Our stopover in Vasco Da Gama was just one segment of a longer journey, so before 7 on the morning after our arrival we were already standing on the city’s train platform. A ludicrously long train came rumbling into the station, liberally using a shrill whistle.
Upon hopping on board and glimpsing the tall triple bunks separated by thin walkways, I was mentally transported to life aboard a submarine. Yet the insane chaos of families loading on luggage and jumping like graceful cats between seats quickly destroys any association with military precision.
7 hours of immensely slow progress later, I checked the GPS to see that upon projected arrival time we still looked eons away and had only progressed 17 miles in the last hour. Stefje and I passed the time amiably enough by playing cards, reading in lounged positions and staring out the window at an endless progression of witheringly dry fields, but by the time we stepped out of the car 10 hours later, my brain was understandably addled.
We boarded an achingly slow tuk-tuk outside the station, our stomachs growling just as loud as the motor as we plodded from the train station in Hospete to the traveler’s oasis of Hampi. A curry and a fruit bowl later, we were finally ready to take in the first few sights of our newest destination.
Home to an empire that spanned centuries and a capital city that once numbered half a million, the city of Hampi is a hotbed of temples and ruins surrounded by striking landscapes.
As the sun set on the horizon, we couldn’t help but be awed by the impressive 10-story Virupaksha temple, which was adorned by not only finely sculpted depictions of gods but also dozens of climbing monkeys.
Out on the riverbank, the chaos of our day quickly dissolved into the past thanks to luscious forested banks, birds swooping overhead by the hundreds and the striking illumination of the amber sun reflecting in the water.
We did our best to get a good night’s sleep but the chattering of monkeys thundering across the rooftop and cackling outside our front door eventually brought an end to any hopes of sleeping in. Over breakfast, we laid out the temple-filled exploration plan for the day.
It began by going further into the Virupaksha temple complex, which lies so close to the tiny village that just a 2-foot wide river separates aluminum shacks from ancient pillars. Out front was a pair of mahogany sculpted carriages stretching more than 20 feet high. As we stared upwards with the pyramids of the temple in the background, it definitely felt like these structures were capable of reaching towards the heavens.
Once inside the gigantic archway, our shoes had to be removed. The cool stones on my feet had a calming effect on the mind and body, compelling me to move slowly and admire the complex stone artworks and cavernous inner workings. Plenty of monkeys were my main compatriots, making it easy to understand why this was once called the monkey kingdom.
Baby monkeys, fat monkeys, pregnant monkeys, grooming monkeys, lazy monkeys and leaping monkeys all roamed around like they owned the place.
Thoroughly impressed by the structure, we moved further afield for more panoramic views. From a sloping, boulder-strewn hillside sporting a dozen more pyramid-shaped temples and multi-story stone buildings, we got our first taste of Hampi’s unique landscape. Mounds of boulders rose to magnificent heights in the distance with precarious rock formations making it look like God had been making sand castles. By combining this bewitching view with the seemingly endless choice of temple, it became clear we were going to enjoy ourselves in this little enclave of history.
Eschewing the onslaught of requests from frighteningly persistent rickshaw drivers and tour guides, we made our way to the next collection of temples on foot. We could hardly go two minutes with spotting some ancient architecture, with many of the structures leveraging the contours of the landscape in their construction.
Perhaps the greatest example emblematic of this theme was a 15 foot high carving of Vishnu, the second of a pair of four armed elephants carved out of a rock wall to stare serenely into the distance.
Over a boulder-riddled hillside we came across a wide open plain. Below was a long thin promenade line on either side with pillars and over-hanging rocks which led to a palace replete with an inner and outer courtyard. This was once an open bazaar, home to traders from all across the subcontinent, Europe, and the Far East.
Adding to the wondrous scene was our utter solitude. The peace and quiet made it easy to imagine what it must have been like 500 hundred years ago, when the first European explorers to find a bustling, other-worldly marketplace.
