Hampi Island: A Paradise Lost?

Image for post
Image for post
The sun setting over Hampi’s boulders after a hard and perfect day of climbing. (Photo: Trixie Pacis)

If the name Hampi rings a bell, chances are you’re a climber or a history buff. Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in east-central Karnataka, India. Once the capital of the great14th-century Vijayanagara Empire, many ornately carved temples and treasures remain. The ruins of over 1600 temples are scattered about an area of 4,187 hectares, some belonging to lavish complexes and others enduring in solitude.

Hampi features prominently in India guide books and stands testament to the Vijayanagara Empire’s former glory. Around 350,000 visitors from around the world flock to Hampi each year, battling the blazing sun for a close encounter with history. Given that Hampi is a historical and cultural pilgrimage site, it is understandable that the Karnataka Government wants to see it restored to its medieval glory — but their action comes at a human cost.

PILGRIMAGE TO HAMPI

Some of Hampi’s greatest treasures are those carved by wind and rain. The region boasts a unique landscape of snaking rivers, lush rice paddies, and rock-carved temples. Though architecturally rich, Hampi is also strewn with endless boulders. It has been a paradise for many dirtbags and boulderers.

A rather young Chris Sharma, the legendary climber, ventured to Hampi nearly 20 years ago with Katie Brown and Nate Gold. Pilgrimage, the aptly named documentary that chronicles their expedition, was released in 2003. Though they were certainly not the first to climb Hampi’s boulders, their pilgrimage has encouraged countless others in the climbing community to embark on their own spiritual journeys to Hampi, myself included.

I spent ten days in Hampi in 2018. After just missing our bus, my partner and I jumped into a tuk-tuk and raced the bus to its next stop, running through five lanes of standstill Indian traffic to make the last hundred meters. Such was our excitement to experience Hampi. We disembarked at the bus stop in Hosapete and hired another tuk-tuk to reach the river crossing to Virupapur Gaddi (lovingly known as ‘Hippie Island’ and ‘Hampi Island’). As we passed through Hampi bazaar, a central market area adjacent to the famous Virupaksha temple and various archaeological constructions, there was no sign that it had once been home to hundreds of locals.

In 2012, over 300 people were living in the Hampi bazaar, their modest concrete homes built around ancient structures when the evacuation notice came. An article in The Guardian chronicled that exodus, showing photographs of homes marked for demolition with a red-painted cross, demolished shops and residences, and makeshift campsites for the evicted. This is the fate that hangs over Virupapur Gaddi today.

Image for post
Image for post
Hampi’s dramatic landscape. (Photo: Trixie Pacis)

We boarded a passenger ferry and crossed the narrow river to Hampi island, a hippie enclave supported by local entrepreneurs. Climbers and non-climbers alike can find hostels, restaurants, and shops in proximity to Hampi bazaar and world-class boulder fields (for now at least). The Goan Corner, a cheerful hostel at the edge of the village with a stash of crash pads by reception, became our home for ten days.

Our alarms would go off at 4:45 am, amidst the symphony of other waking climbers heard through thatched walls. After forcing down a bowl of oats with black coffee, we’d disappear into the blueish dark, marching through dewy rice paddies then up rocky trails by the light of our headlamps, cumbersome crash pads strapped to our backs.

By the third day, our routine was dialled. We’d arrive at a sector as the day’s first light illuminated nature’s playground. We would warm up as the sky blushed pink and orange, moving from one chalked boulder to the next in a rhythmic dance, finishing a decent morning session by the time the day’s heat fell upon us. Blazing hot afternoons were spent napping at the Goan Corner or hiding out in caves, recharging for a sunset session. Days would wind down with dinner on the outdoor patio, with a soothing melange of accents and rough hands exchanging beta.

Besides contending with the heat and barren terrain, the granite holds are razor-sharp. Wayfinding through the boulder fields to reach new sectors with gear and ample water in tow was also quite a production. Yet, these things were happily done. There is something inherently spiritual about bouldering in Hampi.

