We woke at five. The train was about two hours behind schedule but we didn’t want to tempt fate by falling back to sleep. There are no announcements when you pull into a station – no tannoy and no conductor. Luke had the foresight to print out a station schedule for our journey, so we could tick off the stations one by one and ensure we didn’t miss our stop. As we stepped off the train we were descended upon by the usual gaggle of rickshaw drivers. I imagine these drivers live by the station timetable, muttering the details of incoming trains in their sleep, for there can surely be no better source of income to the tuk tuk driver than an unwitting tourist arriving from a foreign land. We stuck to our policy of not selecting a driver until we’d left the station and checked that there was no pre-paid taxi rank – usually this offers a more competitive fair than that of the freelance drivers. With no sign of a better alternative we decided to go with one of the drivers who’d met us off the train, who turned out to be a really nice bloke – it’s sometimes nigh on impossible to tell a friend from a fiend without taking the plunge.
The drive to Hampi got steadily more spectacular as we left the sporadic concrete mish mash of Hoispet. It was light, but the sun was still low in the sky and cast everything we looked upon in indigo. At each junction in the road we seemed to be taking the road less travelled, and for the first time on our trip I felt that we were heading into remote, rural India. The terrain changed from lush fields full of banana trees to dusty, rocky outcrops that towered ever higher over the rickshaw. The area around Hampi is a geologist’s dream – all kinds of bizarrely balanced boulders perch improbably on top of each other. I don’t think I exagerate when I say the landscape is similar to the kind that Wiley Coyote chases Roadrunner through in the cartoons.
We came over the brow of the hill and caught our first view of Hampi Bazaar, the tiny village in which we would stay. A whole host of ruins stretched out along the sides and bottom of a dusty valley, with a lush river snaking through the bottom. The focal point of Hampi Bazaar itself is the huge ancient tower of the Virupaksha Temple. It’s a steep, vaguely triangular structure which put me in mind of some of the Aztec temples you see in Mexico. As we got closer we could see that it was covered in Gargoyle-like figures carved out of stone. At a glance you could be forgiven for thinking that some of these statues had come alive, but on closer inspection you’ll find that there are scores of monkeys larking around among the architecture.
We struck lucky with our accomodation, rocking up at the Shambhu guesthouse – the first we saw in the village. It had all of the basics (roof, walls, running water) as well as the twin jewells of aircon and wifi. In his pitch to try and seal the deal with us, our host explained that whilst most places in Hampi suffer from regular powercuts lasting several hours, his guesthouse had it’s own supply of electricity which prevented us from having to suffer this inconvenience. To prove his claim he gave an affectionate pat to a large lorry battery with wires coming out of it that occupied the corridor just outside our room – we were sold.
Hampi and the surrounding areas are stuffed full of ruins of the ancient city of Vijayanagar. Vijayanagar was the capital of the Vijayanagara empire which had it’s heyday between the 14th and 16th centuries. Apparently at it’s peak the city was home to 500,000 people, making it the second largest city in the world at the time behind Beijing. Mighty as it was, it all went to pot for them in 1565 when a rival empire called the Deccan Sultanate wiped the floor with the Vijayanagara in battle and completely ransacked the city. Since then the place has been largely deserted except for farmers, hoteliers and monkeys.
After a first shower in 24 hours we headed out to explore some of the ruins. We walked out along a wide thoroughfare of about half a mile. On each side of this open space there were continuous stone columns, some supporting roofs, that must have at one time supported buzzing market stores. We climbed a set of ancient steps, followed by a mangey stray dog who seemed to want to make friends with us. We wandered through a desert of cactus and boulders before coming upon the temples of Achutaraya, Varaha and Hastagiri Ranganatha. These temples are dwarfed on all sides by red hills that look like a Martian landscape. At random intervals all around Hampi there are oases of lush vegetation that spring up invitingly out of the dry rock that surrounds them. After about an hour of exploring we were parched in the mid-day sun. We sat down in the shade under a huge tree which looked out over the river, sipping from fresh coconuts. Taking on liquid made us realise that we were suddenly famished, and we made haste back to Hampi Bazaar to eat a thali at the Mango Tree restaurant. Many places in India offer a free refill service on thalis, and the Mango Tree was no exception. Restaurants in Britain could learn something from this level of service and hospitality – in Britain you probably couldn’t buy a sandwich for the same price as a freshly cooked, all you can eat buffet service in India!
We ventured down to the river, where children were swimming and women were scrubbing and soaking clothes, before slapping them with all their might against sun-scorched rocks. We paid the five rupee toll to take the ferry across the river, where we scrambled over rocks and boulders up the hillside until we’d gained a good vantage point over the valley below. I’ve honestly never been anywehre like Hampi – where lunar landscapes meet lush fields of crops and man-made ruins compete with the randomness of nature to provide unparalelled levels of beauty.
We made our way back down, avoiding death-defying drops and any piles of leaves that looked like they’d make the ideal home for a snake. It turned out that we’d missed the last ferry across the river, and we had to make the choice between swimming across or taking a more traditional craft across the river. We opted for the latter, and crossed back in style in a handmade coracle for fifty rupees.
We paid the bill and gave chase to the procession, which sauntered through the streets before heading under the ancient archway into the Virupaksha Temple. Following the spectacle into a large stone courtyard, we watched in amusement as Lakshmi accepted coins from members of the public in her trunk, handed them to her keeper and then blessed the coin-giver by placing her trunk on the crown of their head.
The Virupaksha temple is apparently unchanged in centuries, and but for the cameras and phones being brandished by tourists we could well believe that we were in the heyday of the Vijayanagara empire. When the ceremony began to wind down, we walked back in the moonlight to the guesthouse for a well-earned night’s kip.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey