The ghat stole a peek from beneath garments that lay upon it drying in the sun. The river waters shook off their morning breath. The copper bell tinkled, swaying as it did with her every step, her wet skin leaving a trail of water behind.
“We missed seeing her taking a bath!” I said to Harsha, the only time in my life I wished for such a thing.
We had just reached the banks of the Tungabhadra after a twenty minutes rickshaw ride from Hospet bus-stop. It was eight in the morning and the bank was abuzz with people performing their morning rituals: an old woman grunted as she slapped a bright orange garment on a boulder and then wrung it till the veins in her arms popped; three teenage boys braved the cold water in their underwear, trying their best to pass off as the red-blooded males they thought they were, defeated by their scrawny bodies and awkward moustaches, the girls watching them barely impressed; a pudgy man in a dhoti and a furtive look on his face launched a ball of phlegm noisily before disappearing behind a few shrubs tucked between two boulders, the lota in his hand doing little to hide his secret.
And then there was Lakshmi, the Virupaksha temple elephant who had just finished her morning bath and was heading to the temple to fulfill her holy duties, work being worship for the pachyderm.
As we stepped onto the boat to cross the river, we watched Lakshmi climb the remaining of the steps in regal amble, getting closer to the gopura that stood in the background in quiet magnificence, proudly guarding a place of worship that has upheld its tradition of prayers since the time it was built in the 7th century. Ah, yes! History beckoned.
“I am peeing through my skin here!” I declared before guzzling down my eighth glass of lemonade since morning. It was nearly four in the afternoon, and despite the heat that could make any reasonable man beg for coup de grâce, Hampi continued to enchant us one ruin after another, telling us the story of a kingdom long, long ago, one chapter at a time: Vijayanagara empire (1336-1646), named after its capital city of Vijayanagara whose ruins surround Hampi, unified the whole of Southern India under its rule. Founded by Sangama brothers—Harihara and Bukka—of the Sangama Dynasty, the empire was ruled by three other dynasties during its 300 years rule, namely, the Saluva Dynasty (1485-1505), the Tuluva Dynasty (1505-1570) and the Aravidu Dynasty (1570-1646).
But glory can only last so long as envy does not ask for a share. And so it was that the empire was a barrier for the expansion of Islamic rule to the southern parts of India. By mid-1500s, the Deccan Sultanates—a conglomerate of five dynasties of various ethnic backgrounds that ruled the late medieval kingdoms of Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmadnagar and Bidar—joined forces after years of warring with the sole objective of destroying Vijayanagara Empire.
On January 23, 1565, armies of the Hindu raja of Vijayanagara and the four allied Muslim sultans confronted each other in Bijapur. The Battle of Talikota, as it came to be known, resulted in victory for the Sultanates. The victorious army then proceeded to pillage and destroy Vijayanagara kingdom, ravaging its architectural marvels and leaving behind the ruins that we see today.
We hopped from one monument to another, getting a glimpse of the flamboyant lives that the royal family led.
“…attendants would clean it and then fill it with fresh water. Before the bath was used, flags were raised on top of the monument to serve as a warning for commoners to stay away. Some reports suggest that the Queen’s Bath was not just meant for the queens but the king as well. It is believed that this was a pleasure house for the royal family.”
“Meaning?” asked Harsha.
Our guide, who until that point had been waxing poetic about the ruins of Hampi, was suddenly at a complete loss for words - “Like pleasure things madam, you know…”
“Arrey idiot! He means…tharkipan,” I whispered in her ears, and judging by the look of horror on her face, effectively ended her enchantment with the lives of the high and the mighty.
Post our brush with royal debauchery, we headed to see the sunset at Vittala temple, ensuring that we reached there just when the crowds had thinned and we had the place all to ourselves.
As we walked through the stone ruins of the bazaar that led to the temple, taking our time to explore the mantapas and the pushkarini on the way, I realized that temples in this ancient kingdom weren’t simply places of worship, they were social hubs.
Every temple in Hampi had a bazaar outside it that sold everything from jewels to women. Outside Vittala temple, Persian traders sold horses, and in order to understand how this trade was orchestrated, all you have to do is to look at the carvings on the temple closely, for the mahamantapa of the Vittala temple, among other things, describes the entire process of how horses were chosen by traders.
I was particularly amazed by the carvings on the mahamantapa because a lot of thought had gone into it—or so I would like to think—for there ought to be more to all those mythical creatures, and stars and planets, and mystical symbolism carved on it than the whim of an eccentric artisan.
Our hopes of watching the sunset were lost as dark clouds gathered above, perhaps to demonstrate how the rains form a veil around the temple. Our guide, as if on cue—for the sound of grumbling heavens sets an ideal stage for story-telling—began narrating the most extraordinary tale about this temple.
“King Krishnadevaraya was a patron of arts, and his youngest queen, a fantastic dancer. The queen used to perform for the king while musicians played on these pillars with sandalwood sticks. You see, these pillars, all 56 of them, aren’t ordinary pillars. Each one of them creates the sound of a distinct musical instrument. The minor pillars that surround each main pillar produce different notes of that instrument.
