5 mins

Hampi: visit ancient India

Take a walk through Hampi's bloody history and temple with David Abram

Virupaksha temple (Flickr: Prateek Rungta)

“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.

Even by the ruthless standards of the subcontinent, the sack of the city was devastating. It lasted for six months and reduced Asia’s most illustrious capital to a colossal rubble heap. Every inhabitant was put to the sword, every jewel prized out of its vaults, every building torn down and every field burned. Only the Virupaksha temple survived the onslaught (presumably for the same reasons that St Paul’s Cathedral came unscathed through the Blitz).

In India, however, where there is water and land to cultivate, life is sure to take root, and over the years settlers have trickled back to re-colonise the ruins, setting up homes amid the finely carved pillars and toppled statues. The ancient irrigation channels were also revived, so that now swathes of viridescent rice terraces and banana plantations lap the base of the boulder hills, which Hindu mythology identifies as having originally been piled up by Hanuman and his army of long-tailed langurs.

For visitors, Hampi’s hypnotic landscapes, serene riverine setting and evocative ruins provide a seductive combination. All too often travellers come to India in search of the exotic, only to be disappointed by the ubiquitous cola ads, pollution and rampant consumerism. But the old orientalist clichés still have currency here. This is somewhere you really will encounter painted elephants, pilgrims bathing in the river, dreadlocked sadhus smoking hashish chillums in front of little caves, troupes of monkeys scampering over stone goddesses, and mesmeric sunsets.

Nor do you have to wade through the trappings of mass tourism that blight so many of India’s historic places these days to enjoy such experiences. Leafing through old photographs of Hampi in the British Library recently, I was struck by how little had changed since the ‘rediscovery’ of the site in the mid-19th century. Aside from a bland government hotel on the outskirts and a couple of unfinished concrete bridges thrown up prior to the elections by the local municipality, development has been limited to a handful of modest family guesthouses, a clutch of banana-pancake cafés and some Kashmiri jewellery stalls.

Isolation has always been the site’s saving grace. Situated ten hours by car from Bangalore in one of central Karnataka’s more obscure rural districts, it can only be reached by a long journey across the sun-bleached cotton belt of the Deccan. That said, thanks to the recent upgrading of the nearby railway line, Hampi is a lot more readily accessible than it used to be. We slotted a trip comfortably into a fortnight’s holiday in Goa, catching the twice-weekly Hyderabad Express from Margao. And a fine ride it was too: the line crosses a wonderfully remote stretch of jungle-draped mountains before penetrating the plains of central India. If you’ve never been exposed to the joys of Indian railways before, the trip offers a perfect introduction. You can pamper yourself in reserved class, enjoying the comforts of bunk beds and freshly cooked food served by uniformed waiters, or rough it in three-tier, where a constant stream of shoeshine boys, buskers and hawkers work their way through the crowded carriages.

The jumping-off place is a scruffy little railhead and market town called Hospet, where we picked up an auto-rickshaw for the remaining 13km to Hampi. Crossing the fringes of ancient Vijayanagar, it’s easy to miss the first ruins, almost indistinguishable from the granite. But by the time the cream-coloured gopura of Virupaksha hovered into view, the roadsides were well and truly cluttered with the pillared porches, domed tombs and crumbling pyramidal towers of the former city.

The best place to get a sense of the site’s overall topography is the summit of Matanga Hill, from where a whitewashed temple overlooks the west end of Hampi village. The route takes you down the bazaar, a broad street whose double-storied mansions used to house the city’s élite. Their carved facades and columned walkways still stand, but they were long ago converted into more humble dwellings. Passing them in the pre-dawn half light on our first morning, women were going about their chores – lighting fires, milking goats and sketching geometric rangoli patterns with rice flour in front of doorways – while their kids and husbands dozed on charpoy (rope beds) nearby.

The scene was a far cry indeed from the descriptions of the bazaar recorded by the Persian ambassador to Vijayanagar, Abdu’r Razzaq in 1443, who was dazzled by the flowers, silk brocade, pearls, and precious stones he saw heaped in its shopfronts. Other vivid accounts of the city in its heyday were written by the Portuguese chronicler Domingo Paes, who stayed here for two years in 1520, attending the sumptuous religious festivals and processions that took place in this street.

