Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in east-central Karnataka, India. It became the centre of the Hindu
Vijayanagara Empire capital in the 14th century and is chronicled to be a prosperous, wealthy and grand city near the Tungabhadra River, with numerous temples, farms and trading markets.
I saw her standing on the doorway as I first stepped foot into the courtyard of her little home. Anju greeted me with a genuine smile that’s hard to find these days. And I was glad that this smile embarked the beginning of my 4-day journey across the glorious history and the ancient ruins of Hampi.
I felt like an explorer in a strange land. Even though this was my first time here, I felt a strange sense of familiarity. The air was dry and carried the fragrance of life in a village — farms, trees, dusty roads and the smell of freshly cooked sambar.
My room was really large and overlooked a beautiful paddy field, ready to be harvested. The floor of the house was concrete and the walls were hand-painted. Such rawness, this place was almost immaculate in all it’s imperfections. And then there was Anju. A woman in her 30’s, born to a French mother and an Indian father, she lived alone in that house and let out the extra rooms to wandering tourists like me. Her hospitality played a big part in making this experience a memorable one.
I wanted to see places and things that are not infested by noisy tourists and random cacophony. I was interested in little stories, not history; and discovering things on my own rather than being taken there and told what was written in the books. I wanted to eat the local food and observe the local life. “I hope you’ve got good walking shoes!”, said Anju with a smile. The same evening I walked 4 kms across the village and trekked up 560 steps onto a hill, which is believed to be the birthplace of Hanuman, the monkey king from Ramayana, an Indian mythological epic.
A surrealistic experience it was, when I walked passed paddy fields and banana plantations engulfed by mammoth boulders that looked golden in the afternoon sun. So magnanimous were these rocks that it was impossible to not feel intimidated and insignificantly small. I couldn’t help but wonder how many eras, how many lives have these rocks seen just being there, moving at glacial speed and watching humanity evolve from monkeys to us. The air was a bit dusty but crisp. As the sun started making it’s way downwards, the golden color on the rocks started turning into bronze dust and soon at a distance I could see the silhouette of a high peak that I hoped to conquer before the sun finally sets for the day.
I don’t know if it was fatigue or something else, but when I finally reached the top, an overwhelming feeling took over and I couldn’t hold back my tears. The view from top was breathtaking and the vibe was divine. I just sat there and let myself soak into the divinity, as I watched the sun go down.
Next day, Anju gave me a hand drawn map and written directions. She specifically asked me to avoid entering tourist spots that I would see on my way. I started my walk through Anegundi village, where I was staying, and walked passed abandoned ruins that don’t see a lot of visitors. One of them that I particularly remember is Hucchappaya Matt. When I entered this ruin, it turned out to be an old temple of Nandi, the cow who according to ancient mythology served as Lord Shiva’s vehicle. As much as the place smelled like dead, cold stone, it had an eery kind of life to it. A close look at the stone carvings made me feel as if the idols would come to life and start dancing, right there in front of me. Suddenly the dead silence of the place turned into the sound of a mrindungam and I could see an entire civilization right in front of my eyes. The experience was surreal. I never read anything about this place anywhere. And there was no-one to tell me what it really was. So I let it be in my mind, as a place where once upon a time, the goddesses danced to music that still echoes in the emptiness of those ruins, on the floor where I now stood bare feet.
Thereafter, I crossed the river at Talarghat to get to the main Hampi bazaar. I walked through ruins, some flooded by enthusiastic tourists and some that stood there lonely waiting to be touched, explored and understood. Pushkarni, is yet another one that rings a bell. It’s located on the way to the famous Vithalla temple on the dirt road that sees a lot of battery operated vans carrying tourists straight to the temple. There are very few who choose to walk that stretch. Surrounded by 100’s of pillars (which apparently were the walls of a shopping complex that once stood there!), this place was the perfect pit stop for me to get out of the scorching sun and listen to my favorite sound of silent rocks.
The day went by as I walked through many such abandoned structures. I let go of all inhibitions and fears as I made my way into the, sometimes unnervingly dark silences of these rocks. After 3 hours of walking under the unforgiving sun, I finally reached the hustle and bustle of the main Hampi bazaar. Colorful people buying colorful artifacts from equally colorful stalls that crowded both sides of a road that leads to the beautiful VirupakshaTemple. As told, I walked past the temple and found myself looking for the famous restaurant–Mango Tree, the recommendation of which I had been carrying with me from Bangalore itself. Not to say it was bad, but what I realized was the fact that no place in Hampi could be as ‘touristy’ as Mango tree. It overlooked the river and I could have imagined sitting there for hours sipping on lemon soda and reading a book. But the distracting crowd that kept pouring in, drove me out of there sooner than I would have liked.
As the sun went down, I made my way back to the other side of the river, Virupapura Gaddi, also known as the Hampi island. As opposed to the mainland where alcohol and non vegetarian food were banned, Hampi island was infamous for housing all that was considered ‘unholy’. Nevertheless, Shiva café was a small shack that gave me the view and peace I was looking for. I got drawn to it, as I heard the sound of someone playing the flute and that was my final stop before I made my way back to Anegundi and called it a day.
Back at Anju’s house, I met a bunch of school children that came there everyday after their dance practice. They came to play something called barahkatta. It’s a board game that resembles ludo in most ways. They used broken pieces of glass bangles to differentiate the color of their pegs and used shells as a dice. I was amazed at how they were even able to differentiate the color of the glass bangles in that limited amount of light. I made a mental note to send them a game of ludo once I got back to the city.
Mornings were magical in the village. I woke up to a sudden thud and saw a bunch of monkeys sitting in my backyard. The morning air was crisp and I could smell firewood from a neighboring house. I started my day with coffee and an announcement by Anju that I should be ready by 8.30 am. I was to meet Kumar–my guide and my companion for the day who would give me a guided tour of the Hampi most people know off.
Kumar was a bank of knowledge. He knew every little corner of Anegundi and Hampi. But what was amazing about him was that not only did he know the history of every ruin that we visited, he narrated a fascinating story for each! We visited all the bullet point places. I got to learn the history as well as a localite’s POV I would have never known otherwise. Such as how to play music on the pillars of the Vithalla temple, how the temples were made of rocks that were just piled one on top of the other and that they were not cemented, Of how the Peanut Ganesha got his name and where Tenalirama, the famous minister of King Krishnadeva Raya, stood to observe the happenings at the Lotus Mahal. As we neared dusk, we made our way back to Anegundi where he promised to show me something that would define my experience of timelessness.
We took off on a tangential road that led to another neighboring town. The road was single lane and was surrounded by massive rocks on both sides. We stopped outside one such hill and walked through the narrow path that led us to a guarded area. Kumar spoke to the guard and told him I was a student and wished to see the “paintings”. The guard let us in and soon we reached an area that can best be described as a colony from the stone-age. We were there to see cave paintings almost as old as human civilization! I lay down where once early humans sat to make paintings which I could now see in all it’s glory.
My day ended and so did my list of things to do in Hampi. Next day, I had my train back to Bangalore. But that night I stood up thinking and reflecting on this experience and how it changed me forever.
Often, we get caught in our busy lives so much that it gives us no time to wonder. There is no place for serendipity and surprise. There are no discoveries and hence there are no learnings. We forget little things that happen to us; we breathe through our noses and feel through our brains. Forgetting, ever so often, about a heart that longs for soulful experiences. We don’t have to go to a village to experience this. But we do need to unplug sometimes. And then truly connect with what lies around us.