I have hopped on a bus, been crushed by fellow passengers in a Tempo, clambered over rocks and slipped down boulders to finally lurch my way onto a boat. Just to get to Hampi. The bus set us down at dawn in Hospet, the city built by the mighty Krishnadeva Raya, `between 1509 and 1520 in honour of Nagala Devi, a courtesan whom he had known in the days of his youth, and whom he married after he became king’ * and now, the morning sun gently warms the silver waters of the Tungabhadra as well as my heart when I realise that I do not know any man except this one who returned to the love of his youth, (a courtesan no less), married her and built a city for her thereafter.
But the evidence of morning doings all along the river bank quickly puts an end to this romantic reverie. It is incredible that this sacred domain of the Goddess Pampa and her consort Pampapati ( Virupaksha) is revered and defiled simultaneously by her people. It is the same at most sacred sites across India where cleanliness evidently does not ascribe to Godliness.
The boat bumps to a halt about ten feet from the bank and the boatsman does a little nod in the direction of the river. They have a deal between them. One takes you across. Another brings you back. The other journey goes empty. So much for environmental conservation. “Walk” he says, so we fall into the river disbelievingly and wade, shoes in hand through the shallow water, mud squelching through our toes. Foreign tourists with bewildered expressions follow suit. We squelch up the hill towards the pretty Shanti Guest House. It offers a spectacular view of paddy fields and coconut trees that blur into granite boulders on the horizon near the old town of Senagumdym*, modern day Anegundi.
Hampi Island is on the non-vegetarian side of the river. If you choose to stay here, then wading through the river is mandatory. In return, you also get to smile at global citizens who cycle past you perspiring heavily, faces lobster red with the effort. You get to brush up on your Hebrew thanks to all the signboards along the way, walk into a Chabad house or speak Italian with the locals. You can passively smoke other people’s joints, listen to Goa trance and experiment with an Israeli breakfast. On the other, ` spiritual’ side of the river, you get to eat vegetarian Arabian Thali’s, drink a Virgin Marry, get a `Menucore’ done on your hands and wander amongst impressive Dravidian columns, fierce horse Yali’s, and what remains of one of the most beautiful cities in ancient India.
But when Paes and Nuniz, those intrepid Portuguese travellers arrived in Hampi, they found `broad and beautiful streets, full of rows of fine houses…all sorts of rubies and diamonds, and emeralds, and seed pearls, and cloths and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy “.* They also found gardens with limes, oranges and grapes, areca palms, jack fruit, mangoes, markets filled with poultry, livestock, grains, horse fairs and a river brimming with fish.
The palaces had riches beyond compare and ” all the services of this house, with the things which they make use of, is of silver and gold…’-Nuniz. They too, make mention of Nagalapur, or modern day Hospet- “another city called `Ardegama” which is the name of the principal wife of this king, and it is new and he built it for love of her“- Paes. I look for references to the mysterious Niccolo Dei Conti, a Renaissance traveller who also visited here, but come up with almost nothing.
The region was ruled by several dynasties successively -the early Western Chalukyas, the later Chalukyas, the Hoysalas and the Kampili chiefs. The story of the sons of Sangama, Hakka and Bukka, both treasury officers of Kampili who established the independant kingdom of Vijayanagara is well known. However, it is Krishnadeva Raya and his half brother, Achuta Raya that the world remembers best.
In 1565, when Rama Raya was defeated in the battle of Talikota, the city retreated quietly into the shadows and lived out its remaining days watching the striding horse hooves of the Sultans of Bijapur and Golconda, the Delhi Sultanate, the Marathas and later Haider Ali and Tipu gallop by. When Kempegowda founded his settlement ( later called Bangalore ) in 1537, he was a `Palegar’, a feudatory of the mighty Vijaynagar empire. I am suddenly struck by the thought that Bangalore’s lineage just might begin here. Glimpses of the Vijayanagara style are still visible in many temples of this period in and around Bangalore.
