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Published: December 7th 2007
Watching the sunset over Hampi's temples and wild hills is just one of the pleasures of a visit to this small Karnatakan town.
© L. Birch 2007
Gunfire rattled up and down the darkened streets. From our vantage point up on the rooftop, we could hear the sharp retort of - what sounded like - a gun somewhere down below, to be followed seconds later by rapid retaliatory fire from an automatic - further up the street. Periodic shouting broke out in the smoke filled streets and alleyways of the town while overhead, a starshell exploded with a deafening "BANG"
that thudded through our chests with heart-stopping violence.
We were in the small Karnatakan town of Hampi in south-central India. Had you been brought blindfolded to the rooftop of our hotel without any prior knowledge of what was going on, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had ended up in the middle of a war zone. Fortunately, you would be wrong for these were simply the high spirited celebrations for Divali, India's annual "Festival of Lights".
Divali - a festival of between 3 to 5 days (depending on who you ask) - celebrates the joyous return of Prince Rama from exile. Rama was a central character in the epic Hindu story, the Ramayana
and is believed to be the physical incarnation of the god,
A dancer dressed as one of the gods of Hindu legend, poses for the camera during the Hampi Utsava.
© V. Birch 2007
Shiva. Born the son of King Ayodhya, the adult Rama was pledged to marry Princess Sita but at the last minute, Rama's (evil) stepmother demands that her son marries Sita instead. Not wishing to be parted, Rama and Sita are forced to flee the kingdom in order to stay together. During their exile, they battle the forces of evil - eventually defeating the demon, Ravanna and returning triumphant to claim their rightful place as king and queen of Ayodhya's kingdom. It is a classic tale of good overcoming evil and is one of the many great parables that lie at the heart of the Hindu religion. Uniquely, Hinduism has no single founder nor any central authority and yet it has grown to become the World's third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. Although its origins lie firmly in India, Hinduism crops up in isolated pockets all over Asia. Characters from the Ramayana appear as carvings on temples as widely dispersed as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia.
We had arrived in Hampi to find the small town - the twenty third most holy town in India, one man told us - thronged with pilgrims from all over
In Among the Ruins
A carving of the many armed goddess Kali, adorns a column in the Krishna Temple near Hampi.
© L. Birch 2007
southern India. At the height of the festival, lighted candles fill the doorways and windows of houses lining Hampi's cramped and unpaved backstreets, guiding Rama back home from exile. Later still, the fireworks begin - the explosive sound of homemade firecrackers lasting long into the night and making sleep all but impossible. A Few Days Earlier...
Our journey to Hampi had taken several days. From Bombay, the train south had taken 14 hours, landing us in the Goan capital - Panjim. It had been too late to make onward travel arrangements and anyway, we had long harboured a desire to spend time in and explore the former Portuguese capital.
Most people by-passed the city altogether, opting instead to make straight for one of the state's famous beaches - understandably perhaps. We on the other hand were only passing through and it seemed like a good opportunity to fulfill an ambition to stay in one of the capital's old Portuguese houses. We split the taxi fare from Karmali Junction with Hiedi from Germany and a young Japanese traveller, arriving in Panjim around 4pm - nearly 16 hours after setting out from CST station in Bombay. All the hotels
The Portuguese Influence, Panjim
The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Panjim's Sao Tome district is one of many reminders of Goa's unique Christian heritage, a survivor from the days of Portuguese rule.
© L. Birch 2007
seemed to be full, so we ended up taking a room in a local flea pit owned and patronised by Indians. It was awful. The bedsheets didn't look as if they had ever been changed and next day I counted more than 50 bedbug bites on my arms and torso.
An 8:30am checkout time had seemed ludicrous the night before, but the "Elite Hotel" (a joke, surely?) was so bad that we were packed and gone by 7:30. We found what we were looking for on the edge of the Sao Tome district - a beautiful old colonial house that looked out onto the wooded hills of Fontinhas. Our room was high-ceilinged with a gothic arched window that extended from floor level - almost to the ceiling. For just 50 rupees more than we had paid at the "Elite", our gorgeous room was complete with a king-size double bed and cable TV. Not that TV was a high priority or of much use. Daily powercuts often came at the most inconvenient times - plunging us into a sudden dark silence in the middle of a film or documentary. During early evening however, thoughts of TV were furthest from our
The Virupaksha at the heart of Hampi Bazaar still attracts a steady stream of local pilgrims from all over southern India.
© L. Birch 2007
minds as we settled down in front of the big open window: a cold beer in hand as we watched the sun slip behind Fontihas.
