A long weekend in Hampi, India’s best-kept secret
Amar Grover leaves business behind in Bengaluru for a long weekend in historic Hampi
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