Hampi, 9th February 2001. It was once called the “Royal Avenue”, running from the great Virupaksha temple complex, to the majestic Nandi at the bottom of Matanga Hill. An avenue of exquisite and mighty proportions, where, during King Krishna Devaraya’s reign, such pomp and festivities happened, that Portuguese traveller Domingo Paes, said that “Vijayanagar is the best provided city in the world”.
But today, the royal avenue presents a sad sight to the many western tourists: ramshackle shacks, dubbing themselves “restorents” have been erected all along, in clear violation of the UNESCO rule (which granted Hampi the status of World Heritage); trash is lying everywhere alongside with brackish water, breeding millions of mosquitoes; every second man is a beggar and you are constantly hassled by children asking you for pens, touts and hordes of postcard sellers. Welcome to Hampi the most beautiful and priceless archaeological site of India !
Then, there is the Archaeological Survey of India. First unpleasant surprise: if you are an Indian, you have to pay only 10 Rs to enter some of the monuments – but if you are a foreigner, you have to cough up 450 Rs per day, plus another 500 Rs for your video camera! At a time when tourism is experiencing a 25% drop in India, because of poor infrastructures and high costs, how undiplomatic to make the westerner feel that he is a cow to be milked.
And if only the money thus earned by the Archeological Survey (which, for fifty years, was busy covering up the fact that most mosques in India, including the erstwhile Babri Masjid, were built on ancient Hindu temples) is used to better the place. But their idea of improvement seems to put strands of barbed wire here and there (no tree planting) and propping up a few temples with stones walls (whereas they could use India’s craftsmen to reproduce some of the pillars in ancient style). Many of the exquisite temples are unattended, their statues half broken or lying on the ground. Indeed, the Japanese, who had given crores of rupees for the upliftment of Hampi have withdrawn in disgust and the Unesco has threatened to do the same, unless the very ugly bridge being built on the Anegondi side is stopped (it has been, for the moment) and illegal construction near the sites halted (it has not).
Yet, the Hampi ruins are without doubt the most extensive, the most beautiful, the best-preserved pieces of temple architecture in India. Very few here know that Vijayanagar, the greatest Hindu empire ever, was, in the words of French historian Alain Daniélou, “like an island of civilization, chivalry, and beauty, in the midst of a shattered and bleeding India after nearly seven centuries of Muslim invasions”. Numerous travelers, from Italian Nicolo di Conti, to Persian Abdul Razzak or the Portuguese Fernando Nuniz, have marveled at Vijayanagar’s incredible richness, its incredible refinement, or the amazing water canals devised by its kings, which still work today and make of the Hampi region one of the most prosperous rice belts of India. Nearly five centuries later, you stumble in the middle of nowhere upon an extraordinary Ganesh sculpted in the rock, or a reclining Vishnu abandoned in a lonely temple. What a stupendous civilization and culture, which poured so much love and devotion on hard rock, whose mottos of beauty and respect to Gods and Nature, can still be witnessed today, in spite of the murderous hand of the Muslim invaders.
For when Ramaraya was betrayed (by the Lingayats?) on January the 26th 1565 (today nothing had changed: Hindus still betray Hindus) and his head cut, it was a holocaust: “during nearly five months, writes Danielou, the soldiers of Husain Nizam Shah set themselves to the task of destroying everything and the scenes of terror and massacre were unparalleled and mightier than the imagination can ever fathom. The victors grabbed so much richness, that there was not a single plain soldier who did not depart a rich man and the most beautiful and prosperous city of that time lay in smoking ruins”. Today, at every corner of Hampi, you can witness the mark of the Muslim’s deep hatred for anything Hindu: most of the noses, breasts, arms, legs, elephants trumps of the statues, have been broken by the soldiers of Nizam Shah, as well as the houses and the royal palace; and it is only because the temples had been built in such a solid (definitely quake-proof) fashion, that they have survived till today for our own wonderment.
Yet one finds that Indians themselves seem to have little regard for this extraordinary inheritance. The guides talk loud, know little and are just interested in fleecing the westerners; and the local people, even though many of them are making a good living out of these very ruins, show no respect for their own patrimony : Hampi is a vast excremental dump: there is dung from the thousands of bony, famished looking cows and goats everywhere; and as there are no public toilets, people are relieving themselves near and even inside the temples, or on the rocks leading to the ghats; and even the Indian tourists coming by noisy busloads, seem to have little empathy for these wonders.
Europeans are taught right from school to revere Greek and Roman culture and a pilgrimage to Athens or the Coliseum is a must for everybody. As long as Indian children will not be told of the greatness of Vijayanagar and taught that the Muslim holocaust which took place there has been negated, we cannot expect an improvement of the situation. As for the Indian Government, it should relocate all the non-farmers elsewhere, make the whole Vijayanagara area a national park and allow shops and restaurants only on the outer boundaries. Only then will the wonder that is “the City of Victory”, be preserved for future generations.