The best way to go to Hampi in Karnataka, where reside the remains of the glorious Vijayanagara empire, is by train, say the travel guides. In a way it is, as a train journey can put you in the right frame of mind on how far we have to go to catch up with the past.
We chose to stay not in Hospet town which is 12 km away (local transport to Hampi can make a hole in your pocket) but the state’s tourism department hotel in Kamalapur only 4 km away. We were not disappointed by the hotel, which with its distinctive design and reasonable maintenance does well by the standards of state run hotels, but the little town around it is full of pigs and piglets foraging in the roadside dirt.
All this should be a good antidote to anyone who might be tempted to get carried away with pride in the wonder that was India. The story can be similar in whole or part if you are a modern-day tourist in Egypt or Greece, which boast of similar riches of antiquity and a disappointing present, but I suspect the downside of today’s India is difficult to beat.
So chastened, Hampi, all 25 sq km of it, civilisation’s massive open air museum, weaves a charm from which it is difficult to walk away. It has rained a great deal this year in the normally drought- prone Bellary district so that the trademark boulder strewn landscape is interwoven with soft green. Plus, there was a cool cloud cover on both the days we criss-crossed the area in auto-rickshaws manned by the friendliest of drivers.
Most make do with them without going for professional guides who tend to give you an information overload. My thought was, why not train these helpful youngsters in a little bit of history and archaeology, the way the peddle rickshaw pullers of Bharatpur point out to you all the birds as barefoot officially licensed ornithologists. That way the compact between tourist and service provider will be even greater.
Hampi has more ruins and temples than you can take in within two days of arduous walking and auto rickshaw fume imbibing. What remains with you is the clash and eventual co-habitation of two cultures. The glory of the Hindu Vijaynagara empire that thrived during the 14th to the 16th centuries was laid low by Muslim conquest but at the end it gave rise to architecture which bore the combined influence of both.
Among the few structures which are still largely intact is the petite Lotus Mahal in the Zenana enclosure, so called because of its many archways and domes that give it the look of a half opened lotus flower. Its Islamic style arches and Hindu style multi-layered roofs bear testimony to the dual influence, as does the material used — lime mortar and brick, as opposed to stone elsewhere — indicating its later construction.
What adds fun to beauty is the contrast created by the massive structure of the royal elephant stables (every bay with its own archway) just outside the Zenana enclosure. And there still stands in one corner of the boundary wall the watch tower whose sentries may have missed the irony that they kept watch over those whom others could not watch. But not all women were in purdah all the time. On the road to one of the key temples are the remains of what was once a thriving market for gems, pearls and ivory, called Sule Bazaar, presumably after the courtesans who must have been important customers.
The co-existence between sensual pleasure and salvation is writ clearly in the erotic sculptures at the Virupaksha temple, dedicated to Shiva, who we know cared little for formal codes of conduct. This oldest living temple of Hampi with a massive nine-storeyed gopura (archway) on the banks of the Tungabhadra, has sprouted next to it a present day bazaar catering to budget tourists, many of whom are foreigners. The alleyways promise pizza and nirvana, the sort which kept the resident of Mount Kailash on a great high.
Life is a journey at the end of which is a chariot which will carry you to the gods. This eternal quest of the mortal is written in stone in Vittala temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, where stands a stone chariot frozen in strength and motion, pulling as it were all of life’s treasures, mandapas supported by the most ornate pillars in Hampi carved out of monolithic stones to a lightness and a daintiness that make them ring, literally, to the lightest touch.
Out journey back to earth and and reality was of course undertaken in auto rickshaws which raced through filthy streets littered with pigs to get to the museum before it closed. Our hearts sank when we found at the gate it was five minutes past closing time. But the museum staff lived up to the standards set by other service providers, switched on the lights in the galleries again and went home a good half an hour late for our sake. This gesture put us in such a good mood that if I were to pick a defining deity of my own for Hampi I would go straight for the massive portly Sasivekalu Ganesh who so dominates the small structure he inhabits.
6 months ago