Today, the bazaars are silent and the streets of this ancient city are lined with stalls selling mirror work, leather bags and silver jewellery. You can hire a bike and power your way up and down the hills, or get a guide to whisk you rapidly from myth to monument all day long till you are saturated with stories of ancient Kishkinda ( Bali’s mythical kingdom of the Vanaras ) as Hampi is also known, get high on a potent mix of Shaivite-Vaishnavite iconography, and immerse yourself in architecture and stylised aesthetics – sensual Dwarapalikas, fierce Kirtimukhas, graceful mantapas, the massive living Virupaksha Temple near the river, the Hazara Ramaswamy Temple, the Krishna Temple on top of the hill, the massive Elephant stables, the fierce monolithic Narasimha, the Sasivekalu ( mustard seed ) Ganesha and the Kadalekalu ( gram ) Ganesha, the Royal Mint, the feminine Lotus Mahal with its delicate Islamic arches … I can go on.
There is so much to see, but our spirits are dehydrating rapidly in the heat despite drinking numerous lemon-soda’s and depleting the region’s entire stock of coconuts and bottled water. We head back to Shanthi GH and stop by the rocks at the riverside to settle into niches from where we lie staring at the grey sky in quiet contemplation till the sun sets slowly. Nobody speaks. The place is perfect for quiet conversations with oneself.
The sun is high next morning when we set out for the beautiful Vittala Temple. It shines down on the Stone Chariot, a shrine dedicated to Garuda, Vishnu’s winged mount. I have seen it on every post card sent to me from Hampi. But in the flesh, so to speak, it is magnificent. Although associated with Krishna, an ASI document tells me that Vittala was worshipped as a folk God for healthy cattle in pre-Vijayanagara times.
A simpering couple try knocking on the famous pillars in the intricately carved mahamantapa, till a guard scowls at them.The pillars have been seriously damaged over the years thanks to insistent visitors striking them with stones and sticks to make them sing. The couple wait for the guard to leave and then whack the pillars with an umbrella. Only man will try to make performing monkeys out of everything.
The walk back to town takes us through the Achyuta Raya Temple ( with magical light that streams in from cut outs in the ceiling and transforms into glowing crystal balls in your hand ) and the Suley Bazaar, where ladies of ill repute once traded their wares. A climb to the top of nearby Matanga Hill reveals Vijayanagara’s beautiful bone structure, swathed in veils of coconut tree green, paddy green, banana green, leaf green.
I try to imagine the bazaar as it once was- flashing silk, laughter and coy smiles, the fragrance of flowers, the tinkle of anklets and inviting eyes lining this walkway, while elsewhere in the other bazaars, spices scented the air and gems flashed as traders from far and wide came to negotiate in this land that was protected by the mighty Tungabhadra.
But right now, I pass semi-naked, ash smeared sadhus sitting motionless in the dark, rock cut passages along the river while a lone coracle waits to ferry passengers across the Tungabhadra who uncoils sinuously and slithers away behind a long, low hillock. Wild horses blow grass out of their noses under the trees and Hampi’s slow rhythms lull me into another world where I can almost hear the bustle of an ancient marketplace, the tapping of the unknown sculptor’s chisel, the royal summons to Krishnadeva Raya’s court and the battles fought for Vijayanagara.
” The government has forgotten Hampi ” says our guide Chandrashekhar, sadly. His home is in the Main Hampi Bazaar which now resembles a defaced Shoorpanakha ever since its overnight demolition, while ancient monuments are collapsing due to the illegal quarrying and rampant blasting near by. I feel strangely protective. In just two days, Hampi seems to have gotten under my skin.
It is a place for lotus eating. Where history allows you to freely inhale its intoxicating vapours. Where restaurants have mattresses on the floor to lie on, not stiff chairs. It’s where the world stops long enough for you to drink a long forgotten bottle of Gold Spot. It’s where the heavenly Mango Tree restaurant offers you divine meals and Prince lets you loll around like a God till the meal arrives. It’s where you can watch clouds roll by for hours. There is no need to rush anywhere or do anything. Ever. It’s where you come closest to your thoughts and the essence of your being. Such connections are possible only when you have the ability to stay…still.
* The Vijayanagara Empire, Chronicles of Paes and Nuniz ( one of my favourite books )
* Hampi Ruins, AH Longhurst