A few weeks back when we went to our friend Santhanam’s house for coffee I brought along my India map, and he offered his advice on the must-see destinations in South India. While we sipped on coffee in his bedroom we worked through the map. He highlighted several places on the map that I had never heard of.
“The Thillai Natarajah temple is there, dedicated to Nataraja, Shiva, the Dancer of the Universe…”
He continued to highlight cities scattered throughout the region, each one chosen for their temple-centric highlights. He highlighted his last selection and looked me in the eyes.
“Hampi. You have to go there.” He put the cap back on the highlighter. “It was the capital of the last great Hindu empire in our history. There is a temple there called the Virupaksha, dedicated to Shiva. It’s also the land of monkey gods.”
Monkey gods you say? Say no more, you had me at monkey gods.
Santhanam’s recommended destinations hardly surprised me given that he lives and breathes Hindu temples. He had picked his dream pilgrimage route where one could provide offerings to the gods and receive blessings.
With crazed eyes Brad reminded me of his contempt for temples, solidifying my hunch that he wouldn’t survive this pilgrimage route. Brad’s take on temples is: “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” This distaste for temple-hopping, I’m afraid, was my fault. I had dragged him to a dozen too many castles during our college year in Wales, insistent on using our unlimited UK castle pass to its fullest potential, and in doing so killed his interest in old buildings.
Truthfully I probably wouldn’t survive so many temples either, but I still appreciate them. Each one is historically and visually unique, but they all share the ability to draw in endless daily worshippers.
Regardless, Hampi had piqued not only my interest, but believe it or not, Brad’s too. Brad envisioned camping among the granite boulder hills and I, in addition to camping, was intrigued by its ancient temples and palaces. The village of Hampi sits on the 14th century ruins of Vijaynagar, described as one of the most beautiful medieval cities in the world during that time, whose people specialized in the cotton, precious stone, and spice trades.
We rolled into town around midday and took survey of the area. Goal one was to find a campsite that was both scenic and far enough from anything that we would be invisible to the locals, hopefully preventing the inevitable gawkery that would occur if we were to be found. We located a potential camping region on the Garmin and hastily pointed Nacho in its direction.
If you want to know one of the most exhausting things about overlanding, it’s finding camping spots. Some days it takes ten minutes, other days it takes hours, and sometimes (more often than not in India) it results in us camping at shoddy gas stations with two dozen semis lined up outside.
We were two hours into our search, having been ejected by an ashram as we tried to cross its property in search of our camp, and I was ready to rip my hair out and offer it to the monkey gods in exchange for a little help. Where was this road!? We gave up and began searching for an alternative.
“Hey what about that road?” Brad asked. “It looks promising don’t you think?”
I glanced down the dirt road. It was getting dark and rule number one in looking for campsites is to avoid—at all costs—not having one when the sun sets because after that, efficiency drops to zero and I’m up all night wondering if the boogie man is outside my window. I scanned the surroundings. No buildings and no people, only trees and rocks. Could it be? Seclusion in India?
We cut down a narrow dirt road that squiggled alongside the curves of a natural canal. On the other side the dirt dropped down to an expansive area of compact agricultural land full of banana trees.
“Monkeys!” I shrieked.
It was a species I hadn’t seen and they were gorgeous with long tails, beautiful grey coats and faces so black I could hardly make out their features. Langur monkeys, I later found out.
Brad looked surprised as he swiped the GPS, “hey this is that road I was trying to find! Somehow we ended up on the other end of it.” Well I’ll be damned. We came to an abrupt halt as Nacho became engulfed in a herd of a few hundred goats. The shepherd worked the livestock around us and then stood wide-eyed at our door. He stood on his toes and peered back at our living quarters and then back at us and held out his upturned hand. “Money?”
