May 12th – Hampi

Ayup.
I confess (not for the first time) to having made a slight financial misjudgement on our first day in Hampi. In our eagerness to get to Hampi Bazaar and source some accomodation, we’d neglected to get some more cash out. As the designated carrier of money I’d looked at the wad of notes in our possession as we left Hoispet the previous morning and decided that it was adequate. After paying for three night’s accomodation and three meals on our first day, we were down to the bare bones by the next morning. Hampi Bazaar is such a remote backwater that it does not possess the luxury of an ATM. We convened for crisis talks over breakfast (using 300 of our last 600 rupees to pay). The conversation went something along the lines of “We need to get some money or we’re buggered”. After much deliberation we hatched a plan to rent a couple of pushbikes and cycle to the nearby town of Kamalapura – a measly 3 kilometre ride away. We rented two bikes for fifty rupees each and set off along the road, which climbs the biggest bloody hill in the area. Determined to show no weakness to our usual audience of lithe, athletic Indians, we puffed and panted our way up the hill, freewheeling down the slope on the other side. Flanked by banana trees and with the breeze on our faces we were in high spirits, in spite even of the farm trucks and buses that blared their horns as they came past us. Then we hit the flat. The sun beat down from above and the tarmac reflected it back at us to give us a double whammy of heat. On top of this – and I know you shouldn’t grumble for fifty rupees – but this bike’s gears were inadequate for the task at hand. We took a ten minute pit stop during which we each drank about a litre of water, before soldiering on into the town.
It didn’t take us long to find what we were looking for – two ATM machines side by side, completely incongruous to the ancient stone buildings that surrounded. We had two cards each with which we could withdraw money – none of them worked. We repeated the process three or four times, and an error message appeared each time. This was more than a little concerning – we had 200 rupees remaining. It was agreed that one of us would have to use the last of our cash to take a rickshaw back to the bigger town of Hoispet, whilst the other waited with the bikes. We propped the bikes up against the wall and I sat down next to them whilst Luke went off to find a rickshaw.

No sooner had I sat down than I was accosted by about twenty kids, who seemed to be fascinated by my presence on their turf (metaphorical turf that is – it was actually just a dusty roadside). They asked me questions in broken English, stared at my pallid legs gleaming in the sun, and giggled as they gaggled away to each other in Hindi. I shook each of their hands individually, saying “My name is Tom, how do you do?” to each one in a very ostentatious British accent, whilst they told me their own names. They were all very keen that I should take their photo, which I obliged. The boys posed like Usain Bolt and the girls ran away shyly, and we all had a thoroughly good time. A couple of Dads emerged from their houses to see what the commotion was. They spoke sternly to their kids, I imagine to tell them off for bothering me, but I was quite enjoying the banter so I smiled and nodded at the adults who then seemed satisfied that I wasn’t being unduly harassed. The bravest lad out of the group grabbed one of the bikes that had slid down the wall and propped it up in a better position for me. I thanked him for this and he immediately said “Ten rupees please, sir.” I admired his entrepenuerial spirit but for the first time on the trip I was completely honest when I told him I was completely skint. Luke returned quickly, and the kid’s attention turned to a pen he was holding in his hand. They repeated “Schoolpen sir, schoolpen!” Until he caved to their demands and handed them the pen. I don’t want to sound patronising, but it was a real pleasure just to meet these kids and see how friendly and honest in their curiosity they were. These are the kind of random encounters that can sound hopelessly cheesy when you try to describe them to people afterwards, but I’ve learned quickly that chance meetings with strangers can be the highlight of you travels.

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Whilst I’d been chatting and chilling in the shade, Luke had gotten into a dispute with his rickshaw driver, who had driven him all of 200 yards down the road to the next cashpoint and demanded 200 rupees off him for the priveledge. Two quid for a 200 yard journey is extortionate even by British standards, but at least he’d managed to extract a wad of notes. We mounted our bicycles and rode off in the direction of the closest ruins, followed by the kid of the previous paragraph who continued to shout “Ten rupees please sir!” until we left the village.
We left the road and cycled onto an enormous arid plain. Ruins of various stature were situated for as far as the eye can see. We bought ice lollies and re-stocked on water from a vendor who was sat with what must have been his entire extended family under a tree. Feeling suitably replenished, we commenced an onslaught of temple exploration under the taxing heat of the mid-day sun. There were temples, towers and aqueducts, bathing pools and fortifications. Of particular interest to us was a gigantic building within the Zenana Enclosure that stretched about the length of two football pitches. It contained eleven domed chambers with huge arched entrances – these were the elephant stables. This building remained remarkably intact and it didn’t require much imagination to picture these beautiful behemoths being herded under the arches after a hard day’s work, mournfully trumpeting their protests and dropping steaming piles of dung all over the place. In front of the stables was a large field which had apparently been a parade ground for troops of the Vijayanagara empire, but was now being cultivated for crops by a local farmer. The architecture in this area of the ancient city seems to have more of an Islamic influence, which is ironic considering the Vijayanagara spent most of the time fighting off one Muslim empire or another.