Image for post
Image for post
New friends/spotters in the early morning sun. (Photo: Luke Wilson)

HOLY BOULDERS

Bouldering itself is a purist undertaking. It takes little more than yourself, a rock, and human resolve (though climbing shoes, chalk, and crash pads are handy). If the allure of bouldering is difficult for you to fathom, you are certainly not alone and it may not be for you, but you won’t know until you try. For me, bouldering presents the challenge of syncing the body and mind to solve some of nature’s greatest puzzles. In turn, I have learned much about myself.

“There is no presence of self, only a flow of energy,” Chris Sharma explains in Pilgrimage. While bouldering doesn’t usually get you very high off the ground, it is certainly an activity to which Waldo’s “it’s not the destination but the journey” adage applies. Even so, picture yourself topping out on a boulder at golden hour to a rewarding view of glimmering temples, verdant rice fields, and otherworldly rock formations while monks’ ethereal chants drift through the valley. This only begins to describe the magic of climbing in Hampi.

“Never have I been to a spot with such a diverse mix of climbers,” Sonnie Trotter writes in a blog post called Bouldering Mecca: The Lost Hampi Diary. “The climbing was classy, the wind was strong, the sun was hot and the air was dry, but I found the most wonderful part of India to be the daily verve. It was the food, the people, the unlimited exploration and the remarkable nature of this unlikely landscape that struck my imagination.”

I could also wax on forever about mid-day dips in the river, the entrepreneurial chai boys who scrambled up to us with big thermoses each morning, or the masterfully spiced home-cooked curries that resurrected us from floor cushions — but the point I truly wish to make is that our privileged experience would be drastically different (or dare I say non-existent) without the locals of Hampi island, who now face irrevocable hardship and change.

Image for post
Image for post
Destruction in nearby Gangavathi, India in May 2016. (Photo: SAVE Virupapura Gaddi — hampi Island)

WHAT IS HAPPENING IN HAMPI?

The situation between officials and residents Hampi has been long-standing. Having merely passed through, I can’t begin to cover the complexity of the topic. What I have gleaned from personal connections who are residents of Hampi, as well as an article in the India Times, is that the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority (HWHAMA) issued eviction notices to commercial establishments in 2009. The owners of 15 establishments took the issue to the Karanataka high court in 2011, then to the supreme court on February 11, 2020. The courts have ruled that the government is within their right to evict residents from Virupapur Gaddi. Where it becomes murky is when you consider those facing eviction.

Virupapur Gaddi was once a sleepy farming village of 18 families. According to a Facebook post by Sharmila Noronha, owner of the Goan Corner and resident of 20 years, the village remained largely ignored until international tourists began crossing the river and staying at farmers’ houses. As word about this hippie island paradise and climbing mecca spread, “farmers who are the poorest of society began seeing an alternative means to add to their meagre income.” Sharmila herself purchased the tract of land upon which the Goan Corner sits, relieving its previous owner of their large bank debt and creating a haven for visitors.

Though guesthouse and restaurant owners have welcomed tourists with graceful smiles and open arms for decades, they have long been contending with ever-changing regulations behind the scenes. After a long and uphill battle, entrepreneurs who claim that they have legally erected homestays and restaurants on their beloved Hippie Island now face the threat of demolition. In this corner of the world, this means losing everything.

Sharmila explains that “no one foresaw that the village would become so popular and the businessmen in the city got jealous the press started publishing news of drugs and rave parties and spoiling the name of the village”. Recently, “government officials came to our village with a man playing the drums, a police with a loudspeaker on top of the car, with the press and with cameramen announcing to our whole village that we had to empty our whole place in two days,” Sharmila posted on Facebook on February 21 in what she called “a loud cry out for help.”

As the situation unfolds before our eyes, the human cost is undeniable. A witness on the Climbers for Hampi Facebook page describes how “3 people died in the last rage, [their] hearts were broken while watching their houses being destroyed.” More of this could befall Virupapur Gaddi in a matter of days, if not hours.

