Vijayanagar ruled all of Southern India from 1336 to 1565.

I stepped off the bus in the morning at Hampi Bazaar. It was a place so bewilderingly strange to Western eyes that I could hardly believe I was seeing it. There was a double row of 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. They were huge columns -- broken -- in two rows. They stood maybe 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, straw, merchandise and people. It was such a jumble that it took me a few minutes of taking a step and staring, taking another step and staring to realize that these were people's homes and people's stores. The merchandise, sandals here and pots there, basins, soap, cups, mats, cosmetics, food, materials, saris, a thousand items formed the walls between the columns. Often enough, the merchandise also formed a barrier between the front and back of the stalls. There may have been two families to a stall. Maybe more. There were multitudes crowded between the huge broken columns, sitting about in the streets, walking up and down, staring at the occasional foreigner, no doubt hoping they would buy something; but mostly the vast milling crowd was just living, friendly, curious, and welcoming.

It was as shocking as if one were to find the Athenians serving tea and making babies among the pillars of the Parthenon, or the farmers of Colorado storing their harvest and selling tortillas out of the Cliff Dwelling of Mesa Verde. What Westerners might think of as the homeless were, it seemed, putting an ancient monument to the pragmatic test of usefulness. But these people weren't homeless. This was obviously their home, and their delight. One long line of the arcade stretched in front of me as I walked into Hampi, and a shorter line stood to my right, columns, habitations, people and straw. It was a bit, I guessed, like the stables at Bethlehem.

The young Israeli woman I had met just after I visited the Ajanta caves, who had originally said, "Go to Hampi, go to Vijayanagar," had told me to look for a certain tea shop. I found it: a woman with a pot on a tiny dung fire and two stools by a column. I had sweet chai. But my adviser must have spoken a little Hindi or Kannada, for the proprietress, though very friendly, spoke no English. We smiled at each other again and again as I drank my tea. My eyes, looking over the rim of my tiny tea cup, wandered around like two barn-yard chickens, struck by the amount of life and dust, activity and a feeling of concealed exuberance the "town" or camp-out seemed to contain beneath its rustic tatters.

When I left the tea stool, it was a bit of a walk up a hill before I came to more ruins. Already the morning sun was searing hot, so on top of the hill I stopped to find something else to drink. In a shop made of palm fronds and sticks, I had a lesson from a little old man wrapped round by a colorful skirt, a lungi it was called, on how to drink coconut milk straight from the pod. What a blessed alternative it became, from then on, to the always questionable water. After I had sucked up the sweet clear liquid through a straw, the seller, with a huge machete, hacked off a chip, then chopped the whole thing in two so I could scoop out the milky meat. I stood on the hill looking off to where the ruins were reported to be, savoring the coconut, mostly seeing nothing at all but dust and scrubby bushes.

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. At some point I had walked through a gate, for I remember a young Indian man asking me, at that gate, why I had come. A question for which I had no answer.

In my sandals, I skimmed over the dome of black rock, maybe as big as four tennis courts in all directions, and, as I did so, I caught a glimpse of the river. Along the river, strewn about on the landscape, were huge boulders of black rock. Shiny. So immense were the rocks and boulders, I couldn't really believe they were there. It was as if Brahma himself had spilt 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 the capitol of what was to become the largest Hindu Empire in Indian history -- here?

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

I had asked: "What is it?"

"A river, ruins, rocks."

"Different than here?" We both had just been to see the river, ruins, rocks of Ajanta. I could not conceive of anything more spectacular.

"It's unique." She didn't say much else, except to urge me to go, and, "I slept out by the rocks."

"Safe? Where do you leave your stuff when you sleep out?"

"By a rock."

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 stone work 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 which flowered with eternal blossoms. The ceiling was coffered and criss-crossed 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 hall, 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, sing-song and lilting, as Indian speech is.

"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 stone, 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 filigree 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 guide book indicated it was a nine kilometer walk around the road that now circled what was left of Vijayanagar--a city, it said, that had once covered thirty-three square kilometers. An easy walk. I set off. The road was a country road of soft beige-colored dust. Its edges merged with the land.

With the major ruins at my back, I began to walk through weedy land dotted with small trees. On my right, cultivated fields began and, a little further along, 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 there was not a soul around. Here, if one paused to hear the slight sound of the wind playing about the columns, one could rest and dream of the market place 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 fifteen-nine. I closed my eyes and saw in technicolor the merchants, the saried 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 stunted trees, the weeds and the columns -- some of which were there and some that had vanished.

