Don't Worry, Be Hampi
It was a journey into the past that I had been wanting to make for a long time. Hampi, the jewel of the Vijayanagar empire, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remains of the last great Hindu kingdom in this part of the world. I had almost made the trip in 2017 but unforeseen circumstances had forced a last-minute change of plans. So almost two years to the day that I had planned my last trip, I got on a rickety bus in Bangalore and headed 350 kilometres north and several hundred years back into the past.
The bus lumbered on by the tranquil coconut palm-fringed paddy fields and boulder-strewn landscapes that are a characteristic feature of this part of the Deccan and duly deposited me, a little rattled and sore, in Hampi in time for breakfast. While I knew about the history of this ancient town, the temples and monuments, the river and coracles, the rocks and rice paddies, and the photographic opportunities they provided, I didn’t really know much about the flavour of the place. There are actually two parts of Hampi, separated by the meandering Tungabhadra. The ancient ruins and the heritage side on the southern bank, also called Hampi Bazar, and the ‘cool’ or island side of Hampi to the north. The island side is where we stayed, and I found when we got there that every tourist in Hampi had the same idea.
Replenished with a hearty breakfast, I wandered off with my Nikon in search of the boat to take me to the south bank. It is said that winter is the best time to visit Hampi – the air is cool, the light is fair and the sunsets are mesmerising. But I was a little worried. The sun was too strong and the light too stark for this time of the year. I knew I wasn’t going to get any keepers until evening, so I decided to spend the day wandering through the temples and along the river and scout the best location for the sunset.
While I knew about the history of this ancient town, the temples and monuments, the river and coracles, the rocks and rice paddies, and the photographic opportunities they provided, I didn’t really know much about the flavour of the place.
The boat took me across the Tungabhadra and dropped me off at the foot of the gigantic Virupaksha temple, and this is where my Hampi experience started. Tour guides and auto-rickshaw drivers offered their services every few minutes. Langurs and macaques came by to see whether I had any food for them, quickly lost interest in me when they realised I didn’t, and returned to their precarious perches up the temple walls. Pushcart vendors offered me everything from pineapples to watermelons to sunglasses to hats to soft drinks and tender coconut water. Stray dogs came over to greet me with their tails wagging. And the temple bells kept ringing.
I explored the courtyard of the Virupaksha temple for a while but didn’t go into the inner sanctum. Being a Saturday, it was too crowded. I did, however, find some locations that I thought might prove to be more photogenic in better light, particularly around the pushkarini or temple tank. I walked up to Hemakuta, and amongst the numerous scattered temples and ruins I found a spot or two from where I could shoot the sunset later in the day. I made a mental note to myself and moved on.
The sun was high in the sky by now and it was getting rather hot, so I sought refuge among the cool stone pillars of the Sri Krishna temple located on the other side of Hemakuta hill from the Virupaksha temple. I saw three young pairs of eyes scrutinizing me intently as I walked around taking some pictures. It reminded me of a passage I had once read when I was a child, and it came back to me all these years later. The grandmother of a very dear friend (indeed, she considered me her own grandson) once showed me an old, fraying notebook in which she, as a child, had asked the great poet, polymath and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, to pen a few words. This is what he wrote: “The children ran out of the darkening gloom of the temple. God forgot about the pujari and followed them.” And as I watched those three children looking at me, with their bright eyes and carefree and inquisitive expressions, the darkness of the temple’s inner sanctum behind them, I understood what those words meant.
Leaving the Krishna temple, I wandered off in search of the underground Shiva temple and the Royal Enclosure. A helpful security guard told me it would be too far to walk in the heat of the day, so I took a local KSRTC bus towards Kamalapur. I could tell that the invading Bahmanis had left an imprint on this part of the ancient capital to a greater extent than they had at the temples further to the north (I hadn’t hired a guide; he would have been able to tell me much more). The Queen’s Bath and the public bath were both dry. I was told that the public bath, built like a traditional step-well, does partially fill during the monsoon, but it was as dry as a bone when I went there. Still, it was an amazing experience, to see the beautiful geometric architecture of the time, the huge stone blocks from which the structures were built, the way the streets and markets were laid out. I took the bus back to Hampi Bazar to grab a quick lunch and to explore the area further. I went east, along the river, towards the Varaha and Vittala temples, stopping along the way at the water’s edge to see the coracles as they ferried tourists to see the temples further downriver. The Vittala temple with its famed stone chariot in the forecourt was magnificent. If only the light were gentler.
As the sun kept dipping further towards the western horizon, I decided to walk back towards Hemakuta for the sunset. I was told the sunsets in Hampi are magical. And even though the sky didn’t quite have the drama I had hoped for, I was not disappointed.
