The temple ruins of Hampi – 2: Vittala Temple

If Hampi was the showpiece of the Vijayanagara Empire, then the Vittala Temple is undoubtedly the showpiece of Hampi. Everything about the Vittala Temple is designed to make a statement—right from its settings and surroundings to its architecture to the temple complex itself. Everything. It is for this reason that the Vittala Temple is the most visited monument in Hampi, thereby making it the most talked about or written about or photographed monument. It is also the reason why our tour group was standing outside the Vittala Temple complex at 8.00 am one Saturday morning last month. Doreen, our tour organiser, was insistent that we visit the Vittala Temple before any other monument that day to avoid the tourist hordes. It was a good thing too, as the tourists started arriving in waves as we were leaving.

Located on the banks of the Tungabhadra with Anegundi on the opposite river bank, the approach to the Temple is through the stone ruins of a bazaar. We also passed a water tank and some manadapa-like monuments.

Bazaar outside the Vittala Temple

I also saw what looked like an enormous, narrow gateway, sans surrounding walls/ fortifications, a misconception that was clarified as I got nearer. The stone beam placed on two carved pillars was not a gate — it was the remains of a giant scale or a tulabharam. The ruling kings of Vijayanagara used to be weighed against gold, precious stones, food grains, etc., which would then be distributed to the poor and needy. At least this is what our guide told us, but I think that the gold and precious stones would have gone to the temples and the food grains to the poor and needy.

The stone frame of the King’s Balance or Tulabharam is all that remains of the original structure

As one nears the Vittala Temple, the burnt entrance tower captured my attention. The rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire were quite open to experimenting with building materials and styles. While experimenting with building styles seemed to be reserved for their royal buildings, their temples were experimented upon with regard to building material — at least for the temple towers. Brick towers replaced the heavier granite towers seen in the Virupaksha Temple at Hampi. While this made the temple towers easier to build, it also made them vulnerable to destruction by fire. Which is what happened when Hampi was sacked after the loss of the Vijayanagara Empire at the Battle of Talikota.

Entrance to the Vittala Temple

When I entered the Vittala Temple complex, the first thing that struck me was the geometric precision of the layout of the various structures within.

Inside the Vittala Temple Complex

Inside the Vittala Temple Complex. Part of the Mahamandapa is visible on the right, while part of the Kalyana Mandapa is visible on the left. One of the burnt temple towers is also visible in the background

It was difficult to concentrate on the guide’s orientation talk, as my eyes kept straying all over seeking details and delighting in the beauty around me. Once his talk was over, I set out to explore the Vittala Temple complex in greater detail, making the most obvious and best known structure there—the Stone Chariot—my first halt.

The Stone Chariot is built on a rectangular stone platform and its inner chamber once enshrined a Garuda idol. The Stone Chariot was originally drawn by 2 stone horses (now destroyed), and are currently drawn by 2 stone elephants brought from some other place. The Stone Chariot looks so amazingly real, right down to its stone wheels, that I felt all it needed was a tap or two with a magic wand for it to come alive! I’ve got goosebumps on my arm even as I am typing this out.

The Stone Chariot at the Vittala Temple

The Vittala Temple complex is also known for its hall of musical pillars. When I first heard about the musical pillars in Hampi, I imagined a long, seemingly endless, hall along which tall pillars would be lined up. These pillars would resonate with musical notes when struck gently. Nothing was further from this imagined structure of mine!

The Mahamandapa of the Vittala Temple, which contains the hall of musical pillars, is a many angled structure. Like the Stone Chariot, this too stands on an ornate platform, decorated with bas reliefs of traders, animals and floral motifs. There are 5 halls within this Mahamandapa corresponding to the four cardinal directions and a central hall, which does not have a roof, thereby leaving it open to the elements.

The temple pillars are composite pillars, with each individual pillar made up of many smaller and slender pillars (see photo below). The Eastern Hall of the Mahamandapa is the Hall of Musical Pillars. Each of these pillars are carved with figures of musicians, musical instruments, and dancers.

Details of the pillars of the Mahamandapa

A miniature temple on the walls of the Mahamandapa

Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the pillars, we could not test out the musical quality of the pillars. Over the years, too many people had tested the musical prowess of the pillars culminating in one of the pillars actually breaking a few years back. This resulted in the Mahamandapa being kept out-of-bounds for tourists. Eagle-eyed and strict guards are posted in the Mahamandapa to prevent tourists and tourist guides from testing the pillars. You can see one such guard lurking behind a pillar in photograph above.

This is probably a good thing as tourists can look at the beautiful carvings on the walls and pillars of the Mahamandapa, instead of only tap-tapping the musical pillars. I saw some particularly stylish carvings of miniature temples with a deity, on almost every side of the temple (see photo on the left). The Vittala Temple complex also has other attractions like the Kalyana Mandapa or the ceremonial marriage hall, a many (100?) pillared hall, as well as another mandapa whose name I forget now. Photographs of these attractions are given below.

The perfectly proportioned Kalyana Mandapa

A sampling of carvings from the Vittala Temple. Clockwise from top left: Krishna, with traces of the original painting still evident; a rare carving of Ravana; armed men on a mythical creature with a tiger’s legs, horse’s body, hare’s ears, and lion’s head; a drummer is rapt in his music.

One of the last things we saw at the Vittala Temple is the inner sanctum, which used to have an idol of Vittala (a form of Krishna). The idol is no longer there and our guide was not sure as to where and when the idol had disappeared from there. I wondered if it was destroyed during the sacking of Hampi or if was it shifted to another temple.

The Anjanedri Hill as viewed from Vittala Temple Complex

As we leave the Temple, I take one last 360° look around the complex and spot the Anjanedri Hill at Anegundi. From my explorations earlier in the day, I know that the Tungabhadra and the submerged Purandara Dasa Mandapa is somewhere close by. This was place where the saint-composer Purandara Dasa spent his last years in Hampi singing and composing songs dedicated to Krishna. More specifically, he composed songs dedicated to Vittala and signed all his compositions with “Purandara Vittala”.

And some things suddenly became clear to me. Purandara Dasa’s Vittala was the Vittala of this temple, and not the Vittala of the Pandharpur temple (in Maharashtra) as I had thought for all these years. At that point, I felt really blessed to be at the place that was an inspiration for the compositions of Purandara Dasa, one of my favourite composers. His simple, fresh and timeless compositions appeal to me like no other. Though most of his compositions are in Kannada, a language I can just about comprehend, I can somehow understand his compositions (you can listen to one of his compositions here).

I left the Vittala Temple with the hope that some of the inspiration rubs off on to my own creative pursuits.

P.S.: This visit was part of a tour organised by Doreen D’Sa of Doe’s Ecotours. She can be contacted at does_ecotours@yahoo.co.in.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Read more about my trip to Hampi through the following posts: