to plan another visit.

It is no surprise that most scholars and travellers interested in demystifying Hampi have been visiting the place for several decades. Although my relationship with Hampi hasn’t been as long, it is now my quest, to see, experience, and attempt to understand almost all of the ruins of this capital city. Ahead of the monsoons this year, my visit was triggered by learning of the existence of few monuments along a two-kilometre-long offbeat trail. Last year, I had also chanced upon large prints of Alexander Greenlaw’s photographs of Hampi from 1856 in the office of the Deccan Heritage Foundation.

It is well known that the ancient kingdom of Vijayanagar was at war with the Muslim sultanates of Bijapur, Ahmednagar, Golconda and Bidar from the time of its founding in 1336 till the defeat in 1565. But perhaps a lesser known fact is that the need to strengthen the cavalry meant that a number of horsemen were enlisted by Vijayanagar, and most of them were Arab-Muslims. Eminent historians say that a large number of them—native and immigrants from Central Asia—were employed by the kings. This is confirmed by reports of early foreign visitors and also the presence of several Islamic quarters in the city. These horsemen rose up the ranks in the famed army and held important positions. Today, ruins of some of the structures hinting at the presence of Islamic noblemen remain. Hoping to see this magnificent chapter of history in person, I embarked on an overnight bus from Bengaluru to Hampi.

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I remembered to pack A. H. Longhurst’s 1920s publication Hampi Ruins Described and Illustrated along with John Fritz and George Michell’s famous guidebook to the city. In the footsteps of Colonel McKenzie—the amateur antiquarian of the British Empire who was the first one to survey the ruins of Hampi and create a map in 1799—I intended to stay in the island of Anegundi, the base for his explorations. I took a state-run bus service from Hospet to Kamalapur, and after a short tea break and a bargaining exercise, hired an autorickshaw to the Talarighatta riverbank. An eight-minute boat ride later, I reached Anegundi. I got in touch with my local friend, apprised him of my plan for the day and asked him to arrange an auto for me. Prabhu, the auto driver, picked me up from the riverbank and thus began our adventure.

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The more famous sites of Hampi include the Vijayanagar ruins and the Bhima’s gate, which has lovely carvings (right) but there are a few nameless monuments to be found here also, some of which are mosque-like structures (left) with arches. Photos by: Basav Biradar

Our first stop was the Talarighatta gateway, a two-storeyed structure in the erstwhile fortification on the public road from the riverbank to Kamalapur. I remembered Alexander Greenlaw’s famous photograph of this gateway—one of the sixty views of the Hampi ruins he photographed in 1856—and tried my own hand at recreating the shot. Some portions of the upper chambers of this gateway have survived the test of time and revealed the remains of what once was beautiful artwork in lime plaster. While the gateway itself was made of stone slabs supported by lotus corbels, the upper chambers seemed to have been constructed using brick and lime mortar.

It has been deduced by some scholars that the upper chamber was a shelter for the guards. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) signboard elaborated that this was a toll gate. About half-a-kilometre from this gateway, we reached a mud trail parting away from the main road, which has been mentioned in the guidebook. After a couple of hundred meters, we sighted an early 15th century mosque. Prabhu, the driver bid adieu after we agreed on where to meet in few hours. From the outside the structure looked like a mandapa with squat columns, but, a prayer niche in the rear wall was a sign that it was a mosque instead. I was reminded of two early 14th-century mosques in Bijapur with similar features. The mosque stands tall amongst dense banana plantations on an elevated base. Although the guide book says the mosque was built by Ahmed Khan—a military commander under King Devaraya II in 1439, the Karnataka Department of Archaeology signage makes no mention of it. Right next to the structure is what looks like a tomb, the size of which tells us that it might have belonged to an important person. Although the layer of plaster which possibly had stucco carvings has been lost, the domed structure still retained its beauty. A latched door at the rear indicatedthat the tomb was still under use. All the four sides of the tombs have a tall arched niche flanked by two smaller ones. I wondered why there is not much information about these two monuments.

