“I never saw a place like this,” wrote Nicolo de Conti, the Venetian merchant who arrived in Hampi in 1420, the first European to set his eyes on the Vijayanagara empire. Another century would pass before this mighty southern kingdom would reach its pinnacle of glory. In those early years of the 16th century, Hampi was the second largest city in the world after Beijing, dripping with glitzy splendor. Sprawled on the banks of the blue waters of river Tungabhadra, the city bustled with bazaars that teemed with merchants from different parts of the globe. Through the chronicles of these overseas merchants, the opulent palaces, magnificent temples, imposing fortifications and dainty riverside pavilions of Hampi grew to be legendary.

The glory was short lived though. In 1565, an alliance of the Deccan Sultanates invaded. Hampi was plundered for over five months, the majestic monuments were razed and its citizens tortured and bludgeoned. But even this crudest form of mayhem and carnage could not completely obliterate the magnificence that was Hampi.

Interested in more destinations hosting ancient and modern temples? Check out this guide to Bali’s many temples, or this guide to shrines and temples in Tokyo, or a comprehensive guide to Egypt’s temples!

A Cosmopolitan Megapolis

Trade in spices, horses and precious stones flourished in Hampi from the mid-14th century, attracting an influx of visitors. Many foreign traders remained in Hampi for years, lending a cosmopolitan flavor to the medieval city. In result, Hampi’s population evolved to be more ethnically diverse.

The Royal Enclave

The cusped arches and decorative panels of the Lotus Mahal serve as evidence of Islamic influence over Hampi architecture. Built as a leisure house for the king’s consorts, the breezy mahal is best viewed when the mellow rays of afternoon sun reveal its elegant contours.

A short walk away is the Elephant Stables, a perfectly symmetric building with rows of domed structures that served as homes for the royal elephants. The large central hall — used by troupes of musicians during royal processions — has a temple-like tower, while the chambers on either side reflect Islamic motifs and style.

Once filled with water and crocodiles, a dry moat runs around the unassuming exteriors of the Queen’s Bath. Once inside, however, you are awestruck by an engineering marvel. A cool breeze blows around the open corridor of this royal aquatic complex whose vaulted ceiling still bears traces of elaborate stucco work. In the center, a rectangular-shaped pool lies beneath ornate balconies with seating areas.

The Temple Trail

The medieval town is dotted with fascinating temple architecture. One of the highlights is the Virupaksha temple, where Lord Shiva is still worshipped. The 160-ft tall cream-white pyramidal structure houses numerous chapels and statues. The beautiful pillared pavilion (called the mandapa) was dedicated to the temple by king Krishnadevaraya on his coronation.

The Hazara Rama temple, dedicated to Lord Rama as a private temple for the royal family, is lined with walls resembling a graphic novel, visually depicting the tales of Ramayana. The only difference is that the stories are etched as frescoes on the granite walls of this early 15th century structure. The epic wall carvings extend into the small shrine inside that houses a delightful porch and sculpted columns.

The untarred path leading to the Achyutaraya temple seems to have remained unchanged since the days when the grandiose complex was built in 1534. The long, covered boulevard stemming from the temple is in crumbling ruins. This was once a grand bazaar with shops dealing pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds. The temple today is a derelict complex of red-capped structures that are now homes to groups of black faced langur monkeys, but the exquisite carvings of the towers and pillared passageways speak of its glorious past.

The crowning glory of the Hampi temple circuit is the Vittala temple–the eternal symbol of Vijayanagara kingdom. The unmatched craftsmanship is reflected in the exquisitely carved musical pillars of the rangamandapa. The set of 56 monolithic pillars emanate musical notes when tapped gently. The temple complex branches out to the other pavilions and statues etched on the granite walls. The final stop, in front of the rangamandapa, is the iconic stone chariot–a miniature temple dedicated to Garuda (the carrier of Lord Vishnu). Legend has it that four wheels of the stone chariot could turn on their axis!

The Riverside Ruins

A stony path saunters its way along the bends of the Tungabhadra, connecting the Vittala temple with Hampi bazaar. The 2-km stretch of rocky trail is marked with rock carvings, natural overhangs, cliffside chambers and obscure monuments hidden behind boulders. Here, striped squirrels and droves of monkeys scamper about the random, abandoned structures as the Tungabhadra river meanders in the backdrop.

The River Ride

The Tungabhadra river is a constant feature as you flit in and out of the architectural marvels. The circular country boats have been used to ferry people and livestock since the days of the Vijayanagara empire. Exploring Hampi by boat is an excellent option. The helmsman often delve into the history and architectural details of the temples as they pop into view over the boulder-strewn banks.

The Vantage View

The ramp at the western flank of Matanga Hill zigzags its way up to the highest point in Hampi–a 45-minute hike to the top. From the top of the hill, you can see vast swathes of granite-strewn landscape that once made up one of the richest kingdoms on earth. The architectural wonders dotted across this landscape, reflect sunlight. It appears to be frozen in time, capable of reviving at any moment.