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Chapter 3. Temples and Tombs


I woke up at five in the morning in the bus to Hampi to find a large blue-grey zone occupying most of the view from the window. Wow! a mountain-range! I rub my bleary eyes again - no! a big water body. I decided it was the lake formed by the Tungabhadra dam. Soon the bus slowed down near a sign saying "Hotel Mayura Vijaynagara, Tungabhadra", and I got off. For some reason, Karnataka Tourism has chosen the Peacock (Mayura) as its logo, and all its hotels are called Hotel Mayura *; this was close to Hampi where the Vijaynagar empire once flourished; hence, the name.

I find dams in general to be interesting, but this one didnt let people walk on it from bank to bank, so it wasnt much fun. Hotel Mayura Tungabhadra looked like a haunted house with plenty of broken panes, thus ruling itself out as base-camp. I managed to find an auto to get to the Hampi town bus terminal, from where I took a bus to Kamalapur.

Hampi Kamalapur is a convenient starting point for exploring Hampi ruins. You can hire bicycles (15 rupees for the day), have grub at one of the small eateries, stay at Hotel Mayura Bhuvaneswari - this one is in decent shape, some attempt has been made to make the building architecturally evoke the Vijaynagar empire, and the staff is amiable - they didnt enforce the check-in/check-out time like cast in concrete.

As for the ruins themselves, I found myself ill-prepared to enjoy and appreciate them. Hampi was a full-grown metropolis, covering a large area, comprising many structures. I have a well-ingrained mistrust of professional guides and their cock and bull stories, so I decided to see the place by myself and ended up missing some important sites. To make up for my poor background, I bought a book, which turned out to be something interesting by itself. Hampi Ruins, Described and Illustrated by A.H. Longhurst is a facsimile edition of of an early twentieth century publication, with a font and layout typical of books from the British Raj. I hope the copyright owners will forgive a few quotes:

Time spent in the study of the architecture and religion of the past will never be regretted, for every ruin tells of the history of other days, and enables the character and condtions of men of past periods to be conjured up, thus opening wide to all students and lovers of old buildings the enjoyment of contemplating forms which will then have for them a meaning and a charm.

.....The illustrations are from full plate negatives in this office and as per orders of the Government contained in G.O. No. 1418 (Edn.), dated 12th November 1917, bromide prints from any of these are available to the public at a cost of one Rupee each, postage paid, obtainable at the address mentioned below.

Archaeological Survey of India
Southern Circle, Kotagiri, Nilgiris.

One can only feel admiration for the scholars and historians who followed the traders and rulers into an alien country with an inhospitable climate, and took it upon themselves to reveal to the population a past that it had turned its back on.

I decided to return to Hampi some day when I have finished Hampi Ruins cover to cover. Hampi Ruin: smashed heads

The best base from which to see what remains of the city to day, 360 years since its destruction, is Kamalapur, seven miles from Hospet Railway station (Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway), where a deserted temple was converted into a dwelling by Mr. J. H. Master, a former Collector of the district, and is now used as a Travellers' Resthouse (The Resthouse is fully furnished and the servant in charge is capable of preparing meals for visitors, but the only food supplies that can be obtained locally are milk, eggs, fowls, mutton and rice. All other food supplies required should be obtained before leaving Hospet where there is one of Spencer's Refreshment Rooms at the railway station.) The only means of conveyance available locally for the journey, are country pony-carts (jutkas) and bullock-carts which can be engaged at Hopset railway station.
This resthouse is still in existence, but not being employed in a government department, I dared not approach it.

Getting to Aihole from Kamalapur was not an easy matter. Things are not helped by the fact that south Indian languages have a near-continuous spectrum of glide consonants spanning the distance between l and r, which are arbitrarily represented in Roman by l, r or, most puzzling of all, zh! From Kamalapur, I had to first catch a bus to Ilkal (which, when pronounced by locals, sounded to me more like Irlkarl), where I enquired about how to reach Aihole. One intelligent bus-conductor deciphered my speech - "Ah! Aye-horley! You get a bus to x, then find something from there." I got a bus to x, and the only something I could get there for Aihole was a minivan packed with people of all ages, sizes and genders, with a few chickens and goats added for diversity.

