In central Karnataka lies the village of Hampi. Here you find valleys rich in a dazzling array of brilliant colours. Huge boulders and hills of rock and sandstone dot the landscape and amidst it all are the scattered remains of a lost civilisation. Villagers make their home amongst the remnantsof the old bazaar, but monkeys and the occasional chilum smoking sadhu are the only inhabitants of the outlying ruins.
Hampi provides a constant assault on the senses. Women seem to glide effortlessly down he street in brilliantly coloured saris, carrying buckets and huge piles of firewood on their heads. The streets are lined with stands of powder dies, chilli red, saffron yellow and fluro orange. At the thali restaurants you are served curries to set your mouth on fire ~ even the tea is made with cardamon. The air is permeated with the pungent smell-of cow dung – it is watered down and thrown on the pavement to keep the chalk designs fresh and to keep the dust down.
Cows wander the streets, stealing fruit from the stands or lie sprawled across the middle of the road. They have no need to fear the traffic – to kill a sacred cow is almost as serious as killing a person. Dogs skulk around protecting their territory and spying out friendly foreigners in the restaurants. Everywhere cheeky monkeys play amongst the stucco ornaments of temples, pilfering food and chattering away in the trees.
My most vivid memory of Hampi is a sunet viewed from some ruins above the village. As we turned to leave we could see a small temple in the distance perched on top of a massive boulder. On the roof of the temple and on the surrounding rocks a group of monkeys gazed towards the horizon, seemingly waiting for something. Soon the full moon began to rise and for just a few minutes it was perfectly framed by the four pillars of the temple. . .
Hampi’s history stretches back over the centuries, beginning with the epic story of the Ramayayana. At this time it was ruled by two brothers of the monkey race Vali and Sugriva. Some people claim that the black-faced grey langurs and small red-faced monkeys that inhabit the region today are direct descendants of Vali and Surgriva. Jains also inhabited the site, yet it was not until the arrival ofthe Vaginae in AD1336 that Hampi reached its full glory. Palaces, temples, elephant stables and lodgings were built in a city worthy of its name – the City of Victory.
The buildings are ornate and colourful with representations of India’s many gods, some with six arms signifYing that they are all powerful. However it is the backdrop that gives Hampi true magnificence. The Tungabhadra river runs rapidly through the valley, bringing life and colour to the banana plantations, rice paddies and coconut groves – colours so vibrant only the term psychedelic can truly do it justice. Amongst it all are monolithic boulders, some delicately poised atop others, while some balance precariously on cliff edges, just waiting to topple over. The vision is so vivid and the contrasts to complete that it is like looking at or perhaps being part of an ever-evolving landscape painting. The buildings themselves are a perfect example of the integration of building and nature, perfectly aligned with the contours of the land.
Many of the temples are still in use with people offering flowers, incense and mantras in order to enlist the help or blessing of the residing deity. In the Hindu notion of divinity everything is related and the divine, rather than existing above it all, is part of it and is firmly entrenched in daily relationships. The everything is the will of the gods, even diseases such as cholera have a goddess – sometimes its victims are said to be lucky because they have been specially blessed. In India it is the dreadlocked, tridentbearing sadhus who get the respect. These holy men make pilgrimages allover India, receiving rupees for the blessings. Unfortunately the are not all truly holy and on occasion can be downright sleazy, such as the one who followed me through the bazaar, calling out: “Honey, come to me”, or another who was constantly trying to entice me into the ruinsto share a chilum.The god Virupashka was worshipped here, as Lord of the Nagas (serpents). Nagas are believed to inhabit spring lakes and rivers, guard treasures, bring rain and other maladies’ and also possess the power of bestowing-offspring to women without children. Nagakals can be found in various temples. These are special stones used in conjunction with prayers and special offerings by women hoping to become pregnant. Many of the carvings found in the ruins depict serpent as well as tree worship. Married trees are considered especially sacred, whereby two trees are planted together andentwined with the appearance of making love. To this day unmarried women will make themselves beautiful and wrap string and small offerings around the tree and ask for help in finding a husband. A number of Sati memorials can be seen in Hampi, indicating that the practice of widow burning occurred here. A widow, duty-bound by honour would cast herself amidst ceremonies onto her husband’s funeral pyre. Another tradition that although outlawed, still occurs in India today.
The most elaborate of all the temples is the Vitthala, built on the outskirts of the city. The trail takes you along the river, past huge strewn boulders and temples and features intricate carvings, ornate pillars and the stone
car of the god, protected by two elephants. It is said that if you listen to the pillars, you will hear music. I listened in vain.
Most of the ruins in Hampi can be visited in a day, but it is the sort of place you can easily spend a week or two soaking up the atmosphere and the ambience. To stay in Hampi is to step back in time. The modern world is yet to intrude, for it has no place here and no relevance