Under the intense mid-day heat we made our way along the river towards the next temple, admiring the natural sights on the left while the ruins rolled by on the right. Despite the ground consisting mostly of dust and shriveled grasses, anywhere the river wound was a verdant green, inviting birds to nest, frogs to croak and goats to graze.
Easily the oddest sight was a Banyan tree of gigantic proportions adorned with offerings: pieces of clothing, rags, and plastic water bottles.
Finally we came to the entrance of Vittala temple, which offered some much-needed shade and one of the most impressive depictions of the kingdoms artistic and architectural prowess.
The way back was a blur: heat exhaustion and hunger threatened to do us in, but before I realized it we were sitting on a restaurant’s shady veranda with a strong breeze and a cold bottle of water.
In the afternoon it was time to examine the town of Hampi further. Little more than a collection of shacks built into a 3 blocks by 4 blocks rectangle, the tiny streets feature more cows than motorized vehicles.
The inhabitants are an interesting social study because life here is devoid of three normalities: meat, alcohol, and cell phone service. Whereas in every other Indian town shopkeepers have been glued to Youtube and Facebook, Hampi features much more social interaction and fewer eyeballs glued to screens. The lack of hangovers also means the town follows a relatively strict daily cycle. Mornings start early with the sunrise, the intense heat creates a long period in the afternoon when all shops are closed, and in the evening the streets come back alive. Despite the inconveniences as a traveler, it’s a refreshing change of pace.
On Thursday we left behind the compressed structures of Hampi town for Hampi island, a one minute boat ride across the river. In sharp contrast to the dry grasses of our previous surroundings, the land here was impressively irrigated. The result was an abundantly fertile field of rice paddies and coconut groves, the luscious green surroundings instantly revitalizing our souls as we trudged towards the next guesthouse.
An enclave of cottages surrounded on all sides by open fields and forests, the only sounds present at “The Goan Corner” were wildlife making their morning calls. Each hut was strung with a hammock, meaning I’d only have to fight my girlfriend for it. A cup of coffee and some morning reading in the courtyard brought on restless legs, so it was time to explore the views from this side of the river.
We climbed the pile of boulders known as sunset point, slowly revealing yesterday’s temples emerging from above the forest canopy. From this vantage point the landscape came into view: balancing acts of boulders behind us, green fields below our feet, and an endless panorama of temples in the distance.
As the afternoon wore on our stomachs grumbled, pulling us towards the town’s main stretch. Nothing more than a collection of shacks backed up against the edge of the rice paddy, each building was either a guesthouse, restaurant, or general store selling toilet paper, snickers and cigarettes.
Luckily we chose a restaurant with not only a glorious view but also impeccable wifi and enjoyed the luxuries of both as we dove into a spinach curry so green it matched the best-watered rice paddy.
The evening passed in a blur of one of those excellent days where nothing really happens: a long nap in the hammock, spontaneous card games with strangers, and a thunderstorm which took out the power and made the whole environment seem much more rustic and wild.
Friday morning the day broke chilly and grey, but by the time we made it out for some sightseeing the sun was beginning to peek through. In order to explore the wider offering of ruins we opted to rent a motorbike and sped past fields of bamboo, rice and palm trees.
First on the docket was Vittala temple, which we had graced the entrance of two days prior but were now prepared to fully explore. This time the approach was from the same direction as a long stretch of pillars which once served as a bustling bazaar, heightening the anticipation as we approached a broad courtyard flanked by impressive temples.
Vitalla temple is the most impressive demonstration of the height of the Vijayanagara empire’s architectural prowess. Once inside the expansive inner wall, every column was delicately carved, every angle perfectly aligned. The carvings represented the culture and wildlife of the empire: warriors riding mythical creatures into battle, elephants marching, and gods dancing.
By far the most striking feature graced our eyes right when we entered the front doors; an immense stone chariot towered high above us. Complete with wheels and an inner carriage, its size and heft had us in disbelief that the object was once capable of moving.
