For Will, had you not mentioned Hampi to us we might not have gone there. If we had not gone there, we would have missed out on one of the most amazing places we visited in India. We hope you’re enjoying life in the Peoples Republic of Lewes and look forward to sharing India stories with you when we return.
Despite our apprehension, we now faced a 14-hour coach trip into the unknown. The only solace we had was that the coach was apparently a Volvo and not one of the enthusiatically dilapidated Tata monsters that criss-cross India’s highways and byways at alarming speed. All we really knew about Hampi was that Will & Gav from home and everyone we had met in India had enjoyed it. As it turned out, we were also about to enjoy it a whole lot. Here’s why…
Week 6 – 3rd to the 9th of November
In spite of the impending joy, the week begun with a hangover that neither of us can excuse nor wish to describe in great detail. Suffice to say it was not the condition in which you want to pack, run errands and then spend all day in blistering heat with nowhere to go, whilst waiting to get on a bus for 14 hours. Much to our discredit, this is the situation we had got ourselves into!
So having packed, replaced my sunglasses (for a second time, due to my ineptitude), had an argument with a shopkeeper who had sold Catherine some dodgy sandals and, worst of all, handed back the Royal Enfield (weepily). We slumped into some chairs at Cozy Nook and awaited our fate. The only break in the pain was provided when I went for a final Kayak out beyond Monkey Island. This gave some momentary rest-bite involving another fantastic dolphin watching experience about 2km from the shore.
Once back on dry land the time came to get a taxi to Chaudi, the nearby town, and sit with 15 or so other backpackers whilst we waited nearly 2 hours for the bus to arrive.
Once finally onboard, the sleeper coach turned out to be made up of 20 or so two-tier double bunk beds. Each double bunk had about 40cm of vertical space, was about 5ft long and, as for the coach, a Volvo it was not!
Few words were said as we squeezed ourselves and our bag of valuables into the tiny space. However, much to our delight, the 12 hours spent gently roasting our way through an industrial hangover had the effect of knocking us out cold. The next thing either of us knew, a bleary eyed conductor was shouting Hampi-Hampi at the occupants of the bunks at the top of his voice. I can’t tell you how happy Catherine and I were that we had slept through the whole thing!
And so it was that at 6am on Wednesday morning we rolled into Hampi Bazaar. We had been warned in advance that the bus station at the Bazaar was likely to be a difficult experience and so it proved, although only for a couple of minutes. Hampi only exists to serve pilgrims or tourists and, wherever this is the case, you can be sure of a scrum of touts and hawkers when you first arrive.
As we would learn over the coming days, government clearances meant that there was even more urgency to snag a tourist. To be clear, very few of these guys are out to rip you off (although there are 2 distinct prices, one for Indians and one for foreigners), but taking a tourist around the site for a couple of days is worth a lot to them in this very poor area and this creates a desperation amongst the touts that leads to some intense interactions.
Each part of India seems to have developed its own methodology on the part of the touts/rickshaw drivers and, in this case, the modus operandi was to wave a sitemap at you wildly. Should you touch or take the sitemap then that tout had dibs on you. So intense was the scrum that we couldn’t actually get of the bus. After 20 seconds or so I actually had to tell the heaving throng to…err…’back the **** up and let us off the bus’.
Fortunately for us we had booked ahead at Rocky’s, one of the most widely known and well-reviewed guesthouses in Hampi and he had sorted out a rickshaw to pick us up. This is how we met Raj, proprietor of the rickshaw named Prajwal. The best and most loved rickshaw in Hampi (tel: +91 94494 20985 – He made me promise!!) In this instance our luck was in and Raj was a lovely guy who we would see on-and-off over the next few days.
Rocky himself was a charming and gracious host who couldn’t have been more helpful. His family guesthouse was one of the larger establishments in Hampi but that still only accounted to about 6 rooms. While we were waiting for ours to be vacated we went for a walk to get a feel for the place.
Firstly we strolled down to the Tungabhadra River and watched as locals and pilgrims washed, swam and prepared themselves for the various religious rituals to follow. Catherine stayed to watch Lakshmi, the resident elephant of the main Virupaksha temple have her daily wash (which happens every day at around 8am, somewhat reluctantly on the part of Lakshmi, according to Catherine!), whilst I went for a look around the town.
