Hampi is an old book whose pages are torn off except for the last few. It is like a book with a sad ending but all pages except for the ending are lost. So, the rest of the book is left to your imagination. And it is not easy to imagine that. Because, if the ruins of Hampi are so beautiful, how would you ever be able to imagine how beautiful Hampi was in its days of glory?
All that is beautiful and glorious is only short-lived.
A trip to Hampi had been on my to-do list for a long time. And, after my short weekend trip to Hampi, it went right back to my to-do-once-again list. This weekend trip offered a plethora of different experiences, that it is safe to say that Hampi has something in it for every kind of traveller. There is boulder climbing for the adventure seekers; enchanting ruins for the history and art lovers; a great variety of food for food junkies; and a lot of avenue for pot-smoking relaxation if that suits your taste.
From “Rome of the East” to ruins:
As our train was pulling into the Hospet Railway station (which is the closest station to Hampi, about 13 Km away), a bunch of locals climbed onto the moving train. They seemed to be getting into all compartments – 1 or 2 into each compartment. The train came to a full halt and as we got down we realized who these locals were. They were rickshaw wallas. In the 10 seconds that they spent in the railway compartment, they “pick and choose” tourist passengers that they will try & convince to use their services. Pretty clever on rickshaw walla’s part. And, you instantly realize how Hampi’s current economy largely relies on tourism. But this was definitely not the case in the 15th & 16th centuries. Back then, Hampi was a hub of trading activity. The Capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. A western traveller, who had seen Hampi in all its glory, even went on describe Hampi as “The Rome of the East”. This trading hub was reduced to ruins by the persistent conquests of the Muhammadans. And today, these magnificent ruins form the life and blood of Hampi’s economy.
Two Sides of a coin:
Like many other empires, the Vijayanagara Empire was also built on the banks of a river. The Tunghabhadra. Today the river splits Hampi into two very diverse regions. On one side of the river are the temples, palaces and all of Hampi’s ruined beauty. We’ll call this the “Temple Side”. On the other side, are a string of guest houses along a line of lush green paddy fields. We’ll call this side, “The Paddy side”. Our bus from Hospet dropped us at the Temple street on the Temple side and to get to our guest house on the Paddy side, we had to cross the Tunghabhadra. It was the end of the monsoon season which meant that currents of the river were very strong. We waited, along with about 50 others – from at least 5 different nationalities, for the motor boat to take us across. The rush meant that the motor boat operator was going to hike the prices for the 1 minute ferry across. But there is no other option to get to the other side. The temple side and the paddy side are exact opposites.
The temple side is bustling with people on the streets; the paddy side is much more peaceful. On the temple side, you get piping hot idlis from roadside vendors; On the paddy side you get Israeli, Italian, Russian, German and Chinese cuisines. On one side you see Lord Shiva in the Virupaksha form; On the other, you see Lord Shiva in a trance, smoking weed. The stark contrast between the two sides was in itself a thing of beauty.
Of Mahals, Elephant Stables and Watch Towers:
Our first stop for the day, after a quick breakfast and ferry back to the temple side, was the Zenena Enclosure. This used to be a secluded area reserved for royal women folk. The high walls of this enclosure are damaged in parts but the most of the structures in the enclosure are pretty intact. The first thing that will catch your eye as you enter is the Lotus Mahal. This is one of the most photogenic buildings in Hampi because it was left untouched during the destruction of Hampi. One could assume that the watch towers that dot the corners of this enclosure have some role to play in the intactness of these buildings. The watchtowers themselves however, are in a mess. Right outside the enclosure are the Elephant Stables. About a dozen elephant stables are lined up parallel to the rear wall of the Zenena enclosure. Here is a must do thing when you visit this place – close your eyes and picture the elephants and their caretakers. Picture the elephants in the dome-shaped stables. Picture the lives of the caretakers who have to keep the elephants ready for day-to-day work as well as war alike. These stables are time machines that are capable of taking you to an entirely different time period.
Vittala Temple and the Rains of Hampi:
As we started towards the Vittala Temple to see its much photographed chariot, we sensed that it was going to rain pretty heavily. By the time we reached the temple tower, it was raining so loud that we could hardly hear each other’s voice. We ran to ruined temple tower for shelter. The security guard at the temple tower was signaling us to run faster and join them at the temple tower. After we were safely in the shelter of the tower & after putting the camera away to protect it from the downpour, we slowly began to observe the marvelous sight ahead of us. The heavy rain drops falling on the chariot made a halo of thin white fog around the chariot. The details on the chariot were not legible from where we stood but we stood there admiring the beauty of the ruined temple complex. It took a good 15 minutes for the rain to recede and the camera to come out again.
We went inside the temple complex and we were left a little disappointed. The first time we saw the chariot in all its details, our immediate reaction was “Is this really the famous chariot?”. There is no denying that the chariot is a magnificent piece of art. But the chariot has been the center of attention for so many photographers in the past and they had made it look much more beautiful in their photographs than what it really was. It is the same kind of disappointment as when a person with a handsome profile picture actually turns out to be mediocre. However, the temple complex compensates for the disappointment with little surprises here and there – A beautiful tree right in the middle of the complex; The intricately carved musical pillars; A foreign couple trying to steal a kiss when no one is watching.
After spending about 2 hours at the Vittala temple, it was time to catch the last boat to cross the river. Crossing the Tunghabhadra can become a scary affair when it is raining, especially given the fact that only children & the boat operator get life jackets.
The Virupaksha & the Bazaar Street:
The next day, after a splendid breakfast at the Gouthami Guest House, we packed off to see the Virupaksha and to do some roadside shopping. The Virupaksha is undamaged for most parts and is still functional. It even has a temple elephant and a “pooja token” system, very much like any other South Indian temple. The temple also presents a livelihood for an army of monkeys. These monkeys are adept in the art of snatching food right off your hands. It is better to be on full alert. The temple is usually crowded and the best times to visit are early mornings & evenings. A 2 minute walk from the temple takes you to the Bazaar street. Pendants, Necklaces, Tops, Skirts, Earrings, Leather Bags, Wallets, Fancy Bags, 2nd Hand books, Bronze statues, Wooden artwork, Sarees, Embroidery Sandals – this bazaar has a good selection of all this & more. And it helps if you are good at bargaining. In most cases the shopkeepers are willing to give things away at half of what they initially asked for. We shopped till it was time for our train back.
There is so much of Hampi that is still left untouched by us – The Lakshmi Narasimha Temple; The Mattanga Tank;The Veerabhadra temple; Anegondi on the Paddy side; Boulder climbing; & lot more of the peaceful afternoon naps on the edge of the paddy fields.
Hampi, I will be back.