Hampi is a strange and wondrous place. It was the seat of the Vijayanagara Empire, a collaboration of Hindu communities propelled into partnership by the threat of the advancing Muslim Sultanates. Although the empire eventually fell to the aggressors, the legacy of Vijayanagara shines bright today in the thousands of temples, statues and palaces that remain scattered throughout the region.
Even more intriguing than the ruins is the landscape that contains them. Millions of giant granite boulders of every imaginable shape and size sit in the baking sun, watching in silence as tourists roll by on rusting bicycles or puttering motorbikes. Although the boulders are the result of thousands of years of erosion, it looks more as if they simply dropped out of the sky.
A cool blue river lazily snakes through the valley, fringed by lush green palm trees that provide shade for the Hindus who come to this holy place of pilgrimage. Rather than using much more practical rowboats or canoes, pilgrims and tourists alike barrel across the river in large bowls made of bamboo. It seemed as if we’d just arrived at Disney World to find that the tea cup ride had been upgraded to accommodate an ever expanding clientele.
The town of Hampi Bazaar is a sleepy one, with most of the activity centered on the intricately carved Virupaksha Temple. The temple is home to a sweet elephant named Laxmi, who leads daily parades of the devoted through the main street, which, as the town’s name suggests, was a bustling marketplace in centuries past. School children from around the state, and perhaps the country, pile off of buses and line up to exchange a rupee for a kiss from Laxmi. Gil and I also received a kiss, which was more of a blessing of sorts, with the elephant gently lowering her trunk onto our foreheads after we placed rupees in her slimy snout.
We opted for a motorbike to explore the surrounding countryside. It was fascinating to see how the Vijayanagara transformed the amorphous boulders into objects and places of worship. Just beyond Hampi Bazaar, huge carved monoliths of the Hindu animal gods Ganesha and Narasimha stared out at us from inside of decaying structures. Driving a bit further we came across the Royal Grounds, which is full of curious structures like the brilliant stepped tank and the elephant corral. The dome of each elephant stable was carved in different fashion to keep their revered occupants protected from the elements, giving us and the Indian tourist groups who drank coconuts in the shade a glimpse at the brilliant whimsy from which their country was eventually born.
But Hampi’s most impressive remains can be found near the river within the walls of the Vittala Temple. Thin, delicately carved colonnades that resonate with sound when you tap them battle against gravity to hold up heavy stone roofs. Carved images of gods performing various acts of song, dance or acrobatics adorn the walls and the center of the courtyard showcases a chariot carved out of a single piece of stone.
While we relished exploring the ruins and boulders up close, the magic of the area is really best experienced from above at sunset. We climbed up the tallest hill near town to discover yet another temple and join a family of monkeys and a few yoga-loving hippies watch the sun dip below the horizon. Definitely a must-see for anyone visiting India.