Technically, Hampi proper only occupies the south side of the river, which can be crossed by small boat ferries from 7am to 5.30pm. To call it a town today is a bit of a stretch, although it used to be quite a bit bigger. Essentially it comprises 5 or 6 streets running north-south across a main east-west road. The Bazaar (what’s left of it) occupies the wide avenue leading up to the Virupaksha temple to the south of the town. The entire habitation can be walked around in about 10 minutes and feels more like Rajasthan than many of the other towns in Karnataka, Goa or Kerala. Various temple complexes and ruins of the ancient city of Vijayanagara, one of the greatest cities of Indian antiquity, occupy a site of approximately 15km around this modern settlement.
Being a holy town, alcohol is strictly a no-no (unless you ask nicely, in which case a teapot of beer will be served into a china mug!), however, Bhang is widely used by everyone from Sadhu holy men to backpackers. Bhang Lassi (often described as ‘Special Lassi’) was on the menu in many of the restaurants and the always visible police seemed completely disinterested in its ingestion. All this led to a calm, tranquil and very laid-back atmosphere where the entire town was up by five thirty and asleep by 10pm. It has to be said that taking alcohol out of the equation seemed to make everyone more relaxed.
There were also many little idiosyncrasies that added to the unique atmosphere of modern Hampi. These ranged from the beautiful chalk patterns (Rangoli) that were drawn on the road outside each dwelling on a daily basis, to the seemingly endless hospitality afforded to the holiest pilgrims. Even on this first walk I saw free food and drink being offered in order to support them in their endeavors.
Having got our bearings, we met back at Rocky’s and settled into our room. Once again £18 got us a nice, clean and spacious room. What’s more, Catherine correctly judged that Rocky’s was a formidable force if you needed help making travel arrangements. She decided, therefore, that now was the time to book our flights from Kerala to Sri Lanka. In stark contrast to our previous experiences of booking planes or trains, this was achieved, with no commission, in less than 5 minutes. Rocky was our new hero!
Having decided that we would explore the north side of the river the following day, we took Raj up on his offer to take us to a couple of the main sites of Vijayanagara, namely the Royal Centre and the Vitthala Temple Complex. The ride out was hilarious as Raj proudly showed off Prajwal, his beloved tuk-tuk. Once he had cranked up the sound system, which would have made any respectable boy-racer very proud, he went to great lengths to demonstrate that he had the only rickshaw in India in which every single button, switch, or instrument binnacle worked perfectly. He also explained that it certainly did not leave the factory in as good condition!
A further benefit of going with Raj was that he seemed to be top-dog amongst the local tuk-tuk and guide fraternity and therefore, with a quick word on arrival we were largely left alone by the usual mob of guides and handicraft sellers. This meant that we were able to actually chat to a lovely young lad with quite severe cerebral palsy who was selling really good quality books at £5 a time. Having established that he was not under the employ of a salubrious gang-master (it has to be said that Indian society seems far more accepting and supportive of disabilities than we had anticipated) we bought the best book he had and entered the Royal Centre.
Inside the impressive stone block walls, the main intact buildings were the Watchtower, Lotus Mahal (which was designed to incorporate natural air-conditioning) and the highly evocative Elephant Stables and Gallery. In addition, many other buildings and temples adorn the site in various states of ruin. Wondering through the various enclosures you could only marvel at the architecture and artistry of its creators, whilst imagining the incredulity of the Victorian surveyors who documented the crumbling and overgrown structures. The book we bought contained many photographs of the site from this period and they really added to the experience.
Following a couple of hours at the Royal Centre we headed north east to the Vitthala Temple Complex. The road approaching the complex was lined with the remains of a long vanished Bazaar and an ornate water tank, typical of those found at all the major complexes in the area. The temple itself is most famous for the solid stone chariot structure in the main courtyard (chariots are a feature of Vijayanagara, with a giant, incredibly ornate wooden chariot facing the main Virupaksha temple) and the pillars of the Mandapa that, due to being carved from solid granite, emit musical tones when tapped.
We had a little bit of fun here at the expense of a rather moody and rude lady who, we found out, was supposed to stop tourists from entering the Mandapa whilst it is undergoing renovation. Not being aware of this, Catherine walked up the staircase and tapped one of the pillars, which emitted a lovely tone, not dissimilar to a tubular bell. At this point the woman, who had been steadfastly ignoring her duties whilst nattering on her mobile phone, went somewhat ballistic in a wholly unnecessary way. In order to gain our revenge we then spent the next 20 minutes or so popping our heads up at various points around the Mandapa, obeying the newly discovered rules, but with enough affected naughtiness to ensure the mean woman chased us around the building with heightened irritation. Its great to act like 15 year-olds from time to time!
