Mystical oasis of forgotten splendor
There are some places one put on the schedule during a long journey without knowing at all what to expect from them. One goes because of recommendations – or simply because everyone seems to go there. Hampi was one of those places and maybe the most stunning surprise we’ve had during our now more than 40 days in India.
Leaving Rajasthan with nearly a week delay due to traveler’s sickness and train booking issues, we decided that the eight days we had left for the whole Southern subcontinent was not enough to appreciate the so much gazed cultural and geographical differences between the North and South India. We cancelled our flight to Sri Lanka and were suddenly blessed with 15 days additional time to allocate to the states lying South of Goa.
We reached Hampi by dawn on a sleeper bus from Palolem – exclusively boarded by foreigners. If it wasn’t for bumpy roads full of holes and speed breakers, sleeper buses in India may not be the most safe, but certainly the most comfortable night travel option we’ve experienced in Asia so far, providing real double beds with mattresses in lockable compartments. Once one gets used to being permanently see-sawn while sleeping by the sometimes adventurous driving man-oeuvres, it is actually possible to have a quite good rest in them.
Thanks to our time of arrival we enjoyed the privileged of getting our first impression of the village and its surroundings in the most beautiful time of the day and it honestly blew us off our feet.
More than a proper town or village, Hampi is an agglomeration of guest houses, restaurants and other institutions serving tourist purposes, spotted around a river and uncountable ruins of temples and palaces, spread over an area covering several square kilometers. The character of the scene somehow resembles the Temples of Angkor area, although it is smaller, not as well maintained and if it is not for the main monuments, there is barely anyone visiting them. The landscape surrounding them – or rather merging with them – with its red rock mountains, interspersed by water currents, rice fields, banana plantations and palm trees, is however more spectacular and gives the whole place an unearthly mystique.
Still there is no bridge connecting the two sides of the village, so to get from one side to the other there is no option but taking a small, flat, stinky and always overcharged boat for 10 rupees the ticket.
The laid back pace of the village, the natural beauty of the environment and the positive ambiance among the people lingering – many of them for several weeks or months – makes Hampi a very easy, relaxing and inspiring place to be. Here we found one of the best guest houses on our whole trip: the Goan Corner, an agglomeration of cottages with hammocks in front of them, situated in the middle of rice fields bordered by huge rocks. The owner and boss of the place – a woman! – did an excellent job in turning it into a relaxed socializing hangout, with good service and excellent (!) food. Sitting down at one of the big tables on the terrace one automatically gets in touch with other travelers, gets into doing climbing or day trips to the surrounding attractions together or just see time passing by while having fruit juices and nice conversations.
One day we spent cycling around the ruins, which was a quite sudatory undertaking in the midday sun and driving through a hilly landscape on bikes that were far to low for our long legs. But a lot of cold water and bananas did a good job and so we hung on until finishing the tour of the most important ruins. The most memorable of if them was certainly the Elephant Stable, were back then the royal pachyderms of the maharajas were held, with their individual mahut’s residency next to it.
Another day we rented motorbikes together with some other travelers and spend the afternoon by a huge lake, which we were told is the water reserve of the region. The lake is situated in a spectacular scenery in the middle of steep rocky mountains. Arriving there huge letterings alert: “No swimming, crocodile inside!” But asking locals whether this was true they relied: “Bullshit, no one has ever spotted a crocodile here.” A rumor circulates that actually the lake crocodiles were invented to prevent drunk Indians from jumping into the water, was it seems that a considerable amount of deaths were caused each year by drowning when drinking. Anyhow, the alerts don’t seem to have much of an effect, as both foreigners and locals still jump into the refreshing waters, some even from the about five meter high rocks.
By the end of the day we climbed up 600 stairs to watch the sunrise from the monkey temple (another one!), supposedly the most beautiful view point over Hampi. And it was no exaggeration. The temple is situated on high and very steep rock hill, which overlooks the whole area of Hampi and its surroundings and so let us appreciate in a 360° view the mystical beauty of the landscape: rock mountains, interspersed with rivers, small white villages and temple ruins, surrounded by rice fields, banana plantations and palm trees. Probably one of the most impacting landscapes we’ve contemplated so far.
As the name suggests, the monkey temple is home to numerous monkey families, which seem to have a strict hierarchy among them when it comes to who is allowed to linger at which place. Watching the monkeys play, jump and fight against each other is quite diverting, as long as they don’t detect food or anything else their would like to have among your belongings. Then they quickly convert into deceitful and obstinate thiefs and one has to defend its possessions by all available means – body size, aggressive sounds or gestures, a stick or – as in my case, a towel.
If you are, despite all warnings of monkey bites, frivolous enough to share some of your food provisions with them, you will have the amazing experience that if you offer something to them with your hand, they are not going to grab it in a rush or snatch at it with their teeth. They are taking it slowly and carefully with their hand from your hand and then hold it there until eating it – surprisingly manlike.