18th July 2017
Journalist Amar Grover re-visits an old favourite...
Tucked away in the heart of India’s Karnataka state lies Hampi, one of the country’s best least-known World Heritage Sites. It’s a biggie: the sprawling ruins of a huge city, capital of a medieval empire that ruled most of southern India and stretched from its western to eastern coasts.
Not so long ago you could visit Hampi and have the place virtually to oneself. I first visited in late 1989 when most guidebooks barely gave it a few lines. My planned one-day visit became three, each spent wandering among beautifully decaying temples and their long colonnaded streets that were once bustling bazaars, or strolling beside the Tungabhadra River with its pretty bathing ghats and lopsided shrines, and eventually heading up into the surrounding hills.
They were no ordinary hills. Rising abruptly from lush fields of sugarcane and banana trees, these rocky slopes and bluffs were cloaked in weirdly-eroded granite boulders, some the size of village houses. Here there were few, if any, paths but the varied terrain of mini-valleys, smooth inclines and easy ridges made for spontaneous hiking. It was as if children had modelled this picturesque landscape with plasticine and from countless vantage points stretched panoramic views of crumbling temple gateways and still, empty courtyards.
It was a captivating place which by the mid-1990s had clearly been discovered. Tiring perhaps of Goa’s idyllic beaches and languid detachment, backpackers navigated the Western Ghats and reached Hampi primed to discover the ‘real India’. What they found was hardly that - an important historical sight largely free of tourists, a scenic spot with just a handful of easy-going villagers - yet many settled in for weeks to enjoy impromptu raves and copious amounts of ganja.
During my own carefree wanderings among Hampi’s nooks and crannies, I ventured high and wide. Eventually I came upon a section of ancient masonry fortifications. It led to a staircase where hefty stone beams had been heaved into gaps and clefts in rocks and boulders. Following the trail as it climbed tentatively, I reached a lofty granite shelf with gorgeous views across the site. A small enclosed shrine lay against a boulder on which was carved a man-sized bas relief of the god Vishnu. Never had I felt so plugged-in to Hampi’s celebrated mythology which still makes it an important destination for Hindu pilgrims. Clearly this lovely spot was little-visited and I took almost child-like pleasure in ‘claiming’ it as my own.
Returning earlier this year after a seventeen-year gap, I was keen to re-visit my old haunt. Whatever else you hear about Hampi, it’s best explored on foot so I relished the task.
Today Hampi is finally beginning to feel like a valued destination in keeping with its World Heritage status. Villagers’ tatty shops and rustic eateries that once encroached upon the bazaar street facing the still-functioning Virupaksha temple have been shifted. Thick layers of unflattering whitewash are being removed from the Virupaksha’s elaborately carved pillars and walls. Electric carts now whisk visitors to the standout 15th-century Vitthala temple where, officially at least, guides are no longer permitted to tap its unique ‘musical pillars’.
There is on-going excavation as the Archaeological Survey of India re-acquires parcels of land utilised by villagers for crops. More could be done; much of the signage is long-winded and, dense in detail, remains curiously uninformative. Yet there are noticeably more visitors as local hotels up their game (there’s even a new five-star resort nearby) and general infrastructure improves.
Out in the field it’s the same old Hampi. And, after some toing and froing, I managed to find that masonry wall, the staircase, the shelf of rock and, of course, the little shrine. Yet something had changed; others had clearly found it. Once seemingly forgotten, the shrine was now tended: there were incense sticks wedged into its masonry along with a box of matches. The carved idol now boasted a few daubs of saffron-coloured sindoor paste, the surest sign that worship had resumed.
Later that evening I mentioned it to my hotel guide, a young man who’d grown up in Hampi and scampered among its ruins and hills. “Oh yes, think I know that spot,” he said, surprised. “Now even villagers are visiting and getting more interested…” Perhaps tourism isn’t merely valuable but can help people value their heritage.
© Amar Grover 2017