After Vitthala, Raj dropped us back at Rocky’s (the whole trip of approximately 30km cost £3) and we chilled out before checking out a couple of the recommended restaurants in the area. The ‘Chill Out’ was a nice rooftop place with good food run by a pleasant family. Whilst playing a game of cards, Catherine was unaware that the young waiter was hovering behind her and telling me what cards she had! On discovering the ruse, she got her own back by insisting I showed him my excellent rendition of the ‘make your thumb come off’ visual illusion, usually reserve for 5-year olds. As we had hoped, he could not figure out how it was done and his frustration was further enhanced when his much younger sister was able to figure it out immediately. Sworn to secrecy, the young girl revelled in her brother’s frustration and the family derived much laughter from the incident!
Following the Chill out we went to Ravi’s Rose Roof Top. This was more of a backpacker hangout, overseen by the youthful and charming Ravi. He was one of a group of 20-something guys that ran various cafés in the area and we spent a bit of time with him over the next couple of days. The conversations we had were really enlightening, as he explained more about the culture, attitude and challenges faced by the local population who, through no fault of their own, just happened to have been born in a tourist hotspot. He also introduced us to Hampi’s 2 favorite phrases:
Shanti, Shanti (peace, whatever, it is what it is, etc.)
Dont’ worry, chicken curry! (hopefully self explanatory)
These were also somewhat laboriously added to by cries of ‘Lubbly Jubbly!’ by anyone who found out you were British.
Ravi and his father also prided themselves on being the purveyors of the finest bhang lassi in Hampi (as clearly noted on the menu), however, we abstained on this occasion, due to the fact that we had decided to climb Anjayaneya Hill the following morning, and walked home through a deserted Hampi, at 9pm! In accordance with our plan we were up bright and early for the first river crossing at 7am. The reason for our climbing Anjayaneya Hill was to explore the other factor in Hampi’s popularity, namely that the Tungabhadra River valley is the setting for chunks of the great Hindu epic, The Ramayana.
Whilst it would take a lifetime to get to grips with Hindu mythology, we were able to ascertain the following:
In the Ramayana (Rama’s Story), Prince Rama arrives in Kishkinda in search of his wife Sita, who has been abducted by the demonic Ravana. Here Rama meets Hanuman, leader of a tribe of monkeys. In exchange for helping Hanuman’s master Sugreeva depose his brother Vali and retake his rightful throne, Hanuman helps to find Sita, who has been taken by Ravana to the Island of Lanka. Amidst all of this, Hanuman is made a god and is therefore an important deity for Hindus.
Anjayaneya Hill is said to be the birthplace of Hanuman and so, every day, many Hindus and tourists climb the hill in pilgrimage. Given the colossal heat of the day, we were advised to do this as early as possible.
Having crossed the river, we hired a scooter from the first person we met and headed out past the various hippy resorts (beer is openly available on the north side of the river, alongside the more herbal intoxicants of Hampi) and up to the hill. On this side of the river the breathtaking scenery of giant stacked boulders towering above lush green paddy fields is even more marked, and it was a fabulous ride. When I noted that it looked like ancient Rome had been draped on the landscape of Arizona, Catherine improved this description by substituting Arizona with the Flinstones. We should write guide books!
Arriving at the foot of the hill we realised that we were the first ones there and so had a gloriously peaceful, if somewhat exhausting ascent up the hill. Forty-five minutes later we reached the peak and spent an hour catching our breath whilst staring, open-mouthed, at the breathtaking view. To top it off, the resident monks were performing their daily rituals and chants, lending the scene a spiritual air that was fantastic, even for two confirmed atheists.
On the way back down the hill we met various other climbers, most memorably a lovely surgeon, who made us feel incredibly welcome on behalf of the entire sub-continent! Once down we made our way back to one of the resorts we had seen for some breakfast and tea. There we met Raju, a friend of Ravi’s, who was helping to establish the café and hostel with his friend, the son of the land owner and a rock-climbing instructor.
These two were a funny pair; just a little too stoned to actually complete the essential functions of running a hostel/restaurant. We found this out as their landlord tore them both off a strip for not having hired a chef. He made the valid point that they might make some money if they could actually feed the 10 or so customers who had mistakenly thought that presence of a menu meant that they could actually order food.
