The festival of Vishu marks the beginning of new hopes and aspirations, a new year exclusively for the Malayalees. While it's called "Vishu" only in Kerala, across India festivals sharing the same spirit-such as Ugadhi in Andhra Pradesh and in Karnataka, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra, Bihu in Assam and Baisakhi in Punjab-are celebrated around the same time of year. Much attention to detail is given in preparing the Vishu Kani - literally meaning, 'that which is seen first on Vishu', consisting of the image of Lord Krishna along with other items depicting prosperity and growth, as its believed that the first thing you see on this day would reflect throughout the rest of the year. If there is any truth to that then 2016 is bound to be a kick-ass year for me, as my Vishu Kani turned out to be helmets, leather jackets, gloves, boots, two badass motorcycles and six days of pure bliss!
So thanking Lord Krishna for the public holiday close to the weekends, we started off early. 'We' being me, on Zeus-my 2012 Pulsar 200NS and Anand, the proud owner of a 2015 Royal Enfield Classic, the same machine whose divine aura throughout this trip played a major role in coaxing me to fall in love with it and finally get one for myself. Our destination- Hampi, the grand old capital of the Vijayanagara empire, or at least what's left of it.
After weeks of studying about the place and its history, Hampi fascinated me. Almost as if its forlorn ruins were calling out to me to come discover their secrets for myself. It had a certain lure to it. Unlike the other journeys I've been on before, a bit more thought and regretfully, planning had gone into this one. Mainly because Vishu came in the month of April. The harsh Indian summer was taking its toll and temperatures were at an all-time high across the sub continent. I remember at times I'd check Google weather in the middle of the night and it'd still show close to 40-degree Celsius at Hampi. Reviews after reviews claimed that you had to be bonkers to visit this place in summer and that the place being surrounded by boulders would turn into a hell hole under the unforgiving heat. But that being said, no adventure was ever made without a dash of lunacy. So sunscreens packed, we set off on our little adventure against all odds.
The plan was to cross over to Mysore via Nilambur for the first day and then all the way up to Hosapete or as close as we could get to Hampi before camping for the second night. Since we had no plans of coming back through the same route, we kept Gokarna as a prospective destination after Hampi so that we could return through the Coast. More on Gokarna later.
So we set off on a relatively warm early morning from Kochi, 4 am to be exact and before we knew it, we were on the beautiful roads through Shornur and all apprehensions of the quality of roads via Nilambur faded away as we were greeted with beautiful twisties with open fields or thick forests on either side for company. By mid-day, we were crossing the Kerala border towards Gudalur. Quite impressed by the progress we were making we decided to take a small deviation towards Masinagudi and chill for the afternoon, mainly to avoid riding under the mid-day sun.
Masinagudi and chill?
After a couple of dams, reservoirs and naps later we were back en route to Mysore but now via the gorgeous roads through the Mudumalai-Bandipur reserve forests. A gentle drizzle in between kept the heat in check and made this part of the journey almost too good to be true. We even had the company of a female elephant and her calf along the way just as we had given up on our chances of catching a glimpse of wildlife. By dusk, we had reached Mysore. The chaotic traffic and roads under construction turned out to be a bummer as we lost a considerable amount of time finding our way around and the fact that neither of us knew Kannada didn't make things easier. Once we finally got ourselves out of all the chaos we camped the night at a reasonable yet fancy named Malayalee run lodge at Srirangapatna, somewhere on the outskirts of Mysore.
The heavenly roads through Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
We had ridden 415 kms on the first day of our journey, to our surprise with relative ease and our buttocks still intact. The adrenaline rush of a road trip helps in this regard. But we still had almost the same distance to go before we'd reach Hampi. The route map for the day was Srirangapatna-Sira-Hiriyur-Chithradurga-Hosapete-Hampi. One may find relatively straighter routes to Hampi on Google maps, but I guess these places sounded a lot better and hence they topped the list. The road all the way up to Sira through relatively inner parts of Karnataka from Srirangapatna was heavenly. These were villages and small towns mostly, that had seen little development and there wasn't much on either side of the roads other than shrubs, lone trees and distant hills as far as the eyes could see. And soon it was becoming clear that we were on the 'road less travelled' to Sira as cars and trucks gave way to bullock carts and mopeds and concrete buildings turned into mud thatched huts with main junctions having just the essential local corner shops. But there was an unexplainable awe to it all. These are the kind of roads that get you thinking, about life and then some more.
The boys enjoying the sunrise.
This route, however, ends you up in the six-lane Bangalore-Chithradurga highway- a stark contrast from the roads we've been travelling through so far. This 80km some what stretch felt like forever. The cars and trucks whizzed past us at lightning speeds making you feel like you're in ultra slow motion and the blaring heat did no help. The first signboard towards Hampi greeted us at Chitradurga and somehow the boring hot highway seemed worth it. But little did we know the hell that was going to be let loose upon us on the stretch from Chitradurga to Hosapete.