In between exploratory walks through cluttered streets that offered glimpses of white-washed churches, we made plans for our onward journey. There did not seem to be any trains that would get us to our destination easily, so we took a night sleeper bus instead. In the process, we discovered that the term "Sleeper Bus" was actually misleading. Only someone drugged with a powerful anaesthetic would have been able to sleep and even then, they might have had difficulty. Beyond Goa, the roads deteriorated into the sort of pot-holed nightmare that we had only ever experienced in Burma before. In addition, the bus had to undergo a night-long battle with fleets of haulage trucks on the narrow, scarred roads - the sound of loudly blaring horns, a continuous backdrop to the clash of gears and over-revved engines. Thrown and bounced out of our seats on more than one occasion, we snatched the odd half hour of sleep and eventually watched as dawn broke over the central plains.
The reward for enduring such purgatory was
This dramatic view of the ruined Achuteraya Temple, is the reward for cresting rugged hills to the east of Hampi Bazaar.
© L. Birch 2007
to arrive in Hampi and be 'blown away' once more by just how beautiful it was. Set amid a tree-less landscape of huge granite boulders, Hampi Bazaar lies cupped in a valley beside the Tungabhadra River - dwarfed by the immensity and drama of the countryside that surrounds it. Though a small town today, some 500 years ago Hampi was part of a magnificent city of sumptuous temples and palaces - the city of Vijayanagara. But in 1565, the city was ransacked by Muslim invaders and abandoned. The temples that now lay scattered in ruins over Hampi's wild hillsides, were still venerated but fell into disrepair and became 'forgotten', eventually joining a growing number of Asia's so-called 'lost cities'.
During the 80s and 90s, Hampi saw a steady trickle of adventurous young travellers passing through, attracted to the region by its incredible landscapes and magical desert light - ourselves amongst them. Back then, there were no fences or metal gates and you could almost guarantee having a ruined temple to yourself - the only sounds, your own footfall and the cries of parakeets nesting among the overgrown ruins. But times have changed. Six years ago, the Indian government was
Road to the Ruins
An auto rickshaw passes the entrance to one of Hampi's dramatically ruined temples.
© V. Birch 2007
granted World Heritage status for the site. Renovations, fences and well-heeled tourists have followed quickly in its wake. It now seems certain that Hampi's days as the quiet, low key haunt of independent travellers are numbered. We don't want to see it when the new approach roads have finally been completed, the proposed air connections put in and the five star international hotel is built. We wanted to remember the place as it was, as it still is now - a place of light and magic where orange robed sadhus beg for baksheesh and every other rickshaw driver tries to sell you charras
(the local word for marijuana - and this despite signs everywhere warning of the consequences of "illegal consumption"). So this time, we had decided that we would put down temporary roots and stay until the grittiness of Hampi's dusty streets had lodged in our very souls. Hampi Moments
Hampi seemed to weave its magic from the moment we arrived. The fact that it was thronged with visitors from the provinces, all of whom had come to celebrate Divali and a 3-day utsava
(a festival of traditional song and dance), only seemed to add to the
In the Backstreets of Hampi
Brightly coloured dwellings line Hampi's cramped and unpaved backstreets.
© V. Birch 2007
atmosphere. It was strange to be gawped at by people who rarely saw westerners and we soon began to tire of their never-ending questions and repeated requests to "know your good name", but hey, this was India. We were on their turf now and we didn't hold the monopoly on curiosity.
Toward the end of our first evening, the sounds of flute and tabla drums drew us to the huge Virupaksha Temple at the heart of Hampi Bazaar. Up on the tower of the main gopuram, the carved figures of gods and dancers seemed to writhe and move in the flickering lights, while on a makeshift stage in the courtyard below, modern-day dancers were bringing the same scenes to life. The effect was incredible; the costumes, the extravagant gestures, the so-white eyes rimmed with kohl - all contrived to produce an emotional response. It was something we had come to describe as a "Hampi Moment", when the intensity of the here-and-now was so strong that you were almost moved to tears. Hampi moments could sneak up on you when you least expected them: the breathtaking sight of emerald green parakeets above lonely ruins could sometimes be enough. At another
Pretty as a Flower
Hampi's future lies in the hands of today's children. In the days ahead, we would be working with some of them on a children's project in Hampi Bazaar.
© V. Birch 2007
time, you might be watching the sunset from Hemakuta Hill when a snatch of sitar accompanied song drifts up from the temple below. It was the very essence of the travel experience: the moment when you felt the rock beneath your hand and really knew that you were alive.
We were looking forward to many more such moments in the month that lay ahead. There were isolated temple ruins to explore, rocky hills to climb and we had even scoped out an opportunity to do some voluntary work on a children's project in Hampi Bazaar. As we closed the door of our simple room on the final night's celebration of Divali, we flung ourselves beneath the mosquito net and fell quickly to sleep, our limbs twitching like those of dogs chasing rabbits in their dreams. Not even the explosive sounds of Divali could disturb our sleep. It had been a busy few days and tomorrow.... and the day after, looked set to be the same.
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