Holy Hampi!

I admit it; I’m a planner. I’ve always said that half the fun of travel for me is researching far flung destinations, poring over a guidebook (or these days blogs and vlogs) looking for off the beaten path gems. This trip has been a total anomaly in that I did almost zero research in advance. It’s not surprising as our plates were a bit full before we left: moving out of our home of 18 years, selling most of our possessions, transitioning to a nomad lifestyle. Still, it was not entirely comfortable for me to travel halfway around the world without any plans. But 20+ hours on a plane is a lot of time to read your Lonely Planet, which results in a long list of “must see” places to visit.

The thing about planning, though, is that sometimes the destinations live up to your expectations, sometimes they don’t; and every so often, you get lucky and they blow your mind. And that was the case with Hampi. A perfect mix of history, culture, and nature; Hampi was a real standout of our time in India.

The wheels on this stone chariot (which happens to be on the 50 rupee note) used to roll

Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site encompassing 3,700+ historic monuments. From the 14th to 16th century, it was the last capital of the Hindu Vijayanagar empire, which ruled all of Southern India, until 1565, when it was overcome by the combined armies of the Deccan sultanates – the five Muslim dynasties of the Deccan plateau of central India. Before its fall, Hampi’s fame spread throughout the east, and as far as Western Europe, becoming a major trading hub of Chinese, Mongol, Portugese and Persian visitors. Its rulers used their great wealth to build stunning temples, palaces, forts, shrines, pillared halls, and waterways, the remains of which dot the landscape in modern day Hampi and the surrounding villages.

Many of Hampi’s remarkable treasures are well marked by UNESCO signs (unlike the rock-cut temple in Trichy that Alex wrote about), and the main temple complex even includes electric vehicle tourist trams to and from the parking lot. Yet, the sheer number of monuments means that many are tucked between modern homes or sit abandoned in a field surrounded by rice paddies. In the age of the internet and Instagram, it’s not often that you visit a place where you feel a true sense of discovery. But in Hampi, you never know when you might stumble upon a relic, from a pillared cremation site along the river to a headless Nandi statue outside the front gate of our home stay.

The Vijayanagar were not only prolific, but also their artistry is on par with the more well-known cultures of western civilization. Intricate carvings of gods and goddesses abound. Stone carved in the shape of horses or the Yali, made of seven different creatures often with the foot of a tiger, body of a horse, ears of a rabbit, teeth of a crocodile, trunk of an elephant, head of a lion and eyes of a monkey, act as guardians of important structures.

Dozens of slim pillars found throughout the site were designed to represent all of the known 64 musical instruments known to the empire. They are, in fact, tuned to the scale used in Hindu music to this day. Sadly, the main musical pillar temple is completely closed to visitors to avoid damage to the pillars. Thankfully, someone recorded this video prior to the closure.

One of the more interesting things about the carvings of Hampi is that they served to educate the “commoners.” Carvings document the foreigners who came to trade, as well as of people from far off lands known only to the Vijayanagar from secondhand descriptions from Portuguese traders, like the Mayas and the Incas of Central and South America.

This carving at the base of the Vithala temple depicts traders from Persia, China, Mongolia and Portugal

Lucky for us, they also carved detailed written descriptions of the temples, bazaars and daily life into the structures themselves. Thus, we know, for example, that Hampi’s seven colonnaded bazaars were used for trading different items (gold and diamonds, fruits and vegetables, spices, horses, etc), each on a different day of the week.

This nearly 1-kilometer long bazaar outside Achyutaraya Temple was for prostitutes

Adding to the mystique of Hampi is its prominence in the Ramayana, a 2,000-year-old Hindu story considered to be one of the greatest epics ever told. It depicts the life of Rama, one of the ten incarnations of the god Vishnu. Thanks to a nefarious plot by his stepmother, Rama is exiled to the forest for 14 years with his brother Lakshmana and his wife Sita. While in exile, Sita is kidnapped by the demon Ravana and taken to Lanka (modern day Sri Lanka). Hanuman demonstrates his love for Rama–and his own godly bonafides–by jumping to the island of Lanka to rescue Sita. Rama with the help of Sugriva’s monkey army eventually kills Ravana and they return home with Sita. After their return from exile, Rama becomes king and humankind enters a golden age.

Modern painting of Rama (the blue one) and Lakshmana with their monkey allies

Rama met Hanuman in the monkey god’s birthplace of Kishkinda. It is well founded that ancient Kishkinda is the area now known as Hampi. Important locations in the Ramayana include Sugreeva’s cave, where jewels dropped by Sita during her abduction were stored for safe keeping. The quartz pattern in the rock outside the cave is believed to be the pattern of Sita’s dress dragging on the ground as she was carried away by Ravana.

Sugreeva’s cave–the pattern of Sita’s clothes dragging on the ground is seen going into cave at bottom right

In Anegundi, the village where we stayed, is Rama’s cave, where it is believed Rama shot an arrow killing Vali, returning the kingdom to Sugreeva, the monkey king. We also visited the cave where Hanuman brought Rama and Lakshmana to first meet Sugreeva.

I told Alex how difficult it is to get across how it feels to explore a place like Hampi. He boiled it down to this question: Did a magical monkey god with superhuman strength really live here? I think he hit the nail on the head.

I would compare the feeling of exploring Hampi to visiting other, more well-known (at least in Western culture) sites like Machu Picchu in Peru, Delphi in Greece or Tikal in Guatemala, except that it is laid out over a vastly larger area, has the added bonus of being central to an epic adventure in one of the world’s greatest religions and I hadn’t even heard of it until a month ago. It’s just surreal!

Hampi’s location also adds to its allure. The Tungabhadra River and its massive floodplain bisect the UNESCO site. Water from the river ensures local agriculture thrives through a series of canals, many of which were dug during the Vijayanagara empire. Yet, the landscape is arid, dotted by mounds of giant boulders and dry deciduous forest that provide a unique ecological niche and a stunning backdrop. The Dharoji Sloth Bear Sanctuary lies just a few miles from the south of site, and leopards are not uncommon (a few people are killed each year).

We didn’t see any sloth bears or big cats, but we did see lizards, monkeys (both Bonnet Macaques and Gray Langurs), a couple of Grey Mongoose and lots of birds (stay tuned for more on those)!

We even had a nightmare-inducing encounter with a Bonnet Macaque that jumped onto our guide’s car as we were stopped on a birding tour. It tried to get in the open window while we were inside! Just as I manually rolled up one window, it leapt across the back of the car and tried to get in the other side. His fingers were still in the opening as I rolled it all the way up. It was like something out of a horror movie.

Aggressive monkeys aside, Hampi was one of the most awe-inspiring places we’ve been. A true gem of history, culture and nature in one stunning package.

5 thoughts on “Holy Hampi!

  1. That run-in with the macacque sounds horrifying. Also this makes me think about my visit to Jerusalem and the Western Wall. Not sure if you’d ever consider it but you might be interested in a trip to Israel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You should have been a history teacher. Thank you for your sparkling narrative. Loved your descriptions and woven text.
    Take care, Dad Madden


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