One city, many worlds

Check out Hampi, the world heritage site and come away mighty pleased

The charm of leaving home has always been that it transports you into new places and vivid moments; it makes you slow down and take note of your new surroundings. That is what Hampi offers – a home completely away from home; a lifestyle that is unlike any other, and an architecture that is as much appealing as it is priceless. But most of all, it’s a fulfilling journey, both physically and spiritually.

Travellers want authenticity in foreign lands. But hasn’t this search become a fool’s errand? It is better to be a travel writer without illusions. And this happens almost automatically as soon as you enter the erstwhile kingdom of Vijaynagara empire. It’s a city within a city, a city of ruins, a city of stones and pillars that showcase craftsmanship and years of hard work weaned away due to neglect. A world heritage site, no less.

A great contribution of the 20th century was to let the chaos and cadences of the world, the sounds of the street, into music. Hampi does exactly that. It lets you drop your self-consciousness as you travel and makes you simply accept each moment for what it is. It’s something of a spiritual exercise. Writers need to make connections and actively interpret the texture of places that can retain their distinct character even as they change rapidly. And Hampi provides enough fodder to do so. Once a great city where art and culture flourished, it is now reduced to ruins due to years of neglect. Thankfully, for the annual Hampi festival, I wouldn’t have known its many charms if I hadn’t made a conscious decision to visit it in 2008. Once I reached the gates of this city, I realised it’s one of the world’s largest open-air museums that welcome you like no other.

More than evoking images of regal splendour, Hampi humbles you. In the 15th century, it was one of the glittering showpieces of India’s cultural might, but today it has to be content being a boulder-strewn landscape that is largely neglected. Once upon a time, the city’s merchants traded in diamonds, pearls and horses, but today merchants are selling anything but those.

The once-proud city of victory is now an isolated city that only holds tourist value. Yet, travelling through Hampi and its surroundings makes you a fuller person. You respect the past, appreciate the present and hope for the best in the future. You are simultaneously humbled, rejuvenated and re-connected to the glorious past in a matchless manner.

What began as a four-day excursion took on a meaning of its own at the Hampi festival as crowds thronged the place in record numbers due to massive publicity by the state government. At last count, nearly five lakh people had come from nearby villages, towns and cities to witness this Rs 5 crore cultural extravaganza spread over three days. Thankfully, it was from November 3-5 when the nights aren’t too warm because much of the entertainment was after sunset. But if you were to maximise the many appeals of Hampi, it is best you come by when there is no festival. That way, the guest houses become more affordable, the ruins are largely people-free so you can take your pictures without much hassle and move about more freely.
One more thing. It’s not easy to soak in the sights and sounds of Hampi within a day. You need atleast three days – there are atleast 32 places to see in Hampi and 11 places around Hampi. And if you want to capture it all on film, you need atleast a fortnight because most pictures come out good only in the mornings and evenings. The light is too harsh at other times.

History has always fascinated me. Which is why Hampi was the perfect getaway. Nothing like a place where the past comes alive with whispering winds, magnificent ruins and traces of a bygone era that virtually transport you to a world of kings, battles and long forgotten marvels. To begin with, Hampi was the capital city of the Vijayanagar Empire. Founded by Harihara and Bukka in 1336, it fell to the rules of north India in 1565 after the battle of Talikota and subsequently lapsed into decline and later, abandoned. However, the ruins of its historical monuments have stood the ravages of man and time and still evoke memories of the golden past.

A historian’s find
If you are a history lover, Hampi offers reams of pages on the many beautitudes in and around Hampi. Take the King’s Palace. The moment you see the ruins of a once great palace, there is a sense of awe. If the ruins are so awe-inspiring, what could be the appeal of the real palace, you wonder. This is also the largest enclosure in the heritage city that includes an underground chamber which historians believe must have served as a treasury or a hall for private audience. This aside, there are several minor platforms and double fortification walls, making it an architect’s delight. The Mohammedan mosque constructed in true Islamic style with arches and domes and balconies, and the watch tower, transport you to a more regal era where art and culture flourished just the same way, religion did. The Elephant Stables are yet another find. Not to mention, the Lakshminarasimha statue, the 6.7 metre high monolith depicting the man-lion form of Lord Vishnu seated on a seven-hooded serpent. Next to it is the 3 metre high Badavilinga that stands permanently in water that flows through an ancient water channel. How this has stood the test of time beats me.

The Lotus Mahal or the Kamal Mahal is a great example of Hindu-Muslim unity as it combined the two architectural styles in its two-storeyed building built of mortar. Even the hottest part of summer, it’s quite cool out here, informed my guide. It could have been a rest house for queens and the nearby remains might have been the harem and a mint, say historians.

An archaeologist’s delight
The ruins of Hampi were first discovered in the 1970s by a farmer who was ploughing his field and came across a few artifacts. Since then, the Archaeological Survey of India has unveiled many architectural marvels, one of them being Pushkarni. It is a stepped water tank excavated in the 1980s that was originally a part of the palace complex. Almost lyrical in its beauty, the tank is a tiered structure crafted from rectangular pieces of granite. Just one look at this, and you feel blessed for viewing this visual spectacle.

In fact, check the lime and mortar plaster with the motif designs on any of the 500-odd ruined temples in and around Hampi and you will wonder how they remained in tact even after 450 years of abandonement. Can modern engineering achieve something like that?

