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Take a walk through Hampi's bloody history and temple with David Abram
David Abram | Issue 54 | 54 november 2002
“Hello yes.” The pea-green boy had appeared from nowhere. One minute the flagstones outside the temple had been empty, save for the usual gang of paper-chewing cows; the next, there he was, covered in powder the colour of coriander leaves, poking his pink tongue out as far as he could and pulling hipshot poses, to the general indifference of the flower sellers seated nearby.
“Hello yes, come,” he motioned, swinging a papier-maché mace for emphasis. After a day of bizarre encounters on Indian trains and buses, it seemed only natural to yield to this latest surreal turn of events. So we followed our little green guide, past the rows of ragged-haired old ladies begging beneath the temple entrance, past the coconut stall and up the long flight of rock-cut steps, sunken and polished by centuries of bare feet, towards the acropolis of tumbledown masonry silhouetted on the hilltop above.
“Sunset point!” announced our little friend as we reached the rim of the plateau. But we were too enthralled by the view to notice. Below us, its giant gateway tower swarming with monkeys and parakeets, the mighty Virupaksha temple rose above a bed of golden boulders and rice paddies stretching to the horizon, where a crimson sun was slipping into a mist of cow dust and dung fire.
Green Boy, meanwhile – eager to secure his tip with one final, striking impression of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god – had clambered to the peak of a tall, tooth-shaped rock. Clinging to a narrow ledge on its side, a strip of vivid green sprouting improbably from the bare granite, he seemed for an instant the perfect metaphor for this extraordinary place.
That Hampi, in the centre of Karnataka’s Deccan Plateau, harbours any life at all after what it’s been through is itself a typically Indian miracle. Five hundred or more years ago the village, which now clusters around the bend in the Tungabhadra river, formed part of a vast city – Vijayanagar, the ‘City of Victory’. The capital of a huge empire extending to the southernmost tip of peninsular India, it boasted the most lavish palaces, temples and bazaars of its era – the fruit of a lucrative trade monopoly on Arab horses and spices, and of the flow of tribute from vassal states in the deep south. But the golden age of India’s last Hindu Raj came to an abrupt end in 1565, when the warring Muslim states to the north unleashed the medieval equivalent of a nuclear holocaust on Vijayanagar.
When to go: The best time to visit Hampi is between mid-November and early March, when daytime temperatures and humidity levels are bearable. Go there outside the winter season and you’ll have to contend with ferocious heat.
Health and safety: Malaria is rife in Hampi, so follow current medical advice on prophylactics, take a good mosquito net and repellent in the evenings. Thanks to the water shortages and power cuts, you should be extra vigilant with food and drink.
Following a spate of armed robberies through the 1990s, paths to some of the hilltop temples were closed to foreigners, but these are now open again after a police crackdown. All the same, you should think twice before venturing alone to any remote sites in the area.
Do not accept invitations from local lads to shoot the Tungabhadra rapids in inflated rubber inner tubes. A few years back an Australian tourist did accept, and she drowned when she was swept under a boulder.
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