It rained every evening that weekend, but never without warning. Brooding clouds, the sinister rumble, the wet wind: there were enough signs. In the monsoon, Hampi stretches itself, pleasurably cracking its tightly stacked boulders. As the barren landscape seems to expand visibly, time follows suit. Villagers walk slowly, their clothes whipped about by the capricious breeze. Details loom into view — the fluorescent green moss carpeting the rocks, goats grazing in the crevices, the curvy apsaras etched on temple pillars. I stare at the eroded granite hills, and they seem to moodily stare away.
At every chance, the ruins of the largest and most powerful kingdom in South India mutter that they are off tourism duty. And in wordless sync with their surroundings, the people of Hampi too turn away from the tourists in the monsoon, and tend to their paddy and corn fields. For five months a year, the old capital of the Vijayanagara empire is perfect for those who want to experience Hampi and not its tourism.
As the Hospet-bound train stops at Munirabad station, a few autorickshaw drivers saunter in. They register the non-locals carrying backpacks, but barely raise an eyebrow. No competitive rates offered, no elbows grabbed, no personal space intruded upon. Outside, Shakeel waits patiently with the autorickshaw we had reserved on the phone. He will take us to Anegundi, a neighbouring village that predates Hampi town by a century, and where a local artist has let out his traditional mud-and-stone house to us.
A rocky ride through nine villages and a 600-year-old dance arena later, Shakeel mutters his first word after the shy “good morning” he had offered forty-five minutes earlier. “Kishkinda,” he says, as he pulls into the cobbled street that leads to our stunning home for the long weekend.
Kishkinda was, to me, an amusement park in Coimbatore, an apartment builder in Bangalore and the studio set Ramanand Sagar designed to look like an overgrown botanical park in his TV series Ramayan. But the real story of Kishkinda is an amalgamation of mythology and history. Kishkinda is the historical site where two tribal brothers (depicted, unfortunately more famously, as apes in the Ramayana), Vali and Sugriva, warred for the throne. Rama and Hanuman intervened, helping Sugriva kill off Vali and, in return, they hired the former’s army to build a stone bridge across to Lanka.
Oddly enough, Anegundi village, in present-day Kishkinda, has had unbelievably bad luck with bridges. In all the time that people have lived here, there has never been a bridge across the wide Tungabhadra river which runs around Hampi like a ring. There are coracles, a diesel ferry and three alternate road routes to Hampi. But a bridge there is not. Exciting as the coracle rides across the rock-flanked river are, it is a curious tradition in contemporary times. Shakeel admits it would take ten instead of forty-five minutes to Hampi, were there a bridge. Also, tourists and villagers alike must hurry home before 6pm, when the last ferry leaves the riverbank.
As we hire a moped and set out of the guesthouse to explore the town, we begin the first of eight waits for the two-minute ferry. The small crowd is quiet, until someone asks why there is no bridge. It is a conversation that runs on loop for the next three days, like in a town with a ghost story, with all the thrill and frustration of an unsolved mystery.
Across the river, we hoist the moped out of the ferry and drive five minutes before we reach the pathway up to the Vitthala Temple complex. Since no vehicles are allowed after this point, the walk to the temple, with the broken gopura in the distance, is like a stroll into another time. The wind whistles through an enormous tank, dry as a bone and instantly mesmerising. Invisible stone quarry workers have hung their bright lunch baskets from its diving planks. Rows of short pillars with granite roofs provide the only shade in the area today. They were once shops in a Saturday market whose international traders — Chinese, Portuguese, Arab — have been depicted for posterity on the temple pillars.
Built in the fifteenth century largely by Krishnadeva Raya, the most successful Vijayanagara king and once a favourite character of the Kannada film industry, the Vitthala temple complex is known for its iconic stone chariot. Records say the heavy wheels could once move. Inside, the eagle-beaked Garuda stands on one knee, scowling. The chariot is surrounded by smaller, more dilapidated mandapas that the ASI has ‘conserved’ with ugly concrete pillars. At the centre, however, the large mahamandapa for concerts is restored with more care. A board sternly asks tourists not to tap on the ‘musical pillars’ and stone horns, said to be part of an elaborate and ancient acoustic system.
The first book on the history of Hampi, written by a British civil servant before independence, referred to the town as ‘A Forgotten Empire’. At that time, Hampi’s crumbling pagodas and sinking pillars were neither documented nor restored. And the aggressive seasons of North Karnataka — the knife-like wind, searing sun and hammering rain — were doing more damage than the invading Sultanate had. But ever since the historically accurate and legendary book was written, Hampi has never been forgotten.
