South India Motorcycle Trip — Part 3: Hampi


India 7 comments

Foreword

After my time in the Western Ghats, I visited Hampi. I intended to stay there for two or three days before moving on to Goa, but I enjoyed the atmosphere in the place so much that I ended up staying a week. The road to Hampi from Agumbe (through Davengere) was decent, passing through villages, farms, and a lot of greenery. Once, I was drinking tea at a roadside stall and a guy on a cycle was talking about how he would love to buy a motorcycle and travel like. The tea stall owner laughed and told him, “There’s no way you can afford this motorcycle even if you earn all your life.” His words left me with a very uneasy sense of gratitude for what I was doing. I am lucky to be able to do what I do, even I don’t always see the privilege inherent in the ability to make the choices I have made.

Hampi is a place where Hindus go to visit a temple, rock climbers go for some of the best climbing in the world, backpackers go to do nothing in paddy fields and cheap guest houses and tourists go to marvel at the artistry of the dynasties of the south. I did a little bit of each of these things, and more! Decorated with what are apparently some of the oldest exposed boulders and hills on the planet, there is an undeniable sense of peace and dare I say spiritual energy everywhere in Hampi’s air.  Here is my post about this remarkable place. Full details about the trip can be found here.

Bouldering

Tl;dr: Hampi has world class bouldering, but I’m not a world class boulderer. Still enjoyed myself thoroughly.

Some vague online research tells me that the boulders and rocks in Hampi are among the oldest on the planet. There are boulders everywhere and each boulder is an invitation for climbers to summit it.

Bouldering in Hampi
Me making my awkward way up a boulder as the sun sets in the background

Unfortunately for me, most of the climbing here is beyond my skill level. So many holds are crimp holds (where you’re holding on by the last centimetre of your fingers), and my whole body hates crimp holds.

Even so, there are a few rock climbing shops in town that will gladly take you to where there are good climbs for whatever your current level is. I went twice, both times with a shop named Tom and Jerry, and loved it. The two friends who founded this shop have been inseparable since childhood. Hence the name.

Sunset after bouldering
Watching the sunset after a hard session of climbing

Bouldering happens when you want it, but sunset is a great time to go. It’s not too hot, the views all around you are amazing, and you get great pictures of your awkwardness on the boulder.

Sunrise

Tl;dr: Sunrise in Hampi is beautiful. You should see it.

Sunrise
Sunrise and layers upon layers of an alien landscape

Hampi has a thousand hills dotting its landscape. They are not very tall, and there are trails to the top of every one. If you’re tired of the village or the bustle of the markets, you can always just climb up one of these big boulders and relax. The most famous of these is Matanga hill. It offers a grand view of the whole of Hampi, and best of all, a great place to go watch sunrise.

Hampi’s sky and landscape at Sunrise
Every direction offers a different view when you look from Matanga hill

Watching the sunrise is a simple affair:

  1. Get there before sunrise
  2. Ignore the crowds OR find a secluded spot (some tips on how to do this below)
  3. Enjoy the sunrise
  4. ???
  5. Profit
Sunrise from close to the Virupaksha temple

There are multiple paths up Matanga hill; the most common one is the one you get when you follow the sign up the hill. If you just refuse to acknowledge it, or (like I did) just not see it, you can walk further ahead and climb up the other side. There are a few advantages to climbing up the other side. Firstly, it’s on the eastern face of the hill, so if you happen to be late getting here, you can still catch sunrise as you climb. It’s also a lot less crowded. There are many rocks that make great sitting spots as you make your way up. You can sit, read, and meditate all without anybody blocking your line of sight in any direction.

Sunrise from Matanga hill
Tourists like me enjoying the sunrise from atop Matanga hill

Not that the crowd is all bad. There are couples sitting peacefully on the edge, solo travellers just like you taking in the view without comment, peaceful smiles on wise faces young and old. However, there are also professional photographers taking pictures of models in beautiful, but discordant clothing. There are groups of college students shouting happily at each other, kids running dangerously close to the edge happily oblivious to their parents’ desperate cries for caution.