To our luck the road widened for a mere fifteen feet and then narrowed back to one lane, so we pulled off. Seriously, this was prime camping in India. Yeah we’d probably be found by gawkers in the morning, but for now it was deserted. Our sliding door opened to a hillside of scattered boulders and we felt content. It was goat herder’s terrain for sure and from where we sat a rock slab stretched across the canal to fertile grazing ground. For me, it was the perfect spot to take in the views. It was gloriously peaceful here. I could see for miles and off in the distance silhouettes of columned temples topped boulder-studded hills.
In the morning we awoke to the strange sound of meowing peacocks in the bushes and workers driving tractors to the banana fields. In town we filled our tummies with idly, a south Indian breakfast made of steamed rice and lentils, and served with at a tomato chutney called sambar. We rented two cruisers and pedaled into the countryside.
Hampi was something quite unique. We couldn’t go a hundred feet without seeing some sort of ruin. A mix of granite boulders and hand cut stone bricks formed walls along the road and old temples provided a look into a past with their floors dotted with worn pits in their surface from grinding grains. Other ruins sported bas reliefs on their walls; one showed a strange battle scene involving an elephant ripping the legs off of someone.
Hampi had its own battle roaring on too. While it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, its managing authority is struggling to meet UNESCO’s conservation requirements stating that more of the historic structures need to be secured. Currently only 56 of the 1600 are, and UNESCO warns a balance must be found so that the ruins and villages can co-exist.
The locals use the vast temple grounds for grazing their livestock and from my perspective the coexistence seems to work. It was something to think about anyway as I watched the locals among the ruins, like the fierce old woman who dominated her cattle with a flimsy branch and the shepherd who slept on the rocks as his sheep manicured the fields. Some areas, it seemed, were better maintained than others, such as the fields where local women were hired to “mow” the grass by hand.
Like every great empire, this one too came to an end. It was conquered in the 1500’s by the Muslims, pillaged for many months, and left abandoned. Most buildings were destroyed but some are still intact.
The Royal Center was fortunately spared and a number of protected ruins remain such as a lavish pavilion with lobed columns, a watchtower, and a long Islamic style building used to house the royal family’s elephants. The building was divided into stables, each with a domed chamber and a roof that contained a metal hook used to secure the elephants while still allowing them 360 degrees of tangle-free motion.
The nearby Queen’s Bath was a “royal pleasure complex” built for the King and his wives. Balconies and verandas surrounded the center pool that once overflowed with fragrant flowers and perfume-infused water.
We were about to call it a day when I remembered a temple left unseen. “After this temple we can return our bikes and go back to our camp spot,” I pleaded. Brad reluctantly agreed.
We cut through Hampi and quickly hit the Tungabhadra River—the most gorgeous river I have seen in all of India. It was something out of a fairy tale with turquoise blue water and boulder-strewn banks. We rode our bikes along a cobblestone path built in the 1500’s to protect the city from flooding. The path turned too rough for our cruisers so we aborted and continued down the path on foot. Eventually the embankment ended and we walked to the river’s edge. Far downstream I could see several columned temples, but it was even better right around where we stood. Flat boulders sat partially submerged in the water and dozens of lingas, the symbol of the Lord Shiva, were carved into their granite surfaces. Indian tourists continued down the path to the temples and at the water’s edge a woman washed her clothes while monkeys acted like monkeys, and round teacup boats waited to be rented. We didn’t make it to the temple. Instead we sat on the bank and talked to a local from a nearby big city for over an hour.
As we headed back I noticed two kittens near a drink stand—one with only one eye and the other with none, only empty eye sockets. “No eyes?” I asked the drink stand man.
“Birth defect.” The eyeless kitten was strangely attentive and it stared at me just like it had two eyes. It was the most peculiar and wonderful creature. I couldn’t imagine how it would survive, perhaps the siblings would stick together for life.
Hampi was to be our last destination in South India. There were a number of reasons why, but mainly we were just feeling tired. We were also craving the mountains and we knew if we drove straight north we’d end up at the world’s grandest mountain range, the Himalayas. We had one more stop planned for northern India, but as far as driving, we figured if we were lucky two or three days would be enough to take us across the border to Nepal.