This article describes an attempt to place the student at the centre of the process of learning history. In this approach the student goes to a significant historical site and practises the craft of the historian, learning to observe and record, to make connections, to deal with and assess various kinds of evidence, and build well-argued conclusions.

Through such a study it is possible, in my experience, for the student to acquire insights into the processes of history. Learning history means gaining skill in sorting through diverse, often conflicting interpretations. It means trying to understand how societies work and seeing that this is equally applicable for understanding what is going on in the present day. Learning history also means understanding change: some changes are more fundamental than others and there are some continuities that accompany even the most dramatic changes. Finally, it is hoped that in inquiring into the human affairs of another place and time students may eventually learn to know themselves in the here and now.

The chosen site is Hampi, the duration of the study is four days and the objective is to study life in the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire of the fifteenth century through its remains. The students are thirteen-year-olds studying in Class Eight and the method of study primarily involves observation and articulating answers to questions raised.

Hampi is today a rural settlement situated on the southern bank of the Tungabhadra River in Hospet Taluk of Bellary District in Karnataka. It is in a valley surrounded by hills that fade into a blue haze in the distance. Closer to the settlement and in concentric layer after layer are outcrops of huge boulders, dramatic in their formation, shape and balance. Through this brown and grey landscape the river flows in a wide crescent, rippled on the surface by the strength of her currents below. Amid the boulder outcrops are startlingly green sugarcane, rice and banana plantations fed by her waters. Were you to be looking from Matunga Hill, the highest point in the area, scattered across this land are seen the ruins of what has been called ‘the forgotten empire’.

I have found it important that the students begin with a sense of the place—its beauty, its serenity and the dramatic balance of the timeless and the mortal. As the students walk for the first time over the boulder-strewn hills opposite the Virupaksha Temple they notice the colours of the boulders, their shapes and their queer juxtaposition with each other; they also begin to notice the numerous carvings on the granite surfaces and the chiseled holes set in lines to break granite. Once on the higher reaches they see the curve of the river, the exposed ruins of the Achyutaraya Temple, the paths through the banana plantations, and several small granite structures atop hills or scattered across the landscape. Amazingly beautiful and startling, these sights challenge the imagination and this is good ground for learning. Very quickly the students are asking questions, wondering aloud, discussing, and recalling what they have heard and read. They are very excited and usually open to the signs of history to be found all around them.

Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire that spanned peninsular India from coast to coast and reached from the north of the Deccan to the southern regions of Tamil Nadu during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Today the ruins of this empire remain an eloquent reminder of its bygone glory. Towering over the village and the ruins is the Virupaksha Temple, which began as a local shrine to Pampa Devi, pre-dating the founding of the capital. This is an important pilgrimage centre and has been so, as I’ve read, from the seventh century A.D. Across the Tungabhadra is Anegundi, the land of Kishkinda, mentioned in the Ramayana. Scattered on both sides of the river are sites belonging to mythical memories—the place where Rama met Hanuman, the cave in which Sita’s jewels were hidden by Sugreeva, the hermitage of Shabari... Stretching back still further in time, Hampi is part of an ancient landscape made up of boulders over a few billions of years old, among which lived Neolithic man.

The ruins of Hampi lie over a few square kilometers of area. They bear poignant witness to the tales of the Vijayanagara capital which after two centuries of fame and splendour, captured in stone carvings as well as the eloquent travelogues of over ten foreign visitors, came to a dramatic end in the middle of the sixteenth century. The kingdom was defeated by a confederation of Bahamani sultans and the capital burnt, plundered and abandoned in 1526. Damage and plunder continued through the centuries of subsequent occcupations and its structures disintegrated into ruin and neglect. The Virupaksha Temple, hosting the patron deity of the rayas of Vijayanagara, however continued to be worshipped and supported, and functioned as it does today as a pilgrimage centre.

Having described the setting for the student to learn as a historian, I will now detail something of how the history of the place can be gleaned from its ruins. This will be followed by suggestions on the possibilities for wider learning about the processes of history and some extensions of this study into areas of present debate and concern.

Learning History from Site Observations

From what remains of the capital a great deal can be learnt. To assist the student in the role of a historian I provide a set of initial questions aimed at observation, drawing connections and articulation. The questions often require no further help from the teacher in understanding or in answering. As the students walk about the old streets and monuments, they are looking and writing down, often sharing what excites or puzzles them. As they make their way from one monument to another they pause to listen to the water gushing through the sugarcane plants, or to examine a distant structure spotted by a friend or to explore another ruin off the path.

