Sunlight burst through the window of our sleeper carriage. ‘We’re almost there, prepare your bags’, a man in the bunk opposite said. We roused ourselves from the half-sleep of the night train and, trying to ignore the acid swirl in my gut, jumped down to the platform. Everything began to spin.
We had planned to spend just a couple of days in Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Karnataka State. What I remember of those two days comes and goes now in a delirium of vignettes and strange unearthly traces of memory. This is partially due to the extraordinary nature of the place, and perhaps also because I spent half the time bedridden, vomiting.
I remember Sarah coming in and out of the room on that first day like some kind of angelic presence. The door would open, the glare of the sun burning my eyes in the gloom, Sarah passing in and out with water, coconut, paracetamol and stories of giant boulders and crumbling ancient monuments.
By the second day, I was able to eat a little food. Still giddy, I had to get out and see these wonders for myself.
Hampi was built as the capital of the last great Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar in the 14th–16th centuries, with some of the earliest signs of settlement dating back over 2000 years. Once the second largest and wealthiest city in the world, the Battle of Talikota in 1565 laid waste to the metropolis, destroying much of its infrastructure. Today, over 3700 monuments are spread over a 36 sq km area strewn with boulders the size of mansions, which also makes it one of India’s top climbing destinations. Despite this, surprisingly few people we talked to seemed to have heard of it.
Stepping out of the little cluster of hippy shops and traveller hostels that make up Hampi bazaar feels like walking into a planetscape from Star Trek. The dusty, boulder-filled desert wouldn’t be that unusual were it not for the forts, temples and ruins that speckle the landscape like some recently discovered lost civilisation.
Aside from a lone guard, sitting in the cool of a columned temple, many of the sites were completely devoid of people. Walking through long granite bazaars, around imposing and ornately-carved temples, pyramidic plinths, temple pools, and a stepped tank–hardly seeing another soul lent the place a tinge of post-Armageddon. But most of all it was wonderful to feel small and enveloped in such an epic, crowd-free crumbled empire.
As the day wore on, perhaps influenced by dehydration and a mild fever, things began to take on an increasingly surreal edge.
In a little glade by the river, we came upon a remarkable sight. Just to the side of the path stood a large tree with air roots dangling like long fingers, reaching for the soil. Tied to the roots were hundreds of little bundles of fabric. Inside each fabric parcel, a small stone hung suspended above the ground. Some were brightly coloured, others faded and worn, having held their stony cargo for a long time. As we stood staring at this ragged patchwork, a woman approached us. ‘They tie stones to the tree when they pray. When prayer answered, they take stone down.’
Walking away from this tree of unanswered prayers, we soon came upon two men dressed as pilgrims. Approaching us, they said they had been walking their devotional route for many years and wanted to give us a gift. ‘No cost.’ With no explanation, they placed bright orange side caps on both our heads, wished us well and walked on.
‘Is that a coracle?’
As we approached the water’s edge, sure enough, a line of woven and tarred saucers sat on the shore awaiting passengers. I have long held an affection for these circular and notoriously unruly vessels, and it wasn’t long before 17-year-old Murgan was carving little figures of eight in the water, propelling us gently nowhere in a little coracle. He cupped his hands and scooped up the muddy water, quickly drinking it down. We looked at him in shock. ‘Tastes sweet’, he said, not meeting our eye.
Later that afternoon, inside Virupaksha temple, a small crowd gathered around Lakshmi the beautiful temple elephant. Completely beguiled by this amazing creature, I lifted my hand out towards her. It was a pure Richard Curtis moment. Time slowed, maybe a cello began to play, she lifted her trunk up and nuzzled my hand. It was rough and hairy, but I forgave her that. ‘She likes you!’, someone called out.
On the rickshaw ride out of Hampi at 5 a.m. the following morning, we passed old wooden carts in the early dawn light, pulled by several horned cows, the bells around their necks tinkling gently to signal their presence. Leaving this dreamlike place, I began to wonder how many other lesser-known treasures are hidden away in the vast subcontinent, their brightest days long past. Talking to a cell geneticist a few weeks later, he recalled reading an article in India Today magazine in which the director general of UNESCO stated that India has enough sites to replace all seven Wonders of the World, if only it had the full administrative support of the government. A sentiment which, we are slowly realising, could be similarly applied to a great many arenas.