There is, of course, a tea seller. It’s a kid who you meet later again on the way down. He tells you he comes here every morning at 5:00 AM, stays for two hours selling tea, and then goes to school. At sunset, he takes his tea to Sunset Point to repeat the process. After that, study, dinner, sleep. Talking to him, you again feel uneasy about the fact that you can complain about having to wake up early to climb up and take pretty pictures of the sunrise.

Temples

Tl;dr: Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its temples. The sculptures, the intricacies in the architecture, and the general feel of the temples are themselves worth the visit to Hampi.

Achyutaraya temple complex from the top of Matanga hill
The Achyutaraya temple complex from the top of Matanga hill. You can walk down here after sunrise and then walk all the way to Vithala temple. It’s a great way to spend a few hours

Hampi appears in the Hindu epic Ramayana as the kingdom of monkeys where Rama found Hanuman, a devout follower to go to the ends of the earth for him, and an army to fight his battles.

Ruins and temples
Sculptures and pillars
Vithala temple
The famous cart of Hampi at Vithala temple. Those wheels could move once upon a time

The lands of Hampi are peppered with stories from the Ramayana. Matanga hill, where we watched the sunrise in the previous section, is where Rama killed Vali. By the banks of the Tungabhadra river is the Kodandarama temple, where Rama crowned Sugreeva as the king of the monkeys. Of course, being the original home of Hanuman, there are also many temples dedicated to the mon the landscape.

The main temples in Hampi (by main, I mean the ones that show up on photos if you search for Hampi) are the Virupaksha temple and the Vithala temple. Inside the Virupaksha temple are Gods and monkeys (and monkey Gods) and priests and devout people and tourists. There is also an elephant that gets bathed in the river every morning at 8:30 AM.

These temples, just like those in Belur and Halebeedu really showcase the creativity of the artisans and architects of the time. There are idols that face True West so that the sun shines on them directly twice a year on the equinoxes. There are pillars that when struck, play musical notes. There is a cart with a wheel that is free to move a bit, except it’s been cemented by the Archaeological Society of India because of too many meddling tourists.

As I was walking to the Vithala temple, these kids surrounded me and forced me to take their picture. Reverse paparazzi. They also couldn’t stop laughing!
More ruins and hills
Ruins and temples
Sunrise through pillars and ruins
Reflections and ruins on the hill close to Virupaksha temple

Close to the Virupaksha temple is a big boulder (I want to call it hill, but I hesitate) and scattered on it are small shrines and temples that are a great place to go walk around during sunrise. One morning, I was too late to go to Matanga and ended up walking around these ruins on my own among the pillars and sculptures. Monkeys were lazily considering the openly defecating locals and me, while the sky went through its daily metamorphosis from dark to orange to bright, lighting up the ruins in a sequence of opportunities for photography.

Marriage and Coracle ride

The day I got to Hampi, I was quite tired and bored. So I was just sitting at a restaurant (The Shiva Moon cafe), eating mediocre Indian food and reading an unmemorable novel. I got to talking with Giri, the owner of the guest house and three travellers from France who had become his friends. Giri, was short, stout, and lively. He spoke with a great enthusiasm about everything. Within a few minutes, he had invited the french guys and me to his brother’s marriage in a nearby village.

These kids posed non-stop for pictures
French travellers awkwardly singing Hotel California

So off we went in a bus with loud music blaring from speakers of poor quality. The marriage was a timid affair; both the girl and the boy looked too young to be going through what seemed like an ordeal for them. They looked bored of the incessant procession of guests congratulating them and giving them gifts. There was a band playing Kannada and Hindi songs without much energy as we ate our delicious lunch, which included among many other things, a spicy tangy chutney of green chillies. At some point, we visited a temple where the marriage was formalised by God. I asked around and found it extremely funny that not a single person knew which God the temple was dedicated to, but all of them folded their hands and prayed with great devotion.

The Frenchmen were the cause of many smiles and selfies. They were forced up on stage to give a bad rendition of Hotel California.

