Hampi was by far the most inconveniently located destination I travelled to in India. Yet rerouting my itinerary to incorporate this remote backpacker haven delivered one of the absolute highlights of my trip (rivalling the Spiti Valley). And to think originally I had no intentions of visiting! Hampi is famed for its vast collection of ancient Hindu monuments strewn across a beguiling landscape of boulders, scrub and paddy fields. The traffic and pollution free environs of the area exude peacefulness and rural tranquility; qualities sorely absent throughout India. Utterly exhausted by Indian cities, I was lured into stretching an intended two day stop into a five day stay in Hampi; a refreshing “holiday from a holiday”.
Before arriving at my paradisiacal destination, predictably I had to suffer through a series of frustrating and classic India experiences. Immediately after disembarking my train in Hospete, I was swarmed by taxi drivers eager to secure my business for a 100 rupees ($2) ride to Hampi. Most of them backed off when I insisted I was taking the 15 rupees bus to Hampi (mainly because I can't stand taxi drivers, not because I'm a stinge!). However, one turdcake stalked me for 10 minutes in his taxi as I walked to the bus stand, begging I hop in for continuously reducing rates. He eventually concluded I was a lost cause and drove up to an Irish guy 50 metres ahead, proceeding to harass him with equal earnest. When the two of us arrived at the bus stand, a teenage boy (usually the most annoying demographic of hasslers) pestered us for the duration of our 30 minute wait. With immense satisfaction, I outlasted the nagging and boarded the Hampi bound bus!
Onboard I met Australian Cody and American Gabriel, who were on break from volunteering at an organisation supporting the Sufi (Muslim) community in Delhi. Cody expressed moderate antipathy towards his homeland (with agreeable justifications), partly explaining his 3.5 years absence with no imminent plans of returning. Meanwhile, Gabriel, an affable native of Florida and insufferable patriot, overtly admonished the supposedly unsurpassed virtues of his homeland. Obviously though, Gabriel was exhibiting rather superb self-deprecating humour, because no one with a modicum of intelligence could believe in the greatness of a country ravished with guns, without universal healthcare, and that elects a xenophobic, misogynistic and imbecilic clown to be their leader. Oh... I suppose Australia dabbled with the latter in 2013... but I digress!
Like most other backpackers, the three of us planned to stay on the other side of the river from Hampi village. Since there are no bridges nearby, we were required to cross by boat. The extortionate boatman demanded we pay more than twice the regular rate for the 30 second journey, because he deemed it to be "early morning" (9:15AM – perhaps indicative as to why the economic development of India is a long way behind China's). Along with Israeli Orr, we chose to wait until 10:00AM when the regular price of 20 rupees kicked in, saving us 30 rupees. We bided our time by spending 30 rupees on breakfast and chai masala, and watching a holy elephant named Laxmi bath in the river.
Considering the ordeal with the boatman, staying on the opposite side of the river from the famed temples of Hampi seemed somewhat illogical. But my doubts immediately evaporated when we ascended the river banks and arrived in Virupapur Gadde. The one-road village features a long row of humble guesthouses and restaurants, which overlook the river on one side and emerald green paddy fields shaded by palm trees on the other. The village’s tropical setting is contrasted sharply by enormous mounds of ochre boulders that rise bizarrely from the otherwise flat landscape. We chose to stay just outside Virupapur Gadde at the Goan Corner, a beautiful precinct of thatched huts and spacious outdoor communal areas with surprisingly good food for a hostel (it even had a wood-fired pizza oven and tandoori oven (unusual in South India)). The charismatic owner opened the hostel 17 years ago after migrating from Goa, where she had divorced her first husband (very controversial still in India). Goan Corner is now easily Hampi’s most popular backpacker hangout, despite no website, no presence on Hostelworld or Booking.com and no listing in Lonely Planet. The owner cheekily announced she trades purely on word-of-mouth, which clearly works; I was recommended Goan Corner by several people throughout India.
