How about some travel writing: Hampi, India

Some travel writing by me. Re-posted from https://www.casualodyssey.com/.

The Hampiest Place on Earth

Feb 4, 2019

Good morning Hospet! Not-so-fresh off the train we found Ramesh and his auto-rickshaw (which, according to the back decal, was named Suzie) to take us to the “ferry crossing” at Hampi.

We were staying across the river from Hampi Bazaar in a little town called Virupapur Gaddi. This is where most visitors to Hampi stay, and there is a community of roughly identical guesthouses with roughly identical restaurant menus and an infinite number of guys trying to rent you a scooter. The river, currently about the width of Winnipeg’s Red River, doesn’t have a bridge, so there is a group of enterprising young men with a couple of motor boats that charge tourists to cross. Three days before we arrived, the crossing was 20 rupees. For us, 50 each for one way (roughly $1 CAD). Not a ton of money in the grand scheme of things, but a lot for a 30 second boat ride. Plus, the boat would only operate when 12 or 15 people were crossing, which meant we always had to wait. Basically, these guys have a nice racket going.

We had booked a room at Sai Plaza Guesthouse. The location is great, very close to the ferry crossing, and the restaurant has an amazing view of Hampi’s ruins (and of the temple elephant, Lakshmi, getting her 90 minute bath every morning). We lounged in the restaurant, listening to what can most easily be described as Indian spa music, until our room was ready. Our accommodations were basic – a modest two room structure – with hot water only at a certain time of day. The bed had a baby pink mosquito net, which made it look like a child’s faerie princess fort, and outside there was a little patio with a hammock.

In the afternoon, we crossed the river to start exploring.

First thing to say about Hampi: the landscape is unique (and those readers who’ve met me know I don’t use that word lightly). Piles of boulders as tall as mountains dot the area, with bright green sugar cane paddies, palms, and figs growing in the low areas between. It’s a strange mix of arid, rocky expanses and verdant tropics. And the way the boulders sit, precariously piled in unlikely towers, makes it tempting to believe they were placed by the gods (or by their monkey army, as the story goes).

Second thing to say about Hampi: it’s huge. 3700 monuments in 36 sq km. In our 3 days in the area, we could only come close to biting off a slice of the Hampi (Banofee) pie.

Third thing to say about Hampi: it’s shockingly uncommercial. Don’t misunderstand: there are a host of people waiting to sell you jewelry and coconut milk, sunglasses and saris, auto-rickshaw tours and anything you’d like to eat, but when it comes to the World Heritage Site itself, it’s remarkably open. You can walk where you want, visit still-active temples with monks at prayer, or clamber over the crumbling ruins of temples from the 10th century. You can touch everything, photograph anything. Only three sites charge you for access, and in the rare places where there is security at work, the only time we heard them warn off anyone is when two middle-aged European tourists attempted to climb up on a large statue of the sacred bull calf, Nandi.

When we crossed the river on our first day, we wandered up past Virupaksha Temple (notable for the golden-coloured, intricately carved, 50m-high gateway tower) to the temples of Hemakuta Hill. While most of the structures in Hampi date back to the 13th to 16th centuries, Hemakuta Hill features some of the oldest ruins on the site, stretching back to the 9th century. The site is rock structures built on natural rock slabs surrounded by piles of boulders, so mid-afternoon, the 35 degree sun is unforgiving. A couple hours was enough for our uncovered parts to get a burn.

Not knowing much about the site except what my Lonely Planet Guide had to say about Hemakuta (“Hemakuta Hill has a few early ruins” — thanks LP, we cottoned on to that using our senses), we were lucky to find a couple signposts that explained the significance of the site. Signs like these were inconsistently present at the rest of the monuments and temples in Hampi, but when they existed, there was almost always an English version to read.

Without a route to follow, we eventually found a garbage-strewn trail to a temple sunk into the trees (a rarity here) where a huge number of monkeys played together. Then by accident, we found a back way into Virupaksha Temple and explored it for free (though we wouldn’t have balked at the teeny admission of 2 rupees, or 52 if you have a camera). It made us sad to see Lakshmi working as mostly a backdrop for selfies, but the temple itself was vibrant with devotees and lively with monkeys.

We crossed the river again (are you hearing the cash register cha-ching?), and grabbed an auto-rickshaw down a bumpy road to the highway, on our way to see the Monkey Temple at sunset. Something Allison heard, but I did not, when we were told about the temple: it’s up. 575 cut stone steps up, to be exact. Tease me if you must, but this Prairie girl’s legs are not really conditioned for a lot of up. Anyway, winded, we climbed to the hilltop Monkey Temple and the spot a which the god Hanuman (in monkey form) was reportedly born for the sunset view, leaving before the sun actually set so we could see our way down.