If anything, the phrase now adorns travel books and posters and is offered like a phoenix tale. I even heard a tour guide say it with a dramatic sweep of his hand in the Krishna temple. This temple too was commissioned by Krishnadeva Raya, to celebrate the conquest of Utkala. The main gopura is heavily eroded, but the scenes of the war still stand out — helmeted soldiers, conquered subjects and neighing horses. In the hall before the sanctum, the pillars depict the Dashavatar, including a rare one of Kalki. Few guides or guidebooks mention this, but the fierce horse-faced demonic representation is downright frightening.
It is the size and location of its monuments that first impress people about Hampi, but it is through its details that this massacred capital city tells its story. Often, this story is lost in the noise of touts and buzz of tourists. Now, with no crowds to indicate popularity, the unpromising walk to Bhima’s Gateway ends up offering a stunning moment of discovery: the lone image of Bhima propped against a mammoth fort wall. It is a brilliant jolt to our tourism-weary cynicism. Similarly, when the complexes are empty, and only the wind echoes through the streets, the face of a monolithic Narasimha becomes less about the popping enraged eyes and more about the loving embrace of the only remaining arm of a goddess now missing from his lap.
The Lakshmi Narasimha is the biggest statue in Hampi, carved from a single stone. As tall as a two-storeyed house, the statue has been standing exposed to the elements for five hundred years after the Mughal invaders broke down the temple structure around it. Under the trippy afternoon sun, the seven heads of the snake hovering over the statue seem to almost flick their tongues threateningly. Nearby, a three-metre-high Shivalinga stands permanently in water. As if to fulfil its legacy — of being a poor woman’s shrine — an old woman has been assigned to float flowers in the bed of water every morning. The soft sunlight through the slatted roof seems to bring the linga alive. Or perhaps it is the old woman’s touch of devotion.
As it nears 6pm, we return to catch the ferry to Anegundi. As the ferry refuses to leave till it is overloaded with passengers, the bridge talk begins once more. It is now that I notice where the coracles have been laid to dry face down. On a broken concrete bridge! Seeing me inch towards it, Girisha, an Anegundi resident who is a security guard in the nearby Vitthala temple, tells me (and gradually the whole boat) the harrowing modern history of the missing bridge.
After an endless wait and a long battle with Unesco over the use of concrete and heavy machinery around endangered monuments, the government started to build a suspension bridge four years ago. In a month, however, one of the cables snapped, and the centre of the bridge caved in. Of 42 workers, eight died and Girisha was one of the 34 injured. Swimming too has been banned in the area since, for fear of metal rods underwater hurting someone. Its fears confirmed, Unesco refused further permission for a bridge. As the ferry starts to chug across the river, Girisha picks his side. “If that’s how badly they’re going to build a bridge, I’d rather not have one.”
I still wonder about a footbridge, at least for cyclists and pedestrians. At the guesthouse, the caretaker brings it up. He explains that they’re all used to the system-imposed 6pm curfew. “You see,” says Nagaraj, “Some say that the river does not want a bridge, that it has been swallowing any construction over it for centuries.”
In the empty plot next to the house, a tuition class is in progress, and girls loudly chant a Kannada poem about bees. As dusk falls, we realise our guesthouse is the only building with electricity. A five-year-old from the end of the street walks confidently to our foyer with his oversized school bag. He says hello to us, spells out his name in full (S-A-N-D-E-E-P! SANDEEP!) and, in the light of the bulb, proceeds to write the English alphabet in capitals and small letters, till his mother brings us dinner. He does this every evening we are there.
When the Kishkinda Trust began to conserve Anegundi, it did not focus only on its temples and tanks, but also on the culture, art and lifestyle of its residents. Some traditional houses, like the one we stayed in, were repaired in the style they were built. Even the most humble homes here have large courtyards, and some of these are open to visitors as cafés. A few crafts shops sell paper and cane products, and a tailor assures me she will convert beautiful Ilkal saris into bedsheets and tablecloths in 48 hours.
The next morning, after a tour to the stunning hills around Anegundi, we drive to Mango Tree, renowned as the only good restaurant in Hampi. Overlooking the Tungabhadra and shaded by a well-endowed mango tree, the restaurant lives up to its reputation. From there, Hampi Bazaar is only five minutes away. Here, harem pants, fake pashmina shawls and junk jewellery start crowding the horizon. This is clearly where the empire becomes business-savvy. The cost of coconut water, often my barometer of how touristy a place in South India is, has inflated 150 per cent in three kilometres. Here it costs twenty-five rupees.