The notion of a fortified city:

This is not a simple idea to grasp. A fortified city is unlike the pictures of a fort on a hilltop that are familiar. Hampi had seven walls and of these, fragments of three remain. At one of the fragments the students stop to examine the height and thickness of the wall, the zigzag manner in which it is structured, and try to find out what holds the granite blocks together. From quick responses like ‘cement, of course’, they move to looking closely between the stones only to find rubble and clay. In examining the sizes, shapes and overall arrangement of the granite stones that make up the wall they observe their wedge- shaped appearance, the pieces fitting together like a three-dimensional jigzaw puzzle, thick below and narrower at the top. Many a student notices and appreciates the occasional half-done carving—a snake at mid-wall or a monkey—abandoned on a stone. As they walk along the rest of the wall it becomes obvious that the builders of the walls used the natural boulders as supports, the wall breaking off at huge boulder outcrops only to begin again after it. Two days later when the students climb Matunga Hill and look around they see the natural fortification that Hampi is offered by the hills around. They now perhaps understand that this security and the fertility of the valley was a source of great strength that enabled the capital city to flourish.

Studying the carvings on the walls:

Every time a group of students visit the Mahanavami Dibba, the hall that King Krishnadevaraya built to commemorate his victory in Orissa, they are struck by how like a comic book the carvings on walls are. The questions posed ask the students to describe life in those times from what they see carved on the walls. They can tell about life in and around the court from the sequence of carvings of women wrestling, Arabs gifting camels, Portugese and Chinese merchants, elephants tearing a man apart, soldiers at war, musicians and dancers. One question asks them to figure out what the landscape might have been like in the sixteenth century. Elaborately carved reliefs show elephants pulling down trees and deer scattering at hunters’ arrows. The walls of the Hazara Rama Temple narrate the stories of the Ramayana in vivid detail and, however limited one’s knowledge of the epics, one can identify at least one tale that one has heard. It is possible that after a while students are able to generalize and attempt a description of the style of sculpture or of painting (in the case of the latter the only painting remaining is on the ceiling of the mandapam of the Virupaksha Temple, still somewhat decipherable). Often a friendly guide might point out a trick carving that deludes you into believing that there are four tigers when there are only three, or how different animals are seen in the same carving when different portions are covered! We get a sense that the sculptors must have enjoyed a degree of independence and brought a spirit of play to their work.

Life of the nobles and the common people:

A question that the student viewers are often provoked to ask is: ‘Who built these temples?’ It strikes them that the king only commissioned the buildings. They begin to appreciate that it is always work done by numerous unnamed artisans and common people, happy for the patronage of the king, that creates and sustains a city. This is an important learning that later leads to the realization that only the temples, ruins of the Royal Centre and some rich merchants’ quarters have remained. Who built the city, the king or the people? The ruins at Hampi are, perhaps, the only ruins of an urban structure that has been uncovered in India. One is struck not just by the need for but also by the love of water, as you see how water was brought to the numerous baths of the city from the reservoir fed by the river. One can get a sense of how life revolved round the glory and power of the king, the importance of leisure and luxury for the nobility, the patronage of art and the joys of working on stone. But where did the artisans and the common people live? What were their houses like? Interestingly, we conjecture that they were perhaps very much like the simple houses in the villages around Hampi today. What happened outside the sacred and royal centres? From here one can sense the daily details of living that rarely impress themselves upon the student. The absence of ruined structures of the common people, gives a glimpse of deep-rooted inequalities and their continuance.

Synthesis of Hindu and Islamic art:

This special feature of Vijayanagara architecture creates a unique beauty. For young people living through the times of communal division and violence and for those fed on histories of invasions and war and conquests, the Lotus Mahal and the Elephant Stables, courtly structures of the time, speak of what is difficult to understand: If the Bahamini and Vijayanagara kingdoms were at war why are there Islamic style buildings in the royal centre of a Hindu kingdom? One realizes that appreciation of beauty could span cultures, battles were often fought over territory and not out of hatred between communities; different peoples lived together and learnt from each other regardless, and often, because, of their backgrounds. It comes as a shock to students that Arabic horsemen were part of the Vijayanagara army. It is important for students to experience such confusion for often too much is accepted too easily.

