Hampi Hopping, Sacred Center: Virupaksha Temple

The Virupaksha Temple at Hampi Bazaar is often the first Vijaynagar monument that visitors explore. In and around this temple complex are shrines that predate the founding of Vijaynagar in the 14th c AD. The tall and imposing eastern gopuram of the temple however, which dominates Hampi Bazaar and is visible from far away, is from the 19th c AD on an earlier base.

This is also the only large temple in the Sacred Center that is still in active use. In fact it is an important regional religious center, as people come from near and far to cremate their deceased and immerse their ashes in the nearby ghats along the Tungabhadra River. And like so many temples in southern India that have been in active use over the centuries, the Virupaksha Temple contains an assortment of architectural elements from different centuries.

A view of Hampi Bazaaar, with the colonnaded street in front of the temple, the tall eastern gopuram visible at the end of the street, and the adjacent Tungabhadra River

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Eastern gopuram

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Eastern gopuram and outer courtyard

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Inner gopuram, early 16th c AD

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Inner courtyard

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Mahamandap of the main temple shrine, built in the early 16th c AD

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The mahamandap (large pavilion in front of the sanctum area) of the Virupaksha Temple was added in the early 16th c (1510 AD), in front of the older sanctum shrine. This is an important structure historically because it is the first example of a style of mandap (pavilion) and mandap elements that became central features of Vijaynagar temple architecture in the 16th and 17th centuries, and can be seen in temple additions from this period across south India, since the Vijaynagar rulers and nobles commissioned temple additions prolifically.

The mahamandap is laid out so as to form a central rectangular hallway, a sort of nave, in front of the ardhmandap (inner pavilion/room immediately in front of the sanctum) entrance. This hallway is surrounded by columns on three sides, which are themselves surrounded by another set of columns, creating aisles around the central nave. There are no walls around the mahamandap, so the outer columns delineate the outer boundary of the mahamandap.

The columns themselves are an important stylistic advancement of the Vijaynagar era, being “composite” columns, consisting of a main shaft to which are attached a wide variety of elements such as different types of yalis (mythological beasts) and single or multiple colonettes. In later Vijaynagar architecture these column attachments will become more ornate, intricate and detailed, as well as larger in scale.

Since these composite columns are often quite broad and wide, and are at least two rows deep on three sides of the central space, walking along the central axis of a mahamandap often feels like walking through a clearing surrounded by a forest of columns.

This set-up of a rectangular/elongated mahamandap hallway along the main temple axis surrounded by composite columns will become a regular feature of temples throughout the south. Also, composite columns will be used not just for mahamandaps, but will also become important features of detached/free-standing mandaps (such as kalyan mandaps) as well.*

Mahamandap interior with composite columns. Ceiling paintings are from the 19th c AD.

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Outer composite columns of the mahamandap

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Square-style Vijaynagar columns

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Outer walls of the sanctum area

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Covered area behind the sanctum

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Side gopuram leading to the Manmatha Tank area

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Manmatha Tank adjacent to Virupaksha Temple, with pre-Vjiaynagar era shrines

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The colonnade along the main street of Hampi Bazaar, leading east from the eastern gopuram of Virupaksha Temple

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Detatched mandap and massive rock-cut Nandi statue at the terminus of the main street. Matanga Hill rises behind to the right.

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Stairs and gateway leading to the Achyutaraya Temple on the other side of Matanga Hill

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The long main street flanked by colonnades, with the Virupaksha Temple gouram in the background

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* I used ASI’s “Hampi” guidebook by D Devakunjari (1998) and “Hampi and Vijaynagara” by John Fritz and George Michell (2016) for this information.

** “Spoiler” alert! I’m going to talk about an unsavory topic, namely open defecation around the Virupaksha Temple, in this note. You have been warned!

Since the Virupaksha Temple is the introduction for many visitors to Vijaynagar, the open defecation all around the temple is part of the first impression one gets of the site. I was wondering why the hell there is so much of it specifically around this temple (at the base of the adjacent and architecturally significant Hemakuta Hill and along the otherwise picturesque ghats and banks of the river next to the temple). On asking locals, I realized that it is due to the sheer number of people from the adjoining regions who come to this temple on pilgrimage, and have no reasonably-priced  place to stay nearby, and woefully insufficient facilities and amenities provided for them.

If you visit the outer courtyard of Virupaksha Temple at night, you find the large space full of devotees spending the night on the floor. When they wake up in the morning, they have no place to “go” except the immediate surroundings of the temple. A large dharamshala built behind the temple, or somewhere nearby, in such a way that would not interfere visually with the landscape around, is desperately needed.

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