I first came across a mention of Hampi in a guidebook while visiting Nepal, where I'd gone to attend the wedding of a friend from college. Dubious at first (I'd heard of the Golden Temple, the Taj Mahal, and the glitter and hubbub of Mumbai, but what was this hidden kingdom of the south?), I asked travelers I met in Nepal for advice. "Hampi? Go!" was the consensus.
On my first day in Hampi, I wandered over to the police station to register my passport and camera (a requirement for foreign visitors) and then to some of the small temples nearby. They were squat, square affairs, supported by simple rectangular pillars of granite, tiny compared with some of Hampi's other structures and statues. Later in my visit I discovered a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, made from a single 18-foot-tall piece of rock. It was still perfectly intact but for the trunk and belly, which had been smashed off by invaders in the 1500s.
But I barely noticed these statues at first, because I couldn't stop staring at the landscape, which looked as if it had been borrowed from Mars. It was littered with magnificent red and ochre boulders that formed small hills or beautiful natural statues.
Hampi, according to the Hindu epic Ramayana, was the birthplace of the monkey god Hanuman. These behemoth red and brown granite stones looked like the remnants of his lost collection of marbles, deserted after his last toss. They were hemmed in by green canals and a blue river wending its way through the landscape.
I spent the day wandering through the blistering heat, trying to take in as much of this visual feast as I could, dodging spiky cacti and monster millipedes. I came to the Achyutaraya temple, an abandoned compound of red-capped structures that was housing a tribe of shade-seeking monkeys instead of worshipers. An empty bazaar bordered the boulevard that emanated from the temple. It was a long, covered causeway offering only shade in the summer heat instead of an empire's treasures. But during its heyday in the 1400s, Abdur Razzak, a Persian ambassador to the kingdom, wrote: "Each class of men belonging to each profession has shops contiguous the one to the other; the jewelers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds."
On that first day I focused less on the empire's weighty history than on one of Hampi's current treasures - Lakshmi, the town's holy elephant. I found her in the still-used Virupaksha temple. The temple looked like a lost Mayan ruin, a 160-foot-high, cream-white pyramidal cone of intricate columns and statues. Inside the temple complex, I found quiet hidden chapels, murmuring monks, and, in a tucked-away corner, Lakshmi. A pair of young boys offered her a coin and then stood frozen in delighted awe as she tapped a blessing on each of their heads.
On my second day, elephant-spotting completed, I visited more monuments and temples, this time with Kumar, my guide. As we wandered past the city's mighty statue of Ganesh, he told me the local legend about the city's founding. The Telugu prince Harihara Raya chose to build his kingdom in Hampi after visiting it in 1336 and watching a rabbit attack and chase his dogs into quivering submission. "He saw that the earth was so powerful [to produce such a fierce rabbit] that he wanted to build it here," Kumar said.
Vijayanagar grew quickly over the next 200 years, mustering armies, constructing thousands of temples, and housing 500,000 people, a population second only to that of Beijing at the time. It attracted explorers and traders from Portugal, Russia, and Italy, as well as Mongols, Persians, and Arabs.
Hundreds of years later, Hampi seemed littered with monuments, but otherwise fairly empty. Until recently, people lived in the shadows of the temples, even building shops and homes in some of the abandoned bazaars. But over the last year, the government forcibly evicted about 350 families in the name of protecting the statues and temples, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site. (The government plans to move the displaced residents to a new site about three miles away and give them compensation to build new homes. But so far, locals told me, it has taken little action in this direction.)
"I never saw a place like this," said Nicolo Conti, the first European to see the Vijayanagara Empire when he arrived in 1420. I couldn't get the same thought out of my head.
Where was this place in history class? Hampi (or Vijayanagar) was, in its heyday, "a city with which for richness and magnificence no known Western capital could compare," wrote British historian Robert Sewell in A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar. I'd studied Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, the great Western explorers, and more. But there had been no mention of this mighty empire - unless I'd been napping in class that day. This unexpected discovery was both humbling and exhilarating, a sliver of what those Europeans must have felt when they first wandered into this cosmopolitan kingdom.
Medorian Gheorghiu, a sun-baked Romanian I'd met during my wanderings through the town, sat in a small bit of shade next to Hampi's main bus stand and chatted with me as we tucked into a meal of rice and coconut curry that we'd bought from a nearby street stall.
"I have the feeling that nothing's changed," he said as we chewed on mango slices after our lunch. I had the same feeling.
When I visited the massive stables where one Vijayanagara king quartered 11 elephants - including his prized albino - I could picture them snacking on sugar cane and bananas.
While wandering through the ruins, I felt that if I turned my head and squinted just so, I'd almost be able to see what it must have been like during Vijayanagar's days of glory. In the Royal Centre, the king's private swimming pool - bigger than an Olympic-size pool! - looked as if it could have been filled with water and ready for lessons and laps the next day. There were dozens of small temples, larger complexes, baths, water storage tanks, and statues. By the end of my second day, I'd seen so much that I could barely register the magnificence of the Vittala Temple, an immaculate complex of statues and shrines, one of only three sites in India with a stone chariot (a small temple on a wheeled platform).
This Indian Rome wouldn't last, however. In 1565, an alliance of Muslim invaders from the north known as the Deccan sultans laid waste to the empire, defacing statues, razing temples, and putting the empire's citizens to the sword.
"For a space of five months Vijayanagar knew no rest. The enemy had come to destroy, and they carried out their object relentlessly. They slaughtered the people without mercy, broke down the temples and palaces," Sewell wrote. "Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city."
But even with all their carnage and destruction, the Deccan invaders couldn't erase the grandeur of the place.
"Of all the places I've been in India, I like Hampi the best," said Gheorghiu, who had just spent several months traveling around the country. "It's like the fighting stopped yesterday." Now, after spending two days walking through Hampi, I agreed with him.