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The Elephant Stables

After two or three hours of exploration in which we’d sweated enough to fill the ancient baths back up, we biked it back to Hampi Bazaar. I’d been dreading the ascent of the hill back into Hampi but it turned out okay – neither of us suffered the ultimate amateur cyclist’s shame of having to dismount and push our bikes up the hill. We chilled in the hostel for a while before setting out again for the Vittala Temple – in my opinion not the most photogenic, but certainly the most photographed of all Hampi’s landmarks. The main feature of this temple is a stone sculpture of a chariot called a ratha. The preservation of this monument is remarkable and until the recent past the wheels of the chariot could be spun by hand.

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Towards the back of the open temple complex is a roofed building held up by hollow pillars that when tapped emit sounds of various pitches, each one representing a different musical instrument. Luke and I walked around tapping them all but we couldn’t get a tune out of them, and we were distracted in our efforts by yet more curious tourists who insisted on shaking our hands, taking selfies with us and pointing us out to their various family members. The attention and the heat got a little too much and we returned to Hampi Bazaar for tea.

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Tomorrow is our last full day in Hampi. We feel that we’ve achieved a lot in our two days here so, so tomorrow we can afford to take it a bit slower and just enjoy the vibe of being in this other-wordly location.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

May 11th Night train to Hoispet then Hoispet to Hampi by Rickshaw

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.

Me in front of the Virupaksha Temple. Am I the first tourist to ever visit wearing a Derby County away shirt from the 99-00 season? Ever the trendsetter...

Me in front of the Virupaksha Temple. Am I the first tourist to ever visit Hampi wearing a Derby County away shirt from the 99-00 season? Ever the trendsetter…

Our driver took us through the bazaar itself, claiming that he knew a good place for us to stay. We halted at a collection of little huts just outside the village, where chickens chattered in the yard. A very friendly old chap welcomed us into his home and offered us chai, which we rejected incase we felt inclined to stay at his place even if it was substandard. He showed us our potential accomodation. It was basically a giant upturned whicker basket, about the size of a transit van, with a concrete shower cubicle in the corner. It was quaint and rustic, but you could see daylight through the gaps in the woven walls and we decided it’d be too hot and too exposed to mosquitoes to bother with. We made our excuses and the man accepted our decision with a broad grin, inviting us to return to his restaurant at some point during our stay. Our rickshaw driver dropped us back in the village and we gave him 200 rupees for his trouble.
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.

Our fellow passengers on the ferry crossing

Our fellow passengers on the ferry crossing


The monarch of all I survey

The monarch of all I survey

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.

Ahooooy!

Ahooooy young Partridge!

It had been a long day, and we finished it off with our first of several visits to Gopi rooftop restaurant. I had a jaipuri with momos on the side – a random combination but one which worked beautifully for me! If my memory serves me correctly Luke had another thali, which he reported to be of excellent quality. No two thalis are the same, and if you want to check out a diverse range of dishes in a restaurant, it’s a great way to sample a bit of everything.  Owing to it’s religious significance to Hindus, Hampi Bazaar is a dry town. We were gasping for a beer and we looked longingly at four cans of Carlsberg that were stored in the fridge. (The fact that we were willing to drink Carlsberg indicates our level of desperation). We enquired with the waiter in hushed tones as to whether the cans were for sale, but alas, they belonged to one of the lodgers in the guesthouse downstairs. Just as we’d finished up our meals a great commotion could be heard in the street below. We poked our heads over the balcony to witness a group of musicians in elaborate dress who were playing a very ancient sounding melody, followed by an elephant whose face had been painted with bright dye. This was Lakshmi, the temple mascot, and a beautiful one at that.

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