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The Ruins of Vijayanagar:
A Sacred and Grand Legacy
May 17, 2000

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Once in a while you come across something stunning, striking, magical, and moving. That's what I found in the ancient ruins of the great Vijayanagar Hindu Empire!

When we visit ancient ruins and monuments it's sometimes hard to imagine what the place originally looked like. We live in a different time far away from ancient sites, which can often make these places seem distant and unreal. But if you're lucky, once in a while you come across something stunning, striking, magical, and moving. That's what I found in the ancient ruins of the great Vijayanagar Hindu Empire!


After visiting the ruins of ancient kingdoms like those off the Aegean coast of Turkey or the great Persepolis in Iran, Trekker Kavitha talked about a place in India that she claimed was just as amazing and magical. Boy was she right!

In the wee hours of the morning I arrived outside the town of Hampi where the ruins are located. You would never have guessed at the early hour because of all the traffic and commotion that surrounded the bus stand. Against one wall, three or four old men were squatting on the filthy ground, which is stained red from the Indian chewing tobacco (pan) that is spit everywhere. They were hunched over gas fryers, cooking up pots of samosas (yummy seasoned potatoes fried up in a dough crust).


negotiations - discussion or bargaining to reach an agreement
venture - to undertake the risk of doing something
compound - an enclosed space with a building or group of buildings within it
pyre - a pile of wood on which a dead body is burned

Some people were asleep, stretched out on the ground as others busily walked over them to get to a bus or find a relative amidst the crowd. I was in a groggy haze after my long day on the bumpy roads from the town of Goa. All I wanted was a bed. We had lengthy negotiations over a fair price for an autorickshaw (an Indian three-wheel taxi) to take us to Hampi. Finally, my friend Anthony and I headed for the closest beds and got some rest.

Our morning of exploration began at dawn. We were up with the rest of India, just a few hours after coming in from Goa, because morning is the best time of day to get anything done. By the noon, the heat is so intense that the only thing to do is find shade and wait until evening before you venture out again. We were brave souls so our plan was to tour for the entire day. We decided that it was best to get a head start to try to cover as much as we could while the weather was still cool.

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for larger view
The great Virupaksha Temple stands almost 50 meters high, dominating the western skyline of the village.

It was dark when we arrived, but by daybreak the magic of Hampi began to sparkle in the morning dew. Like almost everyone else, I was drawn to the town's temple, a landmark which I could see towering in the distance. This great Hindu temple, dedicated to the creator god Shiva, glowed a majestic golden orange with the rising of the sun. The main temple is called Virupaksha temple. Virupaksha is another form of Shiva, whose picture was placed in a golden frame at the front.

The blue god smiles down on all of his devotees and visitors as they enter the shrine, barefoot and bearing gifts. I followed in a line of Indian Hindus who still worship in this temple, which was built in 1442 and is one of the oldest structures still standing. Donation baskets of coconuts, bananas, and flowers were blessed by Shiva and taken home to family and friends. Offerings were made and devotees were then given a handful of holy water to drink. Some stayed and knelt in prayer but others continued as the line led to the outside of the temple compound.

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It would have been easier to hitch a ride on this ancient stone-carved temple than to haggle over decent price with an autorickshaw driver.

Our morning of prayer was not complete until we stood in line to receive a final blessing from the elephant Lexmi, named after the Hindu goddess of wealth. Yes, a huge black elephant collected the offerings in her trunk, handed the gift to the priest who was presiding over the offerings and then placed her trunk on the head of the giver to bless them with wealth and prosperity! I couldn't miss out on that!

I imagine that this blessing was especially effective during the height of the Vijayanagar Empire, which lasted for four dynasties, spanning some two hundred years. It was founded by the Telegu Princes, Harihara and Bukka, in 1336. An abrupt and fatal blow by surrounding Muslim forces brought the entire kingdom to its doom in 1565.

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Our morning of prayer was not complete until we stood in line to receive a final blessing from an elephant named Lexmi, after the Hindu goddess of wealth.

In addition to Lexmi's blessings of wealth, the region was smattered with diamonds and spices. The diamonds were so plentiful they were measured in baskets and the market covered most of the city. Only small cement stalls are left, but you can easily see how they run from one end of the city to the other. It would have taken days to cover the grounds, back when the market was filled with princes, paupers, and merchants from far and wide. These busy bazaars attracted travelers from as far as Europe as the kingdom quickly became a center for international commerce.

This lucrative business gave the emperors and their wives the means to create a stunning kingdom with their wealth. The height of development took place under Krishnadevaraya from 1509 to 1529. He summoned the greatest artists, sculptors, architects, and engineers of the time and commissioned them to build a marvelous kingdom. The most famous building from his reign is the Vittula Temple, where Krishnadevaraya's wife would perform traditional dances. The columns of the temple were played by musicians as instruments to create music for the queen that echoed throughout the kingdom.

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These elephant stables were home to Lexmi's relatives!

In addition to the temple, the queen's pavilion, the Lotus Mahal, was equipped with a system of air conditioning. The queen's bath is still standing and in good condition. This pool is surrounded by eight glorious balconies. The queen's maidservants stood tossing flowers into her bath and singing Hindu lullabies. And while the queen danced, bathed, and rested the king paraded about on one of his eleven elephants.

Many of India's practices and traditions date as far back as this empire. The Brahmins were still the highest and most privileged caste of people. And the tradition of sati was a common practice. In sati a wife would be burned on her husbands funeral pyre along with the rest of his possessions as the ultimate statement of love and dedication. Surprisingly enough this still happens today. But there will be more on that in the future. So stay tuned as we travel the great Hindustan, learning about this exotic culture and its rich heritage.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - Keeping Their Heads Above Water!
Abeja - "Ladenge, Jitenge, Sikhenge, Badenge!":
We will fight, We Will Win, We Will Learn, We Will Grow!

Abeja - Gandhi's Satyagraha, the Insistence on Truth

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