The Best of Hampi: Heritage-rich, Charming and Hippy

The Best of Hampi: Heritage-rich, Charming and Hippy
The mythical creature yali flanks the stairs to the ranga mandap at Virupaksha Temple

Pooja Bhula is fascinated by Hampi's unique natural landscape, rich heritage and how it's now also accommodates a very bohemian way of life...

Frescoes Virupaksha Temple's ranga mandap depict scenes from Hindu epics

What hits me as we drive towards the UNESCO world heritage site, Hampi, is its vastness, which we explore through its small and big roads leading to the must-see monuments that once formed Vijayanagar–the capital of South India's largest, most prosperous kingdom. Ruins, spread over 26 sq. km, lie comfortably alongside piles of naturally rounded granite boulders of different colours. John M Fritz and George Michell, explain in Hampi Vijayanagara, “Its unique rocky appearance is not caused by earthquake or upheaval, but by some 3,000 years of erosion, at first underground and then, when uplifted, by exposure to sun, wind and rain... For centuries, this uniformly built grained stone has provided an inexhaustible supply of building materials.”

Stone food plates

In ancient times, rocks were drilled with rows of closely-spaced cubical holes, in which wet wooden wedges were inserted. As they dried, they expanded, forming deep cracks and finally breaking the stone.

Stepped Tank

The Unforgettable

Our tour aptly starts with the temple of Sasivekalu (mustard seed) Ganesh, worshipped for good beginnings. We don't know the story of its name, but our guide Hussen tells us a trader built it, not royalty.

Ahead, Hemkuta Hill, the sunset point, offers lovely views of the surroundings. What was to be a touristic experience, turns into a soulful one–the open sky, unmarred by tall buildings; the simplicity, serenity and earthiness of the granite hill that feels like a cool balm to my bare feet as I walk towards Virupaksha temple; the quietude afforded due to well-dispersed tourists; and the sun's warmth, accompanied by the November breeze, gradually melt away my baggage of stress, making me feel centered and free.

While I prefer the previous temple's simplicity, there's no escaping the imposing gopura on Virupaksha's gate and fascinating aspects of South Indian architecture–like the mythical creature 'Yali' (which has physical characteristics of various animals), known to ward of evil. It leads us to the ranga mandap, which has frescoes depicting scenes from Hindu epics and other stories. Though dedicated to Shiva, it also has shrines of Pampadevi and Bhuvaneshvari. It has a resident elephant (typical of South Indian temples) and the pavilions flanking the street outside, were once part of a thriving Hampi Bazaar.

We check out the 6.7 m monolithic Narsimha and at Badavilinga temple, the 3 m monolithic Shiv Linga, but find the Royal Enclosure more captivating. Its Lotus Mahal, with lovely lawns, is two-storied, has a temple-influenced base and an Islamic-style superstructure. Its architects created a cooling system by way of terracotta pipes, through which water would circulate. This architectural fusion can also be seen in the row of domed chambers, better known as Elephant Stables. The Stepped Tank nearby boasts great workmanship.

Granite is also used in unusual ways: square-shaped 'stone' food plates for workers and soldiers; though too heavy to lift, are well designed with a large circle carved in the middle and four small ones at the corners. Then there are the huge stone doors  (possibly five tonnes each)  that once allowed people through the palace's East Gate. Can you imagine your finger's fate, if you were to shut the door on it by mistake?

Our day ends at Vittala Temple, the most elaborately carved marvel we've seen so far. Its vahan mandap, which houses Vishnu's vehicle–garuda, is built like a chariot, which never moves; only its wheels do. Carved images of foreigners selling horses show you the glory of its market's past. The complex, like most others, is spacious and open. Some pillars of the maha mandap produce musical notes, when tapped.

This natural boulder-piled Anjenadri Hill is home to a Hanuman temple, it's located the lush Anegundi area of Hampi

The Unfamiliar

A few days later, I take a ferry across the Tungabhadra to explore Hampi's less-visited side, Anegundi. My new guide, Gopal, is well trained too (apparently all Hampi guides are) with a a masters. And I'm lucky, he's also a local. He lived here till Hampi was declared a heritage site and residents were asked to vacate. The new home is small, he complains, and many are still to get one. I'm keen on exploring by foot and he obliges so I soak it all in, at my own pace. Anegundi is more lush than the other side, attracts birds, has a village vibe, fewer monuments and boulder hills. The view from Anjenadri Hill is worth the 500-step climb, but beware monkeys en route, eager to snatch food. After a great trek to some deserted and non nondescript monuments, I head to the little island of Virupapur Gadde.'

Galli Music Shop has instruments from around the world

The Unexpected

Just about 2 km long, it's nothing like the rest of Hampi. German bakeries and falafel bars replace local food restaurants, foreigners outnumber locals, an open-air Jewish synagogue (where I'm made to feel like a foreigner) substitutes temples, graffiti covers walls, guesthouses (with hammocks) overlook paddy fields, streets have Goa-style shopping, adventure shops offer boulder climbing and people prefer cycling to walking. Galli Music Shop has instruments from around the world, but "don't ask their name, just listen to their rhythms," its owner says. He plays one to demonstrate his point, more people enter, pick them up and start jamming too.

WHERE TO STAY

- For young and budget travellers Virupapur Gadde is great place to stay, for its vibrancy and value-for-money guest houses.

- But for professionals or business persons, Hyatt Place Hampi is apt. This select service hotel doesn't provide a porter, but offers meals 24 x 7. It has stylish, spacious, well-furnished rooms, wi fi connectivity, a swimming pool, gym and even cycles. Ride around JSW Township, where it's located, and visit Kaladham for an awe-inspiring virtual tour of Hampi.

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