It is a little like Kathmandu used to be, before the tourist numbers swelled. In Hampi, southern India, a laid-back, easy-going welcome awaits travellers at what is now a World Heritage site
Hampi, in the heart of southern India, is an almost obligatory stop for long-term travellers and backpackers who arrive here to relax and gather their energies for the next onward stage of their journey. The atmosphere is very much like that of Kathmandu before all the tourists arrrived. Set among strangely rounded hills close to the rock-strewn Tungbhadra River, there is an almost magical feel about the place. There are temples in all directions, and European visitors quickly and easily learn to emulate the laid-back, timeless pace of the local inhabitants.
Here is a medieval village amid numerous shrines and temples that is still an active place of worship. Pilgrims gather outside the long tunnel-like entrance to the Virupaksha temple complex, built to honour Shiva, in the very heart of Hampi Bazaar. They sleep under thin sheets waiting for the day to come and are already stirring at 6am as the first wisps of lightness appear in the night sky.
The Tungabhadra River – and Vithala Temple
The light breaks over the Tungabhadra River which flows between huge boulders worn smooth over aeons of time, like an oasis in the parched lands of the Deccan Plateau of Karnataka state. Within this luxuriant haven are banana plantations, coconut groves, monkeys clambering high above in giant palms. The placid, clear water of the river gently flows and mutters through rocks that are rounded and crazily shaped. Huge boulders pile up on one another above the small circuitous road on the far bank that wends its way to a hill summit where a small white temple sits. There are temples and entrances formed out of the huge rocks everywhere. Further along the river is Vithala Temple, a World Heritage site.
The Virupaksha Temple
However, it is the Virupaksha Temple in the middle of Hampi Bazaar that commands most respect. It appears to hover above the hills and trees, the boulders and the mirror-like rock pools calling you back to the 700m-long avenue that leads up to its entrance, lined by the sadhus (mystics). There are quieter places on the way back past the ghats (broad flights of steps leading down to the water) where you can bathe in the Tungabhadra.
Above the ghats is a rock temple. Further along the path, in a tunnel through the huge rocks, a solitary sadhu sits bolt-upright in deep contemplation. He wishes you Namaste (good morning) in the most melodious of voices, though he scarcely moves.
The avenue leads back past abandoned colonnades that were once the approaches to the king's palace. Now, they are inhabited by pilgrims just waking up from their night's sleep. Mists surround the temple, climbing up above the long avenue, while in the back streets to the right of the temple are roof restaurants that cater to the tastes of travellers above narrow lanes.
Restaurant specialities, peaceful ways
Every restaurant has its own speciality to entice visitors. Pineapple, papaya and banana lassis are a dream, the frothed curd making a marvellously refreshing drink. The Geeta River View Restaurant is a location at which to get mellow while admiring the view and feasting on the incredibly tasty fritters that cost a mere 30 rupees.
The crowded buildings where the restaurants and guest houses are located hint at the centuries-old heritage of the village, for it is some 450 years since Hampi's grandeur came to an end as the centre of the Vijayanagar Empire. The present-day village preserves the ancient order while its inhabitants reap the benefits of being a living example of old peaceful ways.
Monkeys clamber noisily over rooftops, sacred cows wander the lanes, which are swept clear of dust by the wives and daughters of solicitous hotel owners. This is a cleaner, altogether more restful version of the south Indian lifestyle prepared for the Europeans on their grand tour, sampling the culture and customs of a still exotic way of life. It is rather like Kathmandu was some 20 years ago, before thousands of trekkers arrived. No wonder Hampi continues to grow in popularity.
Where to stay
To partake fully of this inspirational atmosphere, you will need to locate in Hampi Bazaar itself – at one of the numerous cheap and cheerful guest houses, such as the popular Shanthi Guest House (00 91 8394 41415) or the Sri Laxmi Golden Beach Resort (00 91 8394 387 008) which is right on the Tungabhadra River and offers a very tranquil environment for long-term visitors – as many of the guests are.
Hampi itself does not have hotels, only the more basic guest houses. If you would like a little more comfort, it is best to stay in Hospet, eight miles away and a half-hour bus ride from Hampi. There, the Hotel Malligi offers air-conditioned rooms, internet connections and a swimming pool – and you are only a short ride away (by taxi, auto rickshaw or bus) from the World Heritage site that is Hampi, giving you the best of both worlds. There are daily tours of the Hampi monuments which start and finish at the hotel, for those who prefer the services of a guide.
If you are not staying in Hospet, near the Hotel Malligi, you can book a temple tour by calling at the tourist office (00 91 8394 41339) on the main street in Hampi Bazaar. The charge for a day's tour is approximately 700 rupees, less for half a day.
Hospet is the local transport hub, with trains to Bangalore and Goa. This makes it feasible to combine a visit to the beaches of Goa with a glimpse into the very heart of India and its temples at Hampi.