Splendour in stone
Hampi is a practice session in rock climbing — but the intricate and expansive work around is totally worth the effort
IN AWE Of the wonder called Hampi
So, there we were, bowling along a fairly good road, on a day that had yet to switch from merely warm to sweltering. We were off to immerse ourselves in some history — of the Vijayanagara empire, to be precise. And Emhear, (pronounced ‘Eemer'), our Irish guest, professional photographer and enthusiastic Indophile, was regaling us with her stories.
We were at Malyavanta Hill, perched at a modest height among the outsized boulders, waiting for the sun to rise. The horizon was aflush with pre-dawn gloaming — pinks, purples and dull yellows. The atmosphere was suffused with an air of expectation.
Emhear was on a ledge to one side of the hill — her camera trained not on the horizon, but on an old monkey. Given this was Kishkinda, the vaanar kingdom of yore, he probably took this interest in his stride.
A different trip
And, that was when I knew this trip would be different — with Emhear Collins around. Even as the sun turned the rocks to baking hot boulders, she was ready to take in more ruin, one more temple, one more royal bath, one more forlorn bazaar...
Even as we struggled to get adjusted to the less- than-varied fare at our hotel, Emhear cheerfully settled for safe food such as toast (no butter or jam), paneer rice, and hot water, which she spiked with peppermint tea she'd brought along. She took our endless ribbing about her enthusiasm in good spirit, and added quite a bit to our knowledge of Hampi.
At Hampi, the past is contained in evocative stone. Once a thriving city-State, with temples, palaces, an evolved aqueduct and irrigation system, today the “vast open-air museum of archaeology, history and culture” — in Emhear's words, contains the relics of about 75 shrines, the razed foundations of palaces, a couple of royal baths… the ruins of Krishnadeva Raya's great empire. Stone, of course, is the leitmotif of the place — the two Ganeshas — the sasivekalu and the kadalekalu; the amazingly intricate chariot of the Vittala Temple; mind-blowing ornamentation and frescoes on temple walls; the mammoth Ugra Narasimha, the elephant stables with their domes... Ah, and the step well, a thing of much beauty!
To traverse Hampi was, willy-nilly, to become a rock-climber. The zenith was when we went onto Tungabhadra river on a coracle and hopped off it at one point. We scrambled and climbed and gingerly hopped from one boulder to another, to catch a glimpse of the many lingas cast in stone, set amidst an uneven plateau of rocks. This called for dexterity, shoes with a good grip, and a lot of clutching at strange boatmen's hands.
Hampi lacks good accommodation; visitors need to head back to Hospet or settle for what they can get in Kamalapura. We stayed at the Karnataka State Tourism Hotel and ate most of our meals at The Mango Tree — indifferent fare but great view of the river.
If Hampi by day is history, Hampi by night is history-come-alive. Stillness descends with the dark, as the lights slowly, softly appear on a temple complex. Langurs silently take up position at various places on the main gopuram. You sit, speechless with delight, on the sun-warmed steps, and wait for an apsara to step out from behind a pillar and begin a thillaana.
However, a few restoration works at this UNESCO World Heritage site are slipshod — in one temple the dwajasthambam has been placed inside, rising from a cement base — like a rice mill chimney; that black Nandi's hacked muzzle is ineptly re-modelled, giving him strangely, cut thin lips.
And, our guide sums it up for us — “Two eyes aren't enough to look at Hampi.” And, we all nodded in unison.
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