The forgotten empires of the southern highlands left behind some of the subcontinent’s most remarkable ruins, temples and palaces.
They say it took months to sack the city. The palaces went up in flames; so did the elephant stables. The raging heat from the conflagration cracked the famous singing columns in the temples and the fearsome stone walls that ringed the city, and evaporated the water from the canals that sluiced water to the orchards and the ornamental pools. It was a spectacular fall, one that matched the dazzling rise of India’s richest city, Vijayanagara, the City of Victory, the hub of a mighty empire.
Never heard of Vijayanagara? You’re not alone. While the former princely strongholds of Rajasthan are among India’s most popular tourist destinations, the royal dynasties that flourished on the Deccan – the highlands that dominate much of India’s southern half – are far less well known. Yet for millenniums, empires rose and fell here.
The Pallava and Satavahana, Kakatiya and Maratha are names that are virtually unknown outside India, yet the dynasties of the Deccan offer some of India’s most remarkable sights to explore.
One of the most fascinating is the ruins of Vijayanagara. Known today as Hampi, after a nearby town, the ruins stretch across an astonishing 400 hectares. Tourism is still new to Hampi – my guide, Viru Barki, tells me that as a child he and his friends would play undisturbed in the centuries-old temples – and visitors are thin on the ground. During several days spent exploring the area, we see only a handful of other sightseers.
Which is a shame, because Vijayanagara’s story is an epic one. Its beginnings, in the early 14th century, are still somewhat mysterious – like Rome, its founders were brothers of uncertain parentage – and its rise was rapid. At its peak, Vijayanagara’s empire stretched from the Bay of Bengal in the east to the Arabian Sea in the west, and all the way south to the tip of Tamil Nadu.