As we walk into Hampi Bazaar, however, we are puzzled. The market is rubble. In what looks like the backpackers’ street, only two rundown guesthouses have their signs up. What happened to the buzz promised by the guidebooks and the pictures? What happened to the shops, hotels and vendors? As the only vendor selling fruit in a cart put it, “What market? Where market? All gone.”
Over the last two years, the local municipality, on orders from the ASI and Unesco, has been demolishing illegal construction around the monuments. The stone-and-pillar bazaar in front of the Virupaksha temple was over fourteen hundred years old, but as tourism in Hampi grew, retailers and vendors infused it with cement and brick. They built new floors, kitchens and permanent rooms. As the ancient structures began to sink, conservationists raised an alarm. Since then, even the most famous backpacker havens in Hampi, such as Shanti Guesthouse with its German bakery, have been bulldozed. The Virupaksha temple, the only ‘living’ temple complex in Hampi, now has a clear view of the monolithic Nandi on the other side of the bazaar street.
The Virupaksha is the principal temple of the Vijayanagara dynasties. Built in the seventh century, it is also the oldest. Its art is visibly free from the norms imposed by devotion and royal patronage; sculptures of elaborate orgies and gruesome wars line the gopuras above the praying public. Perhaps the only feature more popular than the erotica is the heavy-handed (or trunked) blessing from Lakshmi, the Virupaksha temple elephant. As a couple of British tourists are harangued to pay Lakshmi ten dollars instead of the one rupee everyone else is handing her, I get a glimpse of Hampi in peak season.
We return to Anegundi to find the house locked. As we wonder what to do, Sandeep runs towards us, beaming. “K for K-E-Y, KEY! K-E-Y, KEY!” he chants, and thrusts it in our hands. He has brought his bag too, and he sits down with it, happy in this routine with new friends. As he carves a G in his notebook, the women from neighbouring houses sit in a circle in the veranda, chatting softly, knitting baby caps. Beyond them, it rains softly. Every evening, the creations of Hampi’s gods, kings and governments still in my eyes, I come back to this scene. Under the only lit bulbs in the village, it is like finding the forgotten world.
By road: The popular bus stop for Hampi is Hospet (10km). KSRTC luxury, AC and non-AC buses leave daily at 8pm from Bengaluru (approx. Rs 300/9hrs; ksrtc.in). Private buses from Goa (Rs 500/6.5hrs) are less frequent. To drive to Hampi from Bengaluru (373km/7hr), take NH4 through Chitradurga, then NH169 for Hospet. By train: The perfectly timed Hampi Express leaves Bengaluru City station at 9pm every day, and reaches Hospet at 7am. From there, take an autorickshaw to Hampi for Rs 150.
There are heritage walkways along the Tungabhadra river, and from the Vitthala to the Virupaksha temples. But it can get very hot so cycling might be better. Hire them at Rs 100 a day from Hampi Bazaar or your hotel. Mopeds can also be had for Rs 300, plus petrol. Both can be taken on the boat across the river for an extra Rs 15. To get to Hampi from Virupapurgaddi and Anegundi villages, where most of the accommodation is, the ferry or coracle costs Rs 15 per head. Service is 6am to 6pm. If you prefer an autorickshaw, a day’s sightseeing hire costs Rs 500-700.
Where to stay
Most guidebooks still mention a gazillion places at Hampi Bazaar, but few remain after the demolition. Vicky’s (Rs 300; 08394-241694) has five rooms and an Internet café but smells damp in the monsoon. Gopi Guesthouse (Rs 400; 241695) has 15 rooms.
It’s better to stay at the picturesque villages nearby. They can be accessed by ferry and auto. The Kishkinda Trust (9482830688, thekishkindatrust.org) has three properties in Anegundi. Unesco House is good for backpackers (Rs 200) and has an open kitchen. Peshagar House is a traditional house (Rs 450) with meals made to order. Individual units are available at Uramma Cottages (Rs 2,000, inclusive of meals for two). All tariffs are for the off-season.
In Virupapurgaddi village, the popular Shanti Hotel (from Rs 150 rooms with shared bath; 08394-325352) overlooks paddy fields. Mowgli Guesthouse (from Rs 150; 9448217588) is a step better. Malligi in Hospet offers AC rooms, a pool and gym (Rs 3,000; 228101, malligihotels.com).