Giri’s uncle, who only goes by Mamaji, preparing Mutton especially for me.

Over the next few days, Giri, Manju (Giri’s brother), and I became good friends and I spent a lot of time just chatting with them at their restaurant. One night, he took me on a coracle ride. Coracles are round boats, made of bamboo. During the day, they ferry curious tourists up and down the river. Sitting in the boat as it floats downstream, rotating pleasantly around its axis, is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

Hampi’s unreal rock formations were visible by the light of the half moon as we slowly made our way down the river, drinking our beer. Giri told me stories about the rocks and the temples, some which still contain treasures that are unknown to all but a few lucky souls. As the water gently splashed around us, he pointed out places where only locals were allowed to go, places for camping where even the police wouldn’t know to look.

When the beer got over, I volunteered to row back to shore. Rowing a coracle upstream is a curious skill. You have to balance your strokes on both sides to stop the boat from rotating, while also making sure that you’re putting in enough effort that you actually make progress against the current. Our journey back, thanks to my lack of skill, was extremely inefficient, but a lot of fun.

Across the river

Most guest houses in Hampi are located across the river from the main temple. The feel in this guest houses is exactly the same as the backpacker-friendly portions of Leh or Manali. The people are smoking and talking and seem to radiate a feeling of being in a place where time is no longer of any importance. The menus are many pages long with sections for Indian, Chinese, European, and Israeli dishes.

There are paddy fields close by with local kids and families walking about, smiling at the foreign tourists. There are a few guest houses in the fields as well, a little distance away from the pleasantly madding crowd if that is what you prefer.

About six kilometres from Hampi is Sannapur lake – a huge and beautiful manmade lake. I stayed here at the home of Manju, one of Giri’s friends. Talking with him, I realised that a lot of the people who own and run guest houses are caught in a web of debt and poverty. The guest houses that cater to backpackers barely make enough money for them to pay their staff and contribute toward the repayment of the loans that they had to take to set up the places.

What makes it even worse in Hampi is that the government is trying to shut down guest houses on both sides of the river, claiming that commercial establishments cannot be allowed so close to a UNESCO World Heritage Side (on the temple side of the river) or in a national forest (on the backpacker side of the river). According to the locals, all of this is a ploy by politicians to direct tourists towards the more expensive hotel in the nearby town of Hospet, hotels that they just happen to have invested a lot of money in.

Paddy fields in Hampi
Paddy fields and good vibes.

As I write this post, Giri and Manju’s restaurant and guest house have been shut down, and they are now trying to run a cafe near the bus stand. They don’t know what the future holds for them, but they are cheerful. “We won’t die. God will provide us with something or the other to keep us busy,” Manju says.

Giri has a girlfriend from Colombia. “She keeps calling me there, but how can I go when I have nothing? I don’t want to depend on her for my daily needs. How can I call myself a man if can’t even earn my own living?”.

Perezosa
Perezosa at Giri’s friend’s house near Sannapur lake

Travel Details

Getting there: I got here by motorcycle, of course. But there are buses to Hampi from Bangalore. Taxis can be hired for the journey. There is also a train that drops you off in the nearby own of Hospet

Staying: With all the news of guest houses shutting down, I’m not quite sure any more. I think the guest houses for backpackers across the river are still open. There are some nice hotels and lodges near Sannapur lake. Expensive hotels are present in Hospet.

Doing: All the things! Walk around town. Rent a bicycle and bike around. Go for a bouldering session. Admire the temples and architecture. Watch Lakshmi the elephant getting bathed. Go rock climbing. Climb hills with other tourists to watch the sun rise. Climb hills with backpackers to watch the sunset.

7 comments

    Author’s gravatar

    Fabulous account of your journey Pritam!! Pretty good to plan a short trip to Hampi

    Reply

      Author’s gravatar

      Thanks Neema! There are more things to do than what I’ve written about. I’m a pretty slow traveler, so if you do go, you can stay the same number of days and do a lot more!

      Reply

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