Published: August 13th 2009July 24th 2009
The train ride from Goa to Karnataka takes us up through the Western Ghats, passing the spectacular Dudhsagar Falls near the state border. The heavy monsoon rains of the past fortnight have swollen the rivers, so the falls are heavy with water and, up here in the hills, it is cool and misty. As well as the main falls, a huge 600mtr drop, we pass many smaller waterfalls and rivers coloured rich red-brown, looking like a Wonka creation…I keep my eyes peeled for Oompa Loompas.
We are literally up in the clouds and it is beautiful. The forest is never greener that at this time of year and the air is fresh…it feels a world away from the deserts of Rajasthan. I breathe deeply and savour a perfect monsoon moment. Then, without warning, the rains come heavy again and I get drenched whilst trying to close a jammed window with the help of half the carriage!
Train travel is far more social that buses in India. With 6-8 people sharing a cabin, there’s more opportunity for conversation, and there’s a constant stream of food vendors selling delicious fresh samosa and bhaji, and chai wallahs to keep us happy. The
toilets are kept clean, and knowing that you can stretch your legs and empty your bladder whenever you need make for a far more enjoyable journey.
A woman with a beautiful, blue-eyed baby comes through the carriage, singing a Hindi love song for coins. She is followed by a pair of hijra, [Indian transvestites] who home in on groups of men, embarrassing them into handing over some rupees. The men in our carriage are left helpless with laughter when one of them is targeted; the lady boy lunging for his lap, and only got rid of with a handful of coins.
After 7 hours, the train stops at Hospet, the jumping off point for our destination, another 20 mins away by rickshaw. Hampi was once a magnificent Hindu kingdom called Vijayanagar, until it was devastated by a 6-month Muslim siege in the 2nd half of the 16th century. Almost nothing was left unscathed, though what remains is extraordinarily atmospheric.
Scattered among a bizarre, boulder-strewn landscape, on the banks of the Tungabhadra River, are the remains of palaces, pavilions and temples. Ancient irrigation channels feed acres of banana plantations, and the hills of boulders and riverside paths make
for some fantastic walks.
We stay at the Archana Guesthouse, run by a friendly family and overlooking the river in a quiet lane off the bazaar. Hampi is a very small village clustered round Virupaksha temple. It is a Hindu pilgrimage site and therefore a very peaceful place to be. The villagers are very friendly and we enjoy the location and atmosphere so much that we end up staying for 10 days. Alcohol and meat are forbidden in Hampi, but there are many excellent places to eat, including the wonderfully located Mango Tree with its multi-tiered riverbank seating. It is the favorite breakfast destination of a nearby, and very expensive, ashram, who unwittingly provide a hilarious morning sideshow with their antics.
The weather is much drier and cooler here; there is still daily rainfall, but nothing like the heavy deluge we have been experiencing, and there is plenty of sunshine, making for perfect conditions for exploring by foot, boat and bike. We do all three, hiring a scooter one day to visit the more far flung royal palaces, the beautiful Lotus Mahal and the elephant stables. The riverside walk to the virtually untouched Vitthala temple takes you through
the ancient colonnaded bazaar and Achyutharaya temple, where some erotic carvings have survived.
One day we catch a different perspective when we take a trip down the river by coracle. These circular basket boats have been traversing this wild, whirlpooling river for over five centuries, and allow access to temple ruins that’d be otherwise inaccessible. The views from water-level of the ghats and temples, and towering boulder hills are unforgettable.
According to the Ramayana, before the time of men, this settlement was once the domain of monkey Kings, and the huge boulder piles were created by their monkey armies in a great show of strength! There is definitely something ‘Planet of the Apes’ about the place, what with the banana plantations and the hundreds of monkeys that live all around the ruins and bazaar.
Hampi is a magical place to be, but the time soon comes to move on. We wake on the morning of the solar eclipse, but thick clouds make viewing impossible, so we get on the early bus out of town, heading towards the coastline. We decide to stop first at Jog Falls, the highest waterfall in India. Though very beautiful, it is a
bit of a disappointment as the settlement above the walking trail is pretty shabby. There is just one, well-below average restaurant and only a couple of government run lodges which are more like prisons. We only stay one night!
The following morning we catch a total of three local buses, which take us through the stunning Western Ghats to the Karnataka coastal town of Gokarna. We are only 30 kms south of the border with Goa, and the scenery is reminiscent of our favorite Goan region…forest clad hills, plantations and paddy fields providing a visual riot in green.
Since we were last at the coast the sun has come out and what a difference it makes! Gokarna is another important Hindu pilgrimage destination, and shares the peaceful and friendly atmosphere we have enjoyed at all the others, from Pushkar to Hampi. The tourist scene is in its infancy here, centered a few kms from town at the beaches of Kudlee and Om (so names for its uncanny Om shape). During monsoon there is only one place open on Om beach: the overpriced and mildewed ‘Namaste’, so we decide to stay just a couple of nights in town at
the surprisingly cheap Gokarna International hotel.
The weather is glorious and we enjoy walks over the headland to Om and back; supping surreptitious beers in a fisherman’s hut and excellent meals of dosa, vada and other southern specialties. But the sunshine is making us think of Palolem, and the apartment we’d found before we left for Hampi. So we decide to head back north, to spend our last fortnight with a holiday in Goa.
There are more photos below