Asia

Silenced city

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The street of the Virupaksha Temple was a lively commercial centre until conservationists shut down the stalls. Was it a good decision?

Not long ago, the street of the walled Virupaksha Temple buzzed with stalls and livestock. Megalithic 15th-century arcades called mandapas flanked the 720-metre-long avenue where local people ran trade off tourists. They called it the ‘bazaar’.

The bazaar starts by the towering temple in the city of Hampi: the last capital of the Kingdom of Vijayanagar. It was among the greatest and wealthiest of the Hindu empires and ruled the entire south India at its height. The empire identified Hampi, in the southern state of Karnataka, as an ideal location for a capital city. Between the 14th and 16th centuries its rich princes erected remarkable Dravidian temples and palaces here.

The constructions were majestic. The city attracted visitors from far and wide including Arabs, Portuguese and Italians. The dominating building of the complex was – and still is – a nine-storey tower made of bricks and mortar. The idyll ended in 1565 when the Deccan Muslim confederacy conquered the city. It was plundered for six months, damaged and then abandoned. Only in the 19th century was it rediscovered and restored.

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The temple is the centre for regional pilgrimage, with 50,000 visiting annually. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 which boosted tourism. Visitors rolled in on air-conditioned busses to take in the ruins. The population expanded too. The bazaar grew with local businesses catering for tourists and pilgrims. Stalls started offering films, toys and guidebooks. European-style restaurants and internet cafés emerged. People resided in nearby settlements.

Academics say the expansion was rapid. John M. Fritz, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, and George Michell, of the University of Melbourne, were frequent visitors. “We regularly returned to the site and observed a steady acceleration of building activity in the village, accompanied by migration of people from the surrounding countryside looking for work,” they noted in the magazine Archaeology in November last year. “Many of these migrants were extremely poor, and they converted more and more of the bazaar’s colonnades into simple dwellings and stalls that extended almost the full length of the street.”

Conservationists started fearing that the businesses could ruin the historic buildings. The Archaeological Survey of India, an NGO, took control of the site in 2010 and ordered an eviction of Hampi’s residents and the demolition of stalls and dwellings. They wanted to safeguard the site and restore its medieval greatness.

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Local villagers protested, but a Karnataka court rejected their appeal. In July 2011 bulldozers plowed down houses and stalls. Some 300 residents were evicted – even those who had been there for generations. “At first, authorities refused to help the displaced villagers, but since then some of them have been offered small residential plots two miles away and portions of another distant area on which to develop commercial sites,” noted Fritz and Michell. “However, the community that the bazaar formed and the livelihoods that it supported are now gone.”

The archaeological and architectural elements are now more apparent. But the folk life is gone. Some predict the move will hurt tourism, with people becoming bored of what has become a silenced and lifeless city. Even if the decision might have saved an important part of Indian heritage.

Academics such as Fritz and Michell agree. “Hampi should have seen studies to explore ways to rehabilitate the bazaar to accommodate modern shops and facilities, while at the same time respecting the historical fabric of the colonnades,” they conclude. “After all, this street was originally intended as a setting for bustling activity. To see it empty today is to see it diminished, disconnected from its own past, both ancient and more recent.”

Photos: Alberto Loyo, PRILL, Skouatroulio [all via Shutterstock.com].

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