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Travels in Hampi, India - Research For Historical Fiction
City of Mystery - Hampi
After checking out the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi where the city of Vijayanagar is said to have been born, it was time to look for the spot where the King Krishnadevaraya had been cremated.
Hampi is a city of mystery. It is said that King Khrishna Deva Raya who in the 16th century, took the city to the zenith of its wealth and power, was cremated on top of a hill. But he was not alone. Destined for the funeral pyre were the unfortunate women from his harem, including his queens, one of whom had been a famous courtesan, and had been hired to teach social graces to him when he was a teenager.
"All that karma," my friend Gordon Hindley, a Hampi enthusiast told me, "that miasma rising from the evil practice of 'sati' caused the city's eventual downfall."
Legends of Hampi
But no one can be certain about the place of cremation. Or about the truth of the legends attached to Vijayanagar. Here, the goddess Parvati (known as Hampi), married Shiva; here Lord Rama (of Ramayana fame) came looking for his wife Sita, whose garments marked the rocks on the banks of the Tungabhadra.
When I saw these marks on my trip to Hampi in 2009, I thought of Troy. It took just one enthusiastic archeologist to turn the fantasy of Troy into reality. And so I began my search for the place where the king had been cremated. Why would they pull the corpse, and all those women and priests up a hill?
The Quest for the King's Cremation Place Begins at Anegundi
At the tourist office, the man at the counter told me to go to towards nearby Anegundi, once known as Kishkinda, the kingdom of monkeys from the Ramayana. Here Lord Rama was said to have met the Monkey Chieftan, Hanuman, and enlisted his help in his search for Sita. We were told that the king's funeral mound was at the foot of the Anjanadri Hill, the birthplace of Hanuman.
On the way, we stopped to photograph a lovely peasant woman leading some ponies laden with her possessions: pots and pans, and sacks stitched with pockets to hold goat kids. We drove past clumps of rocks and palm trees, and fields of green and gold until the Anjanadri Hill rose to our left.
Kishkinda - the Kingdom of Monkeys
But there was no cremation mound at the foot of the hill, and a woman in a tea shop told us to go to the summit. I thought, perhaps this theory about a hill-top cremation was true after all. Monkeys scrambled all over the hill, following us, and when I decided to lunch on my cinnamon roll and choco-coconut bacquette from the Italian Bakery, one of them jumped onto my shoulder and snatched a morsel. Soon they swarmed about me, face- to- face, demanding more. I had to part with more in an attempt to get rid of them. But they did not disappear.
They accompanied us all along those six hundred steps up the hill. A female monkey even succeeded in unzipping my bag. My companion was enjoying himself, bickering with them, mimicking their lunges and yellow-fanged threats. Yet they did not attack him.
As we climbed, the views became more breathtaking: paddy fields spread out below us interspersed with small rocky hills, and on the horizon, more rocky hills. As the sun made its slow descent, the colours of the rocks changed and by the time we reached the wind-ravaged summit, the rocks were gold.
Before us stood a small white-washed temple. A woman with the tell-tale long matted locks of a 'devadasi' (temple dancers from another time), told us to take off our shoes and ushered me inside. In the darkness, I discerned within an inner shrine a huge red statue of Hanuman. A young priest, with long hair and beard, his torso bare, distributed a sacred offering of sweets to a couple of foreign tourists and a foreigner dressed like a priest, red 'tika'on his forehead, sat on a narrow bed in an ante chamber.
Disappointed that there were no signs of a royal cremation here, I followed my companion downhill, once again accompanied by the monkeys. I could see why they called this place the kingdom of monkeys.
The Ashram on the Hillock
After some asking around, we stopped at a beautiful rocky hillock with a fortified gateway on top and within, a half-ruined watchtower. We did not find any tourists here. An old man led us to three whitewashed tombs, telling me that the largest of them belonged to the king. I thought the king was Hindu, and would not be buried in a tomb. We walked on towards the 'ashram'. I overheard a young nun clad in a white sari, holy beads about her neck, tell a pilgrim that she was from Kashi (Benares). When she heard me question the old man about the tomb, she said to me in Hindi, "A Hindu king will not be buried unless he has taken 'sanyas'."
"You mean renounced the world?" I asked.
"Yes. Not unless he is a holy man."
"Oh but the king I'm looking for certainly had not renounced the world."
"You must look somewhere else," she said.
Curious about the life she led, I asked, "Are you a vegetarian like I am? No onion or garlic even?"
"I'm 'saatvic' and a Vaishnavite. Actually, I'm living here in a holy man's place. I am travelling from place to place on pilgrimages, but I have not found what I want. I want to leave Kashi, but don't know where to go next."
Right then two ascetics in loincloths, their hair matted, approached us.
"Where do you come from?" One of them asked me.
"I was born in Ranchi."
"No!" cried the ascetic. "We are also from there."
I felt an unexpected affinity with these spiritual seekers. We were all in our own ways, seeking enlightenment.
"Go to the pavilion of the 64 stone pillars on the Tungabhadra," said the old man to me. "It is the place where the king was cremated."
The Pavilion of the 64 Pillars in Anegundi
A small crowd swarmed the banks of the river. Some were wading out to the great stone pavilion.
"Is this the place of the king's cremation? I wonder," I said to no one in particular. A middle-aged man heard me and saying that according to one theory, this was indeed the place, directed me to 'Gagan Mahal', the home of the king's descendants in Anegundi village.
Numerous decrepit rooms surrounded the huge courtyard of Gagan Mahal (Sky Palace). The walls hadn't seen paint for years, and some had thin cracks, but what I liked about the place were its many trees that almost completely shaded the place.
But the person I had come to meet wasn't home and I was asked to come back the next morning.
However, we were to leave the next day for Bangalore and I doubted we could meet the king's descendant. We could not visit the Vittala Temple with its extraordinary musical pillars and its famous stone chariot with movable wheels, because the temple closed its doors at sunset.
Ugra Narasimha, the Presiding Deity of Hampi
On the way back to the lodge, we stopped by the imposing Ugra Narasimha. The deity was no longer in the open upon Hemakuta Hill. In fact, I hardly knew we were on the hill, so much had changed since my last visit over 20 years ago. The bulbous-eyed statue, his consort, the goddess Lakshmi partly struck from his thigh, was surrounded by an enclosure. There was an iron grill before the statue to keep visitors from touching it. Legend had it that the city would last as long as the moon and stars carved at its feet. In the 16th century, marauding Muslim hordes had cut the goddess away, and defaced the moon.
The sinking sun shone at the edge of the great crowned head in a burst of light and I still wasn't sure whether the king had been cremated on top of a hill as Gordon had suggested.