In the land of the gods

We were in Goa for my birthday and I may write more about that later. Suffice to say, for now, that it was a perfectly lovely beach break and I had a great birthday. 🙂
We are going to be on the move soon though, and before I am distracted by our next stop, I want to write a bit about where we are now. After Goa, we’ve spent five days in the out-of-the-way town of Hampi and its surrounding landscape in the state of Karnataka.
My head is still swimming with all we saw; I feel like words can’t fully capture all the sights and impressions from the past days. I almost want to let the pictures speak for themselves, but looking over my numerous photos, none of them seem to do justice to the rich atmosphere of the town, temples and historical sights or the majesty of the landscape. I’ll try to do the best with what I have. 🙂
To give a bit of historical context (if my memory from our tour serves – please don’t quote me on any of this!), for over two centuries, Hampi was the center of one of the largest Hindu empires in the world. At its heyday in the 16th century, the capital was home to one of the most successful kings in India’s history, about half a million people and to numerous significant temples receiving pilgrims from commoners to royalty and from across the empire. Efforts were made to preserve the Hindu centers against Muslim raiders. While many of the buildings have survived in good shape, many of the key statues within the temples we visited had been destroyed or defaced by attackers. The area of and around
Hampi is also significant in Hindu mythology. There are so many gods with so many different incarnations and names – I hope I got everything right! Places of note include (but are not limited to!):
– the spot where Shiva was disturbed in meditation by the god of love, whom Shiva, in his anger, blinded. Thus… love is blind.
– the location of Shiva’s and Parvati’s marriage
– the alleged birthplace of the monkey god Hanuman
– Kishkinda, the country of the monkey people in the epic the Ramayana

Hampi Bazaar

We stayed in the part of town called Hampi Bazaar, in the Gopi Guest House. The description of both the town and its hotel options in Lonely Planet had somewhat negative undertones, but we found both to be charming.
The town is an interesting mix of the sacred (with the incredible Virupashka Temple towering above everything and priests with shaved heads and simple white dhotis and tourist-happy sadhus with painted faces in bright orange and peacock feathered turbans roaming the streets), rural life (streets would be over taken at dusk by goat herds being shepherded home for the night) and alterna-tourism (it reminded me of Mcleod Ganj, in the way Mcleod Ganj reminded me of Boulder in Colorado).
The rooftop restaurant of the hotel, with a perfect view of the Virupashka Temple, was where we spent our time when we weren’t out and about. It was a great spot to watch the daily goings on the streets below and especially of the open air classroom at the Hampi Children’s Trust across the way. They made Roman’s espresso in those awesome old-fashioned pots (mokas) and amazingly actually always had everything we ordered off of their massive menu (impressive because most other budget places usually had only a portion of the menu available).
As cute and colorful as the town of Hampi is, it is also full of poop! (Well, more so than what we’ve gotten used to, I mean.) With so many animals (and people) living in close quarters, I suppose this is bound to happen. The residents of Hampi do regularly wash the streets in front of their homes, and amazingly the town doesn’t smell at all (as opposed, for example, to Jaisalmer, which was also full of animals). Still, there were droppings everywhere, mostly from cows and goats but there were also cats, dogs and monkey to contribute, and we even saw small children taking a squat on the roadside a couple of times. A shoes-off rule was in effect in our hotel room!


The view of Virupashka temple from our table at Gopi’s rooftop restaurant


Goats coming home for the night


Colorful Hampi street


Houses, hotels and shops often had these simple but beautiful powder designs in front of their entrances. The designs were drawn fresh daily.


What struck me the most about Hampi was the children in the town. They are a constant, exuberant presence. Even if we couldn’t see them we could hear them outside our window or in the streets below. Sometimes they were with adults, but mostly they were on their own, walking in pairs or groups to school or playing with, caring for, chasing, shouting at, stalking, scuffling with each other in the streets. Seems like a relatively safe and fun place to grow up although it was interesting reading about the Hampi Children’s Trust – it seems to have helped reduce the number of children who might otherwise be working or begging in town.
We also encountered tons of school kids at the various historical sights – apparently this is a major field trip for many schools throughout the state of Karnataka. It’s such an amazing experience interacting with an entire class of students who all want to shake your hand, ask your name and find out all about you with their stock English class questions simultaneously. 🙂 The enthusiasm is inspiring, heart warming and infectious: you can’t wait to shake every single little hand.
Not all kids are so lucky to attend school though. We did meet some working kids, like 12 year old Naga, who was our guide to and at Hanuman’s temple. With teeth stained from regular consumption of paan, he was in some ways already tougher and more mature than I will ever be. Yet at instances he seemed still very much a vulnerable child. A somewhat unnerving juxtaposition…


Encountering students on school field trips amongst the ruins


After shaking about 50 hands


Another big highlight were the monkeys in town and in the temples. We probably did as much monkey watching as people watching. The type of rhesus monkey local to Hampi was cute – they all seemed to have similar really dorky-looking, middle-parted hair styles. 🙂 The langurs here were also more social than those we had encountered in the north.
The ultimate of course was feeding the monkeys at the Hanuman temple in Anegundi. It’s a 570 step climb to get to the temple at the top of the hill. We’d probably made it about ten paces when a pack of about five black-faced langurs flew down the hill and practically ripped the bag of mini bananas from Roman’s hand. Naga, our guide, helped to collect the scraps and keep the monkeys a bit more subdued, so Roman actually had a chance to hand out a few bananas. The rhesus monkeys at the temple were much more chilled out, but still fascinating and got as much of our attention as the absolutely stunning views.


Not the greatest picture, but check out his hairstyle


Naga feeding the langurs on the steps to the Hanuman temple

Temples, ruins, rocks and river

As I mentioned above, it is difficult to do a proper job writing about the incredible historical temples and sights and landscape. We did a day tour with a certified guide named Hanuman (his name at least easy to remember, as opposed to the multitude of interesting information he shared, which has clearly begun to leak out of my brain 😉 ). We traveled by motorbike between the sites.
After the tour had finished, we still had use of the bike, so we went for a joyride, discovering another, stunning temple at the top of a hill in the process, where music as being chanted and the view of the setting sun was just perfect. We also did a good amount of exploration by foot, which was a great way to experience the landscape more directly.
The area around Hampi is just incredible. Mysterious and massive boulders are strewn into hills with banana and palm groves growing up in between. We also traveled by coracle, a simple, small, bowl-shaped boat fashioned from bamboo, plastic and tar. We traveled about one hour to get to the Hanuman temple through a bewitchingly beautiful landscape. The trip back was at sunset – even more stunning.

Ok, at this point I will give up on my words. Pictures to follow… 🙂

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