“You’ve got to go to Hampi.”
Everyone except me is hammered. That’s what happens when you arrive late to a work Christmas party. Not my work Christmas party, of course; Rebecca’s. It’s also doubling as her leaving do of sorts, allowing her to avoid the awkward attention of having one in its own right. Everyone is excited about our upcoming trip to India.
I find myself in a long, entertaining conversation with James, an experienced environmental campaigner. After explaining he internal conflict between his pride that his two young kids have inherited his anti-authoritarian streak and his aggravation that he is the very authority figure against which they rebel, he starts reminiscing about his own visit to India twenty years ago.
“You’ve got to go to Hampi, man. It’s amazing.”
“What’s it like?”
“It’s like… ” he pauses for thought. “It’s like a load of giant pterodactyls flew around making nests out of these giant boulders. There’s piles of them everywhere. And these amazing ruins in amongst it all. But mostly giant pterodactyl nests.”
With a billing like that, we had to give it a look.
“Anegundi?” the ticket inspector shakes her head apologetically. “No, no Anegundi.” She turns to the rest of the bus and asks a question in loud Kannada which we assume means ‘Who told these stupid goras this bus goes to Anegundi?’ The cheeky old man we got directions from chuckles with his mates and raises a hand as if to say ‘My bad – sorry not sorry!’
The inspector winces and tells us we’ll need to change at Hulgi. The journey takes three hours from Hosapete, where we’ve arrived in the early morning on a sleeper from Bangalore as yet unbreakfasted. Our comedian friend has sent us in completely the wrong direction. It does, however, afford us preliminary views of the stunning, enigmatic scenery of the area around Hampi.
James was right. Enormous granite boulders, the size of houses and bigger, are stacked high and seemingly precariously on top of one another. Your eye can only make sense of it by assuming they were dropped from a huge height, and landed in these huge jumbled piles that adorn the landscape. The dinosaur analogies still in mind, some of the formations remind me of Bedrock.
During the journey I squash in next to a young guy who watches news clips in English on his phone. Everything is to do with the border tensions with Pakistan. Unbeknownst to us, on the morning of the 27th Pakistan sent a retaliatory squad of jets across the border and Indian pilots scrambled to prevent them attacking military installations. In an apparent contest of bragging rights India claimed to have downed a Pakistani jet, which Islamabad denied while claiming to have shot down two Indian aircraft. Delhi maintained it was only one, and the pilot, Wing Commander Abinandan Varthaman, landed beyond the Line of Control and was apprehended by Pakistan.
Yesterday, video footage circulated of the pilot looking roughed up and describing the dogfight, according to Indian sources, under duress. This sparked international outrage. My bus neighbour watches videos of Indian Americans protesting outside the Pakistani consulate in New York, and Theresa May taking time out from Brexit to plead for cool heads. Yesterday, Pakistani Prime Minister (and, incidentally, cricket legend) Imran Khan agreed to release the captured pilot (as arguably compelled to by the Geneva convention), but as of this morning Wing Commander Abinandan is yet to return to Indian soil.
At about 10.15am our journey from Bangalore, which started at 6pm yesterday, comes to an end and we check in at the Peshagar homestay in Anegundi. We’re crestfallen when the owner, an upright young man named Siraj, informs us that breakfast finishes at 10am, but he points us in the direction of a decent café where we lunch in the shade of a particularly Fred Flintstone boulder.
The homestay is quiet and pretty, managed day-to-day by a friendly housekeeper called Banu, and situated a couple of side lanes off the main street through Anegundi. The village is on the northern bank of Tungabhadra, the river that separates this area from the deluge of tourists that swamp the ruins of the city of Hampi-Vijayanagara. In the evening we wander down for a twilit look at the nearby river crossing. Once we’ve traversed a clutch of local kids asking for school pens, chewing gum, chocolate and rupees we have the beautiful, other-worldly scene all to ourselves.
Wing Commander Abinandan finally returns to India, to the adoration of a nation. Virat Kohli himself tweets ‘Real Hero. I bow down to you. Jai Hind’.
A casual glance around tells you the people of Hampi have little choice but to milk the tourist trade. There are lots of rice paddies, but we already know their yields are decreasing due to climate change, and besides them there’s very little in the way of agriculture. The locals have a window of perhaps three or four months each year when wealthy foreigners descend on their enigmatic landscape and exquisite collection of medieval ruins, eat all the rice then scarper, during which time they must catch enough of that wealth to feed themselves through the rest of the year. In early March temperatures are hitting 38C; peak season is already over.
Despite myself, in the heat of the day these simple facts escape me and I can’t but feel ripped off at the steep entry fee for the ruined city’s main attractions, nor the scandalous rates the auto drivers charge to drive between them. If this sounds lazy, bear in mind the site itself covers 16 square miles. Not all that walkable in temperatures that don’t dip below 30C until after sunset.
