A forgotten empire – Hampi

Haaaaampi! Get down, Haaaaampi! Men had their hands inside the bus waving maps at us and demanding our attention for Tuk tuks to our destinations before we had even opened our eyes. We bleary eyed got into one which took us to the river, which in its low level state we waded across. We then followed the dusty path out beyond the few guesthouses and cafes, on to a rice field and beyond, to find our new stop, the Goan Corner. Once we were there our needs of room, shower and food were quickly met, and with new travellers arriving all the time it was a slow morning of recuperation and rest.

By the time we were ready to move, the heat of the day had built to the fourties, with 80% humidity draining of any energy, so a few of us limped off to have a look around the quiet settlement. The season for tourism is definitely closing in the south, the humidity building towards the upcoming monsoon. As such many amenities and hang out spots are shutting up, tourism being pushed north towards the Himalayas. That being said Hampi is an attractive spot. The dusty island paths have a few scooters buzzing along between the rice fields, the river got the temple side often noisy with bathing locals, particularly at sunrise.

On every horizon is stacks of rounded boulders. The ones near our hostel we set to climbing for sunset, the rocks still hot from the days sun. You quickly gained height over the neat paddocks, rows of Palm trees and out to the temple complexes beyond. The sun burnt big and red on the horizon, the end of another Indian day. 

With more activity planned for our next day we had booked to meet a guide at 7am. Getting up with the sun we made for the river. There was drumming and singing, laughter and splashing from the river where the locals bathed and celebrated a new day. The guide arrived 20 minutes later, on Indian time and we all crossed in a Coracle boat, a floating bamboo wok, paddled by two boys with scraps of wood.

Across the river the postcard view of Hampi, the 14th century Virupashka temple, stood proud where it would have once been surrounded by a magnificent capital city. Now a few lanes of sellers in the dusty heat made up the empire of Vijayanagara. In the 16th century this was a bustling capital, destroyed by invading Islamic tribes. The structures and society of Vijayanagara were Islamic and Hinduism intertwined and the destroyers left the Muslim architecture, now leaving a random collection in the middle of ruins.        

The 50 metre temple stands in the sacred centre, a long avenue which would would have once been a stone marketplace spans in one direction. The guide made the good books and mentioned breakfast taking us to a roadside stall for daal, savoury donuts, rice cakes and sweet chai. Outside the Virupaksha chariot stood, a giant wooden monument used only days before in the annual festival of colour in Hampi.
Further along the avenue we climbed up over some boulders. The area was overgrown with gangly cactus and looked like a scene from the Wild West, however just over the hill was a whole another town complex, abandoned in amazing condition with no one around. The temples were dedicated to Vishnu with symbolatary and meaning throughout. Beyond the temples, more market streets, stone pillars forming each shop front, leading as far as the eye could see, to the river.  
We followed the avenue to the waters edge where there was none of the commotion of further up the river, just a wooden hut under a tree where we took refuge from the sun. All around the dusty earth, the vegetation was green, palm trees sprouting in masses. Along the rivers edge was a huge, shady Banyan tree, each vine laden down with many coloured fabrics, tied on by people praying for marriage. Below stone piles symbolised prayers for housing.  

With each discovery we were marvelled more and more. The Vittala Temples complex housed a huge stone chariot and an area where weddings and ceremonies would have been thrown. The main room was where the queen was said to dance for the King, three curtains hung all the way around to make for privacy and the pillars hollowed to play different sounds to accompany her performance.

We picked up an auto rickshaw to see more of the administrative sites of this once alive city, huge theatres and bath houses showing advancement and entertainment. Atop the town was the Royal centre, the queens baths, lotus temples and arguably the most impressive quarters were for the elephants, of which there was thousands. Each had its own private stable with a view to the next elephant so as to not feel lonely. Their building reflected beautifully their ceremonial status.  

Completing the loop back to town we stopped to see many giant carvings of Shiva and Ganesh, each represented in their many forms. The deep symbols and rituals of culture and tradition are quite overwhelming, so ingrained into how one acts on a day to day nature, that it can appear quite superstitious or restrictive at first look, however each colour or animal form has an anecdote which make it quite endearing. Hamuman, the monkey God, came up a lot. He’s depicted in orange and is said to have asked his mother why she wore the orange bindy on her head. When she replied to show her love for her husband Rama, Hanumans dad, Hanuman is said to have covered himself head to toe in orange to show his love.

For our second early start we were feeling even more ambitious, sun up at Hanumans temple, atop 575 steps. Hanuman is a monkey God of the Hindu religion, son of Rama. Our guide had told us many endearing anecdotes about this childlike God who had once burnt his mouth attempting to eat the sun, explaining his protruding mouth. As such Rama awarded him the breeze to cool himself and so he is the God of wind and Jai Hanuman is now proclaimed as a call or thanks for wind in the heat. Being Saturday it was Hamuman’s day and a few people were making the climb. There was chanting and service inside the temple as we watched the sun climb over the horizon. Everywhere there were symbols or prayers and ritual. Rangoli’s were marked on the ground, decorating the paths. A frangipani tree was tied with coloured bands marking people’s prayers for a wedding. 

We made to start the day with a local breakfast freshly cooked in the front porch of someone’s house. She produced egg dosa (like a crispy, savoury pancake) and Pudu, (balls of dough with garlic and onion in them) washed down with sweet chai. As she prepared ours she became busy with loud passing trade as men stopped in for their morning cook up.

Our rickshaw took us along the river to once again get into a coracle boat, this time for a longer trip down the river. Once he had pushed the boat out from amongst the dense lily vegetation, we made our way upstream to admire the temples built into the rock sides. To the careful eye, every occasional rock had been carved into a figure or a bull. We got out to ‘adventure’ out across the rocks more closely exploring the small Shiva temples, lingums carved into the floor and sculptures sticky with the paint and sugary oils spread on them as offering. 

Our final adventure was a scooter ride through the valley. From the outskirts of town our guide produced bikes, one for me and one for him and Tara. Once I had had my orientation through the market place watched by a crowd, we made out for the dusty roads of the valley, overlooked by the gigantic Boulder landscapes. We passed the damned reservoir which has been keeping Hampi fertile the last few years, since the monsoon hasn’t hit the last two seasons. As we weaved through the smaller roads, we passed the remains of the old aqueduct, something which feels far more fitting in Ancient Rome than this tumbledown little Indian settlement.  

As always we avoided the heat of the day and in the afternoon we made for the river to have a bathe. White chalk marked on rocks pointed us towards a waterfall, maybe wishful thinking in the times of the evasive monsoon, but parking up our scooters we made down for the water which, although warm, was refreshing from the skin scolding temperatures of the rocks.
On our final day in Hampi we set about retracing our steps to explore further the ruins we had visited on the first day. Just Tara, Katie and I, it felt like the tomb raider dream you get sold of being in these empty ruins all by yourself, free to imagine chariot races down the main isle or the bustle of market life. We sat an enjoyed a local version of morning tea, banana fritters and chai. 

Ahead of our night bus we congregated at the guesthouse waiting for a rickshaw to take us to the town of Hospet, 30kms away. 8 of us were waiting when one rickshaw emerged. We thought that was optimistic. Then 6 more turned up, the resigned rickshaw driver called his friend. Luggage on the roof we all piled into the rickshaws which bounced along the sandy roads. We were struggling to make it up the short inclines, when at the top of the hill the driver picks up another guy who hops in the front seat with him. It was a long journey, the evening still 34 degrees and the towns full with nighttime life. Almost an hour we bounced along, spending a lot of it on the wrong side of the road, before we made it to our night bus back to Goa, this time the southern part.

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