The process of ruin:

The immediate destruction caused by war is an easy concept, quite consistent with the war imagery of today. It is more difficult to understand the process of ruin—ruin that follows abandonment, plundering and gradual decay over time. Why are there no superstructures left of the monuments at Hampi? The ruins that do exist are mostly the base structures and when you look carefully you notice the stubs of a hundred pillars, and more. What would the superstructures have been made of? What material was most easily available and light enough to lift? Recalling the traveller, Domingo Paez’s words: ‘...they were covered at the top with crimson and green velvet and other handsome cloths, and adorned from top to bottom.’ How much of this would have been plundered? What else was taken away from this once-flourishing city. First it must have been the wealth of gold and gems and centuries later, the sculpted figures too shipped outside the country to adorn the homes and gardens of lovers of beauty. And what about time as an author of ruin? The first pictures of Hampi taken in 1856 by Alexander J. Greenlaw show partly ruined structures rising out of thick undergrowth and gently watched by unconcerned shepherds in turbans and frock coats. Pictures taken from the same angle of the same monuments a hundred-and-twenty years later by John Gollings show some structures broken over time and collapsed onto themselves, while others show a clearing of growth upon as well as around the structures as well as the beginnings of their being conserved. These photographs are displayed in the museum at the end of the Bazaar Street at Hampi. Most attractive in the museum in nearby Kamalapuram is the near perfect three-dimensional model of Hampi, and the lit photographs of the archeological sites before excavation and after reconstruction. This study at the museum, then, brings alive some of the processes at work in a way that is organic and precludes the need to talk and teach students about these processes. To me the most significant aspect of such a study is that the teacher is very much a participant, at most a facilitator. The primary tool of learning is observation while articulation serves the function of clarifying ideas and notions that emerge in students’ minds. I often feel sure that a historical site or monument will never again be the same for the student. S/he would have learnt how to look, and how to learn.

Learning the Processes of History and Understanding the Present


Two fundamental aspects of history—archeology and historiography—surface naturally as the study progresses. Students have often found it difficult to figure out how the past is uncovered through digging under the earth! Hampi is an active archaeological site. Over the last eighteen years various areas have been excavated and structures exposed. Currently under excavation is a structure called the nobleman’s quarters and as the quadrants are being worked on, one can notice pot sherds sticking out of the freshly dug walls of the pit and sudden stone basements surfacing. Observing these digs, the students get a first-hand experience of how the past is being recreated.


The historiography of Hampi makes interesting study and much is available. Hampi is one of the best-documented sites in the world and histories, traveller’s guides and specific research abound. The Forgotten Empire by Robert Sewell, published in 1900, presents the chronology of the ruling dynasties and the events of the times. Included are translations of two extensive travelogues of visitors to the city in the sixteenth century. More traveller’s accounts are included in Vijayanagar edited by Vasundhara Fillozat. The student, who is beginning to participate in the process of history, is now able to appreciate the fact that understanding history requires sifting through diverse and often conflicting interpretations; he is learning here the need to examine what one is told or what one has read in the light of one’s own knowledge and intelligence. The written history of Hampi began with the exotic descriptions of kings and festivals and loaded markets in the European travelogues, clearly orientalist and imperialist in approach. The interpretations move then to the Indian nationalist historians who saw in the empire a strong Hindu revival, with a mission to prevent Islamic expansion further south. These histories saw Vijayanagara as the proud, resplendent and successful rise of Hinduism and made it a precursor to later-day Indian Nationalism. Vijayanagara by Burton Stein, part of the New Cambridge History of India offers an erudite perspective of the kingdom and the construction of its history. ‘Hampi’, written by Anila Verghese and part of a series called Monumental Legacy brought out as an Oxford India paperback, answers a number of questions that the curious present-day visitor might want to ask.

The local community:

Unique to Hampi is the fact that it is a living site with a 2, 000 strong local community concentrated around the Virupaksha Temple. Among other activities, the local people lodge and feed its visitors, pilgrims as well as tourists. On offer in the local shops are pictures of gods, puja items, camera film, internet access, postcards, and mementos from Kashmir to the Lambadi villages around. Even the food available is reminiscent of King Krishnadevaraya’s dictum to his people that every person from a foreign land must feel as if he was at home. The restaurants at Hampi offer hospitality that includes humus, momos, spring rolls, quiche—all spelt most imaginatively! The people are friendly, laid back and communication in a number of languages is possible. This is not to state that the downside of tourism has not touched Hampi. It does reflect in moderate drug use, occasional theft and (most hard to accept) a fifty percent school dropout rate in the last twenty years coinciding with the increase in tourism.