Hampi really is enormous. At its peak, around 1500CE, it’s thought to have been Asia’s second largest city after Beijing. The capital of the Hindu Vijayanagra empire, the city fell into decline when it was overrun by a confederation of Muslim sultanates in 1565, but its splendid temples and royal compounds still stand, evocatively, in amongst the timeless mounds of boulders. Mid-morning finds us ambling round the remains of a grand temple complex. Bewitching statues adorn the kind of tumbledown granite structures beloved of Kipling’s King Louis, dotted about an open, sunny plaza. It calls to mind the bright space around the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and at the city’s peak would likewise have attracted visitors – pilgrims, diplomats, perhaps even the occasional travel writer – from across the known world.
Having visited Sri Rangam in Trichy it’s easy to picture the bustle that would have filled the spacious paths between the buildings, that now contain only trails of tourists and gaggles of tuk-tuk drivers. One of these gleefully pockets a wad of rupees in exchange for a lift to the royal complex, which contains the majestic Lotus Mahal. With the temperature soaring into the high 30s I deposit Rebecca in the shade of a tree and saunter round the mahal and nearby elephant stables. Though they date from the same period, these buildings seem more modern. Gracefully designed, there is a clear functionality underpinning each of these buildings and as ostentatious shows of royal wealth they reflect the Indo-Saracenic architectural fashion of their time, as opposed to the mystical agelessness of the Hindu temples.
A ride back to the homestay costs another packet. It’s time to take transport into our own hands.
Half-way up the ramp Rebecca lets out a yelp. Caught out by the triple threat of a surprisingly heavy scooter, a curry-laden boyfriend and a precariously steep incline she’s under-revved and is now sliding backwards. Ever the gentleman, I help by jumping off and putting a few metres’ daylight between myself and the unfolding disaster. Eventually realising that Rebecca is genuinely stuck beneath the bike, which has fallen over onto her leg, I help her up and we agree that, despite my not having a driving license nor having driven a motorised vehicle for ten years, it might be best for weight distribution if I drive.
There is genuine, heart-felt terror in her eyes as I rev up and down a quiet road at the edge of Anegundi, but after ten minutes or so we agree I’ve got the hang of it enough to trust my ability on the open road. Rebecca regrets this intensely the second I bellow “Yyyyyyyyabadabadoo!” on our way through the village gatehouse.
It’s amazing. I don’t get to drive in countries where they check you know how to use a road safely (or even ask if you know how to operate the vehicle), so this is a real treat. True, this lackadaisical attitude has its flip side: our request for a couple of helmets was met with outright laughter. Overall though, it’s a worth a bit of risk to be able to take to the open road, the world stretching out on either side. And the world, in and around Hampi, is achingly beautiful.
Rebecca snaps in terror as I narrate the surroundings to her. “Concentrate on the road!” she pleads. Fat chance.
“Look at that aqueduct! Those rocks are so cool. Can you see that temple up ahead? HEY, A MONKEY!” I’m a kid in a playground. On a moped.
We make it to a nearby lake intact, then get ripped off for a coracle ride to a gravelly “beach” inhabited only by another pair of British tourists who are in the process of being ripped off for a coracle ride back. Before letting us leave our coracle paddler tries to peddle us some magic mushrooms. Judging by his surprised reaction we might be the first Western visitors to his corner of the region’s surreal Martian landscape to have ever declined.
Yesterday we took in about two thirds of the sites of ancient Hampi: the temple-y bit, and the royal palace-y bit. The remaining third is generally referred to as Hampi Bazaar; the city’s ancient commercial hub and famously the busiest part of the enormous modern-day site. Historic Hampi mostly lies south of Tungabhadra. The smart move is therefore to reside north of the river to avoid the crowds, though this means travelling to and from the ruins via one of three crossing points that charge a fee and close around 6pm. Hampi Bazaar is one of the few areas south of the river with tourist accommodation, and it has a lot of it. So much that the crowds spill over to the north bank, and immediately after lunch, with the heat getting genuinely oppressive, I chug the scooter tentatively through dense crowd to reach the crossing.
We park up at a stand of dozens of bikes, watched over by a pair of young men who chuckle as I try to manhandle ours into neat alignment with the others. It all seems kosher but as I walk away I decide it might be worthwhile taking a picture of our bike in the crowd – partly because we’ve not had it long enough to identify it at a glance, partly as some sort of insurance against theft. Catching me in this little act of paranoia one of the attendants smiles and chimes “Don’t worry, be Hampi!”
I try to coax Rebecca across the river, but one look at the far shore – dressed with cream and brass spires that blaze in the early afternoon heat – is enough to send her scuttling back to the scooter. That’s a lie: I don’t try to change her mind at all. I’m struggling in the heat too, and my new favourite motorised toy is more appealing even than a medieval bazaar. The attendant smirks as I rev the engine barely five minutes after parking.