The dusty road made a gentle curve and I was surrounded on both sides by banana orchards, a banana plantation as might be seen in Hawaii, I thought, having never seen one. And a road leading, no doubt, to a house, a regular house, where the plantation owner lived, not like the squatters at Hampi.

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 sugar cane 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 felt like Jesus on his trek -- they say he came to India, you know -- as if I had come on some meaningful mission to save humanity, humanity perhaps in the form of my own soul. I chanted Hari Krishna, and other bhajans I had learned at an ashram, to the peopleless landscape.

There was no one on the road. Not another tourist, not a single person, not one cultivator of the land. 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 -- where I now walked in solitude

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 their were more ruins ahead, so I walked on, across a vast barren stretch of rocky ground.

I walked on and on. 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. On and on through the heat and dust. For me it was like heaven. I could worry about hunger and I could worry about thirst, the basics of life which I had hardly ever given a thought to. 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 roadó 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 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 high 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 -- the Lotus Mahal, the Dasara Platform, the Khanavami-Dibba, the Zenana Enclosure -- they had such beautiful names. 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 had a kingdom to itself. I ran my hands along the walls, murmured words to hear them echoed by the domes, stood in enthralled. Elephants!

There were people here, like me, walking in and out of the ruins, not too many. All of us were silent in the deserted grandeur, gazing at the unfaced buildings, marveling at the colossal remnants of what had been the capitol of an empire, a city surpassing Rome. It was like seeing a monarch in his undergarments. Embroidered though they were with a few remaining arches, the pomp and glory were missing, the robes, the crowns, the jewels were gone.

But not entirely. On the back side of the King's Palace, along friezes near the ground, and extending maybe two feet high, were lines of exquisitely carved elephants, trunk to tail, each procession not more than a foot high -- and a man, a living man, on his knees, counting them, making notations in a book.

"What are you doing?" I hadn't spoken to a human being in several hours.

"Counting the elephants." The young Indian motioned me to silence until he came to a seam in the wall.


"We're doing an archaeological survey."

"Oh. Who?" I looked around. For it was only him I saw at work.

"Most of the people are at the Queen's Bath and at the camp. They excavated a pipeline for the Queen's Bath recently."

I was intrigued. Having myself an amateur's interest in archaeology, I wanted to know more, but, though helpful in pointing out the beauty and details of the procession of elephants, horses, dancers, he didn't know much about the "dig," and urged me to go on to the Queen's Bath or the camp. I could tell he was very keen on his job, his responsibility in counting the elephants, and wanted to get back to his task.

I walked on. I was on another road that passed through ruined walls -- somehow the desert, the dryness, the dust, made it all look so neat -- until I came upon mounds of fresh dug dirt and a deep rectangular hole lined with precisely cut stone, magnificent in its proportions. This was the Queen's Bath, awesome in its exposed emptiness. There was only one person there, eager to hurry off. It was lunch time, it appeared, back at the camp. "Come there," he urged and walked away.

I sat on the rim of the bath for awhile, imagining it full of sparkling water beneath the blue-white sun-filled sky, and the water filled with splashing, laughing, incredibly beautiful bathing women. The kings were reported to have had thousands of wives. Or had the bath been reserved for just one queen? I did not know. It was immense, far larger than any modern swimming pool.

Then I started along the road the man had indicated as leading to the archaeologist's camp. It was still a mile or more away. I walked and mused.

It had always been one of my dreams to be part of an archaeological team, to know and understand, first hand, by sifting its dust, an ancient civilization. Since I was in no hurry, only wandering, expected no where, I decided, as I walked along, that I could volunteer a few days. I, too, could count elephants, dust stones delicately with a fine brush, record minutiae of which, quite probably, I would never know the meaning. I quickened my stride. I felt quite buoyant. I entered the camp with confidence, met some charming people sitting on the steps of a ramshackle building and asked to see the director of the site.

The directors turned out to be an Australian and an American, both wearing khaki shorts, sitting in a tent that stood beside, but not in the shadow of, the building where I had inquired. The tent was hot and dusty, organized and, under its open wings, shaded to a greenish hue -- all an amateur archaeologist could hope for. The two young men were most welcoming in that way that foreigners in a foreign land are pleased to see another foreigner. I made my offer. They turned me down with regret, saying that only Indians could be hired for the project.

"What about you?"

"Oh well," they laughed, "we're just the directors. The Indian's have other priorities. They're not interested in investing money in digging up their past, not such a recent past as this."


"The major ruins date back only to the fourteenth century."

"That seems old enough to me."

"Not in India. No investigation of the ruins has ever been attempted. They're too new, uninteresting, in a land where 2,000 year old ruins go begging for excavation."


