As far as “man-lions” go, this particular statue was especially striking – over 20 feet tall with bulging eyes and a peculiar, almost frog-like, grin. For more than five centuries, this celebrated monolith depicting the god Vishnu has witnessed pilgrims and kings come and go, empires rise and fall, creeping vegetation and callous vandals. Now it’s the selfie era, and while dozens hurriedly took snaps, I patiently awaited my turn for an old-fashioned full-frame portrait.

This is one of the busier spots in Hampi, a remarkable place in northern Karnataka. Once known as Vijayanagar or  ‘City of Victory,’ it was the capital of a huge, powerful empire that ruled southern India until 1565. Spread over 15 square miles, the city’s atmospheric remains became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. Yet tourism hardly noticed, mostly attracting backpackers coaxed up from Goa’s beaches to experience the “real India.”

Now, finally, a five-star property has opened near Hampi and what has remained one of India’s greatest least-known destinations looks set to feature in upmarket cultural tours. It also makes for a fine weekend break from Bengaluru. The trade-off for the five- to six-hour drive (much of it on a decent dual-lane highway) is not merely a captivating historical destination. Opened last year, the Evolve Back Hampi hotel offers stylish, bling-free luxury, top-notch cuisine and impeccable service.

I began my visit with Navendra, a local Evolve Back guide. As a lad, he scampered among Hampi’s abandoned temples, barracks and extensive fortifications largely unaware of their significance. Getting our bearings atop Hemakuta Hill, amidst simple shrines and open pavilions, we looked down at the soaring gopuram, or gateway, of the Virupaksha Temple, while a group of pilgrims strolled toward it between huge, weirdly balanced granite boulders. It was fronted by a dusty street, virtually empty except for ancient stone colonnades which lined its margins – a former bazaar, the length and width of which reflected the capital’s size and status.

“Until maybe three or four years back, these had many small shops, drinks, foodstuffs, souvenirs – but now government has cleared them,” Navendra says. “They want to improve the site, make it cleaner and tidier.” Apparently, it was only in the 1970s, when tourism developed, that villagers really began encroaching on these remains as authorities turned a blind eye.

The locals’ straightforward mercantile instincts echo that of ancient Vijayanagar’s cosmopolitan merchants and traders. The empire traded with China and its products were exported to Burma, Persia and the Middle East. Several medieval travelers and adventurers, mainly Portuguese and Italian, recorded their experiences at Vijayanagar in the early 1500s.

One wrote: “The bazaars are extremely long and broad. Roses are sold everywhere. These people could not live without roses, and they look upon them as quite as necessary as food. Each class of men belonging to each profession has shops that are contiguous to one another other; the jewelers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds.”

Others noted basins full to the brim with bullion, thousands of regal elephants bedecked in decorative armor, a city where nobles and ministers were fantastically rich and whose poor lived in hovels. The king, it’s claimed, had 12,000 wives, of whom 4,000 followed on foot wherever he went, and a few thousand more were carried about in litters. Religious devotion was intense – when tall wooden “chariots” showcasing temple deities were paraded during annual festivals, some frenzied devotees willingly succumbed beneath their wheels.

Hampi’s charming boulder-strewn landscape cradles numerous Hindu myths and legends. Of the dozens of temples and shrines still dotting the countryside, only the Virupaksha remains an active place of worship. A visit feels like stepping back into a classical civilization – barefoot pilgrims brandish offerings of smashed coconuts, garlands of flowers and blessed food, while in a dim sanctum, bare-chested priests tend deities with milk and ghee.

Leaving groups of wild macaques cavorting in the temple’s busy forecourt, we continued towards the Tungabhadra River. Winding between rocky hills, it was this river that lent the site strategic value and, in medieval times, separated Muslim dominions to the north from Hindu ones to its south. Pilgrims moved to and fro among bathing ghats, or steps, along its banks, and from one hallowed spot to another. As the trail winds around a tunnel-like cluster of boulders, we meet a saffron-clad mendicant, or sadhu, blowing a conch and collecting alms.

We headed on through the “King’s Balance,” a carved archway where Vijayanagar’s kings were weighed annually against gold and jewels, which were then distributed among the capital’s aristocracy. Such largesse lent prestige, but there was no greater status among royalty than when they were constructing great temples. We soon reached the Vittala temple, Hampi’s most celebrated antiquity, standing in a walled compound with another pair of bazaars stretching away to the hills.

Its open, airy halls are home to exuberant sculpture and bas-reliefs of elephants, horses, bulls, mythical animals, deities and floral motifs. The temple’s most unusual feature is a set of “musical pillars” in clusters of seven. Each cluster pertains to a different instrument, and when tapped (now officially forbidden) they sound the principal notes of common scales. Here, too, is Hampi’s most iconic monument – a freestanding shrine in the form of a stone chariot pulled by elephants.

Thus far, I had only explored Hampi’s so-called Sacred Center.  North across the river stands Anegondi and Anjaneya Hill – birthplace of Hanuman, the ubiquitous monkey god – the steep whitewashed steps of which are visible for miles. To the south lies the Royal Enclosure, with dozens of buildings and structures, from pavilions and stables to stepped water tanks and a mint. Its focal point is a huge raised platform from which Vijayanagar’s kings once watched their court’s pomp and ceremony.

The glory days came to a sudden, brutal end in 1565. Rival Muslim sultanates attacked their great Hindu foes. Two Vijayanagar generals’ treachery turned the tide; it took six months to sack the capital.

Later at Evolve Back, I visit Bahmani restaurant; The Bahmani Sultanate sowed the seeds of the Deccani or Hyderabadi cuisine of India, an amalgamation of Persian and indigenous influences. Candles flicker in a gentle breeze and the pavilion’s scalloped recessed arches (which remind me of Hampi’s Lotus Mahal) are especially eye-catching. I didn’t quite feel like a king… but I certainly dined like one.