A bouldering sector overlooking the rice fields of Hampi Island and temple spires in the distance. (Photo: Trixie Pacis)

A PARADISE LOST?

Though it feels like I left Hampi yesterday, the truth is that I am writing this half a world away. I am connected only by social media posts and conversation threads with friends in Hampi and friends from Hampi scattered around the globe. This complex issue touches us, renders many of us feeling helpless, and leaves many questions unanswered.

Should officials that are so willing to evict its people without any form of aid be the custodians of their history and heritage? If the intention is to better preserve Hampi the UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are neither temples nor monuments on Hippie Island. If the island does indeed fall within the protected zone, I still question whether the HWHAMA’s vision is “better”.

Who protects Hampi’s present-day culture and people? The HWHAMA is responsible for regulating the development of the UNESCO site, but what about its people? The people who stand to lose everything are also the ones who house and feed visitors. Many of the families facing eviction have lived there for generations. Others came and purchased properties, unaware that it would be snatched away.

What makes Hampi paradise? Everyone has their own answer. For me, it was neither the temples outfitted with ticket booths and entry gates, nor the carvings blocked by hordes of selfie stick-wielding tourists. Magical as they are, it was not the boulders either.

It was the village of Virupapur Gaddi, with its vibrant signs of everyday life, smiling locals, and hippie vibes. It was the way strangers from all walks of life came together in the atmosphere they created, bonded by something intangible and inimitable — and on the verge of vanishing.

On the day of Holi festival, nearly everyone in Virupapur Gaddi took to the streets. I coaxed myself out of bed despite the remnants of food poisoning. Out on the streets, strangers mingled and danced and painted one another in dazzling hues until every colour mixed and we were well and truly brown. This age-old cultural tradition unfolded on the streets of Virupapur Gaddi because those streets belong to the people — to living, breathing, and thriving locals with great love and pride for their home.

If the government succeeds in evicting the residents of Virupapur Gaddi, those streets may never hear the celebration of Holi again, nor the chatter and bustle of everyday life. And if they can be made disappear, the come on’s and allez’s that bring climbers together may forever cease to echo in Hampi’s boulder fields.

Image for post
Image for post
A sunset session with a motley crew of boulderers, including some first-timers, who met at the Goan Corner. (Photo: Trixie Pacis)

HELPING HAMPI ISLAND

Though this situation is not unique to Hampi Island (it is, in fact, happening all over India), now is a critical time to help residents of Virupapur Gaddi who are precious moments away from irreversible destruction.

The best thing most of us can do is spread the word. Post photos. Write about your experiences. Talk to people. Read, research for yourself, form your own opinions, and comment below. Voice your thoughts, whether you’re feeling conflicted or wholeheartedly supporting the people of Hampi Island.

Join the Climbers of Hampi Facebook group and read Dominic Carrese’s Dispatch from Hampi: Destruction of a “Boulderer’s Paradise,” and a Call to Better Care for Our Places.

You can also sign the petition: “Stop Evictions and Demolitions!! Stand with the Local Communities of Hampi Region….!!” asking the supreme court to overturn their order and allow inhabitants to carry out tourism-based activities in the locale of Virupapur Gaddi plus areas of considerate distance from UNESCO-protected monuments.

More broadly, those of us who with opportunities to explore far-flung corners can be mindful, respectful, and kind, especially towards those who share their hospitality. We can’t begin to understand the intricacies of a place or know what hides behind warm gestures until we decide to dig deeper.

Hampi is a sacred place with different, but equally important meanings to all. For historians, it is a cradle of civilization and history. For the religious, it is a place of worship and practice. For climbers — whether professional and sponsored climbers, dirtbags who sleep on the plateau, first-timers, or those newly empowered to Climb Like A Woman — it is a righteous playground. For business owners, it is a means of surviving in this world. And for countless families, it is simply home.

Please do whatever you can at this moment, before the hippie paradise of Hampi Island is forever lost.

Originally posted on Howl Blog.

Written by

nomadic screenwriter · travel writer

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store