Royal Hampi is almost synonymous with Krishna Deva Raya, Vijayanagara Empire‘s best known king, who ruled from 1509–1529. Though there were many kings before him and a few after, most people associate everything with the Empire to Krishna Deva Raya. Lokesh, our local tour guide, was no exception—after a general introduction to Hampi and the Vijayanagara Empire, all his stories began and ended with Krishna Deva Raya!
Royal Hampi is instantly distinguishable from the other ruins at Hampi, largely due the different design elements used (for example, the Indo-Islamic architectural style of the Queen’s Bath), the delicate embellishment (for example, the Lotus Mahal), and of course, the royal size (for example, the Mahanavami Dibba).
When our group disembarked at the Royal Enclosure from our vehicles, I don’t think many of us were sure as to what we were going to see beyond a high wall in front of us and some large blocks of stones lying here and there. As our group gathered around Lokesh for his orientation talk to the Royal Enclosure, none of us paid much attention to those blocks of stones. I was too busy looking around here, there, everywhere—except at my feet, which were just inches away from the massive “block of stone” shown in the picture below.
The “block of stone” morphed into a stone door, when our guide pointed it out to us; its matching half lay only a couple of feet away. Originally, there were two walls around the Royal Enclosure with a passage running between them (today, these walls do not exist except in patches where they appear to have been restored). The stone doors opened into that passage and marked the entrance to the Royal Enclosure. The stone doors were so heavy that they could not be “manned” by the soldiers; it required elephants to open and shut them every day!
The Royal Enclosure is so-called because this is where the King of the Vijayanagara Empire lived and ruled from. Apart from the King’s Palace, the Enclosure—which covers an area of some hundreds of square metres—had an audience or a Darbar Hall, a swimming pool for the royal children, a stepped tank, and a ceremonial platform or the Mahanavami Dibba. Of course, none of these exist in their original form today.
The Mahanavami Dibba is the tallest structure in the area and looks like a truncated pyramid. The ruins of the Mahanavami Dibba are so impressive, that one can only marvel at what the original and full structure must have looked like. The massive stone platform used to have intricately carved wooden pillars and a roof, probably made of sandal wood. Built by Krishna Deva Raya (who else!), the platform was used by the King to watch march-pasts, war games and exercises, and the annual Navaratri celebrations, culminating in the Dussera festival.
The Mahanavami Dibba is built out of blocks of granite with the front portion of the platform covered with a cladding of a different stone—a green coloured schist. What looks like an ordered pile of stones from a distance reveals carvings when you step closer—carvings of women soldiers in combat, women dancing, women hunting, elephants, camels, monkeys, etc. There are also panels depicting visitors from other countries with their trade items.
One gets a good view of the surrounding area as well as an idea of the layout of the Royal Enclosure from the top of the Mahanavami Dibba. Another structure that beckons the visitor to come and explore is what used to be the audience or the Darbar Hall. A single flight of stairs going up or coming down, depending on your perspective, is all that remains of the original Darbar Hall.
The Royal Enclosure also has many water bodies for specific purposes—a swimming pool for the royal childen, a stepped tank for visiting holy men and sages, and a large and rather neglected looking Public Bath. Water to all these tanks was fed by an extensive network of aquaducts.
The Pushkarni or the tank for holy sages was full on our visit, which meant that I could get to see the stepped feature of the tank, something that I was looking forward to very much.
A short distance away from the Royal Enclosure is the Zenana Enclosure, which contains the remains of the palace of the Queens, the Lotus Mahal, 3 watchtowers, and the Royal Treasury. (Now, what was the Treasury doing in a Zenana Complex?). The Zenana Enclosure is surrounded by high walls on all sides and all structures here are built-in the Indo-Islamic architectural style, at least the ones standing. One could only assume that the Queen’s Palace(s) were also built in the same style.
The Lotus Mahal is, without doubt, the showpiece of the Zenana Enclosure. A two-storied structure, it was a meeting place for the royal women. Our guide insisted that these meetings were always by prior appointment only.
The Zenana Enclosure was guarded by female warriors, probably the very same warriors who are depicted on the panels of the Mahanavami Dibba. Eunuchs were also part of the guard for the Zenana. No man, including the King, could enter the Enclosure, without prior appointment with and permission from the queen(s). The watchtowers around the Enclosure were always “manned” by female guards as well.
A short walk from the Zenana Enclosure and we were at the Elephant Stables and the nearby Guards’ Quarters. The 15th century Elephant Stables is a long, rectangular structure, again built-in the Indo-Islamic architectural style, to house the 11 Royal Elephants. These Stables have 11 large domed chambers connected with arched openings. The domes are of various types such as circular, fluted, octagonal and ribbed. I wonder, though, at what the royal women thought of having the elephants as neighbours.
A visit to the Queen’s Bath concluded our visit of royal Hampi. To my surprise, it was at some distance away from both the Royal Enclosure and the Zenana Enclosure. I expected the Bath to be closer “home”, if you know what I mean. Some reports have suggested that the Queen’s Bath was not just meant for the queens, but was also meant for the King. In fact, it has been suggested that it may have been a pleasure house for the Royal Family of Vijayanagara.
The Queen’s Bath is a rather ugly-looking, squat building from the outside, which looks like it could do with a coat of paint. To be honest, it looks like a restoration job gone horribly wrong.
The interiors also looked like a restoration job gone terribly wrong. But, in spite of this, the simple Indo-Islamic design comes through clearly and is pleasing to the eyes. The central bath area was not left open to the sky or the elements as it is today; there used to be a canopy, probably made of wood, covering it but was later burnt down.
In the centre is a large sunken bath surrounded by bay window-like balconies projecting into the bath. I could imagine ladies-in-waiting of the queens and maids seated here singing songs and pouring scented oils and lotions into the bath water as the royal ladies had their bath. Our guide said that a day before the Bath was used, flags would go up on top of the monument to serve as a warning for common people to stay away. The Bath would be cleaned, fresh water filled, and (female) guards, musicians and bathing attendants in position before the queen(s) arrived.
The roof of the Queen’s Bath is made up of several domes, which are not clearly visible from the outside. But from the inside, if you are in any of the corridors surrounding the sunken bath, just look up at the ceiling, and you can see the unique detailing for each dome.
I was impressed with Royal Hampi. Instead, of making their buildings more ostentatious and more elaborate to make it look royal, I like the fact that it is a different design style that distinguishes the monuments of Royal Hampi from other monuments.
Royal Hampi has suffered more damage than the temples of Hampi. Is it because many of the structures used a large portion of wood in their construction, unlike the temples which were made of stone and some amount of brick? Perhaps.
Today, Royal Hampi has a grand, but forlorn look. But in its heyday it must have been buzzing with activity. As capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, it must have received more than its share of distinguished visitors—traders and diplomats from other countries, kings and ministers from other kingdoms, musicians, artists, holy men, etc. I wonder what they had to make of the city.
P.S.: This visit was part of a tour organised by Doreen D’Sa of Doe’s Ecotours. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Read more about my trip to Hampi through the following posts:
- Hampi: Where mythology, history and today coexist
- The temple ruins of Hampi – 1: Hazara Rama Temple
- The temple ruins of Hampi – 2: Vittala Temple
- The temple ruins of Hampi – 3: The Krishna, Ugranarasimha and Ganagitti temples