I get home to a WhatsApp from Dad saying my grandma, Adeline (Nana to her family), is very unwell. This was already the case before we left in January but it’s clear from his tone that the situation is worsening. We arrange a video call to coincide with his visit there later in the day, and in between we head to Siraj’s main cluster of cottages for dinner where we get chatting to Polly, a nurse and blogger from Somerset, and her five-year old son Ruben.
Besides the fact that both are friendly and good fun, their presence is uplifting, inspiring even. The unspoken subtext for our travel to India has been that this is our final opportunity for unconstrained exploration before the serious reality of adult life hits and ties us down. But seeing a single mother with the ability and courage to take a month off her high-pressure job, and bring her child along for the ride, shows that nothing is impossible and that if this is something we want to repeat later in life, we can. We’ve seen people from all stages and walks of life on our journey. I’ve come full circle since feeling self-conscious in Varkala and realise there is no age or amount of responsibility that precludes a person from travelling.
Still in a contemplative frame of mind, I video call Nana via Dad’s phone after dinner. Though she is clearly very unwell it feels good to speak to her over long distance, and to hear from my aunt Lucia who is celebrating the recent birth of her granddaughter Poppy – Nana’s ninth great-grandchild.
Since its 16th Century pomp, the area around Hampi has clearly fallen on hard times. Perhaps that impression hits us harder staying in Anegundi, slightly off the beaten track and therefore in amongst the cohorts of children asking for pens, although at lunch yesterday near Hampi bazaar I was struck by a woman who, young daughter in tow, stood persistently outside the restaurant until Rebecca rose to give her baksheesh. Accepting the gift without thanks, she pointed demandingly at the bunch of bananas on our table.
Anegundi’s decline is symbolised by the remains of a royal residence in the centre of the village. Its former splendour is evident despite its dilapidation and completely at odds with the rough buildings around. The former residents’ descendants now live in a bungalow opposite; a nice bright home for sure, but it draws the disparity between their current and former circumstances into stark relief.
Nearby is one genuine ray of light: a banana fibre craft workshop that Polly shows us mid-morning. It provides employment to around fifty women from the village and is stacked with beautiful clutch bags, baskets, place mats and wide-brimmed hats, crocheted from banana fibre and local reeds. The workshop offers hour-long lessons in working with banana fibre, giving Rebecca and Polly plenty of opportunity to laugh raucously at my cack-handed attempts to fashion anything shapelier than an amorphous ball of tangled thread. Giving up on me as a student, our instructor takes matters into her own hands and salvages my morning’s work into something vaguely resembling a pear.
We spend the afternoon with Polly, Ruben and their friend Bharat from Delhi at picturesque Hampi Falls, before returning to chase a terrified gecko out of our bed. No more news from home.
Banu is mightily unimpressed. One of the other guests at the homestay – a lone female traveller from somewhere else in India – has checked out without paying for fifteen loads of laundry. Banu’s wage as the housekeeper is four thousand rupees (about £40) per month, which alone puts her below the poverty line. This wage is supplemented by tips and laundry fees from the guests, and the single load she did for us cost 300 rupees. Clearly, fifteen of those is more than she can realistically live without.
We commiserate with Banu and between us resolve to leave her a generous tip, then set out in search of a set of cave paintings that appear on Google maps. They prove impossible to locate and bizarrely un-signposted, but that doesn’t matter. We have miles around in all directions almost entirely to ourselves. The landscape – emerald green rice paddies pooled around yet more other-worldly piles of boulders – is beautiful, and a perfect backdrop for my contemplative mood. The silence is interrupted only by the chatter of birdsong. We sit for a few minutes in the shade of a large boulder painted on one side with red stripes, a nook containing a candle indicating that this is perhaps a shrine, and write in our journals.
We return in the afternoon, British morning, to a message from Dad. Nana passed away peacefully overnight, with Lucia at her side. It’s been coming for some time now, but the emotion still hits me hard. After a call with Dad, we take the scooter over to nearby Anjana Matha temple.
According to Hinduism the birthplace of the monkey god Hanuman, the temple is accessed (like any elevated holy site) on foot, via 575 steps. As the highest point in the region it provides a stunning panorama of the surrounding landscape; the giant boulder piles that litter the plain far enough below to look like little hills. The sun sets golden over an idyllic landscape of rock-strewn outcrops, picking out dramatic silhouettes, and I say goodbye to my grandmother in the quiet magic of the sacred peak. I mean, Nana was Catholic so a Hindu temple might not be quite the most appropriate setting, but she was a wonderfully open, accepting person and I think she would have loved the novelty. And the view. Everyone would love the view.