Hampi: Rocks, Ruins and Mopeds

Virukpasha Temple in Hampi

Listed by my copy of Lonely Planet as the number 2 ‘must do’ in India after, inevitably, the Taj Mahal, I was keen to get up to Hampi. My expectations were further heightened by the fact that every traveller I’d met who’d been there raved about it. Fortunately, the experience lived up to my high expectations, and it was so beautiful that I stayed there a little longer than I’d anticipated.

The Ruins of a Lost Empire

Hampi, a village near the town of Hospet in northern Karnataka, boasts the ruins of the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, which dominated Southern India between the 14th and 16th centuries. The capital, then named Vijaya Nagara, was once the second largest city in the world, with an estimated 500,000 inhabitants. Ultimately, the city was abandoned after having been sacked by the Deccan Sultanates in 1565 – inhabitants were massacred and buildings were razed to the ground. The ruins of Vijaya Nagara were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

In addition to its impressive history, Hampi has also become something of a hippie hangout. The beautiful boulders and rice fields of Hampi Island, across the Tungabhadra River, are home to a variety of chilled out guesthouses and cafes where you’ll find tabla drumming, lots of lassis, and some enterprising locals offering cheap weed and ear cleaning services (I didn’t avail myself of either of these).

Here were a few of my favourite things in Hampi:

Exploring the Ruins

The ruins are obviously the main draw of Hampi, and they are both extensive and impressive. Virukpasha Temple, a Shiva temple near the river that is the best preserved of all the sites,  is the centrepiece, but the ruins are spread across a wide area. The major centres are Hemakutta Hill (behind Virukpasha Temple), the Royal Enclosure, and around the Vitalla Temple.

The auto-rickshaw drivers are predictably very keen to convey you between the sites, but a better option for the independent-minded is probably to hire a rattling bike for about 80 rupees. While the main sites (that I imagine the rickshaw men would take you to) are quite crowded, if you wander even a little off the main track, you can find ruins with nobody in sight. For me, this was much more atmospheric than being shuttled around briskly in a rickshaw. I liked in Hampi that if you wandered even a little off-piste, there was nobody else around, and you could imagine yourself back in the bustling city of Vijaya Nagara.

The Watchtower – completely deserted!

Some of the larger temples require an admission ticket; this costs 250 rupees and is valid at all the sites for one day, so it’s best exploring all of these sites on the same day if you can.

Chilling Out on Hampi Island

Part of the attraction of Hampi is just lingering in the many restaurant/guesthouse combos of Hampi Island. These are all from a similar mould: low tables and cushion seats à la Marrakesh, hippie fabric, low lights, sleeping/pot-smoking denizens and dubious ‘multi-cuisine’ menus (stick with the thalis and Indian options, which are cheaper and better cooked).

Whilst Mango Tree in Hampi proper is the most famous, my personal favourite was The Laughing Buddha, which overlooked the river and had beautiful views of Virupaksha Temple. It was also one of the only places in Hampi I could find wifi that didn’t mimic dial up from 1998.

You’ll meet an interesting crowd in Hampi, and the cafes are a great place for solo travelers to make friends, chill and chat. I spent a whole day just chilling in the cafes, sipping fresh juice and beer, reading in the hammock that came with my guesthouse – oh, and having a lovely massage from Lotus Ayurvedic Health and Beauty Centre. Like I said, it’s easy to linger for a while in Hampi.

Renting a moped

Riding alongside the rice fields of Hampi Island is a must!

One thing I’d definitely recommend is to rent a moped to explore Hampi Island. There are lots of people offering bike rental: the standard price seemed to be about 150Rs for the rental, and then 90Rs for petrol. Can’t ride a moped? I couldn’t either, but luckily I got a free (although I gave him some extra money afterwards)  moped riding lesson along with the bike. Unlike many Indian roads you may have experienced, Hampi Island is pretty quiet – yes, there are cows and the odd tuk-tuk, but it’s a good place to get yourself on the road.

This guy (should have written down his name!) gave me free moped lessons – and was a great teacher!

Once you have your wheels, some obvious places to visit are Hanuman Temple, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of the monkey god Hanuman, and Sanapur Lake. Once you’ve parked your moped, the temple is reached by a precisely marked 575 step climb (complete with helpful markers). It’s staffed by chanting devotees of Hanuman and offers beautiful views over the lush, bouldered landscape of Hampi.

The view from Hanuman Temple

Sanapur Lake is not obviously signposted – I ended up riding for about 8km past the turn-off before I thought to check Google Maps – and is down a small track to the right. Swimming is not permitted due to the presence of crocodiles (although the locals say there aren’t any, I don’t like to take risks where crocs are concerned), but the lake is beautiful and quiet. I enjoyed simply riding my moped around, but others do go swimming and cliff-jumping here.

Watching Lakshmi’s Bath

Visitors feeding Lakshmi

Virupaksha Temple, the centre of the temple complex and the best-preserved of the buildings, boasts its own temple elephant, Lakshmi. Lakshmi is very docile and well trained (and whatever you think of the notion of keeping a temple elephant, it’s important to note that she’s not chained or fettered like many of the other captive elephants you see). If you give Lakshmi a coin, she will bless you with her trunk. The highlight, however, is her daily bath – every morning at around 8, the mahout takes Lakshmi down the steps to the river, where she bathes alongside the villagers. Unfortunately I have no pics of the bath (managed to leave my memory card in my computer, so my camera wouldn’t save anything), but it was certainly quite an experience to see an elephant calmly bathe alongside a group of people!

If you’re after more animal life, there are also lots of monkeys hanging around Virukpasha. They’re very partial to bananas, which locals are very happy to sell you. Rather disturbingly, I was asked twice “you want to buy monkey?” I hope the prospective sellers were joking, but am not entirely sure.

Monkeys at Virukpasha Temple

Exploring the Bazaar

A seller of kumkum powder at Hampi Bazaar.

Hampi Bazaar, next to Virukpasha Temple, is full of beautiful pooja flowers and kumkum powder, and definitely worth wandering through. I also ended up befriending some of the sellers’ children, who were desperate to have a go at using my camera and taking photos of themselves. Their results were mixed, but I think that this one is pretty good!

Taken by a girl of about four!

Riding in a Coracle

There is a little boat that runs between Hampi and Hampi Island during the day, which costs 10Rs. However, the last boat is at around 5.30; if you want to cross after this, you’ll have to take a ride in a small coracle. The crossing costs 100Rs, but we found it was completely worth it, particularly if you cross after dark.  Crouching down in a traditional thatched boat under the stars and slowly being rowed across the river was a truly magical moment.

Watching the Sunset

Sunset over Virukpasha Temple

One Hampi must is to watch the sunset (I’ve heard sunrise is equally great, but as a distinctly non morning person  can’t personally vouch for it!). On Hampi Island, everybody makes their way up to Sunset Point,  where there is a beautiful view across the river, guitar playing hippies, tabla drumming and, sadly, lots of young children trying to make a few rupees by selling chai or lemon juice.

In Hampi proper, you can climb Matagundi Hill, or, as I did, you can marvel over Kvin Standage’s sunset photos and try to follow his directions to get a more direct view of Virukpasha Temple. Unfortunately my attempt wasn’t entirely successful – I couldn’t see the path, and, with time running out, so decided on an ill-advised scramble over boulders and through thorn bushes. Not a problem in itself, but next time I do this I’ll try to remind myself not to leave my iPhone in the very loose pocket of my trousers. Despite an hour long attempt to retrace my steps in the rapidly fading light, my iPhone remains somewhere in the rocks above Achyutaraya Temple. Ah well.

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