When I managed to extricate myself from its innards on arriving at Aihole, I found myself standing at a small dusty intersection of a small, dusty village. A couple of enclosures fenced off by the Archaeological survey, and a Tourist Home were its only signs of contact with the outside world. The enclosures and the lawns within them were well looked after, and contained some beautiful temples. This, apparently, was a prototyping and testing centre for Chalukyan temple architecture, so one finds a bold variety of styles, some examples abandoned halfway, perhaps when the experiment had demonstrated the sagacity or stupidity of a hot artistic theory of the day, or when the experimenter fell out of favour with the backers.

Durga Temple Temple at Aihole Durga Temple - another attempt
The most beautiful and well-preserved temple at Aihole is the Durga temple. It has a unique tapered-oblong plan, and one could never tire of walking around and around it and admiring its shape. Besides the enclosures, there are other temples scattered around the village, some right next to the villagers' homes. I had finished ticking everything off my list, but apparently, there was no way to get out of Aihole that day. A few tourist taxis - white Ambassadors with dark windows - whizzed by, their occupants no doubt doing a whirlwind one-day tour of Hampi/Aihole/Pattadakal, but apart from these, no motorized form of transport polluted the village square for the rest of the day. Stuck in a hole, I had no choice but to approach the Tourist Home for accommodation. This was in a building continuous with the Archaeological Survey office, and I guess its only occasional guests are archaeologists. I was able to get a room easily, and at 60 rupees a night, it was reasonably comfortable and clean. The only catch was the toilet-bowl: the seat was missing, which required me to do considerable high-risk gymnastics the next morning.

Durga at Aihole Not having much to do, I took a short nap, wrote a letter, and then pottered back to the Durga temple. The temple walls and ceilings are chockablock with carvings; the sculpture is interesting per se, and possibly much more interesting to those who have a background on the stories the works illustrate. The only way to really absorb and enjoy it all is to keep going back a number of times, which is the very opposite of what an optimizing tourist can do. I guess in the days when it was built, temples served as a kind of community centre: people would assemble there for important events, grandmothers with toddlers in tow would gather in the evenings on the steps to exchange gossip (as they still do in the comparatively more religious and communal southern India), and the time that the artist had spent with his chisel would eventually be matched by his audience, and his effort be rewarded with appreciation and discovery that can only come from repeated visits. The whizzing tourists dont know what they are missing.

At eight o'clock next morning the government bus arrived. It was decorated with plants and flowers for the Deepawali festival, and the driver would get off at every village along the way to exchange greetings and sweets with local friends and relatives.

Bas-relief figure on Pattadakal Temple Pattadakal I cannot really contribute anything by attempting to describe Pattadakal - the temples are as interesting as the ones in Aihole, and the place has been declared a World Heritage Centre by UNESCO. The few lines that I'm devoting to Pattadakal are not meant to be a slight - I'm not an expert on temples, it's been over two years since I went there, and all I can remember is that I enjoyed being there. Incidentally, Pattadakal is nearly as much a one-bus village as Aihole.

The cave-temples at Badami (my next stop from Pattadakal), are less interesting, and I quickly moved on to Bijapur. Bijapur is a decent-size town, and I had to actually hunt around a bit before I could get a hotel with a vacancy. I had romantic visions of Bijapur being a charming old Muslim city, with restaurants serving aromatic biryanis behind lattice-work screens, but all I found was dirt, dust, soot and smoke. The Gol Gumbaz is certainly interesting, but little else is worth the trouble.

The Gol Gumbaz is the mausoleum of the Bahmani king Adil Shah, and is remarkable for the huge dome that spans its roof. A tower grows along each corner of the square building, and unlike in many historical monuments, people are allowed to climb these. As in most monuments, these towers have extremely narrow staircases designed for the exclusive use of nawabs and their lissom begums, and not for a tourist-traffic of a few dozen per minute in either direction, with a few screeching, giggling juliets thrown in. The good thing is that at each floor of the tower, there are windows that allow you a sloth's eye-view of the building, and a bird's eye view of the surrounding country. At the top of the tower, you're let back into the mausoleum, onto the gallery that runs just along the rim of the 100+ foot diameter dome, giving a vertiginous view of the gaping central hall with the tombs nine stories below. This gallery has incredible acoustics: with hordes of tourists screaming out to each other to test its properties, the echoes were unbelievable for their fidelity.
Gol Gumbaz - Up Close Gol Gumbaz - The History Book View Gol Gumbaz - Up Close


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