Hampi, Hippy Heaven

This is one of the most important archaeological sites in India. From the 14th to the 16th centuries it was an immense city of half a million people, second in the whole world only to Peking. Portuguese and Persian travellers tell of beautiful palaces beyond number and bustling market places that stretched as far as the eye could see. There were busy temples and clever administrators conducting business in all three languages of the South: Kanada, Tamil and Malayalam. It was the capital of the great Hindu empire of Vijayanagara, whose territories had spread across Southern India from coast to coast but finally fell in 1565 to a coalition of Islamic forces from the surrounding regions. For nearly two hundred and fifty years its glory was all but forgotten as the conquerors moved their capitals to Hyderabad and Bijapur and the forest reclaimed the remains of Hampi for the birds and wild animals.

The city was rediscovered in 1800 by Colonel Colin Mackenzie, a man of many talents from the Scottish Hebrides who seems to have joined the British East India Company more by accident than design. A keen orientalist, he was responsible for the first comprehensive survey of these territories after the defeat of the Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, and he left a vast collection of documents, plans and drawings whose value is much appreciated by scholars to this day. Systematic excavation did not begin until much more recently though and, since the whole site extends for twenty miles, will continue for many years to come.

When it came to booking somewhere to stay at Hampi we had been mystified as to why our agent could only offer us hotels some distance outside of the old city when there appeared to be a substantial settlement actually situated within the perimeter. Deepak suggested that if we wished to stay there we choose from among the many budget “guest houses” available on-line and book our own. When we arrived our driver had to transfer us and our luggage to an auto-rickshaw as the streets were too narrow for cars but the not-so-well-kept secret of Hampi was soon to be revealed.

Ever since the ancient city fell into disuse all those years ago there has been a little village on the edge of the Tungabhadra River supplying the need of the huge Sri Virupaksha temple which remained in active use. Gradually over the last thirty years or so it became a stopping off place along the hippy trail and more and more Westerners who were “doing India” took to camping beside the river or staying in whatever accommodation could be provided. Enterprising locals set up businesses to cater to their needs until a thriving, rainbow-coloured Lonely Planetarium has grown up.

That each of these small hotels and restaurants seemed to have a roof garden and each had been recently plastered with anti-drug taking messages suggests that not everyone came here to study archaeology. The waist-length dreadlocks and greying beards of a few of the occupants also suggests that they have been “not studying” it for several decades. All of the guest houses now offer Wifi, Nutella toast and cheap onward bookings to Goa while a maze of tiny shops sell brightly coloured baggy pants, tarnished Tibetan jewellery and faded Bob Marley T-shirts.

Dropped off and left to our own devices, we spent a couple of nights at the Archana, enjoying some excellent Indian food and extremely cheap laundry services. Our cheerful host pointed me towards the regular morning elephant wash down at the river and I took a turn at wielding the scrubbing brush over a reclining animal the size of a truck while being tickled and snorted by that most sensitive proboscis. If you have ever seen a cat luxuriating in a good ear scratch then just imagine that times a hundred.

Laxmi and her two keepers are employees of the temple where they hand out (trunk out?) blessings every evening in exchange for donations. It’s not such a bad life when you consider she was not taken from the forest until the age of nine and will be returned to it before she reaches 40. At least an hour is lavished on her morning ablutions and for the greater part of the year tourist traffic is light and she must make do with the attention of a few pilgrims and devotees. This is elephant husbandry as it has been practiced in India for thousands of years and, while I have no doubt that war elephants were subject to a very different regime, it was a great privilege to become so intimately acquainted with such an affectionate (and clean) colossus.

Our guide was waiting impatiently to show us around as much of the site as we could manage in eight hours and I’m afraid I’ve not too clear a recollection of all that we saw. The whole plateau on which this city was constructed is formed of one single strata of high quality granite and, in places, great rounded boulders still tower over the remaining buildings. Of the many great, wooden palaces only the stone foundations withstood the conquest but most of the religious building were made of stone and didn’t burn so easily. Many of these have survived, if in need of a considerable amount of re-assembly

The scale of it all makes it very difficult to describe but seemingly random things stick in the memory. The main thoroughfare of the market was constructed of flag stones and lined with columns for more than a kilometre in length. Rectangular stone watchtowers dot the surrounding hills and massive set of elephant stables speaks of the grandeur of some of the royal ceremonies. Wonderful friezes on the palace steps show hunting parties and wrestling matches, visitors from Europe and Asia and regiments of female soldiers. I wonder if the latter really fought in battles or were actually a kind of trophy honour guard like the one employed by Colonel Gaddafi? Of the religious buildings perhaps the most memorable detail was the musical columns of the Vittal Temple although you would have to resort to You-Tube to hear them nowadays as the guides have been stopped from giving demonstrations.

In the evening we dressed in our best Indian finery and attended the sunset ceremony after a weary day of exploration. There were queues of pilgrims being fed from communal pots while a trumpet and various drums and cymbals played something more akin to jazz than traditional Indian music. Strange as it seemed, this did not appear to be in honour of all the American and European backpackers in town as, by now, most of them had retreated to their enclave along with the obligatory laptops and i-phones.

Our host told us that the government has been trying to shut down the hippy-style guest houses for several years now. No doubt they would prefer high end hotels more in keeping with World Heritage Status but I hope that Laxmi or her successor will still bathe in the boulder strewn river every morning while little round coracles ferry locals and visitors alike to the as yet unexplored ruins on the other side.

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