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Boats ferry people from Talarighatta riverbank (top) to Anegundi; The beauty of the monuments in Hampi are enhanced multi-fold by the rugged landscape (bottom).
Photos by: Basav Biradar and Maniyarasan

As per the book, if I followed the mud trail for another 1.5 kilometres I would reach the royal citadel. I looked around and found only banana and sugarcane plantations on both sides of the trail with huge boulders in the background. After a brief moment of contemplation, I started to follow the narrow trail in the hope that I will find more monuments. A little further away, in a field behind a barbed wire fence, I spotted the the familiar green signboard of the Department of Archaeology. I squeezed through an opening in the fence and tried to see what was hidden behind a pile of banana leaves. Although I couldn’t see anything, I realised that this must be the octagonal well which one of the books mentioned. It seemed as though the well was in use and the land owner did not want the visitors to trespass, and hence, had covered it on all sides.

Upon continuing my journey, I sighted what looked like a temple upon a boulder and yes, there was a signboard. The temple had used one of the rock boulders as a roof and the gopuram was built on top of the boulder. As with all of the monuments on this trail, there was no information about the name of the structure or the history. On the other side of the narrow patch, amidst thick banana plantations, a huge temple complex rested within a fenced enclosure. Again, there was no information about the temple except for the standard protection signage. The numbered pillars inside the temple indicated that it had been recently restored and the only iconography was that of Garuda on the doorway.

By now, this trail had been quite a revelation, but it did not seem to end. After some distance, the trail split into two directions, and there was nobody in sight. For few minutes I lost hope and was thinking of returning along the path I had walked. But, in the nick of time, I heard a goat’s bleating and quickly followed the sound and was relieved to meet Mahantesh, a goat herder. We exchanged pleasantries, and after another kilometer of hike, where I followed his directions, I reached the royal citadel. I made a note to search for more details of the four monuments.

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Clockwise: Ahmed Khan’s Mosque; Talarighatta Gateway; Numbered pillars indicating recent restoration; Octagonal pavilion in the Mohammedan Quarters. Photos by: Basav Biradar

Prabhu was entertaining himself with some loud music underneath a tree when I found him. The next stop was what is known as Mohammedan’s quarters. This enclosure lies to the west of the famous Hazara Rama temple and is rarely visited by tourists, although it is a considerably big enclosure. As per historians, this enclosure is where the military commander-in-chief resided. A nine-domed structure, which some historians claim to be a mosque, is the most prominent one in this enclosure. The absence of a mihrab (a niche in the wall) makes me believe others who have discerned it to be a reception hall. Each of the bay’s beautifully carved ceilings reminded me of the Bahmani buildings up north in Bidar and Gulbarga. Since this was an Islamic quarter, it might have been that this hall was used for meetings between the appointed representatives. Its proximity to the royal enclosure probably means that the residents in this quarter were close to the king and his family. Adjacent to this is a two-storeyed octagonal pavilion. The structure remarkably, seems to be in the same state as it was in Greenlaw’s photograph. The arched niches are decorated with roundels on either side and brackets adorn the base of the first storey. These two structures along with a domed watch tower in the north western corner of this enclosure are the most prominent remains of the Islamic architecture here. By now, Prabhu was visibly tired and looked up to me earnestly suggesting we call it a day. I managed to ignore his hints and asked him to drive to Kadirampura, approximately 2.5 kms from the Mohammedan quarters on the way to Hospet.

Here in Kadirampura, there is a huge enclosure which seems to have been used as a burial site for mussalmans of repute. I came upon two large Bahmani-style tombs. The influence of Bahmanis on the Vijaynagar kingdom was significant since there was a marriage of Firoz Shah Bahmani with King Devaraya I’s daughter. By this time, I was certain that Prabhu would have lost his patience. We rode back to the Talarighatta riverbank just in time to catch the last boat to Anegundi. Prabhu wanted to know the itinerary for the next day, and I obliged. He was visibly excited since this time he knew all the places I mentioned—Bhima’s gateway, an octogonal bath and the Ganagitti Jain temple. He said “Sir, 9.30 a.m. sharp.” Satisfied with my day of discovery, I hopped on a peaceful boat ride back to Anegundi.

  • Basav Biradar is a freelance writer and a documentary film maker obsessed with discovering civilizations and cultures through travel. He loves reimagining places through their history and telling their stories to people in his heritage tours and writings. He never travels without a book and is always up for a meal in a new place.

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