I came next to the Achyutaraya temple, an abandoned compound of red-capped structures that was housing a tribe of shade-seeking monkeys instead of worshipers. An empty bazaar bordered the boulevard that emanated from the temple. It was a long, covered causeway offering only shade in the summer heat instead of an empire’s treasures. But during its heyday in the 1400s, Abdur Razzak, a Persian ambassador to the kingdom, wrote: “Each class of men belonging to each profession has shops contiguous the one to the other; the jewelers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds.”
On that first day I focused less on the empire’s weighty history than on one of Hampi’s current treasures — Lakshmi, the town’s holy elephant. I found her in the still-used Virupaksha temple, a much grander affair than those small temples tucked into the hillside. The Virupaksha temple looked like a lost Mayan ruin, a 160-foot-high, cream-white pyramidal cone of intricate columns and statues. Inside the temple complex, I found quiet hidden chapels, murmuring monks and, in a tucked-away corner, Lakshmi. A pair of young boys offered her a coin and then stood frozen in delighted awe as she tapped a blessing on each of their heads. The next morning, I watched her attendants lead her down to the river for her morning bath.
A mighty past
On my second day, elephant spotting completed, I visited more monuments and temples, this time with Kumar, my guide. As we wandered past the city’s mighty statue of Ganesh, he told me the local legend about the city’s founding. The Telegu prince Harihara Raya chose to build his kingdom in Hampi after visiting it in 1336 and watching a tiny rabbit attack and chase his dogs into quivering submission. “He saw that the earth was so powerful [to produce such a fierce rabbit] that he wanted to build it here,” Kumar said.
Luck or fate was on the prince’s side. Vijayanagar grew quickly over the next 200 years, mustering million-man armies, constructing thousands of temples and housing 500,000 people, a population second only to that of Beijing at the time. It attracted explorers and traders from far-off Portugal, Russia and Italy, as well as Mongols, Persians and Arabs.
Hundreds of years later, Hampi seemed littered with monuments, but otherwise fairly empty. Until recently, people lived in the shadows of the temples, even building shops and homes in some of the abandoned bazaars. But over the past year, the government forcibly evicted around 350 families in the name of protecting the statues and temples, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site. (The government plans to move the displaced residents to a new site about three miles away and give them compensation to build new homes. But so far, locals told me, it has taken little action in this direction.) For now, the smashed houses and storefronts are a grim modern reminder of the fate that the village’s mighty ancestor faced centuries ago.
“I never saw a place like this,” said Nicolo Conti, the first European to see the Vijayanagara Empire when he arrived in 1420. I couldn’t get the same thought out of my head.