“When the king and the queen used to have their private performance, silk curtains were drawn all around the temple, suspended from hooks that you see on the top.”
“This is beginning to sound a lot like royal pleasure centre number two,” I told Harsha discreetly. Needless to say, she was not amused.
We walked around the temple courtyard for a long time, taking in this fantastic piece of architecture until we were full, learning things that our history books gave a miss, and finding links that ascertained the popular adage that we are all connected.
The theory ‘six degrees of separation’ states that any two individuals in the world can be connected by six or fewer links, a theory that I have often found to ring true for places, as I did in Hampi: after the fall of Vijayanagara in 1565, the idol of Vithoba that was enshrined in Vittala temple, was taken out of Hampi and enshrined in Pandharpur, Maharashtra - a place of great religious significance to devotees.
“Madam!” the gatekeeper blew his whistle, breaking my chain of thoughts and said, “Time ho gaya, ab gate band kar rahe hain!”
I took one last look at the temple courtyard and hills surrounding it scarred with boulders as we prepared to leave. “It is believed that some of the stones used to create these musical pillars might have come from these hills,” our guide had told us. It came to us as no surprise then, when we learnt that Purandara Dasa, father of Carnatic music, drew inspiration for his music in Hampi.
Puranadara Das, born Srinivasa Nayaka, was a greedy merchant who chose to became a wandering minstrel after an incident made him realize the futility of attachment to material possessions. He travelled throughout Vijayanagara Empire, composing and singing songs in praise of Lord Krishna, specifically Vittala, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and took on the pen name Purandara Vittala. This pen name would later distort history by giving rise to the misconception that his native town was Purandaragad near Pune, Maharashtra.
Royalty, ruins, history and music, what more could one ask for? Encore, perhaps?
“If you know how to play the harmonium, you can play this easily,” said our host for the evening, Gali, handing me a musical instrument that looked like a cross between a key-board and a hookah. I instantly regretted bragging about my background in Indian classical music.
“I am not…”
“Haan! Haan! Sab bajati hai wo!” said Harsha, with her usual smug expression, fidgeting with a djembe - a hand-drum from West Africa.
We sat in a tiny room, its walls so bright that they put the paddy fields outside to shame, choc-a-block with musical instruments from all over the world. Didgeridoos painted with curious motifs of frogs and dolphins lay strapped to the walls and the asbestos roof. Right next to them, counters full of flutes and drums gathered dust, the monotony of their brown skins broken by the vivid colours of nearly two dozen short cylindrical columns, which I don’t remember the name of. There were guitars, and sitars, and wind-chimes and funny little coconut-shaped instruments.
We were in a musician’s abode. But in all likelihood we had toppled down a rabbit hole. And it felt so apt, to be in that room full of music and sounds and colours after all that we had learnt about Hampi. Before we could even realize, the tiny room grew: a German man who played the didgeridoo, an Indian woman who played the guitar, an Indian man who played the most magical sounding metallic, hollow, dome-shaped instrument.
“Do you know any Kishore Kumar songs?” asked Gali.
“Umm…” Harsha and I weren’t too sure how two didgeridoos, a djembe, a guitar and a bad vocalist like myself would sound playing a Hindi song. But our doubts were soon drowned by the low mysterious groans of the didgeridoos and the delicate drizzle of the guitar strings. And as we both are wont to, we joined in.
I looked at Harsha as she played the djembe like a woman possessed, moments away from conjuring spirits of her forefathers. She looked at me as I sang, my face contorted like I was being administered an enema. Then we looked away, terrified.
By what could only be attributed to a fluke, our discordant notes fell in sync. And we sang until our jaws hurt and the tips of our fingers stung. And as it started to pour outside, I thought of that man who once wandered this land, spreading his music and faith, wondering if in some way, we had paid a humble tribute to his legacy.
“Trishna, show shuru ho gaya!” Harsha yelled from over a boulder some distance away from the one I was conveniently perched on. I stopped adjusting my camera lens and looked up just in time to see Lakshmi and her mahout stepping into the river.
It was our last day in Hampi. We had woken up early and walked to the banks of the Tungabhadra with the sole intent of taking in the austere simplicity of the place. Of course, watching Lakshmi was on the agenda too, creepy as it sounds.
We watched her for close to an hour as she soaked in the tepid warmth of the rising sun, flapping her ears and swinging her tail in delight every time the mahout scrubbed her skin. She might have been a dog in a previous life, I suspected.
As she got up, ready to leave, I took a deep breath, taking in the air of Hampi one last time and feeling its pulse, you know, the one that every place has…a hum so delicate that it is often lost to the rush of jamming in every tourist spot in a packed schedule, often left unheard in the maddening clicks of a camera, but if you pay attention, real close, real hard, you will hear it, and if you give it enough time, it will resonate with yours, and in that moment, I promise you, your heart will sing as did ours.