Raju himself was spared the worst of the landlords ire and, whilst chatting to him, we learnt more about the government clearances we had heard about. Raju was typical of several people we had met in and around Hampi. Bright, articulate and very funny, he was also very poor and illiterate. He talked of his desire to travel but, when we asked why he had not done so, he explained that he has no documentation. Without a birth certificate, or any other proof of identity he simply couldn’t get a passport. Add the fact that he could not read or write and you could see that he was essentially stuck in Hampi, although there are worse places to be trapped.
In addition to his personal circumstances he told us that, when he was growing up (only a decade or so earlier), Hampi had been 70% bigger in terms of buildings. The bazaar had been a thriving hub and the locals had built guesthouses on the land that they had occupied for generations. Who could blame them? The demand was there and this was a very poor area.
Then, around five years ago, the Karnataka government had decided that development in and around Hampi had got out of hand and they basically sent in the bulldozers. Anyone who could not prove that they owned their plot had their buildings and livelihoods destroyed. As most people were in the same non-documented position as Raju and his family, they lost everything. Most were now driving rickshaws or peddling poor quality cannabis to young backpackers.
It is typical of our experience of India that, although this sounds sad, Raju and all the others like him that we met were bright and bubbly, with little resentment. One obvious consequence of their experience was the transient attitude they had to their lives. As Raju put it, ‘you set up a business as simply as possible, do what you can to earn a living, but never do too much to build for the long term as you never know when it will all end. When it does, you just start over’. I admired Raju and his inimitable spirit, he was a lovely bloke and it made me reflect on my own challenges when building Makemedia. If he could have this attitude to events beyond his control then perhaps I should try and be a little less stressed myself.
After paying up, which in most places means totting up the bill yourself as no one can read the menu or remember what you ate, we headed off in search of a lake that we had been told was worth a look. Along the way we had a great experience when we got caught in-between opposing herds of goats, sheep, cows and vehicles. As we wove our way through this throng, with the incredible landscape around us, the shepherds/esses and locals gave us broad smiles and waves and just for a second both Catherine and I were completely absorbed in the moment. We both nearly popped with happiness!
Once at the lake we realised that it was actually a man made reservoir of such enormous beauty that there just aren’t the words to describe it. Riding along the damn at about 4 ft below the water level, your eye was in line with the water itself, making it seem like the worlds largest infinity pool. As we wove our way around the lake we saw signs warning of crocodiles. We already knew that these were there purely to deter the cliff jumpers and that they did not exist. Another wonderfully pointless endeavor on the part of authorities who could not be arsed to enforce their will.
One particularly suitable rocky outcrop was topped by 30-50 locals and backpackers, who took it in turns to jump into the icy cool waters in various aerial formations. In addition various peddlers offered rides in traditional Coracle boats. These buoyant round baskets (much like that made and owned by our friend Dan Puplet) are hilariously difficult to paddle in a straight line but we got the distinct impression that no-one was interested in updating the technology.
Once we could take the heat no longer, we headed back towards the river and spent a couple of hours before the last boat back at the Laughing Buddha. This restaurant was a more organised but no more mainstream version of the typical Hampi resort, as usual it baulked at the idea of anything approaching a chair. Instead, each table was bordered by two bed sized mats and various pillows for you to lie down on and take in the magnificent view of the Virupaksha temple across the river.
Whilst here we witnessed the second coming of the girl who appears from nowhere holding a Bren Gun in the film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. A young backpacker; her highly patterned clothing and incredibly stoned demeanour led to her being completely camouflaged against the patterns of the mats that she lay on. She made Catherine jump with considerable shock when she suddenly got up, as we had been completely unaware of the other human being less than 1 meter away from us for over an hour!
The Buddha was also home to some fine examples of another stereotypical character found in abundance at Hampi. This incarnation of the young male backpacker is a particular favorite of Will’s. We had discussed it with him many times before we left. Essentially, the basic outline of the stereotype is as follows…
Simon is 18 and from Basingstoke. He went to India for a gap year and, after ingesting copious amounts of bhang, weed and spirituality he grew a large beard and/or dreads. He then changed his name to Om Shanti and realized that he had found his true self.
A lack of consent prevents me from posting any pictures, as we wouldn’t want to be mean to any individual. However, it’s safe to say we got some covert crackers!