A defaced monolithic Nandi, the god Shiva’s bull, presides over the far end of the bazaar, a poignant reminder of both the thoroughfare’s former ritual significance and the devastation wrought here by the invaders in 1565. From its far side, we picked up the old paved pathway threading through the boulders to the hilltop shrine, as one of India’s greatest spectacles unfolded below us. The sprawling Achyutaraya temple, a complex of concentric walled enclosures crowned by matching gopuras, may not be the subcontinent’s best preserved architectural treasure (it was decimated during the Muslim sack and now looks like a Mayan ruin after a dousing of corrosive acid). But to see it at dawn, with the sun rising over its surrounding mantle of palm trees and banana groves, is reason enough to travel here.

If it were anywhere else, such a vision would be hard to top. But Hampi seems to hold an inexhaustible storehouse of amazing sights, and we spent the next three days working our way steadily through them, with the help of rented ‘Hero’ bicycles and a moped that you could only steer in a straight line if you pointed its handlebars sideways.

Forays into the boulderscape were broken by regular heat-beating breaks in the Virupaksha temple’s shady inner courtyard. Having paid our respects to Lakshmi, the resident elephant (and had our heads blessed with a tap of her trunk in return), we’d settle down to watch the comings and goings through the shrine.

In spite of its dilapidated state, Hampi – or more accurately, the Virupaksha temple at its heart – remains an important place of pilgrimage, drawing bus loads of worshippers year round. After a redemptory dip in the Tungabhadra, they file dripping wet to present their offerings of incense, flowers, camphor and coconuts to the deity, a manifestation of Shiva also known by the catchy title of Swami Pampati. Enclosed, like most South Indian shrines, by ranks of ornately carved colonnades, the inner precincts are hugely atmospheric places, especially after dark when the temple musicians serenade the god before tucking him and his consort into bed for the night.

We’d gone there late one evening especially to listen to them, and were initially dismayed when their Carnatic raag was shattered by blasts of Bollywood hits from the local brass band, accompanying a wedding party. The unhappy couple had processed through several times in the course of the day, and we’d marvelled at their stoicism in the face of so much tinsel, rice throwing, costume changes and the unruly behaviour of the village urchins (among them an off-duty Green Boy, recognisable only by his tongue poking and distinctive dancing). But this ceremony – which for reasons too complex for my halting Hindi to fathom involved the groom having buckets of yellow sludge poured over his luxuriously turbanned head – took the element of ritual humiliation that seems a universal component of marriage to inspired heights.

For our final Hampi sunset we decided to give Green Boy and his mates the slip and head off in the direction of a distant hilltop temple we’d spotted from Matanga Hill. Enquiries around the bazaar had revealed that the shrine could most easily be reached by catching a coracle, or putti, from the Sacred Ford below on the Tungabhadra, just below the Virupaksha temple. We duly made our way to the jetty, but were dismayed when we got there to find a motorcycle and rider being loaded on a craft barely the size of a coffee table. And as if steering what any patriotic Welshman will tell you is a notoriously unruly vessel wasn’t tricky enough, the coracle wallahs had evidently been indulging in a drop of the hard stuff.

Once afloat, however, the coracle drifted effortlessly to the opposite bank. Leaving the ferrymen to collapse under their raffia sunshade, we set off on the long walk through the boulders and steamy banana groves lining the Tungabhadra’s northern side, arriving at the temple steps towards that magical time of day Indians evocatively describe as ‘cow dust hour’.

Being dedicated to Hanuman, this particular temple, which sits atop the sheerest of the many outcrops overlooking Vijayanagar, is an especially cool place to live if you’re a monkey. Normally in India, any ape within reach is sent packing with long cane lathis, but here the resident macaques are held as sacred, which means they get fed a steady supply of bananas and sweets by the pilgrims puffing up the whitewashed steps. 

You’d think this would make the monkeys relaxed eaters; but it doesn’t. On the contrary: any piece of clothing or baggage deemed to contain food is liable to be snatched and carried off to some unreachable boulder top for closer inspection – which is exactly what happened to a beloved camera bag of mine. Luckily, however, one of the temple swamis retrieved it and agreed, after some negotiation, to sell it back to us in exchange for money rather than the sexual favours he’d initially requested from my girlfriend when my back was turned.

This novel rite of passage behind us, we made our way to the edge of the giant escarpment in time to watch the sun slipping down over the famous Tungabhadra bend. To the south, the vivid green rice fields formed an astonishing contrast with the rubble and exposed bones of the ancient city, tinged orange by the dying daylight. Saffron and green, it occurs to me now, are the colours of the Indian flag, representing the union of Hinduism and Islam. Five centuries after the sack of Vijayanagar, with the two great religious traditions of the subcontinent poised once again on the brink of war, the vision of destruction spread beneath us would seem bleakly prophetic.

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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