As the light faded, I started working my way back to the riverbank where I had alighted in the morning when something caught my eye. Two girls in a little shrine were performing a puja by the light of the prayer lamps they had lit. The blue hour had set in, and the warm glow inside the shrine contrasted beautifully with the cool, fading light and the nip in the January air outside. A little initial hesitation about my intrusion on this beautiful and intimate setting was overcome by my desire to capture it, and this stolen moment is one of my favourite photographs from my trip.
When I reached the dock, I was told that the last boat to the other side had departed over an hour ago. So, for a fee that was almost 10 times the price of the boat ticket, I experienced a heretofore unanticipated ride in a whirling, spinning reed basket across the darkening river, the first coracle ride of my life. Exhausted but exhilarated, I headed back to the hotel for a cold shower, went in search of something to eat, and decided to retire early to catch the sunrise the following morning.
Sunrise was at the Anjaneya Temple atop Anjanadri Hill. Legend has it that this is the birthplace of Hanuman. The ruins of the Vijayanagar empire have, scattered among them, several sites of religious and mythological significance, particularly from the Ramayana. In an earlier post, I had written about this link with the Ramayana of Lepakshi, another temple town from the Vijayanagar empire. The climb to the top of the hill was not too strenuous, about half an hour, but I huffed and puffed all the way up with my gear on my back. If I ever switch from Nikon to Fuji, this will be the reason why. The view was fantastic, with the Tungabhadra snaking through the folds between the boulder-strewn hills, and the silhouettes of the Virupaksha and Vittala temples visible on the far side.
But (and this is a very big and important but), while I could see and appreciate the beauty of this awe-inspiring place, I could also see a disturbing side. I had heard about the tourists, about the hippies who came but didn’t leave, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of this influx of people and the effect it had on the local culture until I had a chance to see it for myself. I had expected Hampi to be a quaint, old town, certainly with plenty of visitors, both Indian as well as from faraway places, but I was not prepared to find that Hampi had tried rather hard to transform itself for their benefit into a quirky state of hippieness, decadence and a peculiar definition of cool that I found a little unpalatable. It was as if the entire town had decided to become a little island unto itself, trapped in a weird place that identified more with the Woodstock, Monterey and Haight-Ashbury of the 60s and 70s (I ate at a restaurant that had a Scotsman playing the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ on his sitar, to the beat of djembe drums, while a tattooed fire-twirler with his staff did his thing), trying hard to recapitulate the Summer of Love and counterculture of the time.
Near the walls of the Virupaksha temple earlier in the day, I was approached by a man, all beads and braids and loose-fitting, block-printed cotton garb. Would you like some home-grown weed, he asked me. Some Mysore Mango? Highest quality. Since you’re a friend, you can have it for a bargain. 4000 rupees for 20 grams. Thanks, I said. Maybe your stuff grows on trees, but my money certainly doesn’t. And that night I couldn’t sleep because my Israeli neighbours in the room next door were having a raucous party, the singing, strumming and drumming, no doubt fuelled by copious quantities of weed and drink, continuing until 4 in the morning.
I found it hard to separate the contradiction of the two Hampis with my camera. I came for the history, the monuments and the natural beauty of the place, but everywhere I looked, I found the kitschy and clichéd clashing with the traditional and historic. Hampi had metamorphosed to provide the visitor with an experience that he probably wanted, but which, in many ways, was out of sync with what he should really have got. This, in my opinion, is the difference between a traveler and a tourist. A traveler immerses himself into the place, its beauty and its culture; a tourist stands out. A traveler leaves the place as he found it – unchanged, and with its identity intact. A tourist builds his own little alien bubble and changes everything around him to cater to that bubble. It’s one thing to welcome visitors and make them comfortable. It’s another thing entirely to change to the point where something can no longer be recognised as the place it’s supposed to be. I’m just glad that the Archaeological Survey of India has at least imposed restrictions within the temples and historic monuments that will hopefully preserve their sanctity and character.
I came for the history, the monuments and the natural beauty of the place, but everywhere I looked, I found the kitschy and clichéd clashing with the traditional and historic.
We need to understand where we came from to understand who are today. Hampi is relevant. It is a part of our history, heritage and culture, and it is our duty to respect and preserve it. I don’t understand the need to take something this beautiful and corrupt it beyond recognition. Why is it that we try to rewire our identity to appeal increasingly to something alien? Will Hampi not endure without tattoo parlours or djembe jam sessions? Does one really have to visit bars and cafes with names like The Old Chillout, The Laughing Buddha, or The Funky Monkey to get a decent meal or a cup of coffee? And does the definition of ‘cool’ mean that you can wander down the street smoking a joint while the local policeman casts an indulgent glance in your direction and chooses to ignore what you’re doing? Will Hampi not still be beautiful without all of this superficiality and coolness?
Will I make another trip to Hampi? Yes. But for the pictures, not the flavour. Don’t worry, be Hampi? I’m not so sure.