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Living Histories

Hampi was lovely. Tourist season hadn’t yet begun and the tiny town was practically empty. In the mornings I would go to the little dhaba at the beginning of Hampi Bazaar and sip chai while looking across to the Virupaksha Temple and its 11-storied tower. In the evenings I would wander through the temple examining all the idols by the light of dim bulbs and watching the remains of the days’ pilgrims.

Maybe it’s the fact that I went at such a quiet time, but for once I felt like I was in a backpacker town that didn’t revolve around catering to the backpackers. I spoke to the vendors in the market, got to know them, made my routines. From the windows in my corner room I could look out to the boulderforms which the town is built directly into.

But it’s not only the modern-day town of Hampi which is built around the boulders. The Hampi Valley is also the former home of the Vijayanagar Empire, who built their temples and palaces directly into the 36 square kilometre landscape. Today 3700 different monuments remain, many of them housing monolithic shrines carved completely out of single boulders, and temples balanced precariously on massive rock faces.

The Vijayanagar Empire spanned from 1336 To 1565 AD and was governed by four different dynasties: the Sangama, the Saluwa, the Tulu, and the Sadasihvaraya. Lying on the banks of the Tungabhadra River, the Hampi Valley is covered with enormous boulder rock formations. In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, it is referred to as Kishkinda, the realm of the monkey gods, who leaped from mountaintop to mountaintop.

It's not difficult to imagine - the buzz and sprawl of the dynasty. Heading down the steps from Matanga Hill towards the long broad avenue leading towards the Virupaksha Temple, you can imagine the now empty bazaars packed with traders from around the world. Desolate stone market stalls - not unlike the Cardo in Jerusalem - are filled with picnicing families and packs of monkeys. The small museum houses historical testimonies given by merchants from Portugal to Persia, and houses coins found from dynasties such as ancient Rome.

What puzzles me about Hampi is that so few people seem to know about it. Vijayanagar, the empire that built the ruins, is hardly remembered, especially by foreigners. But even many of my Indian friends don’t seem to know about it. When I tell them I’m going to the temple pictured on the 50 rupee note, they puzzle and pull out their wallets to examine it. Vijayanagar was supposed to be a city of 500 000 people. At their peak they had 900 elephants in their stable. They were supposedly a world power whose bazaars were packed with international traders. Where did that all go?

The easy answer is that when the Muslim Sultans attacked in 1565 they destroyed the already declining dynasty and wiped out the power of Vijayanagar. But it makes me wonder - how is it that the legacy of an Empire just disappeared? There are coins and tools, and even inscriptions on little brass plates stored in the museum. But what remains of these people? Crumbling temples? Stone pillars? If the glory of Vijayanagar disappeared, how easy would it be for us to disappear as well?

When Jerusalem was destroyed, a good 1500 years before Vijayanagar was, many of the buildings went with it. The Temple was burnt, the homes ransacked, the people exiled to faraway lands. Over the next 2000 years the remains were buried under newer development. Today when we visit the ruins of ground floor homes, we climb down many sets of stairs to reach the front doors. But Jerusalem didn’t die - it was carried on through the people, who carried it with them throughout the Diaspora. Today they carry it with them when they come back to Jerusalem.

Hampi, just like Jerusalem, carries forward those traditions. The Virupaksha Temple, right in the modern town of Hampi, is full of pilgrims day and night, praying to 500-year-old stone idols, carrying forward ancient traditions. Tucked into crevices in between the boulders are tiny temples, still worshipped at by visiting pilgrims. People come from all over India to carry on the legacy of Vijayanagar, mingled in with their own religious devotions.

One afternoon I was walking along the river just East of Hampi Bazaar, when I came across the most magical tree. It was an enormous banyan, mangled and surrounded by dangling vines. Along the vines people had tied small rocks inside little scraps of fabric, securing them to the tree. They believe that the stone is a request to the gods, and once the request is fulfilled they return and untie it.

In itself it’s sort of a poetic practice, but the magnitude of it was what drew me in. There must have been thousands of stones tied up around the tree, each in its own scrap of fabric, connecting it back to its owner. All sorts of rocks were there, big ones, small ones, fresh fabrics, fabrics covered in dust like they’d been hanging for many seasons. It immediately reminded me of Jerusalem, of the Western Wall, where all sorts of pilgrims come and leave a little part of themselves in the form of notes written on tiny scraps and shoved into crevices.

Some say that the Western Wall is important in its inherent holiness, being the last remainder of the Holy Temple. But others say its significance is given by us - it’s a special place because everyday thousands of people are coming there and bringing significance to it. And the sum of little pieces of thousands of people amounts to something great.

The same felt true to me about the Banyan Tree. Who knows if it’s really 500 years old, or if the people of Vijayanagar worshipped there as well. But the remains of so many people coming to the tree and praying and leaving little pieces of themselves tied to its vines felt very significant, like the tree took on an intimate relevance that wasn’t present in the well-preserved carvings of the famed Vittala Temple.

In both Hampi and Jerusalem, the modes through which the sacred and the mundane interact occur in very different ways. Before breakfast I would go down to the river to watch Laxmi the Temple Elephant get her daily bath. She would descend the staircase with four caretakers on her back before crossing to the other side. The villagers were also taking their morning baths in the river alongside her. Laundry was spread out on the steps to dry. Women changed under wet sarongs into their clean clothes, in full view of the whole village. After their baths they would sit on the steps, combing their hair and applying their kajul.

The ghats were also covered in small idols. In the midst of their dressing, sometimes with combs still stuck into their thick black hair, the women would approach an idol, sprinkle some river water over it, wave an oil lamp, and return to their business. Men crouched in their underwear next to the shrines, scrubbing their clothes in the riverwater. There was no distinction between a place for religion and a place for daily life - all these things were happening simultaneously.

Whereas in Jerusalem, there are very many distinctions between sacred and mundane space. When arriving to the Western Wall, one arrives fully covered, and in a matter of formality fitting to such an auspicious occasion. Public demeanor is to be in a manner of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d through our actions and behaviours. Outside of synagogue bathrooms there are special racks in which to keep your tallis, so as not to profane it in such a mundane place.

But Jewish wisdom teaches us that our Judaism shouldn’t stay only in the Synagogue. We learn that it’s our duty to elevate the physical by bringing spirituality down into the world. That’s why there are blessings for every type of food, and for saying after you go to the washroom (albeit once you’ve left the physical bathroom). That’s why so many Jewish rituals are tied to physical objects, not only to prayers and intentions. And that’s one of the reasons why Judaism has been able to survive for so long, even after the fall of Jerusalem. We need these physical things to carry forth the immaterial - the notes in the Kotel, the prayer shawls, the tiny rocks strung up to a banyan tree.

My last night in Hampi, after my evening chai, I headed to the Temple. A drummer and trumpeter were playing fast music, while two priests dressed in lungis and holding flaming torches paraded an idol around the compound on a velvet palanquin. They walked with vigour, like they were going somewhere important, even though they walked in circles. Suddenly the lights went out. The temple courtyard was in complete darkness, and I could see a full sky of stars overhead. The music stopped and we all waited for the power to return as monkeys shrieked in the distance. When the lights came back, the idol was covered in hundreds of tiny white flowers. I collected my sandals and headed home for the night.

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