The students are asked to study Hampi as a pilgrim centre and as a tourist centre. They list the kinds of shops and service outlets and activity centres on the Bazaar Street and classify the articles sold into those that meet the requirements of the pilgrim, the tourist or the local resident. They speak with the residents, the shopkeepers, restaurant owners and workers, as well as tourists and pilgrims, and find out their relationship with the place. In finding out they learn a great deal about the place, about people, and about the uneasy dependencies that exist between the pilgrim centre, the tourist site and the local community. They become aware of the condition of the residents of present-day Hampi, and try to fit this—however imprecisely—into their understanding of how societies work.

Earlier in the study, sitting at the Vittala Temple or by the bazaar, reading extracts from the travelogues, the students had visualized quite a different society: ‘Going forward you have a broad and beautiful street, full of rows of fine houses and streets of the sort I have described, and it is to be understood that the houses belong to men rich enough to afford such. In this street live many merchants, and there you will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed pearls, and cloths and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy, ’ wrote Domingo Paez, a Portugese traveller.

Conservation and development:

One of the pressing dilemmas of today is that of conservation versus development. Uncovered in 1885 and under excavation and study from then onwards, Hampi was declared in 1986 by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, one of India’s 22 such sites. In 1999 Hampi was placed on the list of world heritage sites in peril. We become aware of the modern dilemmas faced by Hampi today. The construction of two bridges over the Tungabhadra (now stopped); plans of beautification and facilities for amusement and entertainment: both reflect the tension between conservation and the needs of a local community. As debate and dissatisfaction have mounted over the years, the students find themselves necessarily engaging not only with their responses to the place, but also the familiar pressures of the present time, now seen in a different light. Various feelings and ideas on these issues as well as their own sense of what should happen arise naturally. A bridge would certainly serve the needs of the local villages, with easier communication and transport. Would a new and separate shopping complex be an improvement on the present shops housed in old stone remnants on the bazaar street? Amusement parks, water sports along the Tungabhadra and luxury hotels facing the quiet of the ancient boulders might certainly attract the wealthy Indian tourist who rarely finds Hampi on the map. Why would anyone object to green lawns and clean paths around monuments? What has been the experience of modernization in our own knowledge and memory? What is the price of development and what are the costs of conservation? These are complex matters and it is not possible to turn away with indifference; biases, concerns and questions are bound to arise. Prior to this, in the 1950s, the construction of the Tungabhadra Dam—which has certainly brought prosperity to the area—also caused a part of the site to be completely lost, both under water and under increased cultivated land.


If history can be seen as a process of inquiry into human affairs of a particular time and place, a study trip such as this one should certainly lend depth to this inquiry. It should build experience in dealing with and assessing various kinds of evidence — records of travellers, statements in history textbooks, visual materials and, of course, the actual remains on site. This process begins to allow students to gain historical knowledge and skills within a rational framework of inquiry. It develops the ability to make coherent arguments based on a variety of data, the ability to identify continuities and the skill to determine probable causes of change. These skills should be applicable to situations and information encountered in everyday life. Such an inquiry also develops the student’s critical powers and enables him or her to acquire the abilities of thinking and evaluation over an impulsive and uninformed rush to judgement and decision. Through this investigation of a historical period, students learn about the differences in human experience, the possibilities as well as limits of comparing past to present and present to past. The study of history should thus provide the basis for and an opportunity to engage in present-day debate and to gain perspective. Finally, such a study provides the individual person the space to grapple with the tools for understanding the past. These tools enable us to uncover the story of humankind over time and also provide a means for negotiating the present. In the space of this study one also learns about human pride and mortality, the tenuous connections between religion and daily living, and the phenomena of war, plunder, destruction as well as natural ruin. It is also a space to understand the process of human living and change and to discover a little of oneself.

Questions from a Worker who Reads

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?

Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished,
Did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?

Frederick II won the Seven Years War. Who else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?

Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

[Bertolt Brecht]