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Vijayanagara Elephant Stables

Vijayanagara Ghost Town - India

Vijayanagara is a huge abandoned, capital city of the empire of the same name that ruled part of southern India between the 14th and 16th century.

Originally all that was here was religious centre of the Virupaksha temple at Hampi. Such was the popularity of the temple with pilgrims that a small town grew up around the centre to provide accommodation, food and services to the pilgrims and eventually the city came into being.

Vijayanagara Ruined Building
The ruined city today covers 26 square kilometres and is mostly built on the south bank of the Tungabhadra river. The area is hilly with granite boulder strewn slopes. The river provided a defensive barrier from the north whilst to the south a large plain extended and gigantic granite walls and fortifications protected the city from attack from this side. It is likely that the original city was much bigger with estimates of its size exceeding 40 square kilometres. The city walls enclose an area of nearly 60 square miles meaning that some form of transport is needed to fully explore the site. At one point in history it was the largest city in Asia and the second largest in the world with a population of over half a million. At the time, the environs of the city included the modern village of Hampi and other modern villages have now been built within the radius of its temples and shrines.

Vijayanagara Stone Chariot
The name of the city means ‘City of Victory’ and it was the rich and opulent capital of the most prosperous and powerful kingdom of its era in India. Its wonder attracted many visitors from around the world. In the book ’The Discovery of India’ the author Nehru notes that the city grew even more powerful after the fall of Delhi to Timur. Hindu refugees fled south to the city bringing their wealth, skills and knowledge adding to the glory of Vijayanagar.

Accounts from the time say the city was very beautiful and a visitor, Abdur-Razzak said,

‘The city is such that the eye has not seen, nor ear heard of any place resembling it on earth.’

There were arcades for the bazaars which sold a wealth of goods from near and far and beautiful galleries. The central point, visible from miles around, was the king’s palace around which craftsmen has fashioned rivers and streams using carved granite.  Gardens had been created throughout the city giving it a feel of an oasis and the scent of jasmine and other flowers perfumed the air. Many of the gardens grew fruit trees helping to supply the city and its numerous inhabitants.

Vijayanagara Elephant Stables
Other visitors compared it favourably to the size and beauty of Rome, such was the finesse of its architecture.

The palace rooms were nothing less than palatial, adorned with ivory carvings of roses and lilies in a buttery hue

All this beauty and wealth and power came crashing down when calamity struck in 1565. War with the Islamic Deccan Sultanates had been looming for years and kept at bay with treaties and the payment of tribute. Time ran out for the city when, seeking a chance to free itself from the constant fear of attack, the city decided on striking first. It was a calamitous error and the empire's armies suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of an army formed from an alliance of the Islamic sultanates in the north and the capital was taken. The victorious Muslims then proceeded to raze the city to the ground, horrified at the brashness of the city and the empire it ruled. They went on to slowly depopulate, then destroy the city and its Hindu temples and icons over a period of several months. Surprisingly, the empire continued to exist in fragments, such was its immense size, but the city was never again populated nor did it ever rule again over an empire.

Vijayanagara Temple
Today the ruined city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as The Ruins of Hampi. Sadly, what remains of the city and the empire is once again under attack as modern day India encroaches on the past. Vibrations from traffic and especially the construction and use of road bridges in the area to cross the Tugabhadra have led to further damage and the clearance of the trees in the area has added to the fading effect of the sun on the frescoes. For this reason the site has now been added to the ‘threatened’ World Heritage Site’ list but thankfully, the Indian government, mindful of its obligations in preserving the history and evidence of its past, has taken extreme measures to halt the decline, including the huge cost of carefully demolishing the nearest road bridge and rebuilding it in a less damaging area.

Visitors to the area today still have plenty to see. Beginning with the area known as the sacred centre they will see the surviving temple and surrounding temple complex including a colonnaded street extending a kilometre to a statue of Nandi. Whilst the city is still deserted, the temple still functions and is dedicated to Virupaksha, an aspect of Shiva and Pampa.

North east of Hampi is the Vittala Temple, the principle monument of the deserted city. Dedicated to an aspect of Vishnu it has an incredible set of musical pillars. Each pillar is carved to represent a musical instrument and additionally, when struck, each of the pillars sounds a note representative of the instrument. A fantastic example of how the skill of the city’s builders was enhanced by its great scientists. Today, the temple is the venue of the annual Purandaradasa festival.

Vijayanagara Ruins

Another intriguing monument is the King’s Balance. Here, once a year during the festival, the emperor was suspended from the beam that sits across the two pillars and he was weighed in gold or jewels. The equivalent weight was then distributed to the poor of the city. A fascinating ritual, it is based on the premise that in a good year the emperor was fatter and so more of the city’s wealth could be distributed. In bad years the emperor was leaner and so the amount available for distribution lessened.

Also of interest is the aqueduct which runs through much of the Royal Enclosure and into the Great Tank where water was brought for special events.  The aqueduct also runs into the large stepped tank which is lined in green diorite, with a geometric design that has stood the test of time, looking much as it did in the heyday of the city. Also called the Pushkarani, Stepped Bath, or the Queen's bath, this was  designed for bathing to keep cool in the hottest months of the year. Whilst no doubt beautiful whn full of cooling waters, the pool is a geometric marvel when looking at the half pyramidal steps that fall to the bottom of the empty pyramidal tank.

Finally another fascinating building to visit is the Elephant Stables which, with their domes and arches, show an Islamic influence. In front of the stables is the parade ground for the animals and the troops of the empire’s army.

Bicycles or mopeds are used by tourists to explore the vast site and a visit in the cooler months of the year will reward the visitor with a glimpse of the splendour that was the now deserted, ghostly city of Vijayanagara.