Strolling inwards, the temple’s stone floor was penetrated by the grizzled trunk of a blooming tree, which added a dimension of natural beauty to the man-made structures.
Situated at the direct center of the complex was a musty basement. Stone pillars supported a thick roof that prevented contact with the outside world, but a single beam of light shone through in a scene worthy of cinematic glory.
Thoroughly impressed by both scope and detail, we hopped back on the motorbike. Next up was the Royal Enclosure, a centrally situated complex which was once the beating heart of a gargantuan city. A long stroll through shaded gardens certainly had us feeling like royalty, especially when we came across the impressive Lotus Mahal. This two storied palace was precisely in its dimensions, extending out like a flower in all directions and housing eye-catching curved entrances.
Another fantastic building was just a stone’s throw away. The Elephant’s Stable consisted of a long string of inset stone caves, each one decorated with an alternating pattern of domes along the roof.
As the sun hit its highest point we made our way to the hottest possible place, the flat top of an old palace. A steep staircase was rewarded with a sweeping view of the old city. Once consisting of 43 buildings within encompassed by a protective wall, all the structures had been razed to the ground, providing the feeling that immense destruction had once happened here.
Yet elements of beauty remained. All the pits and basements were in pristine conditions, including a multi-tiered bath fed by an intricate aqueduct system.
What caught my eye the most though was a high wall of engravings. Spouting elephants, parading horses and ancient ceremonies were all depicted in intense detail on massive stones.
At this point the sun’s heat and the overwhelming number of impressive sites had me hankering to call it a day, but we couldn’t pass up the queen’s bath, which also featured a modern water distribution system to feed a deep and detailed pool.
On our way back into town Stefje spotted another set of temples and we quickly pulled over to uncover a meditating monkey over 20 feet tall! The fact that this grandiose sculpture wasn’t prominently featured in any guidebook or tour plan is perhaps the best descriptor of Hampi. Even with unlimited time and resources, it would be immensely difficult to grasp the scope and history of this lost world.
For our final day in Hampi we started off on a scooter again, this time searching for an ATM in the surrounding area. A wrong turn led us to the town of Gangavathi, where we were suddenly the object of intense curiosity. Amidst an endless parade of honking motorbikes and industrially oriented storefronts, there was not a single other tourist in sight.
It took six tries, but we finally found an ATM which worked with our cards then immediately jettisoned the hubbub of the chaotic town for more peaceful pastures.
On the way back we got lost again, this time weaving through backroads while searching for a temple. Eventually we found a different one, perched on a hill overlooking the river. What we glimpsed next was a scene of utmost natural and cultural beauty, a hankering back to more peaceful times in Hampi. Women of all ages were doing the laundry in the calm and shallow waters, banging clothes upon the rocks with impressive ferocity before laying them out to dry.
Yet the ease of the pastoral scene was soon interrupted, as we were inundated with requests for money by a few small children and old women. I walked away from the scene with a deeply disturbed feeling, knowing that from a young age locals here learn to beg from every Westerner they encounter.
Our last two stops in Hampi both revolved around water. First, we had an excellent time riding along the skinny winding road surrounding a man-made lake, hugging every turn while taking in impressive views that combined water with rock.
Second, we followed the recommendation of some fellow travelers to a simple stream. Perhaps it was the premise of cliff jumping off a couple of small rocky spires, or maybe the presence of cold beers sold by enterprising locals, but for whatever the reason this nondescript spot was the ultimate backpackers chill spot.
With just a few locals around, it was the complete opposite from our morning exploration and further proof of how easy it is to oscillate between being the only Westerner around and avoiding all semblances of the local culture while traveling along a well established backpacker trail. Nevertheless, the sun was warm, the water cool, and we enjoyed the company and comforts before returning to Hampi town one last time.
While waiting to depart for the night train, I scaled the hill framing the central temple complex one last time, taking in the fresh air, endless views, and gorgeous sunset colors taking hold of the scenery.
The entire environment exuded a deep sense of contentment, furthering my belief that it’s easy to be happy in Hampi.