"The government has to cope with the living problems. But they welcomed our suggestion, stipulating only that our work force must be composed of citizens of India. It's a boon to the economy out here in the desert."

"But I'm volunteering."

"Even then the government asks that we take only Indians, for our volunteers get educational credit -- and they are fed."

Without further ceremony, the two men rose, saying it was lunch time and invited me to join them. I went with them onto the open porch of another building. There I was introduced to seven or eight groups of people sitting at as many tables, where I joined in one of the most interesting lunches of my life. The spicy food was delicious though, perhaps, by Indian standards rather plain, since they served only two or three dishes. The company was superb, the knowledge I gleaned quite marvelous. Vijayanagar, I was told, had ruled all of Southern India off and on from 1336 to 1565. How precise it all was, I thought, for being so unstudied. But it appears, the history was known, if not the remains.

There were other visitors from the States, quite a number of Indians, a few Australians. Everyone talked excitedly about the pipeline to the Queen's Bath. It, apparently, was their major accomplishment for the whole dig. Their funds were getting low. The work could not go on too much longer, but, eventually, they hoped a book would come from their efforts. For, to their knowledge, there was only one book ever published about the site, and it lacked pictures. One of their goals was to make a photographic record of the remaining buildings and, along with their research, publish a splendid coffee-table book. In my mind's eye, I already saw photographs of the Vittala Temple. The book would be breathtaking.

Someone read a passage from Abdur-Razzaq, who had visited the Empire in 1443, "The city," he had written, "is such that eye has not seen or ear heard of any place resembling it upon the whole earth." He went on to describe the palaces, between which streams flowed in "channels of cut stone, polished and even," the bazaars full of merchandise from the world over, and fragrant with flowers, sparkling with jewels: rubies, pearls, diamonds and emeralds for sale "...openly in the bazaar."

"In the King's Treasury," Abdur-Razzaq noted, "there are chambers, with excavations in them, filled with molten gold, forming one mass. All the inhabitants of the country, whether high or low...wear jewels and gilt ornaments in their ears and around their necks, arms, wrists, and fingers."

The gold was all gone, the archaeologists cheerfully acknowledged, by the time they got there. Indeed, the Empire of Vijayanagar was annihilated in a period of five months, the American Director told me, in an orgy of deliberate destruction probably surpassed only by that wreaked upon the Aztecs by the Spanish when they razed every stone and building right down to the ground. The American read from another book, quoting Sewell, "Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged, and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description." This pillaging followed, the Australian Director added, the decisive battle of Talikota fought on January 23, 1565, by Vijayanagar against an alliance of four sultans from the north.

As I walked away from the good company after the good lunch, my immediate path lay past a row of buildings in use. They stood like temporary buildings lightly upon the dust. It may have been the village of Kamalapura. I walked on, thinking about the line, "...the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome..." realizing for the first time that India was filled with lost empires as grand or grander than any of those in the West, empires of which neither I nor most Westerners knew even the names.

I walked ever slower along the unpaved road. It was late afternoon by now. I saw a young Western woman dressed in a sari. How odd her white skin and athletic Western gait appeared within the exotic drapery. A gang of young boys, maybe eight to ten, surrounded me, giggling, laughing, friendly, I thought, at first. But when I sat to rest on a roadside bench where a bus was to stop, they started singing me a song which had unmistakably lewd accompanying gestures. Taunting me and laughing, they seemed to personify both the creator and destroyer aspects of Shiva dancing the world into existence. I walked on. I did not want to be with them when the sun set.

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 what I learned was the Virupaksha Temple with its eleven story gateway glistening white in the last rays of the sun. It was so immense, so carved with figures, that surely it portrayed half the population of India upon its rising wedge-shaped tower. How had I 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 Empire. It was overwhelming in its extent. How had I missed it?

To this day I have found no books on Vijayanagar.

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. Authors who do mention Vijayanagar, say it is just one monument among many. It is not even listed in most guide books. The Dravidians, you see, always controlled, still control, the South, the Aryans, Hindus, and Muslims came from the North. The present, as in other countries on earth, spars with the past.

Copyright © 2000 through 2015 Jan Haag

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail at:

VIJAYANAGAR was first published in "Travelers' Tales INDIA,"(O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., San Francisco, CA, 1995) under the title of A VISION OF VIJAYANAGAR, along with A WEDDING IN MAHABALESHWAR and SICK UNDER THE BO TREE. Other stories and poems about India include: HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH INDIA, INDIA, ELURA, and CROSSROADS.

Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.




21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context