Having caught the last crossing home we went out for dinner at Ravi’s and, having established beyond doubt its legality in the current context, decided to try India’s infamous Bhang Lassi. It’s fair to say that we were both quite nervous, fearing some nasty hallucinogenic experience and so we approached the adventure with caution. Having established safety words and emergency procedures we also convinced Ravi to stay with us in case of mental breakdown. Fortunately, we needn’t have worried. The effects were no more acute than several pints of beer but without the hangover. Instead we gradually became more and more shiny happy people! Giggles were plentiful and as we sat playing cards with Ravi, the time drifted effortlessly by.
To give you a sense of the new found enjoyment we had for even the most unlikely subjects; on our return to Rocky’s, Catherine decided to see if there was anything on the antique telly in our room (the first time we had turned on a television since we left England). Much to her surprise and delight she found that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was on in Hindi. Bright eyed and laughing heavily we sat through two episodes of this followed by Shawn the Sheep. Don’t ask us what the plots were, we have absolutely no idea!
The following day, feeling no worse for our lassi based adventures, we stayed south of the river and explored the rest of the main historic sights. We had a good look around the main temple complex and the rest of the Sacred Precinct. We also met back up with Lakshmi the elephant, who’s party piece was to give you blessing, having taken 100 rupees off you with her trunk and put it in the donations box. We then made our way down to the Krishna temple via 2 huge monolithic Ganesh statues that added to the list of highly impressive sights in Vijayanagara.
Having taken in all that we could we headed back to Rocky’s where we found our host, fast asleep, lying on the tiled floor blocking the entrance. Later in the afternoon we decided to eat at the guesthouse but, when Catherine went looking for someone to order from, she returned and stated: ‘Granddad (who doubled as the chef) is the only one here and he’s busy making his own lunch’’. It was about this point that I fell in love with Hampi and it’s completely bonkers inhabitants!
For our final day in this idyll, we had decided to go back to the north side of the river and cliff jump for ourselves, before heading back to Palolem that night on the return bus. Unfortunately, bad luck struck again as Catherine and I came down with a second stomach bug. Fortunately, as we left the guesthouse, we bumped into our friend Raj the rickshaw driver, who took one look at us and said ‘I’m taking you to the doctors’. This he duly did but despite this and more prescription drugs (doctors consultation and prescription cost = £1.30!) it was not enough to stop our descent into the arena of the unwell.
A shout out must go to Rocky here. Because we had checked out and he was fully booked, we once more found ourselves with nowhere to go. This is bad enough in Palolem on a hangover, let alone in Hampi with food poisoning. However, Rocky was straight on the phone and found us a quiet, air-conditioned room where we could sleep it off. Having rested for the whole day, we were well enough to get on the coach and the silver lining was that the stress of the day meant that once again we passed out for the whole journey. A vastly better coach for our return trip further aided rest.
We arrived back in Palolem and, whilst waiting for another 15 hour journey (by train this time) down to Cochin in Kerala, we booked a day room back at Tubki, our original hotel from a couple of weeks previously. Catherine rested up and took in a film marathon whilst I said ran some errands and picked up anything I thought might help from the pharmacy.
In a positive indictment of the Indian rail network, when we arrived at Canacona railway station (a couple of miles from Palolem), a train guard was waiting for us. Because we had booked in advance and were the only westerners embarking from his station that night he took the time to welcome us, help us with our bags, take us to the right point of the platform (the train is about a kilometer long) and even showed us some of the beautiful antique equipment that is used to ensure that no 2 trains can occupy a single line of track.
Having settled in our bunks on the train we both collapsed into a deep sleep and fortunately, when we rolled into Cochin the following day, the worst of the poisoning was behind us. The train journey itself was markedly more relaxed than the first night train we took to Jodhpur and, like that previous journey, we shared our compartment (8 bunks this time as we were in 3rd class AC) with some nice Keralans, who gave us some tips and advice on visiting their home state.
On arriving in Cochin we got our first Ambassador cab (the iconic Indian taxi, based on the awful but pretty Morris Oxford) through the modern city to the colonial area of Fort Cochin. Once settled in, we took a walk to the much photographed Chinese fishing nets that line the shore. Reflecting on a fabulous visit to Hampi that had ended so strangely 48 hours previously, we found a Syrian Christian Art Café called Kashi, that Catherine had researched a while back. The Café was straight out of brighton, complete with beachfront style sleepers infilled with just the right sized pebbles. Best of all they served Chicken and Bacon sandwiches (oh how weak I am) on homemade bread and legendary chocolate mud cake. A most comforting way to re-enter the land of the living…
Despite upping the word count, I could never really do justice to the enjoyment we got from visiting Hampi, but I hope you enjoyed the post regardless!
Robin and Catherine xx