Having recently posted about the highs and lows of Indian train travel (overwhelmingly biased in favour of highs), there were wry smiles as we skirted the prostrate bodies in Bangalore’s Station entrance hall, shoved through the scrum of people to check our departure time at the ticket desk, gagged at the stench of the train’s toilets as we walked the platform to find our carriage (identified by a sheet of paper with our names on pasted roughly to the carriage side), and settled down for the 9 hour overnight ride to Hospet.
Already fairly wiped by an overnight flight from the UK the previous day (our first on the massive A380), tiredness overwhelmed us and soon 06.30 alarms were vibrating to wake us for our approaching stop. Earplugs, a necessity to block out track and fellow passenger noise to stand any chance of sleep on Indian trains, also render subtle chimes useless. Rolling over and squinting bleary-eyed through the window, red-brown earth glowed orange in the early morning sun as rural India began swinging into action, and previously wry smiles turn upwards into broad grins. Man it’s great to be back.
Apart from a quick chai stop outside the station we didn’t linger long in Hospet, jumping into a rickshaw across town to the bus station and straight onto a Hampi bound bus. With much of our (lamentably short) 2 week trip planned for the coast, we’d decided on Hampi as somewhere inland, rural, and (hopefully) cultural to spend our first few days reacquainting ourselves with all things India. The major cultural draw of Hampi is an abundance of ornately carved 14th Century stone temples within and around the bazaar, in which a local population of some half a million once lived, traded, or prayed. Today a World Heritage site, Hampi retains much religious significance and as such is both alcohol and meat free…no real concern for us as this was largely our experience of Northern India last time we were here, and in any case our bodies would probably thank us for the break.
Within half an hour of leaving Hospet the other-worldly geology of this part of India also became clear to see. The rock here is a sandy coloured granite, and huge rounded-edged boulders litter a rolling landscape green with palms and banana plantations, scattered like fistful’s of giant marbles thrown down from above. Here and there the marbles are piled atop one another, balanced seemingly precariously into towering hills which, as we approached Hampi village, provided a 360 degree panorama of rising green and orange against a pale blue sky. Gears crunching as the bus lurched on through the boulder-field, grinding up-and-over a hill until the 50m tall Virupakasha tower, centrepiece of the temple complex around which Hampi Bazaar’s hundred or so buildings cluster, swung into view.
The final few hundred meters to Hampi Bazaar from the bus station we covered on foot, shrugging off the rickshaw owners offering to drive us…”really?!”. While our attention on the approach was definitely focussed on the incredible main structure jutting up into the sky, we couldn’t help but notice evidence of the apparently long running battle between temple conservationists and local people whose homes and businesses have been built cheek by jowl to the temple complex. Piles of rubble strongly suggested that those businesses in closest proximity had lost their battle, and while we’re definitely not close enough to offer opinion on the rights or wrongs of this, viewed from certain angles what’s left does look a bit of a mess at the moment. Here’s hoping it’s a temporary measure.
However despite this, and the undeniable orientation towards tourism that can lead places like this to be described as a “traveller ghetto”, Hampi Bazaar definitely has a nice vibe to it. The people are friendly, the streets are the usual bustle of people and animals, and (perhaps perversely) the reliance on tourism means that the persistence of the locals to part you from your rupee is actually less intense than elsewhere in India. What really sets the vibe though is Hampi’s setting, which really does put it apart from anywhere else we’ve seen.
After checking in to one of the many guest houses in the Bazaar (they’re pretty much all guest-houses here) we heeded the notice painted on the wall and proceeded to register our presence in Hampi with the Police station. This meant strolling down the 500 or so metre avenue of stone columns running away from the Virupakasha temple, into which the police station is built. Here they were friendly enough, but somewhat distracted by the India vs. England test match flickering across an old telly in the corner…clearly crime solving (if there’s any to solve in Hampi) plays second fiddle to cricket.
Of the three very chilled days we spent wandering in and around Hampi, probably the highlight (and something we repeated a number of times at dawn and dusk) was the half hour or so boulder scramble to the summit of Matanga Hill. Only from here could the full majesty of Hampi and the surrounding area be appreciated, and the scale and situation of the numerous temple complexes (most notably the grand Vitthala temple) be properly taken in, all while bathed in the golden hues of a rising or setting sun. Only the resident troupe of monkeys detracted from these otherwise serene moments, stalking and snatching anything left unguarded. On one occasion our upwards scramble took place as a religious procession worked its way through the Bazaar, the drumming and chanting of which reverberated around Hampi’s boulder amphitheatre as we climbed.
As Hampi Bazaar itself can be fully explored inside half an hour or so, most of our time in Hampi was spend getting to and walking around the numerous temple complexes which exist within a few kilometres of the Bazaar. As mentioned, Vitthala temple was stand out in terms of its scale and the intricacy of its carved columns depicting (amongst other things) Vishnu in his various reincarnations, and a selection of Indian, Mongul, and Chinese faces representing the varied cultural and trade influences on this part of India. Vitthala also features ‘musical pillars’, slender columns of granite carved until each’s pitch matched the classic doe-ray-me-far-so-la-tee-doe scale, and then used to play music for the rulers wives to dance to. Collectively the sounds from these pillars, amplified by the surrounding boulders, would have rung out for over a kilometre…an impressive sound system for a gaff over 500 years old.
Probably my personal favourite though was Achyutaraya temple, visited one morning after once again climbing down from on high. Although nowhere near as architecturally impressive as Vitthala, the early hour (7.30am) meant that we wandered the huge complex completely alone apart from a solitary grazing cow, while a soundtrack of distant drums, cawing green parrots, cooing pink doves, and squeaking furry rodents played in the background. Awesome.
Our impression of Hampi has steadily grown over the few days we’ve been here. At first I think that despite the incredible setting and history, the Hampi of today felt a little too geared to the tourist contingent, less ‘real’ than places we’ve been elsewhere in India. Although this may be true, we’ve definitely been seduced by the gentle rhythm of life here and, as with many places, way more time than we have available would be required to properly scratch beneath the tourist veneer. What we have seen thought has been a great first port of call on our return trip to India, not perhaps as visceral as our first proper destination the last time we were here (the astounding Varanasi) but truly memorable in it’s own way.
We look forward to a equally tiny slice of Southern Goa, which is where we head next…