Unfortunately, Goan Corner and every other guesthouse and restaurant in Virupapur Gadde will be obliterated by the corrupt state government within the next year. The government has announced that the land within a five kilometre radius of the main cluster of temples is now forms an “archaeological zone”. Consequently, the guesthouses and restaurants of Virupapur Gadde, mostly operated by low-income families, will be demolished as they occupy illegal structures. The government’s intention is supposedly to protect the World Heritage listed edifices; but such a noble gesture would be completely out of character for Indian bureaucracy. The government’s disdain for backpacker tourism, which they consider “cheap” and “dirty”, and lust for the financial windfall of luxury tourism more likely explains their actions. Many locals believe that several years after the demolitions occur, suddenly five-star hotels and exclusive shops will pop up where Virupapur Gadde once existed, filling the Minister of Planning’s coffers while rendering the villagers homeless and their businesses crushed. Bloody India.
After checking in at Goan Corner, Cody, Gabriel and I opted to explore the surrounding area on foot. What was supposed to be a short and pleasant amble to a lake soon became an arduous and seemingly endless expedition under the blazing South Indian sun, thanks to the deception of unofficial signs and Google Maps. While Cody and Gabriel engaged in a riveting conversation about the merits of accountancy, I absorbed the thoroughly unIndian-like serenity of the countryside. We passed herds of goats and water buffalo grazing in the paddy fields, some of which were vividly green while others were parched or completely burnt. We walked through tiny villages where the children ran out to the road, asked for photographs and begged for pens and chocolate (because apparently that’s what white people always carry with them, even in 35 degrees heat!). We briefly stopped at an isolated restaurant and chatted with a dreadlocked Brit. For the past 20 years, he had returned to Hampi annually for six months, utterly captivated by the boulder landscape. For weeks at a time, he would tramp through the wilderness on his own and scale boulders; he contended the only thing necessary to survive is a reliable water source. True hippy, such a rare breed. We eventually arrived at the lake, which was actually just a reservoir, and were confronted with unlikely warning signs about the presence of crocodiles (bullshit). By this stage though, we were more concerned with reaching a recommended guesthouse for lunch. Although virtually in the middle of no where, we encountered a couple of Indian men chillin’ randomly beside some boulders. Obviously they just happened to have a boat we could hire to get to our intended target. Politely declining, we continued on our way, expecting to arrive by foot any minute. An hour later, we finally arrived at the guesthouse and, unimpressed, walked straight past to the next one. After a very late lunch, we were faced with the same, exhausting journey back since very few vehicles passed us throughout the day. Yet just at our moment of need, a Swiss hippy (authentic- two in a day!) pulled up and gave us a ride back to Goan Corner.
The following day, I returned to the south side of the river to explore Hampi’s iconic monuments. Hampi was formerly the capital of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, which dominated South India in the 14th-16th centuries. The city supported a population of more 500,000 at its peak, making it the second largest in the world after Beijing. The city was sacked by a confederation of Muslim Sultanates in 1565, terminating the glory years of the empire and leaving the city in ruins. The surviving fragments of this medieval metropolis are now populated by monkeys and scattered throughout a vast, naturalistic area of boulder mounds, dry scrub and paddy fields. The constituent attractions are located several kilometres apart, which made for a very long day of crisscrossing Hampi in stifling weather. I first visited the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi’s bazaar area, which is easily the most accessible and distinguishing building. The temple complex features three entrance towers (the highest of which is over 50 metres) that lead to a series of courtyards and an inner sanctuary brimming with sculpture of Hindu mythology. I then walked east along the river for 45 minutes, stopping occasionally to admire small temples on its banks and the quirky, half-spherical boats made from reeds that plied its waters. I eventually arrived at Vittala Temple, Hampi’s most famous attraction. The Vijayanagara’s mastery of Hindu sculpture is exhibited in the highly ornate halls within the temple complex, which are decorated with depictions of gods, warriors and animals. The focal point of Vittala Temple is the magnificent stone chariot in the courtyard of the complex, which is dedicated to Garuda (a humanoid bird that serves as Lord Vishnu’s mount). I visited several other structures throughout the day with an unsolicited companion, including the former royal elephant stables and palatial enclosures. I have to admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by Hampi’s monuments and glad I condensed exploring them into one day. I guess I was expecting Angkor Wat-scale grandeur, but it fell markedly short.