In the evenings, all the restaurants in Virupapur Gaddi show movies (of wildly variable quality and content, though Disney seems to be particularly popular), so we chose the restaurant that was showing Toy Story 3. After Allison gave the owners some IT support, we settled down with our first drinks of the trip (“do you have any local beers?” “Budweiser” “okay”), and Allison somehow did not cry at any of the three tear-inducing scenes in that excellent movie (you know exactly what scenes I’m talking about, don’t you, readers!).

Feb 5, 2019

We met Ramesh on the Hampi side of the river after waiting 30 minutes for the boat to take us across (all the operators apparently need to eat breakfast together). Allison had arranged for him to take us around the major Hampi sites, and I’ll mention it here once, though it deserves to be said a bunch, it’s a total game changer to have pretty consistent internet access on a trip like this. Being able to “What’s app” message tour guides, drivers, and hotels, navigate using Google maps, and look up things we can’t figure out on our own is such a simplifier.

Anyway, Ramesh, whose English was very good, took us to two off-the-beaten-track stops to start the day. The first was the Bhojana shalaa, a site featuring long, low rock dining tables with cut-outs carved into the rock to act as plates and bowls. This was made, he explained, so poor families in the Vijayanagar Empire could host celebrations like weddings and not worry about having enough dishes for all of the guests.

The second stop was beyond the typical Hampi exploration, a temple on Rama’s meditation site called Malyavanta Raghunatha. There were orange-clad Hindu monks practicing their devotions while Ramesh took us through a couple of the site’s buildings. Most notably, he showed us a social hall that used to be decorated with diamonds and where genius architects created pillars of stone that ring like timpani when played and where everywhere there are bas reliefs of gods and animals and nature and Kama sutra. This temple has a nice lookout point from which we could see the high Monkey Temple we’d climbed the previous day.

Ramesh dropped us at the parking lot for the Vittala Temple, and we made the kilometre walk down an open sand road to the proper start of the site. A ticket to Vittala costs 300 rupees each, but gets you same-day admission to the Archeological Museum and the Zenana Enclosure as well. The main temple here also has the musical pillars we saw at Malyavanta Raghunatha, but here they are off limits to tourists. One of the greatest attractions is the ornate stone chariot in the courtyard (apparently the wheels were once able to turn).

The Archeological Museum is worth a look for the pre- and post-excavation photos of the Royal Centre, the room-sized model of all of Hampi, and the collection of unearthed gold coins. Also, good for a break from the mid-day sun.

We had a lunch of Thali (Allison) and Chicken Tikka (me) – essential to keep up our energy – and then we were off to the Royal Centre. We started with the Queen’s Bath, an Islamic-style building, with an enormous, now empty, pool within. The pool holds 15 cubic meters of water, which they scented with jasmine for her baths. This building was for the Queen’s exclusive use, and even the King had to ask permission to enter.

Next we saw the recently excavated Royal Enclosure, including the Mahanavani-diiba, a 12m high stage platform with great views and intricate carvings. The elephant carver was really working overtime on this whole area, as dozens and dozens of elephants line every wall. Also here is a stepped pool called the Pushkarani, which looks like someone buried a hollow pyramid upside down in the earth, and the Hazarama Temple which has some beautiful black granite carved pillars transported from the southernmost reaches of India when the Empire had stretched across the country.

Our second-last stop of the day was the Zenana Enclosure, where the Queen’s mansion, the Lotus Mahal sits. This site is green and grassy, as if ready for a queen to return at any moment, and the Lotus Mahal’s scalloped doorways are gorgeous from every angle. A few steps away is the shockingly well preserved Elephant Stables, where Allison and I made echo-y elephant noises to stay true to the building’s history.

Exhausted after all the ruins and temples, we opted to look out over the Nobleman’s Quarters, the King’s Palace, and the Mint, rather than walk through.

Back at the hotel, the movie of the evening was The Lion King, and we stayed up our latest yet… 10 p.m.!

Feb 6, 2019

We rented some mostly functional, one-speed bicycles and rode out of Virupapur Gaddi with some vague directions to “the lake.” After only one missed turn and more hills than I had hoped for, we made it. The lake was nice enough, but with no beach area, so we sat on some rocks for a couple hours, while a goat herd eventually found it‘s way to and around us. After a (more downhill, but equally as bumpy) ride back, we enjoyed the view from the Sai Plaza restaurant for a couple hours before saying goodbye to Hampi, travelling to Hospet, and getting on the overnight train to Delhi.