Heavenly Hampi

by DAVID JENKINS

ALMOST NOTHING IN LIFE is perfect, says a very well-travelled friend of mine. Nevertheless, he thinks Hampi is about as good as it gets.

It’s hard to disagree. A river snakes through the region’s mesmerising granite rock formations, their colours ranging from barren grey to golden brown and pink. Banana groves and paddy fields grow lushly; leopard, sloth bear, crocodiles and otter live in the unspoilt wilderness; there’s the best rock-climbing in India. And Hampi itself, strewn with surreally poised boulders and primeval rocks, is home to the 550 ravishing 15th- and 16th-century monuments – from temples and pavilions to elephant stables and richly-sculpted palaces – of Vijayanagar, the ruined ‘City of Victory’. Best of all, there’s a serenity to this mingling of the man-made and the natural that’s utterly beguiling. Go to central Karnataka, and drink it in.

And do linger. It’s tempting – but a snare and delusion – to try to do too much in India. You’ve come a long way; this temple sounds extraordinary, that mosque unmissable, and look! – on the map they’re no distance apart. On the map, no; on the ground you’re often in for hours and hours of honking cacophony and perilous near-misses with rushing lorries or, like my travelling companion, you’re held up on a national highway by a slothful clutch of sacred cows. Why rush off once you’ve arrived somewhere as extraordinary as Hampi? Take a week to revel in the sheer weirdness of the landscape and to reflect on the millennia of erosion that have produced so delirious a sight, and further time to marvel at the skill with which the granite has been hewn and shaped by nameless sculptors and architects.

As is Hampi, five miles away, on the other, southern, side of the narrow gorge through which the Tungabhadra River winds. Gods and goddesses are meant to have frolicked around here, as well as the monkey god Hanuman, whose northbank temple is reached up 456 testing steps. Thousands and thousands of Hindu pilgrims come here each year to worship and to wash in the sacred waters; they make up 90 per cent of Hampi’s visitors, which explains why alcohol is forbidden in this holy place. The rest head for the remains of Vijayanagar, a magnificent city that flourished from the middle of the 14th century until 1565.

Poised on a mystical axis, the gorgeous Vitthala Temple complex contains a stone chariot, ornately carved, and columns which, when tapped, emit musical notes; Achyutaraya Temple, breathtaking when seen from the hill above, is one of many to contain, in my guide’s word, ‘shameless’ carvings: usually of wanton women, immodestly splayed, and in this case of a man pleasuring a beast.

There are incidental pleasures: a tank (or reservoir) near the Krishna Temple is hypnotically beautiful, and almost entirely unvisited; beside the river, and best reached by coracle, is a mandala of miniature lingams (or stone penises) carved out of the granite. Take the coracle on to the delightful Anegundi, a tranquil village with its own ruins and, I’m told, some excellent guesthouses, run by the community-based Kishkinda Trust. Or walk from the back of the Achyutaraya Temple through banana groves and along the canal; in 45 minutes I saw only one girl herding goats and two fishermen, chest-deep in the water. Spare the time, too, to visit – again by coracle – Chandramouleshwara Temple, on the north bank; it’s being restored by the Global Heritage Fund, and the view from it is stunning.

So, what’s not perfect about this idyll? Two things, really: didgeridoos, and the river crossing – a rickety motorboat that plies between north and south banks. That, of course, need not worry the traveller putting up at Boulders Resort across the river: after a day seeing sights, you’ll be picked up by car from the north bank, which will drive you past the encampment of rather better-quality guesthouses that has sprung up there. But therein lies a problem, for the last boat from Hampi to the north bank leaves at 6pm. Not to take it means a very long (almost two-hour) drive back from Hampi.

But by taking that 6pm boat, you deprive yourself of a great treat Hampiside: sunset from the top of Matanga Hill, a 30-minute climb. There’s a dilapidated temple there, and a chai-wallah, and a spectacular 360-degree panorama that makes clear the entire layout of what was Vijayanagar. The Hampi evening has its delights, too: the boat-driven curfew also means that you miss the massed feasts of Hindu pilgrims, gathered round huge tureens of rice beside their ramshackle pilgrimage buses.

One solution is to stay a night or so at the Hotel Mayura Bhuvaneshwari in Kamalapuram, three miles away. You could – and should – sit for hours on the balcony of your cottage, listening to the river and watching the light on the jumbled-up, tumbledown rocks. You should make your way across the rocks and over the bridges, looking at the cascades below. You should explore the vivid life of the villages nearby. And you should look around you at the acres of carefully conserved wilderness. And you should do as my travelling companion and I did one evening when we were taken by car through paddy fields to a lake, opening off the river. A bluff rose behind us. The quiet was absolute. Two kingfishers hovered over the water, their marking an iridescent green. Sporadically, they shot down after their prey. The occasional egret appeared and settled in a tree, followed by a few bulbuls. The sun began to set. More egrets came, and more, and suddenly squadron after squadron flew towards us, shimmering just feet above the river, then barrelling up into the sky and swooping down to colonise the trees. For 10 or 15 minutes, they flocked in, mysterious and wonderful, to one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. There’s only one word for it: magical.

To read the full article visit Condé Nast Traveller Magazine

Read this article in Spanish, here.

See you next Sunday with more travelling adventures!

Jordy & Nass

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