The night train from Mysore ground to a stop at Hosapete and, puffy-eyed, we made our way outside the station into the unexpectedly cool morning air. A few minutes later we were being rickshaw-ed at full speed towards the legendary ruins of Hampi.
The ancient capital of the Vijayanagar Empire (the Hindu kingdom founded in 1336 that managed to fend off the Muslims and prosper for around 200 years), UNESCO-listed Hampi is today one of India’s most popular destinations among backpackers, bohemians and photographers. It’s not hard to see why.
Spread across a beautiful, rugged area of some 40 square kilometers, covered in palm trees and boulders, Hampi’s architecture is enchanting and incredibly diverse. If time is limited (sadly, it was for us), the best way to get around is a rickshaw: our driver was lovely, knew what he was doing and ensured we covered all the main spots. An alternative is the moped or, if you enjoy pedaling and don’t mind the scorching heat, a bicycle.
We started our visit on Malyavanta hill, where we had the amazing chance to climb the naked inside of one of the towers of the Malyavanta Raghunatha temple. Monkey droppings aside, exploring the different levels of the gopura was a treat, not least for the views of the religious complex from above. A few minutes later, we found ourselves in a dark corner of the main temple, sitting in front of a young priest who painted a red dot on our foreheads – the famous third eye of Shiva.
Blessed (and a few rupees lighter), we continued our exploration of the hundreds of Hindu monuments dotting Hampi. From the glorious Stone Chariot (the shrine dedicated to Garuda that has become the town’s most famous landmark) in the Vittala Temple to the geometrically perfection of the Stepped Tank, few archeological sites offer the variety that Hampi boasts.
After stopping for some refreshing coconut water in the shade of a tree next to the majestic stables that once housed the royal elephants, we strolled by the sublime and slightly Aladdin-esque Lotus Mahal. (I wasn’t surprised to learn it was built in the Indo-Islamic style.) Even though its function is still unclear, this magnificent building is yet another reminder of how powerful Hampi was as the capital of an empire that traded in precious gems, cotton and spices.
One of the things that struck me the most about Hampi is the incredible level of detail in its monuments: thousands upon thousands of sculptures and bas-reliefs portraying warriors, dancers, animals and deities adorn what seems to be every pillar of every room of every temple on the site. Truly breathtaking. Speaking of statues, make sure you don’t miss the giant man-lion effigy of Vishnu in a yoga pose with its empty, scary stare.
One my favorite spots in Hampi was Hemakuta hill, which features several interesting buildings and several giant rocks sitting on its smooth surface as if Brahma the Creator himself had delicately placed them there. The sweeping views of the fantastic Virupaksha temple and the green valley all around Hampi only added to the magic of this place.
The fantastic Virupaksha complex is well worth visiting for a glimpse into traditional Indian religious life. The temple – especially its tall gopura – is at its most beautiful in the late afternoon golden light, when monkeys come out to frolic and the temperature starts to go down. Don’t forget to pay a visit to the resident elephant Lakshmi – a blessing by this living incarnation of Ganesha can be bought for 10 rupees, which she will grab with her pink, hairy trunk. Unforgettable.
We ended our day sitting on the staircase leading down to the river, people-watching as a mix of Japanese tourists and Western backpackers in dreadlocks and baggy harem pants gather here after a long day of sightseeing.
As the sun set and the sky turned pink, a group of kids played in the shallow waters of the river while tourists armed with selfie sticks laughed trying to cross to the other side without getting wet. There were smiles all around. Time seemed to stand still, with only the gentle, warm breeze reminding us we were not staring at a painting. In Hampi, I finally realized why people love India so much.
As night fell on the town’s bazaar, a skinny figure wrapped in a white lungi and carrying a stick appeared in the distance. In the dim light, we could make out a pair of thick glasses and a bald head. Disappointingly, it didn’t turn out to be a heat-induced oniric encounter with the ghost of good old Gandhi, but a wacky Korean tourist impersonating him. An apt ending to a day in the charming town where the hippie meets the metaphysical.