The next day I ventured aimlessly into the remarkable boulder-strewn landscape with Australian Erin and British Dave. With two Melbournians present, conversation was obviously dominated by food for the duration of the day, to the chagrin of Dave (not that you could expect a Brit to engage passionately in a culinary conversation). Since there were no tracks, we simply ambled across, over and around the boulder mounds, hoping to conquer a summit. We weren’t entirely successful in such endeavours, because thick, thorny bushes usually blocked our paths just before reaching the mounds’ zeniths. We hoped to spot the elusive leopards or other intriguing creatures that inhabit the area (the landscape reminded me very much of Spitzkoppe in Namibia actually, where I spotted an African wildcat), but instead only encountered tourists with mattresses on their back. Hampi is reputedly the best place in the world for bouldering, a sport I had never heard of, and thus attracts aficionados from all of the world who come to scale its innumerable boulders. The mattresses are obviously intended to provide a safe landing if they fall (in the right place).
We attempted to discover a crossing of the river to circumvent the widely loathed boatman. We found the remains of an ancient bridge, with just the pillars used to support the upper deck surviving. Nevertheless, for the next half hour we crossed the reed-filled river by hopping from one crashed pillar to the next. Upon reaching solid, dry ground, we thought the mission was accomplished. But just like George W Bush, our assessment was premature. We climbed up a slight rise in the landscape and noticed one final, fast-flowing channel, with a width of ten metres and no fallen pillars. We cautiously began crossing the river, but sheepishly opted not to risk our precious electronics and turned back dejected!
Since Goan Corner was inundated by American tourists (an uncommon occurrence on the backpacker circuit) on the fourth Thursday of November, celebrating their cherished Thanksgiving holiday was an obligatory experience. Australian Cody thoughtfully arranged for the hostel to prepare a shared banquet that all guests, regardless of nationality, could participate in. Apparently adhering to a Thanksgiving tradition, New Yorker Marieke traced hand-turkeys for every attendee. We were required to decorate the turkeys, write down what we’re thankful for and then share our thoughts with the group. Predictably, the 30 plus Americans and Europeans took the activity very seriously and described heartfelt messages of gratitude (with the exception of Gabriel, who brashly venerated the capitalism, freedom and liberty of his country), while the handful of Australians simply took the piss out of it.
A mass exodus from Goan Corner occurred on my last day in Hampi as we all travelled in different directions within the state of Karnataka. I boarded an overnight bus for Gokarna, a small town by the Arabian Sea which is touted as a quieter alternative to Goa further north. I was dropped off at 4:30AM in the poorly-lit, ghost-like town because I refused to pay an extra 100 rupees ($2) to be driven 6 kilometres further to the beachside guesthouses. I was the only person not to cave-in to the bus company’s disgusting extortion (it was already an expensive ticket and they only announced the extra surcharge once we had boarded), which I’m rather proud of. However, for 15 minutes of walking aimlessly in the darkness, I was concerned made an unwise and unsafe decision. However, I soon discovered a bustling tea house near the bus stand (which is not where I was dropped off!) and retreated there for the next few hours. My experiences that morning were basically the most enthralling aspect of my time in Gokarna. The beach I stayed at (Om Beach) was pleasant enough; clean (rare for Asia) with unassuming guesthouses set amid tropical gardens and free of the neon-lit, overdevelopment that usually define South Asian beaches. But the atmosphere was rather dull (mainly couples and big Israeli groups) and the water unremarkable (appropriate for neither surfing nor snorkelling). The beach is festooned with signs warning against swimming because of treacherous currents and they feature explicit photographs of people that drowned in the water. Two people died at a neighbouring beach during my stay. Yet from my Australian perspective, the water was very tame. I think the high fatality rate must be because most Indian tourists have never seen the sea and don’t know how to swim properly in the sea.
While I wasn’t particularly enthralled by its constituent attraction, the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire’s capital, Hampi was nevertheless one of my favourite destinations in India. A combination of an excellent hostel, great company, intriguing landscape and perhaps above all, the reprieve from Indian traffic, hassling and pollution, made for a lovely five days in this soon-to-vanish paradise.
That’s all for now,