Suddenly I turn around, and am stunned at the sight of a young boy of about nine or ten dressed as Hanuman, the god of the monkeys, with his face painted a vivid yellow and a long tail dangling, raising his mace menacingly. It's a fitting introduction to Hampi. At its zenith it has been compared to ancient Rome!

The fabled lost city with a surreal, stark landscape of rambling ruins, humongous rocks and boulders glowing a burnished gold, piled precariously, is interspersed by leafy banana fields. What is really attractive about Hampi is the forlorn, melancholy air that it has, as if mourning the loss of its glorious past. According to the Ramayana, the rocks were thrown down by the Monkey God from the heavens as a show of his strength! Declared a World Heritage Site in 1986, Hampi is a short drive from Hospet in Bellary district of Karnataka in India. History tells us that it was the exalted capital of the Vijayanagar Empire for nearly three hundred years. The name Hampi probably comes from the anglicised version of Pampa, the ancient name of the river Tungabhadra which flows here. Hampi is today a rock-climbers' paradise and we see all shapes and sizes of boulders; even a pair called sister rocks, which lean against each other and touch each other only at the top.

Our first stop is the Vittala temple, the extravagant showpiece of Hampi. Lining the road to this temple are simple stone structures which was the gold market of yore. The temple has a deep red tower made up of bricks and mortar broken in a dramatic fashion. The granite base is still intact and exquisite stucco figures adorn it. What catches our eye is the stone chariot, the photographic symbol of Hampi, which is reminiscent of the Sun Temple in Konark. This is actually a shrine which used to have an image of the Garuda in its sanctum. The four giant wheels look life-like with axis shafts and brakes! Floral motifs decorate the wheels and two broken elephants are positioned as if they are pulling the chariot. The Maha Mantapa flanked by elephant balustrades is a wide open hall. The highlight is the richly carved monolithic pillars, where the outermost are the musical pillars. This is perhaps why one says, “the stones in Hampi sing.” Talk about the architectural genius of ancient times! The pillars used to emit musical tones when tapped with sandalwood sticks, and because of vandalism and erosion this is now banned. Our guide Basava, shows us a damaged pillar saying, “It was broken by a Britisher who thought it was hollow and then realised it is a solid pillar.” Close by, is the King's balance, where the king used to be weighed in gold, and food equivalent to his weight used to be distributed to the poor.

I am in the Royal Enclosure group of ruins standing on the Mahanavami Dibba, a steep platform built by Krishnadeva Raya commemorating his conquest of Orissa. The sides of the three-tiered platform are covered with carved reliefs—elephants, music and dance, martial sports, hunting scenes and even foreigners (we see some Chinese with conical hats and pigtails) paying homage to the king or riding horses. A round-up of every aspect of life in that golden age and testimony to the far reach of this kingdom! This platform was used by the king and his entourage to view parades, processions, display of martial art, dance and music performances and the ten day Dusshera festival which is said to have had its origins here.

We walk to the geometric stepped tank which looks radically different from the rest of the structures that we have seen so far. Basava explains that it is made of black schist blocks and was probably made elsewhere and brought here and assembled.

Every stone has been marked by the masons for this purpose. Ahead is the ancient aqueduct which supplied water to this tank. We learn that it was because of its existence that the archaeologists dug up the ground in search of a tank. A little distance away is the Queen's bath, whose plain façade belies its glorious interiors. There are ornate corridors, balconies and domes with a strong Islamic influence on the architecture. The lotus shaped fountains here are said to have spouted perfumed water for the royal ladies!

In the women's or the zenana enclosure we see the ancient watch towers, remains of the palaces and the striking Lotus Mahal, an ochre structure with intricate work, awnings and arches. The royal women used to witness processions and celebrations from here. It's an attractive blend of Islamic, Hindu and Jain architectural styles. South of this structure are the impressive elephant stables as big as the lobbies of five star hotels with arched ceilings and domes of different shapes—ribbed and octagonal. They face an open space, now a brilliant patch of manicured lawn which may have once been a parade ground. Basava tells us that this was the high status accorded to elephants that were used in both war and peace.

The most atmospheric temple is the Hazare Rama temple which was probably the private place of worship for the Vijayanagar kings. The temple has a thousand carvings of Lord Rama and various scenes from the Ramayana on its walls. Inside the main shrine are black brilliantly polished pillars with Vaishnava sculptures. As the skies turn brilliant with the russet and orange sunset, we walk to the bulbous and scowling Ugra Narasimha statue in a yogic pose which is supposed to be the largest in Hampi. The figure had its hands chopped off and the Lakshmi seated on his lap was broken by the Muslim marauders. Close by we see the highly polished Badava Linga, whose base is always surrounded by water from a nearby stream.

For a respite from the ruins and the blazing sun, we take a coracle ride on the Tungabhadra, to Anegundi on the other side of the river. Legend has it that this was Kishkinta, the capital of the monkey kings who helped Lord Rama rescue Sita and therefore sacred ground. This is supposed to be one of the oldest plateaus in the world. There are numerous scattered temples and the old defensive walls. Many traditional houses here have been converted into quaint guest houses.

Back in Hampi we walk through the ruins of the Hampi market scattered with colonnades, monolithic images and schist pillars. The street leading to the Virupaksha temple is littered with internet cafes , small hole-in-the-wall eateries with boards saying ‘Italian food', ‘momos sold here', Lambadis peddling mirror work skirts and blouses, shops with kitschy souvenirs and book shops selling history books and postcards. We see the popularity of Hampi with the Western backpacker crowd.

The Virupaksha temple (one of the few temples in Hampi where active worship is still carried on) was the only temple spared by the Muslim invaders. The reason? Our guide says that the royal emblem of the Vijayanagara kings was a boar and since this animal was sacred for the Muslims they spared this temple! Even Hollywood was charmed by this temple and shot Jackie Chan's The Myth here. It has a towering gopuram lavishly sculpted and within the courtyard, we see monkeys and children playing around ancient pillars, a temple elephant blessing foreign tourists (for a fee of course) and ascetics in green and saffron robes sitting meditatively under a tree.

Behind the main sanctum here is a dark chamber with a small slit in the wall: sunlight passes through this lit and casts an inverted image of the temple gopuram, something like a pinhole camera! How advanced was this civilisation? Art, architecture and now science! Sunsets and sunrises are the best times to photograph this rocky city with the intense play of light and shade. We catch the spectacular sunset from Hemkut Hill dotted with small temples—it would inspire any artist to create a masterpiece. I am determined I won't settle for a whistle-stop tour of Hampi the next time. I need to soak in the history of the bygone era. In my mind's eye I can already see the women of yore in their finery and hear the tinkle of their jewellery! All good things come to an end. Our guide tells us that in 1565, Hampi was razed to the ground by Muslim invaders, its riches were plundered and its grand buildings reduced to rubble. '..the proud capital was (soon) a forlorn ruin inhabited only by tigers and other wild beasts'.

Fact file:

How to get there: The best way to get to Hampi is by train. The nearest railway station is Hospet Junction, 13 km away. Overnight trains run several times a week from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Goa. From Hospet take a taxi to Hampi The alternative is to fly into Bangalore and take a taxi from there.

Where to stay: Hampi has no luxury options but lots of basic home-stay options with home-cooked meals thrown in.

What to do: You must walk around and see the important sights of Hampi. The alternative is to hire an auto rickshaw. If you need assistance to hire a trained guide for full-day / half-day, contact the tourist info centre in Hampi Bazaar near the Virupaksha Temple.

Buy: Marbled silks and mats from Anegundi.

Published in The Week, 2011