Founded in the middle of the 14th century in the wake of the invasion of South India by the armies of the Delhi sultans, Hampi the capital of Vijayanagara became the seat of a line of powerful Hindu emperors. During the next 200 years, they established their authority over a territory that encompassed the diverse populations of southern India, including present-day Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. As the capital grew in wealth, size and splendor, its fame attracted foreign visitors who wrote vivid accounts of the city and empire. The rulers competed with the rajas of Orissa and the sultans of the Deccan kingdoms that lay immediately to the north. In 1565, the Vijayanagara army lost a major battle, and the capital was subsequently abandoned and sacked. The court shifted to southern Andhra Pradesh where the kings ruled over their dwindling domains until the middle of the 17th century.

In recognition of the significance of Vijayanagara, the “Hampi Group of Monuments” was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1986.

Hampi-The Capital

The ruins of Vijayanagara occupy a dramatic rocky site in central Karnataka, through which the Tungabhadra River flows in a northeasterly direction. Villages sited on terraces above the floor of the Tungabhadra valley date from prehistoric and early historic times. Burial grounds and paintings preserved under rock shelters are also preserved from these early periods.

Hampi is the oldest historic settlement near the Tungabhadra River Basin, a Hindu tirtha where the river goddess Pampa and her consort Virupaksha, a form of Shiva, are worshiped. The Virupaksha cult at Hampi has been in existence since the eighth-ninth centuries; it survives down to the present day as the most important pilgrimage spot in this part of southern India.

The devastation of the Deccan and South India by the armies of the Delhi sultan at the turn of the fourteenth century provided opportunities for local warriors to assert their autonomy. Among these were Sangama and his five sons, who were probably local chiefs in the service of Kampila. This local ruler valiantly fought the invaders, but lost his life in 1327. The Sangama brothers established themselves in the Hampi area, donating to the Virupaksha temple there and adding temples on Hemakuta hill immediately to the south. From here, they set out to reclaim the territories lost to the sultanate armies, thereby creating a vast kingdom that extended all the way to Tamilnadu. In the course of the second half of the fourteenth century, under Bukka I (reigned 1355-77) and Harihara II (reigned 1377-1404), the Hampi tirtha had been incorporated into a walled city, which they named Vijayanagara. The ramparts of the city exploited the defensive advantages of the rocky landscape, while the river protected the city’s northern flank and provided essential water for agriculture and domestic use. At the core of this walled zone was the Royal Center, where the Sangama kings had their palaces, private chapels for worship and platforms and halls for their royal ceremonies.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, under two successive Sangama kings both named Devaraya (1406-22 and 1424-46), the city was further expanded with the construction of additional protective walls and gateways.

Building activity at Vijayanagara was halted temporarily toward the end of the fifteenth century, as a result of two successive military coupes. Stability was restored only at the turn of the sixteenth century by the rulers of the Tuluva dynasty. Under Krishnadevaraya (reigned 1510-29) and his bother-in-law Achyutaraya (reigned 1529-42), the city was greatly expanded. New suburbs with great temple complexes were laid out, including those dedicated to Balakrishna,Tiruvengalanatha (Venkateshvara),Vitthala,Pattabhirama and Anantashayana. Meanwhile, the Virupaksha cult at Hampi was renovated and expanded, and a new palace was established some 12 kilometers away, at a site coinciding with the modern town of Hospet.

Conflict with the Deccan sultans intensified during Tuluva times, leading eventually to the famous battle fought near Talikota, a site some 100 km away from the capital, in January 1565. After the catastrophic defeat of their army, the Vijayanagara king and court fled the capital, leaving it to the mercy of the sultanate soldiers. Judging from the extensive destruction, the city was sacked and wooden structures were burnt.

Both sultanate and Vijayanagara officers briefly attempted to reoccupy the remains of the city after its destruction. Soon thereafter, the ruins were left to agriculturalists, treasure seekers and tigers. However, some suburbs, such as Anegondi, continued to be inhabited.


For pilgrims to Vijayanagara the most important aspect of the site is the association with various myths and legends. Many of the granite hills, caves and boulders of the Tungabhadra valley are linked with these stories, which are still very much alive and attract a steady procession of devotees.

The first of these legends relates the story of Virupaksha’s marriage to Pampa, a beautiful local maiden (after whom the village of Hampi takes its name). Hemakuta hill above Hampi marks the spot where Pampa worshiped Shiva with great devotion, thereby attracting the attention of the god, who agreed to marry her. The betrothal and marriage of Pampa to Shiva under the name of Virupaksha are still celebrated. The engagement, which takes place in the November, includes a ceremony in which the gods are serenaded by priests as their barge is rowed around the temple tank. The marriage in April involves the pulling of two chariots along the bazaar street of Hampi. Throughout the year, devotees pay homage to the god and goddess in their shrines within the Virupaksha complex at Hampi. They then visit the shrines on Hemakuta hill, and perhaps even take a boat trip down the Tungabhadra to visit a small tank known as Pampasarovar, where Pampa is supposed to have bathed.

