The number one travel destination in the voluminous Lonely Planet India. An acclaimed UNESCO World Heritage site. I was set on exploring the famed, fallen, metropolis of Hampi. Seeing just a few photos of 14th century centre of power, with its high reaching temples and carefully carved details was enough to call me closer.
A few months ago, an app was publicized for its attempts to digitally remaster the original form of Hampi, as part of a Digital Hampi Project. But a vibrant, remote oasis, such as Hampi, offers something far beyond its spectacular architectural to re-imagine. It allows us to physically step into a living history.
Journeys to renowned, yet offbeat, locations are not for the faint of heart. With all trains fully booked, a ten-hour sleeper bus was my only travel option. Too tall to sit upright, when the old coach reached its top speed, its rattles and vibrations, swerves and hard breaks, foretold the jouncing evening ahead. On such rugged and disheveled roads, with suffocating, congested traffic, it felt as though I was being propelled in a freezing cold, archaic rocket to my chosen destination. So why would one endure such travel conditions?
Exploring the twenty-five kilometre site of Hampi is a rare opportunity. The Virupaksha Temple alone has been used continuously since the 7th century. With bare feet, I walk around its intricately carved stone columns and walls. Pilgrims make offerings in their finest sacred cloth and flowing saris. Many men have shaved their heads and women dress their braids with lines of fresh jasmine. Families and groups of school children mix with the crowd and unabashedly pose in each photogenic nook. In this culturally active area, foreign tourists make up only a very small percentage of the demographic. We seem welcomed, and happy to be ignored, except for the odd invitation to join a family snapshot. But be careful, if you agree to one, you open the floodgates.
The area around the Virupaksha Temple hosts a few modest vendors, selling fruits, prayer beads, sarongs and roasted nuts in tubes of newspaper cones. The larger bazaar area faces development constraints. Guesthouses have specific height restrictions, and many locals were relocated outside of the grounds to regulate its growth. Most pilgrims come in for the day and then cram into mini-buses to their large hotels off-site. Likewise, foreigners can now more easily find accommodation away from bazaar area, across the Tungabhadra river.
I stay in a basic bamboo hut in a rice field facing mountains which have been eroded over million of years into a massive pile of towering boulders. It is a surreal backdrop, one which combines the set of the Flintstones, Indian Jones and the Jungle Book. Each enormous, round rock is precariously perched, and brings out a delightful, primordial fear when you actually walk around and underneath them. When I arrive, many foreigners are quietly tucked away within its many pockets of space, quietly admiring the pinking sunset. Soon, local children, seven, eight, nine-years of age, ascend the bulbous mountains with large thermoses to peddle hot chai and coffee. They attach themselves to your side, relentless with their sales pitch: “Hello my friend!”, “Some chai for you?”, “Where are you from?“,”What is your name?” Your responses seem irrelevant. “You want chai?” “Later?” Lurking behind the boulders, I spot an older man nearby who is carefully monitoring their actions, while casually pushing drugs. Soon, the crowd of ascended merge and grow louder. They stay late into the night, smoking and drinking more tea, while the children enthusiastically refill their styrofoam cups.
In the early morning, light paints the calm, blue rice fields with yellows and golds. Some farmers are already ploughing the ground with oxen. The rice will soon be planted by hand, carefully, painstakingly, by men and women, up to their knees, in squares of water alike. You can tell its been planted like this for hundreds of years. As I spoon out a ripe papaya split into two perfect bowls, I wonder how this remote place could quickly deteriorate from its inevitable, increased accessibility and popularity.
How will consumerism reach these natural spaces? Will simple lodging suffice, or will we place demands for hot showers, fast wifi, and large rolls of toilet paper in each bathroom? Will we complain when the power goes out? Will we come to rent bicycles, or scooters, or taxis? Do we drink from fresh, young coconuts or plastic bottles? Will we eat vegetarian or look for meat in the restaurants further from the temples? Do we photograph the rituals of this space? And do we pay locals for portraits? Will we buy trinkets and throw-away souvenirs? What will be our legacy?
I take the woven, circular coracle boat across the river. The oarsman paddles us to the foot of the temple where local men and women bath and wash, and Laskimi, the temple’s resident elephant descends the cobblestone steps to join. Unrestrained, she knows the waters well; she scrubs her back on the largest rock, steps deep in the mud, then scrubs some more. Her caretaker devotionally brushes her massive body; she even lifts her back heel up like an anthropomorphic diva. For a ten-rupee note, Laskimi uses her colourfully painted trunk to offer an equally frightening and exhilarating blessing on one’s head. All cameras are out.
A few days is hardly sufficient to explore the buzzing plethora of temples, bath houses, monolithic sculptures and other architectural wonders. I walk past the Virupaksha Temple, on the main dirt road, to find the Underground Shiva Temple, sitting in an excavated depression surrounded by water. Inside, the sunlight trickles in and creates a magical dance of reflections on the underground ceiling. Then, I visit the Hazara Rama Temple, and touch one of its thousand carved reliefs depicting episodes from the classic stories of the Ramayana. I sit for a while with Indian families picnicking underneath some shady mango tress, and move onwards to climb a massive receiving platform on top of a series of stairs, which provides a stunning panorama of the ruins. I jump over some fallen fortified walls to see a jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture, the Wives’ Bath. Its detailed balconies provide a perfect setting for an imagined one thousand and one nights of pleasure; the King did have over 12,000 wives at the height of his power. After a day of wandering through the diverse valley, I step back around the now moonlit bazaar, and take the giant woven coracle back across the river. The starry ceiling above is perfectly reflected in the dark calm water below. It feels like we are gliding through the stars themselves, falling into a swirling abyss.
The following days, I explore by bicycle; even with one gear, it works like a charm. The roads are rather sandy, uneven, and hilly, but manageable. I visit the sites in pieces and at my own pace. I cycle to the Lotus Mahal, a two-storied rose-colored pavilion. Women in saris lounge in front, while two young girls dance inside for their father’s camera. I continue to the Elephant stables, a massive structure with multi-domed tops. Its sheer size and scale is overwhelming, and helps one imagine the power these animals possessed on the battlefield, especially in their alcohol-induced war frenzy. I pass a perfectly geometrical octagonal bath, cycle through cotton fields and in between series of free standing columns, while herds of goats run through the tall grasses around me. I stumble upon a trail behind a discreet temple, take an inviting path through a banana plantation, and walk up jagged, stone zen-like slabs, until I reach the pinnacle of Matanga Hill, at the edge of the Sacred Centre. The large, but quiet, crowd of pilgrims, tourists and locals are all here to enjoy the view. There are no sales here.
Each day offers a new climb and an ever-changing sunlight brushes the vast historical remnants below. Although the markets, houses and shops have disappeared, along with anything else built from mud, rubble, timber and terra cotta, presence of history is still very strong. This space reminds us that empires do collapse, and despite our strongest efforts, Nature will recapture her materials. Even though you can only see traces of the past, the presence of history is still very strong in Hampi. What a sight.