A long week­end in Hampi, In­dia’s best-kept se­cret

Amar Grover leaves busi­ness be­hind in Ben­galuru for a long week­end in his­toric Hampi

Business Traveller - - LIFESTYLE | CONTENTS -

As far as “man-lions” go, this par­tic­u­lar statue was es­pe­cially strik­ing – al­most seven me­tres tall with bulging eyes and a pe­cu­liar, al­most frog-like, grin. For more than five cen­turies, this cel­e­brated mono­lith de­pict­ing the god Vishnu has wit­nessed pil­grims and kings come and go, em­pires rise and fall, creep­ing veg­e­ta­tion and cal­lous van­dals. Now it’s the selfie era, and while dozens hur­riedly took snaps, I pa­tiently awaited my turn for an old-fash­ioned full-frame por­trait.

This is one of the busier spots in Hampi, a re­mark­able site in north­ern Kar­nataka. Once known as Vi­jayana­gar, or City of Vic­tory, it was the cap­i­tal of a huge, pow­er­ful em­pire that ruled south­ern In­dia un­til 1565. Spread over 40 sq km, the city’s at­mo­spheric re­mains be­came a UNESCO World Her­itage site in 1986. Yet tourism hardly no­ticed, mostly at­tract­ing back­pack­ers coaxed up from Goa’s beaches to ex­pe­ri­ence the “real In­dia”.

Now, fi­nally, a five-star prop­erty has opened near Hampi and what has re­mained one of In­dia’s great­est least-known des­ti­na­tions looks set to fea­ture in up­mar­ket cul­tural tours. It also makes for a fine week­end break from Ben­galuru. The trade-off for the five- to six-hour drive (much of it on a de­cent dual car­riage­way) is not merely a cap­ti­vat­ing his­tor­i­cal des­ti­na­tion. Opened last year, the Evolve Back Hampi ho­tel of­fers stylish, bling-free lux­ury, top-notch cui­sine and im­pec­ca­ble ser­vice.

I be­gan my visit with Naven­dra, a lo­cal Evolve Back guide. As a lad, he scam­pered among Hampi’s aban­doned tem­ples, bar­racks and ex­ten­sive for­ti­fi­ca­tions largely un­aware of their sig­nif­i­cance. Get­ting our bear­ings atop He­makuta Hill, amidst sim­ple shrines and open pavil­ions, we looked down at the soar­ing gop­u­ram, or gate­way, of the Viru­pak­sha Tem­ple, while a group of pil­grims strolled to­wards it be­tween huge, weirdly bal­anced gran­ite boul­ders. It was fronted by a vir­tu­ally empty dusty street lined with an­cient stone colon­nades – a for­mer bazaar, the length and width of which re­flected the cap­i­tal’s size and sta­tus.

“Un­til maybe three or four years back, th­ese had many small shops, drinks, food­stuffs, sou­venirs – but now gov­ern­ment has cleared them,” Naven­dra said. “They want to im­prove the site, make it cleaner and ti­dier. ”Ap­par­ently, it was only in the 1970s, when tourism de­vel­oped, that vil­lagers re­ally be­gan en­croach­ing on th­ese re­mains as au­thor­i­ties turned a blind eye.

The lo­cals’ straight­for­ward mer­can­tile in­stinct echoes that of Vi­jayana­gar’s cos­mopoli­tan mer­chants and traders. The em­pire traded with China and its prod­ucts were ex­ported to Burma, Per­sia and the Mid­dle East. Sev­eral me­dieval trav­ellers and ad­ven­tur­ers, mainly Por­tuguese and Ital­ian, recorded their ex­pe­ri­ences at Vi­jayana­gar in the early 1500s.

One wrote: “The bazaars are ex­tremely long and broad. Roses are sold ev­ery­where. Th­ese peo­ple could not live with­out roses, and they look upon them as quite as nec­es­sary as food… Each class of men be­long­ing to each pro­fes­sion has shops con­tigu­ous the one to the other; the jew­ellers sell pub­licly in the bazaars pearls, ru­bies, emer­alds and di­a­monds.”

Oth­ers noted basins full to the brim with bul­lion, thou­sands of re­gal ele­phants be­decked in dec­o­ra­tive ar­mour, a city where no­bles and min­is­ters were fan­tas­ti­cally rich and whose poor lived in hov­els. The king, it’s claimed, had 12,000 wives, of whom 4,000 fol­lowed on foot wher­ever he went, and a few thou­sand more were car­ried about in lit­ters. Re­li­gious de­vo­tion was in­tense – when tall wooden “char­i­ots” show­cas­ing tem­ple deities were pa­raded dur­ing an­nual fes­ti­vals, some fren­zied devo­tees will­ingly suc­cumbed be­neath their wheels.

Hampi’s charm­ing boul­der-strewn land­scape cra­dles numer­ous Hindu myths and le­gends. Of the dozens of tem­ples and shrines still dot­ting the coun­try­side, only the Viru­pak­sha re­mains an ac­tive place of wor­ship. A visit feels like step­ping back into clas­si­cal civil­i­sa­tion – bare­foot pil­grims bran­dish of­fer­ings of smashed co­conuts, gar­lands of flow­ers and blessed food, while in a dim sanc­tum, bare-chested priests tend deities with milk and ghee.

Leav­ing groups of wild macaques ca­vort­ing in the tem­ple’s busy fore­court, we continued to­wards

Be­low: Vit­tala Tem­ple

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