The Ramayana epic is equally important in the mythological landscape. The Vijayanagara site is believed to be Kishkindha, the monkey kingdom where the episodes of one of the chapters of the Ramayana took place. According to the story, Rama and Lakshmana arrived in Kishkindha in search of Sita, who had been carried off by his flying chariot by Ravana, the king of the demons. As the chariot had flown over Kishkinda, Sita had dropped her ornaments and a garment in the hope that they would show Rama in which direction she was being carried away. Sugriva, a claimant to the Kishkindha throne, who had been deposed by his brother Vali, recovered and hid them in a cave. When they arrived on the bank of Pampa lake, Rama and Lakshmana visited the cave of the female ascetic, Shabari, a disciple of the sage Matanga. Near Rishyamuka hill they met Hanuman, the monkey general, who told them about Sugriva. Rama then met Sugriva and agreed to restore his position. After Vali was killed by an arrow shot by Rama, and Sugriva crowned, the rainy season began and Rama and Lakshmana waited on Malyavanta hill. At the end of the wet season Rama asked the monkeys to help him find Sita. After several adventures Hanuman located Sita on Ravana’s island kingdom of Lanka. Hanuman returned with the good news and Rama then planned the campaign to Lanka to win Sita back.

Foreign Travelers

Persian and European visitors to Vijayanagara provide vivid descriptions of life at the capital during the 15th and first half of the 16th centuries. Their accounts of the spectacular ceremonies of the nine-day Mahanavami festival to which the rulers invited them are particularly vivid. The foreigners also reported on the bazaars, temples and palaces of the city, some of which can still be identified. Their record of local historical traditions has proved invaluable in piecing together the chronology of the city and empire. Their reports on the precious stones, including diamonds, textiles and other luxury goods on sale in the markets testify to the role of the capital as one of the greatest emporia in South India. (Sewell gives translations of these travel accounts in, A Forgotten Empire and see, Fritz and Michell, Hampi, both listed in the Bibliography).

Nicolo Conti, an Italian, was at Vijayanagara in about 1420, just after the accession of Devaraya I. The first known foreign traveler, he mentions the fortifications of the city and the thousands of men employed in the army of the rulers. The next visitor in about 1443 was Abdul Razzaq, an envoy of Shah Rukh, the Timurid sultan of Herat. Abdul Razzaq noticed seven rings of ramparts protecting the city, but not all these can be traced today. He also gives details about the ceremonies of the rulers, and the processions of the Mahanavami festival. (Reliefs on the Hazara Rama temple in the Royal Center carved about the same time may portray scenes from this festival.)

The most detailed chronicles of Vijayanagara are those provided by two Portuguese visitors, one a soldier and the other a trader in horses. (The rulers were always in need of horses imported from the Arabian Peninsula. After the Portuguese captured this trade from the Arabs in the early 16th century, Portuguese traders frequently visited the capital.) Domingo Paes was at Vijayanagara in about 1520-22, during the reign of Krishnadevaraya. The visitor gives invaluable information on the walls, gates, streets and markets of the city, as well as the major temples of the city, including the Virupaksha at Hampi, together with its colonnaded bazaar. Paes describes the Mahanavami festival at some length, beginning with the preparations within the king’s palace where ceremonies were held at the House of Victory, all hung with precious cloths. According to Paes, the festival included numerous processions of animals, warriors and courtly women, as well as wrestling matches, fireworks and other entertainments. The climax was the review of the troops that was held at some distance outside the city. The description of the king’s palace with which Paes’s account concludes seems to apply to Krishnadevaraya’s new residence in what is now Hospet.


In the years after 1565, when Vijayanagara was reduced to a heap of uninhabitable ruins, the region was subjected to repeated invasions. This part of Karnataka was contested between the later sultans of the Deccan, followed by the Maratha invaders and then Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Only at the very end of the eighteenth century, when the site formed part of the territories ceded to the Madras Presidency, under the control of the East India Company, did some measure of peace return to the area. Worship in the Virupaksha temple at Hampi must have then resumed at this time because the shrine was thoroughly renovated with the repair of the entrance gopura and the refurbishment of the ceiling paintings inside.

During this period the memory of Vijayanagara endured somehow. In 1799 the first British antiquarian, Colin Mackenzie, the future Surveyor General of India, visited the ruins, collected some manuscripts, had some watercolors painted of monuments and made the first map of the site. Though his report was never published, the site continued to be known, since during the course of the nineteenth century there was a steady flow of visitors, including the first photographers in the 1850s and 1860s. Among these were Alexander Greenlaw, whose 60 or so waxed-paper negatives from 1856 have miraculously survived. These masterpieces of early photography show the site before any clearing work took place.

As their interest in local antiquities grew among India’s foreign rulers, efforts were made on the part of local authorities to study and preserve the ruins. As a result, they were eventually came under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India, the officers of which began to clear and repair the various structures. After the publication of A Forgotten Empire by Sewell, the Collector of Bellary District in which the site was now situated, interest in Vijayanagara gained strength and the site was much improved with access roads, sign boards and a local bungalow to stay in.