The Indian subcontinent falls in the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth — girdled by fierce water bodies, immersed in dense rainforests, river valleys and flatlands — wherein lies this South-Indian hamlet that cuts a rather rocky picture. An arid boulder-infested landscape; once the crowning glory of the city of Vijayanagara survives as the memento of a fallen empire today.
A look at this UNESCO World Heritage Site rapidly gaining a reputation among backpackers with a taste for history and adventure.
Champion of History
Miles and miles of rockscapes punctuated by plantations and river bodies suspended from the mouth of mammoth rocks bound together by geological architecture is what one makes of the town of Hampi. The topography garners as much curiosity as its mythological lineage, the religious heredity drawing Indian tourists round the year, no matter the season. The thriving Vijayanagara Empire was witness to some of the most advanced technological developments of the 13th century only to eventually sink in the very Deccan Plateau it had once conquered. Before the kingdom came to be known as it is, the province was ruled by the Chalukyas, the Hoysalyas, the Pandyas and the Cholas; manifested in the architecture of the Bellary district as it is known in this day.
Pampa Kshetra of Kishkindha
Myth binds together the surreal and real and much of Indian history lends credit to popular mythology. Hampi is a part of one such parable, deep-seated in the sacred town of Kishkinda from the holy book, Ramayana. Many of the enclosures and temple complexes in Hampi are named after places mentioned in Ramayana. Lord Ram himself was believed to be waiting for news of Sita from Hanuman’s visit to Lanka at the Malyavanta Hill. The river Tungabhadra takes from its ancient name Pampa, as Hampi is believed to be an anglicised derivative of Hampe, a kannada word derived from Pampa.
Kingdom of Bisnegar
The capital city of Vijayanagara Empire is what lies in ruins in and around Hampi today. The remains of the once powerful empire that crumbled to a military defeat after a successful reign in the state of Karnataka are understood by the extensive documentation of historians and chroniclers who charted the rise and fall of dynasties in India during the period.
Known to be a forbearing and cosmopolitan society, the Vijayanagara kings were receptive of the architectural structure and aesthetic styles of all prevailing religious sects as well as the rulers of the past. The cenotaphs and shrines constructed during the period were established as places of worship— an emblem of the opulent heritage of a prosperous kingdom. The granite boulders were carved into the form of Hindu deities sited in temples built in the hallmark style of the period; a congregation of colossal pillars outnumbered only by the ornamentation and fine sculpting on them, often surmounted on chariots. The memoirs we see today are remnants of the finest examples of architecture of a golden epoch for Indian art and architecture.
The city that thrived under the reign of Krishna Deva Raya met its decline under the Deccan sultanates that plundered the markets and destroyed its fortifications and monuments, thus establishing dominance. As a relic to their glory, the landscapes that have survived systematic geographical, historical and physical ruination over decades stand in their stately majesty as a UNESCO World Heritage Site today, curated territorially by a community only too aware of its economic merit.
Wreckage of the Past
In distinct stages of preservation and ruination, the historical and archaeological monuments in Hampi are a voyeuristic pleasure. Not all those who venture to this busy town are historians, pilgrims or bohemian backpackers, most of them, especially the international tourists are drawn to the ruins out of sheer curiosity. To examine and walk through a city of the past crowding ones senses is like being able to travel back in time and witness the collapse of a potent monarchy. Among the most popular monuments and temples are Virupakshi temple, the Vijayavittala Temple complex, the Elephants Stable, the King’s Balance, Hazara Rama Temple and many others. Among these, the Virupakshi Temple located in the central bazaar area predates the Vijayanagara Empire and is a nucleus of all religious carnivals and gatherings that happen in the district. Aside from these, the village also houses military and civil quarters that were established further from the residential neighborhood during the 13th century for combat and warfare. The aqueducts, Zanana enclosures, water canals and watch towers, all partially destroyed, bear the mutilations of deliberate destruction at the hands of the Sultanates.
The Village Island
The other side of the river accessible by coracle ferries, often referred to as the village island of Hampi is a hippie extension of the mother village; not so much geographically as it is culturally – reclusive and tranquil like the travellers that prefer it. The vegetation grows denser as one attempts to haul antiquate kerosene-fuelled mopeds on hostile roads against rock formations that threaten to cave in at the slightest provocation.
Tourists that prefer seclusion amidst a bizarre landscape prefer Virupapur Gadde. Despite being less than 15 kilometers from the Hampi mainlands, the area receives little to no cell reception, poor Wi-Fi connectivity and intermittent power cuts; no twenty-first century entity interferes with life here. One is likely to find oneself guiding rickety two-wheelers on beckoning expanses of unpaved and unruly roads time and again, rummaging the rustic offshores of a virgin land often reimagined as a Ladakhi landscape – the luminous blue of the water on the same trajectory as the wayward streets. The roads lead to nowhere in particular, adding to its charm and stand unmarked or with milestones with illegible kannada scribes, conducive to a state of being forever adrift.
A Thriving Tourist Economy
At a micro-economic level, Hampi is a dynamic and symbiotic financial unit. What is remarkable, however, is that a community that had previously only sustained itself through agriculturally-oriented enterprises has not only transmigrated to an unrelated autonomous industry, but manages to uphold it with utmost hospitality and cultural pride. The locals are fluent in multiple Indian as well as foreign dialects and are adaptive to an alien culture in an unpredictably accurate tradition. The pungent local cuisine is blended with muted international flavours to appease to the palette of the multiple nationalities that come-a-visiting.
The State Government regulates all tourism related activities at multiple levels by providing certification to local tourist guides. This not only allows for uniform monitoring and surveillance but also mass-scale employment generation that fosters the socio-economic needs of the society. The Archaeological Society of India has conducted various successful excavations in the region; unearthing baubles, currency, vessels and other artefacts from centuries past. Although mining remains one of the primary sources of income, it is arguably a threat to its heritage status and continues to be a sore area of debate for the governmental authorities and preservation bodies.
The Wild Void and Eco-tourism
To speak of the flora and fauna of a semi-arid zone formed as a consequence of years of volcanic activity and soil erosion, would be as dry and sparsely populated as the subject of discussion. Paddy fields, banana plantations and coconut trees leap in and out of sight, sporadically appearing in the uncharted boundaries and well-trimmed and tended to in the main complex and market area, much like a semi-urban township.
However, off late, the village is also emerging as a hub for eco-tourism. The Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary located not too far from the ruins is also a major attraction for wildlife enthusiasts. The birds of Hampi (interestingly, also the name of a popular book based on the subject) attract tourists during the bird-watching season to spot more than 90 species of birds, including the Greater Flamingoes that visited the Tungabhadra Dam in 2014. The Deccan Plateau has the Tungabhadra river and its myriad tributaries form a network of water bodies that runs across the length and breadth of a cluster of villages in and around Hampi— the resting place of the Kingdom of Victory.
Climb and Conquer
There isn't one other place in the country that can guarantee a better rock-driven adventure activity like Hampi can— bouldering, rock-climbing and cliff jumping, what have you. There are numerous rock-climbing workshops, groups and adventure camps that train participants with equipment and familiarize them with the rocky surfaces. To a layman, the boulders look like an easy way up but without an understanding of how to scale large surfaces on a steep incline can take the adventure out of the activity and pose serious danger to life. Bouldering is better in Virupapur Gadde where the rock formations are further apart and are low-lying as compared to those in Hampi.
The vibrant cultural unit that is Hampi is at once an open-air museum and excavation site as well as a safe haven for those seeking shelter from a concrete microcosm.