Karnataka – Hampi

I think it is fair to say that our 10-nights in Goa almost spelled an end to this trip. It would have been soooo easy to just abandon the bikes, break out the hammocks and slouch at Agonda Beach living on tasty vegetarian and seafood curries washed down with the odd quart of Kingfisher; just keep doing this till the money ran out… and believe me with the prices here, that would have taken an awful long time! It was clearly going to take something rather special to tear us away from our sandy haven and that ‘special’ was a place called Hampi.

Hampi today is basically a small ramshackle village of 2,777 folk (as reported in 2011) centred on a little bazaar of lean-tos and souvenir shacks with a smattering of snug homestays and restaurants serving the travellers and tourists who come here. All around are the impressive ruins of the city of Vijayanagara, former capital of a vast empire of the same name. By 1500 AD that city had a population of half a million souls making it the second largest city on the planet after Peking and almost three times larger than Paris! A few years later, in spite of possessing an army of nearly one million warriors, this great empire was utterly destroyed by invading Muslims from the north who razed the city following its conquest. Add to all that history some magnificent geography; the site, which covers an area of around 35 square kilometers, is located amidst rocky hill country whose length and breadth is scattered and strewn with colossal boulders, the whole lot interspersed with palm and banana plantations. Not surprisingly, our guidebook rates Hampi as the No.1 tourist attraction in India, knocking even the Taj Mahal into second spot.

Somehow, in our languid days at Agonda, we managed to plot our road ahead up until Christmas. The route would take us first inland and east to Hampi and then on roads south to the city of Mysore where we planned to spend Christmas itself. Day long rides of about 260 miles separated each of these places, which is a fairly huge distance to cover in India once you factor in the crazy driving, chaotic traffic and unknown state of the roads. All of this is then compounded by short winter days; it is dark by 6pm, so we needed to be off the road before then.

The ride to Hampi led us on verdant palm-shadowed roads that finally quit the coast after Karwar and took us on a gradual winding route up into some low hill country. After Yellapur this opened up into a fairly easy ride with not too much congestion such that we made it to Hampi by 4pm. Then the fun started… We pulled over for a cold drink by a gateway that led into the first set of ruins. A couple of Indian Bikers stopped to chat (and for obligatory photographs with the bikes), confirming it was only another 4-km into Hampi itself. The outlying ruins so far had been hiding behind feather-fans of palm frond and broad banana foliage giving us only sneaky-peak views to whet our appetites.   Then, round one last corner and over one last hillock and we were rolling through ancient Vijayanagara itself in a scene that looked like some giants had just finished a game of  bowls through a bunch of temples as we entered this tableau of enormous rocks and ruins. A short descent dropped us at the entrance gate to Hampi Bazaar where we were immediately beset by hawkers and touts offering everything from silver bracelets to Tuk-Tuk rides to rooms for the night.

It was a stunning location with everything overshadowed by the enormous heights of the still-working Lord Virupaksha Temple as they towered up into the evening sky, their facades adorned with the most beautiful and intricate carvings. We asked for directions to the Thikal Home-Stay whereupon three of the hawkers suddenly turned into guides, taking it upon on themselves to ‘enthusiastically’ lead us to our bed. All three legged it towards the temple and we followed them up the sandy lane, ignoring a few scruffy security guys who tried to block our way as we rode past a sign that said “Gov’t vehicles only beyond this point”. Another dirt track led off to the side and into the bazaar proper where one guy was calling us to go one way over a bunch of broken tiles and down some dark alley, while the other two pointed in an altogether different direction over some broken ground that finally led on to some flagged paving… So it was that the two bikes pootled into town following the flip-flop beat of our guide (now down to one) as he ran ahead and negotiated our way through a right little labyrinth that led us to the door of our simple home-stay.

“Start your day with a sunrise.” To be honest it’s not something either of us are particularly keen on as it entails getting out of our pit a little too early but maybe it is something we should maybe all try more often. On this occasion it was necessitated by Christmas, which is celebrated as a public holiday here in India. It impacted our travels as we could only get two nights accommodation in high-season Hampi so we had to concentrate our visit to see as much as possible in our single day at the ruins.

5:30am, the following day and were up and out for one of the greatest and most memorable occasions in all our travelling days. Apart from a few holy-cows we had the whole place to ourselves. We filtered through the temple complex to climb high up on the overlooking boulder field, gaining a beautiful perch where we watched the sun change the temples from inky monochrome through a suffusion of soft saffrons to a soft pastel buff as the brilliant illumination of the sun once again brought light to the day. The backing soundtrack was provided by a squawk of emerald green parakeets, while overhead spans of Black Kites circled high on the thermals of the dawn. Behind us atop one of the giant boulders a troop of pink-faced monkeys lined up for their early morning groom beautifully silhouetted by that rising sun or maybe like us they were just soaking in the warm, relaxing powers of its rays… Now I’m not much of a hippy but that sunrise over the temples seemed to infuse the day that followed with more than a velour of sparkle and magic as we explored the rest of the ruins.

With the sun now settled in the sky we surrendered our footwear to enter a mostly empty Virupaksha Temple under the watchful stares of a platoon of black-faced monkeys loitering up on the carvings around the temple doorway. The temple was magical and we padded around its smooth stone floors and courtyards, heads craned through 360 degrees to gawk at the staggering beauty of its elaborate carvings depicting finely toned gods and warriors cavorting with full-figured nymphs and comely hand-maidens.   The only thing that spoiled it was those monkeys. Like their pink-faced cousins, their early morning groom was well underway but for some reason this seemed to consist mainly of having their bottoms ‘thoroughly’ cleaned by a buddy. Suffice to say there were no rubber gloves involved only fingers and, ahem, fists… well, I’ll leave that there, shall I?

After a hearty Indian breakfast of Masala Omelet and Aloo Paratha washed down with Masala Chai at the Mango Tree restaurant, we set out to walk a few kilometres along a winding path with overviews of a broad river that took us to Vittala, the second major temple complex here. The terrain is somehow softened by the presence of yet more of those big round boulders and it is all very pleasing on the eye. At Vittala, another abundance of those fine Hindu carvings, this time in a soft pinky-red stone and the complex was further brightened by a vivid flash of orange drapery from a visiting mob of monks.

Afternoon and a tuk-tuk out to see the Royal Enclosure where we marveled at the Lotus Mahal, a summer palace made it seemed from Edinburgh Rock with deliciously nibbled archways leading into it’s shady interior all beautifully illumined and cross-lit by the sinking afternoon sun. A small gateway led through a stout fortress wall and into a grassy enclosure containing a terrace of cavernous accommodations that looked like a home for retired steam trains. This was in fact the elephant stables, another marvel you don’t see every day.

And so our day in Hampi ended as it began, with us perched atop a pile of rocks watching the sun, this time as it set across on the western horizon pulling its orange drape once more across the landscape of rocks and ruins. Parakeets and Kites returned to their roosts and monkeys walked across temple roofs as if in a chain-gang to find the peace of their bedrest for the night. And us; two tired sleepy heads climbed down off the rocks to meander twilit streets in search of supper and then on to bed after this most marvellous sunny day. In Hampi we had truly found a place to rival any Pyramid or Picchu; a treasure in our human world and holding that thought it was off to sleep…

To access the photogallery for this article click here: Karnataka – Hampi

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