Hampi: A sacred patch of India

Qatar Happening, August 2015. Original article (p40-41).

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Hampi: A sacred patch of India
This spot in central India is out of the way, but Hampi’s elaborate landscape of ruins and relaxed village life is nothing short of magical.

It’s only 10 o’clock in the evening, but all of Hampi seems to be asleep. As India demands you adjust to its temperament, I’m trying to sleep too, but I’m distracted by a smell drifting in through my window. There’s only shutters separating me from the world outside, not glass, as Hampi is a small village and this is actually a family house. The smell is pungent but not unpleasant, so my curiosity drives me to peek outside: four cows stare back at me. They’ve gone to bed for the night too, and this is their spot: right in the middle of the street.

Hampi is a place that’s very easy to like. The ruins of this once-grand city stretch out for several kilometres, meaning there’s endless things to explore. It’s truly an amazing place: it’s as if a group of giants once had a play-fight here, throwing the great big boulders around. Today the rocks sit where they landed in the landscape, and the villagers live their lives while the travellers roam about. It feels different here, like another kind of India: while most of the country will overwhelm your senses, Hampi will let you catch your breath.

Make sure to bring good walking shoes to Hampi, as most of the sights are spread out through the landscape. Stretches of road are surrounded by ever-more amazing ruins, and you never quite know if you’ve reached your destination because the maps are vague and directions general. But you’ll know when you’ve reached Vittala Temple, the star attraction in Hampi. Elaborate stone carvings are found on every surface, and one is more incredible than the last, concluding in the ornate stone chariot whose wheels could once spin. The architecture brings frequent of representations of Hanuman the monkey god, people with hands folded in greetings, rows of elephants, gods and goddesses, scenes from epic tales, flowers and patterns, plus the various stages of attraction. Everything is sacred.

The Royal Centre is the other key site in Hampi, and here the highlights come thick and fast: the Underground Shiva Temple, which is partially submerged; the elegant Lotus Mahal, with its onion-shaped arches; and the Elephant Stables, which are massive but playful with the various shapes of domes, each enclave big enough for numerous creatures. But maybe the best part is the random temples strewn around in the landscape? Hampi will constantly distract you from your plans, in the best way possible. One day I stumbled onto a massive statue with four arms, called the Mustard Seed Ganesha, and then some temple whose name I forgot to take down; it’s covered in elaborate carvings and anywhere else it would be a major sight – but in Hampi it’s not even on the map.

There’s always more to explore in Hampi, but you’ll be forgiven if you leave having missed a few sights: some of the best times you’ll have in Hampi will certainly be spent lounging around. Make sure to trim the nails on your eating hand, as most meals won’t come with cutlery: you shape the food into balls with the right hand and push it into your mouth with the thumb. After a vegetarian curry or dhal off a banana leaf, make sure to have some masala chai, or maybe a glass of sweet lime.

Every night, crowds are drawn to the ruins at Hemakuta Hill, where they watch the sunset, surrounded by the monkeys who seem to enjoy the sky spectacle too. The hill is just up behind Virupaksha Temple, Hampi’s working house of worship. People bring flowers and coconuts, the latter broken on a rock before offered to the god in question. As I tip-toe around inside, not quite sure where non-hindus can go, a holy man motions me over; he presses yellow powder against my forehead and tells me I’m welcome. The best part though, is Lakshmi the Elephant, who oversees the temple. She will let you pet her, and if you give her a coin, there’s a blessing for you too.

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