November 30, 2004

And on this pedestal these words remained:

Hampi, Karnataka

Hampi, despite its unprepossessing name, is like another world. Its old name - "Kishkinda", a city out of legend from the Ramayana - would be more appropriate. The landscape here is unearthly, dominated by vast jumbled ridges of colossal boulders, balancing and leaning on one another in seemingly unnatural ways, somehow looking crystalline and water-warped at the same time. Roads and villages are built in the shadow of these boulders, like handfuls of fifty-foot-high pebbles dropped by the gods, and it's hard to shake the notion that this place was meant for creatures of far greater scale than us. (It reminds me a lot of Matopos in Zimbabwe, for those of you who have been there, though leafier and a little less stark.)

And then there are the ruins. The bones of the once-mighty Vijayanagar kingdom are visible all around the fields and valleys here, and doubtless hidden beneath as well. Hampi itself is built around an ancient temple to Vishnu dominated by a hundred-foot-high ziggurat carved with figurines and birds and filigree, some of its features worn away by the centuries but still enormously imposing. Other ruins are everywhere: temples carved with figurines of Hanuman and Ganesh and Nigiri and Durga and nagas; elephant stables; sets of kilometre-long pillared colonnades; the crumbling remains of a massive stone bridge that once spanned the palm-tree-lined river. The crude modern(ish) buildings, roads, fields and banana plantations look wildly out of place. This land clearly belongs to history.

Not that it's been overrun. Hampi has a population of maybe five hundred people, twice that if you include Hindu pilgrims and Western backpackers (mainstream tourism hasn't discovered it yet); Karamapular, four klicks to the north, is only a little larger; and between them, and to the east, where most of the Vijayanagar ruins lie, there's nothing but the river, a few modern temples, and the odd plantation. The whole area has a deserted, postapocalyptic - or maybe "first colony on a new planet" would be more accurate - feel.

The river is wide, fast, and very pretty, especially at sunset. Both the centuries-old stone bridge, and an incomplete decades-old concrete one five klicks downstream, fail to cross it. Instead, coracles, basically shallow ten-foot-diameter inverted-dome baskets, covered with plastic and lined with some kind of baked mud, ferry passengers, motorcycles, and goats from one side to the other. Beneath Hampi's Vishnu temple, ghats (steps) worthy of Varanasi descend to the river. They are almost deserted.

On the highest ridge, just north of the river, a temple to Hanuman has been built. The whitewashed stairs that lead up to it are steep and hard in the midday sun, but the views are spectacular. Somebody forgot to tell the monkeys about the temple built to their god; there are a few, but far more cluster around the Shiva temple across the river. A few entrepeneurs near the temple sell cool-drinks and fresh coconuts. Hampi does well with pilgrims and tourism, but the villages north of the river are as poor as any I've seen in India, concrete pillboxes with corrugated-aluminum awnings for the rich, thatched huts for the poor, and the women dress not in the vivid colourful saris or, um, the other Indian woman's outfit (pyjama pants, long blouse, shawl) you see nearly everywhere else, but in simple, ragged clothes in which they work the fields. They were threshing grain today, a busy communal task. It looked fun, at first, and then like a whole lot of hard work.

Sadhus, holy men, in saffron robes with painted ash-smeared faces, chant namaste at you as they pass; unlike almost everyone else in India, he said cynically, they don't want money from you. White floral and crystalline patterns are drawn in chalk on the pavement in front of most households every morning. Wandering through the thorny-grassed fields (OK, fine, getting completely lost in an attempt to find a short cut between roads), it's easy to find rocks with straight edges and regular carved patterns jutting from the ground, as-yet-unearthed relics of Vijayanagar.

All in all, an exceedingly cool place. I've met several people who came for a couple of days and stayed for a couple of weeks. (Mind you, one reason is that one can plausibly live on US$5/day here, and comfortably on $10. When your travels are limited by money rather than time, that means a lot.) Me, I've got a ticket for the night bus to Bangalore, but I'm very glad of my last-second whim decision to come here.


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