All we had for this 130 km of a stretch was the unforgiving sun and an uncountable number of trucks to keep us company. To make matters worse we had run out of water and were on the brink of dehydration. One will find zero civilization along this route and not a single tree for shade. We were literally taking cover under overgrown bushes after every 20 kms or so. Mind and machines were pushed to their limits that day. Hospete seemed almost like a mirage after some time, so close yet so far. And on finally reaching the place and after much rehydration and rejuvenation, we took on the final leg of the day's journey. At around 5 pm that evening the mighty Tungabadra took us in her arms and replenished our weary souls in her healing waters. Never was I more relieved on reaching my destination. Hampi.
Hampi, here we come!
We had the whole of the next day for exploring Hampi so we made our way to hippie island that evening, a lesser known side of Hampi on the other side of the river. You had to catch a ferry to get to the other side. Our options included a standard motor boat and an inverted umbrella-shaped man powered one called 'coracles' made of cane which were also relatively more costlier, as it was the more popular option among foreign tourists. Hence the motor boat it was. Once on the other side, you discover a completely different side of Hampi with more foreigners here than Indians. The hotels here offer more international cuisines and cheaper options for accommodation with the bare minimum. This almost 'Goan' ambience is a stark contrast to the historic ruins that lie on the other side of the Tungabadra.
We decided to get adventurous for the night and pitched a tent on the river bank. The local boat ferries there guaranteed us that it was pretty safe, meaning we wouldn't be crocodile food that night. Despite the mosquito bites, the hot weather and the general lack of sleep, we had the view no room could offer and the best part, it was free!
That night we shared our room with the stars and the moon. And as you drift to sleep staring at the vast expanse of barren space above, somewhere in your subconscious mind, you miss our shared roots with nature. And this realization that our souls and bodies belong outside rather than within the concrete prisons and the fake realities we've built for ourselves dawns upon you and you can't help but wish you could take back at least a few of the nights you've wasted staring at your bedroom ceiling, when you could've shared your room with the stars and the moon instead.
The prefect spot.
Day 3 had been set aside for exploring Hampi. Waking up on a river bank, there was something magical about that. After a bath in the Tungabhadra, we rolled up our tents and took the first ferry across. We had parked our bikes on the Hampi side of the river the previous day in hopes that they'd still be there on our return. Fired up our machines and started the hunt for a place to eat. Riding our bikes through the stone paved narrow streets of Hampi, we felt like villains straight out of a Tamil movie. The first option was the more popular 'Mango Tree Restaurant'. But we were on a budget and I don't know if it's a Malayalee thing but international cuisines first thing in the morning wasn't our cup of tea. To our luck, the owner of the restaurant noticing our dilemma pointed us towards a nearby roadside joint called 'Shiva Café' serving delicious South Indian food at a reasonable price. A masala dosa never fails to satisfy.
There are over 80 attractions at Hampi scattered across an area of 25 sq.kms. Our initial plan was to explore these sites on our own but it soon dawned on us that it wasn't going to be as easy as we had hoped it to be and gave in to a decent bargain with a government certified guide. Narayanaswamy promised to take us to all the major must see's in Hampi for a mere Rs.300, the perks of off-season travel. One could locate and get to all these places on their own but it'd take twice the amount of time and effort and getting lost in Hampi was easier than you'd imagine, add to that the rising temperatures. The ones we covered included the Virupaksha Temple, the Ganesha statues, Hemakuta Temples, Ugra Narasimha, the Elephant stables, Lotus Mahal, Royal Enclosures and the Vittala Temple to name a few and these were indeed an absolute must-see. Each had its own magnificent story and purpose and the attention to detail on these architectural marvels was phenomenal. Narayanaswamy patiently narrated these stories to us and we listened to the old bloke like two kids glued to a fairytale. There were hardly any tourists around which meant we had the entire place for ourselves and we clicked away pictures, carefree of rude photobombers. He even managed to wrap up the entire tour by afternoon. It was 300 bucks plus tips well spent! We bid him and Hampi farewell. I admit, half a day was hardly enough to appreciate this place to its fullest grandeur, but owing to the fact that we had to reach Gokarna the next day and the relentless heat meant that leaving Hampi half a day earlier than planned was an added bonus and like the old saying goes, it's not the destination but the journey that matters.
The Chariot at the Vittala Temple Complex
Musical Pillars at Vittala Temple
The Lotus Mahal
The Stepped Tanks at the Royal Enclosure
We left Hampi with two lessons learnt. Humility, on seeing one of the most powerful empires of its time reduced to nothing but rubble. But that being said if a 500-year-old capital city destroyed, looted, and burnt down can look this majestic today, you simply can't start to imagine it in all it's glory and hence, respect. Each place has a vibe and Hampi just hands it out to you. It leaves you spellbound the moment you cast your eyes upon it, with the ruins and the surrounding landscape perched with boulders giving you an almost unearthly experience. The very moment you set foot into this historic town you're transported back to a glorious era, a time when the Vijayanagara empire was at its peak, its culture, its people and its unfortunate end haunts you at every corner. This city speaks to you through its architecture-whether it be the musical pillars at the Vittala temple or the intricate carvings on calcium stones found on the Lotus Mahal or even the aesthetically built stepped tanks, all you have to do is listen.
I leave Hampi with the promise of return. Hopefully at a time when I'll be able to spend a couple of days more to truly appreciate and take in its relaxed and peaceful ambience and history to the fullest. It's a must-go-to place if you're in this part of Karnataka- a photographer's paradise and a hippie's delight.