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Letter from India

Living Heritage at Risk

Searching for a new approach to development, tourism, and local needs at the grand medieval city of Hampi

November/December 2012



John M. Fritz, an archaeologist and consulting scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, and architectural historian George Michell, professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, studied the medieval city of Vijayanagara in southern India, also known as Hampi, for more than 20 years. Recently, the Archaeological Survey of India assumed control of Hampi village within the site, evicting the local community. Fritz and Michell reflect on their long history at Hampi and their ideas for managing “living heritage.”


When we first arrived at Hampi, in the state of Karnataka in southern India, in 1980, we encountered a landscape strewn with huge granite boulders and the scattered remnants of a once great city, known during its heyday from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries as Vijayanagara, the City of Victory. The ruins, rarely visited and picturesquely overgrown, consisted of fort walls and gateways, audience halls and pleasure pavilions, and numerous temples and shrines


Virupaksha-TempleThough many of the remains were under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Karnataka Department of Archaeology and Museums (KDAM), there was a sense then that the place had hardly been touched since January 1565, when the city was sacked by the troops of the neighboring Deccan sultanates and then abandoned. It was like walking into an old engraving. We have, in the 30 years since then, seen many changes come to that landscape, but few as dramatic as what has happened to the site in just the last few years. 


Back in 1980, one small part of the site showed signs of life: The village of Hampi bustled in themiddle of what we came to call the Sacred Center of Vijayanagara. A few simple houses clustered around a walled temple consecrated to Virupaksha, a form of the Hindu god Shiva. The medieval temple was, and still is, a place of worship, with resident priests and regular pious visitors. Just in front of the temple’s 160-foot-tall gopuram, or lofty towered gateway, was a broad street that stretched almost half a mile. The street was lined with granite columns that had originally accommodated a market. Portuguese traders who visited in the early sixteenth century wrote that it was stocked with food of all kinds, birds and other animals, and even precious stones, including diamonds. By 1980, there was little besides the columns to recall those times of splendor. But the street was still a commercial center, however modest, known to locals as “Hampi Bazaar.” Between the columns nearest the temple were souvenir stalls; a simple “hotel” offering tea, coffee, and vegetarian meals and snacks;and a bank, presumably with the temple as its principal customer. Each year in March or April, the festival celebrating the marriage of Virupaksha returned to Hampi each winter, with teams of archaeology and architecture students from Indian and foreign universities, to map the medieval city and document its surviving art and architecture. Over those years, we saw the bazaar evolve in ways we never would have expected.


Exploring Hampi