Take the Vittala temple’s 56 ‘musical pillars’. Press your ear to the pillar and tap it gently to hear a sound that is distinct. What’s more, each pillar sounds differently. However, with boisterous tourists misusing the pillars more than using them, you are now barred from entering this part of the temple complex. However, if you want to experience something similar, just visit the Virupaksha temple at one end of the Hampi Bazaar. It was totally submerged under water, causing extensive damage to the roof beams, which have now been replaced. It is the oldest temple constructed in the 15th century. Dominated by its 50-metre tall gopuram, some of the temple’s pillars facing the entrance have a musical quality to them. I noticed a few students of music come in and tap the pillars. I went over to them and said, they need to go the Vittala temple for this and they said, even these have that same quality. I was amazed when I put my ear to the pillar and heard my gentle tap resonate through the column, like it was whispering sweet nothings into my ear. It was by far my most endearing moment at Hampi.

My most anxious moment was at Vittala. Every time I tried to photograph the famous Stone Chariot in isolation, a family would descend upon it for a group photo and I would be back to square one. Eventually, I had to satisfy myself with a couple of people posing against the stone marvel. Carved entirely out of stone, it depicts an elephant pulling a chariot with such superior engineering technology that the wheels actually rotate.

Spiritualist’s souk
Hampi has over 500 big and small temples around it, but the one temple that offered much solace for me and the three companions I was with was the Pattabhirama temple. It’s scarcely visited, but it’s one temple that makes you feel at peace with yourself. I lied down with my back on the floor and felt the cool afternoon air caress my every being. It’s ironic because the moment I step out of the temple and under the sun, you start sweating like never before. The difference is remarkable. Though it’s a few kilometers away from the heart of Hampi, it’s worth a visit for the serenity it offers.

All the other temples, which are architectural marvels no less, pale in comparison to the warmth offered by this temple. The only other temple that comes close to this is the Vittala temple. The architecture, the expanse, and the size of it leave you spellbound. The moment you step inside the temple complex after paying the requisite entry fee, your soul takes a leap. And mind you, I am a Muslim entering a Hindu temple, and my guide is also a Muslim. Can there be a better example of unity in religious diversity? What’s more, among my other companions was a Christian who was as much impressed by all that the temple offered, including the King’s Balance. Legend has it that wealthy kings would be weighed on a giant scale against grain or gold, which was later distributed to the poor.

Trekkers’ triumph
If Hampi was once a city of victory, it still evokes that feeling amongst rock climbing enthusiasts. The city of boulders and rocks offers many peaks that can excite the trekker in you. One such find is the Monkey Temple on Anjanadri hills. It also figures in Jackie Chan’s The Myth. While Chan took just under seven minutes to climb the 572 steps, it took me 30 minutes. This temple is a small chamber like shrine with a pyramid roof covering it. A Hanuman statue is installed inside the temple.

On the road to Kampli is another great trekking spot, the Malyavantha hill on top of which is a temple. Make sure you are in your trekking gear when you are climbing this hill. Once on top of it, you will get a bird’s eye view of this area surrounded by hills and rocky terrain. It was my most spectacular moment at Hampi. When my tourist guide said that not many come here because it’s a bit far from Hampi, I was even more happy with him for having brought us here. It was indeed a great find that remained in my memories long after the trip was over.

Picture postcard life
One-hour’s drive from Hampi takes you to the magnificent Sanapur lake that looks straight out of a picture postcard. Calm green waters with rocks and boulders strewn around, it looked like a stretch of some European country. The moment I saw this one, I fell in love with it. The sheer magnificence of it lent a certain charm to my trip to Hampi. And to think, it’s only 353 kilometres from Bangalore made me wonder that I had been missing this nature’s delight for all these years. Our next spot was the Munirabad Tunga Bhadra dam. Watch the sun set out here and you will come away marvelling it even more. And don’t forget to visit the garden at the foot of the dam. It’s small, but quite pleasing to the eye. On the other side of the dam is another garden, this time modelled on the Japanese.

Nature lover’s haunt
The lovely Mango Tree restaurant, a kilometer away from Virupaksha temple, is perfect for nature freaks. Facing the spectacular Tungabhadra river, the open air restaurant offers seating on straw chatai placed on granite slabs pleasantly spread across multiple levels like steps in an amphitheater that eventually descend down to the river. With the sounds of gushing water, the twittering of birds and a view of the stream and mountains nearby, it’s the perfect place for a novelist to churn out his next piece of fiction, even while digging into a vegetarian thali comprising rice, dal and roti.

The ambience is sensual, lively and vibrant while still being relaxing and refreshing. A large mango tree towers above the restaurant, offering shade while still providing splendid views of the river. A lovely swing tethered high up on the tree hangs down – an idyllic rocking chair which at full swing reaches out dreamily into the expanse of the mighty river.

Another great place is the backyard of Vittala temple complex that leads to the Tunga Bhadra river where you can go on a coracle ride. There’s a public bathroom as well, if guys want to indulge in some fun and frolic down the stream inundated with rocks. After your 20-minute coracle ride, you would have to hop from one rock to another to reach the shore. The best part of it is when he rotates the boat. The faster he does, the more dangerous and exciting it becomes. After all, it’s 500 feet deep. If you are a first-timer, ask him to do a slow spin. If you are an expert, the faster the better. But take your precautions.

Hampi is first a place for artisans who reveled in creativity that could shine forever. That some of their hard work has been taken away by time is painful. However, with the state government honouring it with an annual festival and UNESCO bestowing it as a ‘world heritage site’ that needs to be guarded till eternity, it’s a welcome sign that their hard work will not be in vain.

Thank you, Hampi. Thank you, Government of Karnataka.

(Published in Windows & Aisles, the inflight magazine of Paramount Airways, 2008)