A short trip will suffice to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Karnataka. Temple-hopping, boat-riding, trekking and a chilled-out, happy vibe await you in historical Hampi

“Where should we go for the long weekend?” was the topic of discussion pre Diwali. Since it was a few days, it had to be somewhere between a longer Kashmir visit and an extremely short Lonavala jaunt. Hampi was the answer! Unexplored by UpperCrust, perfect for a neatly packaged travel feature in the cooler Nov-Jan months – the Southern sun can bear down hard during the October heat – and a photographer’s delight, not to mention an enchanting discovery for a historical and/or religious soul.

Two days was what we had chalked out for our short sojourn to the City of Ruins – a former flourishing dynasty destroyed in the mid-16th century by Mughal invaders. There was a tinge of excitement at the sight of this “bedrock” – reminiscent of our childhood days watching The Flintstones on repeat – for literally, the rock formations all across Hampi seem man-made, but are far from. For us, history buffs, it was the perfect opportunity to combine learning and leisure and refresh our knowledge about the glorious Vijayanagara Empire that ruled the lands around 1500 AD. And, of course, we just had to nail that customary picture with the Stone Chariot in the background and the Rs 50 note in the fore. Take a look at the currency right now and you’ll see what we’re referring to. The monument stands as the Jewel of Hampi in the courtyard of the Vijaya Vitthala Temple, dedicated to Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s escort, and one among the famed trio – Konark and Mahabalipuram the other two. It truly is a marvel for the intricate work that has gone into its creation. Then again, that’s Hampi!

You could stand in awe for hours imagining the blueprint for the designs by the royal architects and the blood and sweat that brought them to life, the myriad of carved wonders – and their ruins that endure – that make it the World Heritage Site it has been since 1986.

As we traversed the long roads that took us from one temple site to another, we came across palace courtyards, baths and fountains and archways that are India’s coliseum equivalent. To our wild imaginations, it appeared so. Greenery and the vast Tungabhadra River – with its famed Pampa Sagardam – dot the landscape, too, presenting a treat for the wanderluster. For a spectacular sight of the entirety of Hampi and the river running through like a rivulet from high above, the Anjaneya Temple is where it’s at. Dedicated to Lord Hanuman, our trek 575 steps up was fettered with monkeys jumping around with prying eyes. So keep your precious belongings safe. Once atop, the vistas are 360′ Instagram-perfect. You will be remiss if you didn’t catch the rays of the sun in time as they gently fade into the horizon to create a milky canvas with pinks and crimson and a touch of golden.

What fuelled us on our hike up was a sumptuous serving of Mexican staples at this unhurried river resort called White Sand. Why Mexican, you ask? Hampi ushers in a multitude of foreign and urban tourists much like ourselves who really are in search of the local tastes, but Mexican and Continental we are served. Deliciously served nonetheless. Enchiladas and tacos – oh, and juicy momos, too – come in bountiful portions, so share, we advise. There’s quite a bit of floor seating and dining in Hampi, as we had earlier been made privy to at our cottage-styled guest house, Shesh Besh, located on the Sanapur side of Hampi, accessible via ferry. Hampi is like a ring-around, FYI, with the heritage tourist portion 13 kms by road from the city of Hospet and the relaxed village portion known as Sanapur, across the river. The name Hippie Island is the cooler moniker, kind of like Goa sans beaches, albeit with the sun intact.

Which is why, when on the heritage trail, though they say you can bicycle your way around, we say, hire those bikes and ride in ease, for Hampi and its unremitting heat will prove a challenge. Or hire another mode of transport like a rickshaw. What about a coracle, you wonder? Now that’s a must when in Hampi, but restricted to the river as a recreational activity best undertaken in cool climes in a smaller group minus the paddler. Relax in the walnut-shaped boat made of bamboo and let the pristine blue aqua calm you down.

