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Saturday, Aug 24, 2019

Mourn the destruction of India’s Pompeii or Babylon

Despite being a World Heritage Site, Hampi has suffered tremendously at the hands of latter-day invaders

columns Updated: Jan 10, 2019 23:53 IST
Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar Gupta
Graffiti on the walls of the Octagonal Royal Ladies’ bath at Hampi
Graffiti on the walls of the Octagonal Royal Ladies’ bath at Hampi(Shekhar Gupta)
         

The New York Times (NYT) tells the world to go to Hampi in India. It is second in its annual list of 52 places to visit worldwide. There is a big, proud and positive buzz in India about this.

One of the reasons NYT lists Hampi this year, and so high up, is that this relatively remote treasure in north-eastern Karnataka, along the Tungabhadra river and next to Bellary’s iron ore laden ranges, has become more accessible. The wonderful UDAN scheme has now brought daily flights from Bengaluru and Hyderabad to Vidyanagar, a tiny corporate airport in the Jindal Steel Works (JSW) campus less than an hour’s drive from Hampi. Even better, there is the Hyatt Place Hampi in the same mega steel plant campus, the first prominent chain hotel in the region.

You can, therefore, reach Hampi easily, stay in comfort and savour the delights of its 7th to 16th century ruins and imagine what a stupendous kingdom it might have been for nearly 500 years until a coalition of sultans sacked, pillaged, and burned it after defeating the Vijayanagara empire in 1565 AD. Historians tell you it was then the second largest city in the world after Beijing, dotted with temples, palaces, bazaars and water channels. You can mourn, therefore, the destruction of your own Pompeii or Babylon.

Or, more relevant, you can mourn the destruction of whatever was left after that pillage, the surviving ruins of our most valuable pre-Islamic heritage by our own indifference, and, not to forget, illiterate over zeal to fix what was broken, even if we didn’t know how to.

Historians and archaeologists can tell you more but even from my philistine’s eyes, I could see the damage we, the latter-day invaders, have done. The centrepiece of the Hampi complex is probably its oldest structure, the Virupaksha Temple that goes back to 7th century AD. This is the only living shrine in the complex. It is also the most rudely treated.

Its 50-metre gopuram, which could be older than a millennium, looks painted in gaudy yellow like any other modern-day imitation temple or circuit house. From where did this abomination come? You are told, the state archaeology department had control of the site even after it got the Unesco World Heritage status and routinely “spruced up” the temple.

If that’s not enough, walk in and around the temple infested with flies and monkeys. Its corridors are like locked-up ruins. In one corner lies a rusted, broken board with the family tree of Vijayanagara rulers. There is, however, another corner of this corridor that still has life: The state government runs an ayurvedic clinic and dispensary here. A hole in the wall, but in a wall dating back to 11th century, if not the 7th.

An ancient bazaar is being excavated along the avenue leading to the temple. But next to it, just about 50 metres away, is an inhabited, living, slum. Inside a World Heritage Site complex. You can see plenty of clothes put out to dry, dish TV antennas.

I find a 2015 story in Bengaluru Mirror on how Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) fought a turf battle with the state government to stop them from removing the ancient steps going to a temple on a mount (the mountain is also a World Heritage Site) and replacing these with brand new, PWD-style, cement-and-lime blocks. The big, imposing Ganesha, in another temple, had its arms broken by the invaders (as also the famous old Narasimha in another compound). The state archaeology department, it’s seems, “fixed” these with brand new arms. Plastic surgery, apparently, has followed Lord Ganesha from Lord Shiva’s times. ASI has now removed these. So, the poor Lord received artificial limbs but lost those too. And just as well.

The complex, despite its incredible global value, is hardly fenced; anybody can walk in and out. There are some new toilets, but I can promise you this isn’t part of any ODF (Open Defecation Free) zone. There is incompetence, callousness and vandalism of criminal proportions strewn everywhere. Most of all in the beautiful, octagonal, royal ladies’ bath, named as the “zenana” by a Persian traveller. Every square inch of its walls has some usual so-and-so-loves-so-and-so kind of graffiti, with many hearts pierced by giant arrows.

The magnificent rulers of this incredibly powerful and rich kingdom built their city along river Tungabhadra. Like most other rivers in the country, it is now a swamp and its banks, just a bushy public latrine. Warnings about crocodiles also do not deter the adventurous and needy.

Go, take a look at India’s most wonderful but probably least-appreciated marvel. Also find time to see how different the Krishna Temple here looks from the rest. So beautifully and classily restored. How did that happen?

It will take us right back to the debate on whether “evil” corporate companies can be trusted with our heritage like, much newer, Red Fort of Delhi. This temple complex was adopted by the Jindals, who own the nearby steel complex. They brought in the best experts from around the world. ASI is not short of skills or good intentions. The work it is doing is classy too. But do you know what its annual budget for Hampi is? Just Rs 6.5 crore, that is, less than $1 million.

So, go to Hampi also because it might persuade you to see the idea of involving good corporate companies in preserving heritage differently. It will be much better utilisation of corporate social responsibility money than building giant new statues, whether of unity or diversity, and running gaushalas in Uttar Pradesh as Yogi Adityanath wants.

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First Published: Jan 10, 2019 20:00 IST

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