04.01.2017 - 07.01.2017 32 °C
Hampi is a collection of ruins, but it's much more than that. Sometimes stoner traveller ghetto, sometimes serene paradise, always India and absolutely unique on this world. Hampi was inhabited from around 1 AD, but its peak was 1343 to 1565, when it served as capital of the Vijayanagara Empire (thanks, Wikipedia). It features heavily in both Hindu legend and secular traveler’s tales, and for good reason; it is truly spectacular. Rising from a river that dissects the landscape, dry and dusty temples on one side, and otherworldly boulder mounds on the other, placed and stacked here by powers greater than comprehension (Gods or millions of years of erosion?). It is surrounded by verdant green rice paddies, where you are just as likely to encounter a tractor blaring bollywood as you are another tourist.
The river dissects the style of tourism too - on the south side by the ruins a collection of cramped streets cater for the two or three days needed to fully do the ruins justice. Cross over to the other side and the further from the ferry you go, the more chilled the guesthouses become. We stayed at Rambos, the last place before the lake. So friendly and relaxed, it’s easy to understand how many people find their few days turning into a few weeks.
We spent one afternoon by the lake. Far away I could hear the noise of a school -childrens' laughs and screams. It was so distant the smallest change in direction of the wind carried the sound away. Closer across the lake, two women washed their clothes. Musical voices, rhythmical washing. They scrubbed old saris on ancient rocks, pausing to discuss village life, family or perhaps philosophy. The only other sound was the still water lapping gently on the rocks and sand. The lake flat and the level low, revealing the sand and shingle beach where we sat.
My peace was broken by a herd of bleating goats. At least forty trot past, nimble on skinny legs. It is a scene perhaps unchanged from the time the great temples at palaces at Hampi were occupied. These goats providing milk and cheese for princes, women washing priests' robes and a queen's silks. The temples sit alongside the river which this lake feeds. Water winds its way through serene sunset-perfect paddy fields to the river where families bathe and tourists argue over the price of the small ferry. At 8am every day, Lakshmi, the temple elephant, bathes too. The river is low - drought threatens, some paddies stand brown and forgotten while others still burst pea green with life. The ferrymen are not happy; for every paying customer another fords the river, risking slippery boulders to save ten rupees. 'If you walk to the other side you won't come back' he shouts, perhaps a touch dramatically.
Across the river Hampi Bazaar thrives despite government efforts to remove it by bulldozing homes and livelihoods in the middle of the night. The result of this policy is tented nomads in the surrounding villages awaiting reimbursement from the ruling party. The bazaar is a busy collection of dirt roads and pizza restaurants, fresh fruit and tacky souvenirs.
The Sri Virupaksha Temple towers above the village as the highest building for miles. A shrine to a form of Shiva, the temple site has been in use since at least the 7th century AD. Monkeys clamber over the faces of gods - small hands cover intricately carved reliefs stretching into the clear blue sky.
The following day we headed out of the bazaar by bicycle along with many other English tourists; it seems we are a nation of cyclists. It's a peaceful way to get around; much preferred to the mopeds' relentless whining and horns that announce their every move. Mopeds even manage to cross the river, slightly unstable, on the ferry.
The ruins are incredible. The temples sit amongst the improbably stacked boulders, their crumbling mantapams (porches) and gopuram (spires or pyramids) watched over by the ever-present monkeys and ladies in bright saris with wrinkled faces. It is quiet, unusual in India, which makes the scene all the more otherworldly. Entering one temple we catch a chipmunk unawares as he scratches, in another a lizard basks in the sun. Each temple is dedicated to a Hindu god - they are as numerous as the boulders it seems. Divine monkeys, elephants and snakes look down from every wall, covered with a thick layer of dust that has not been touched since the inhabitants left some 600 years ago. Some temples have corridors running underground. I groped my way in the dark past unknown features, happy to find a couple peering round the corner with their dim phone light.
It is hard to imagine how these people lived. Not only is the past a different country, but India is a different country too - twice removed from my modern western lifestyle. The guidebook describes the history dryly, here lies a market or a red light district, or a king's dressing room or parade ground. Let's leave the rest unknown, mystery suits Hampi.