The next day we were back on the road, going south of Tungabhadra to the Virupaksha Temple that looms large with the revived Hampi Bazaar at its feet. Of all the holy places that featured on our must-see list, this 7th-century temple dedicated to Virupaksha, an avatar of Lord Shiva, was up there. The pachyderm housed within the temple walls greeted us with trained devotion while the primates much less so. As we toured along, we found an ancestry chart which is perfect to understand the Vijayanagara Empire on the surface. There are shrines and sculptures, such as those of amorous couples representative of fertility rites, archways and courtyards, inner courts and kitchen complexes, and much more best explored on foot – barefoot, as shoes must be deposited outside. The inner sanctum does not allow any photography as it houses the sacred shrine of Virupaksha in his linga (phallus) form. We left the temple with a nugget of history that goes back to 740 AD when this grandest of temples was built by Queen Lokamahadevi for her victorious husband, King Vikramaditya.

Once we retrieved our shoes, the bazaar was next, with its colourful jholas and scarves and fridge magnets to add to your collection of places travelled in this lifetime. If you are really keen on shopping in Hampi, go for it, else the bazaar is worth a miss. What is not is a traditional thali meal at the popular Mango Tree. Shoes off yet again, we heartily dined on South Indian fare and washed it down with a mint lime cooler. Floor seating is an option for a larger group but you run the risk of giving in to a siesta after a heavy meal. You can’t afford that when heritage sites such as Queen’s Bath, Elephant Stables, Lotus Mahal, the Royal Enclosure and the Underwater Shiva Temple await. This path of royal history is all doable in half a day and is sufficient to feed the traveller’s soul well.

While the Queen’s Bath, with an outdoor pool, is colossal – an example of the ornate lifestyle of the royals – the stepped tanks in the Royal Enclosure – one for the royals and the other for the public – are architecturally impressive with steps leading down like an inverted pyramid. The Royal Enclosure placed us in a scene from Bahubali where the royals sat atop a platform and addressed the army or relished the recreational activities that played out before them. The Mahanavami (Dasara) Dibba greets you first when you enter – the king’s platform that’s three levels high constructed during the reign of King Krishnadevaraya. The grandeur that once was doesn’t escape us as we move along to the Lotus Mahal, a segregated spot for the royal women to retreat to. The shape of the central dome renders the mahal its name, also seen in the passages and walls that surround it. Tranquil and beautiful, the place makes you want to relax on the green lawns which you can do before getting those well-framed shots of the expansive elephant stables next door. Domed structures all in a row carry tales of the royal elephants that once inhabited these walls while lilies sit pretty on the lawns facing them. Like we said, tranquil.

The sense of serenity carried forth in the last place we visited, a marvel, shrouded in a little enigma. The Prasanna Virupaksha or the Underground Shiva Temple stands a few feet below ground level with the inner sanctum always filled with water. Devotees wade through the stagnant pool to seek blessings from Lord Shiva who sits in the austere dark shrine. They say this temple was built as convenience for its proximity to the royal dwellings in the 14th century making it one of the oldest temples in Hampi, but it is one of the many floating theories to its enigmatic origin.

Sated with our fill of history and spirituality in Hampi, we found a little joint on our way back to our resort called Manju’s where piping hot puri bhaji with a vastly diverse bhaji of pulses and a wasabi-like chutney is served, along with a light and flavourful egg dosa and tulsi honey tea. A little girl in pigtails and a traditional South India skirt and blouse – the pleasing owner’s grandchild – will smile and greet you while you dine on simple fare done just right. That’s probably why they say “happy Hampi” where everyone seems content and you leave with some of that before the urban frenzy beckons.

Note: If attempting the journey from Bombay by bus, make sure it’s a sleeper, non-AC works best as it’s cold at night and you don’t want to be in a closed space with other travellers for a long time right now! It’s a 14-15-hour ride, one that is sure to wipe you out for your two-day stay before you undertake it again to head on home. Flights and trains to nearby cities are available, so check those and the COVID regulations before booking.  

This travel feature was published in UpperCrust, Oct-Dec 2021. Images contributed by Lyle Michael, Eathen D’souza, Natasha Rodrigues, Vanessa D’souza for UpperCrust India. http://uppercrustindia.com/2019/posts/576/hampi-india-s-bedrock