Hampi looks like a giant film set, a pile of rocks transformed into a wonderland of epic proportions. But sometimes the mythical hype about this place masks the reality.
Stunningly good looking, dripping in history and blessed with beautiful natural surroundings: Hampi has a lot going for it. But I can’t gush about my love for this town the way some others do. From the pushy auto drivers to the overpriced juice stands and tour agencies: to me, Hampi is a place tainted by tourism.
Before visiting, I’d heard Hampi described as a hidden gem, which is a bit of a myth, the reality is that it’s firmly stamped (in permanent ink) on the tourist trail.
Who or what the hell is Hampi?
Hampi was the last capital of the Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar from 14th – 15th Century. It was a bustling international trade hub, home to a population of 500,000 and rose to become one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The unusual bouldered landscape surrounding Hampi provided a natural defence against invading armies and created a spectacular backdrop for the Empire’s exquisite architecture. In 1565 the the Sultans of Deccan ransacked the town and by 1646 the whole Vijayanagar Empire that ruled a vast swathe of southern India had fallen. Hampi transformed from a city with the second largest population in the world to a ghost town.
Today hundreds of relics from the Empire are scattered all over Hampi, including, forts, temples, shrines, stables and step wells. It looks like a giant outdoor museum, set amidst stacks of prehistoric looking granite boulders. Reality says that millions of years of weather erosion created these boulder stacks. But Hindu myth says that two brothers, Vali and Sugreeva, created the boulder stacks. The pair slung boulders at each other during a fight, leaving the huge piles of rocks scattered around the town. Feel free to go with your preferred version.
The area also has religious significance for Hindus, as the home of Kishkinda – the Monkey Kingdom – and birthplace of Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, which brings hoards of Hindu pilgrims here to worship too.
Reality check part I
We travelled to Hampi from Hospet, the closest major town, taking the first bus of the morning. Once we arrived to the parking lot cum marketplace at Hampi Bazaar we headed off to try and find a place to stay, all the while dodging auto drivers and guides offering us their services. I’m sure it would be worth hiring a good guide here, especially if you’re short on time, but we opted against it as we had a few days to explore.
Hampi Bazaar is a dusty, ramshackle hodgepodge of shops, guesthouses and restaurants none of which was appealing. We decided to head over to the other side of the river and the village of Virupapura Gadde, nicknamed Hippie Island…the name alone should have put us off. Hippie Island is the kind of place that we usually sprint away from without looking back. The area is aimed squarely at western tourists and is full of over priced cafes, guesthouses and drum circles (I cringe just hearing those words). However, it’s much quieter than the Bazaar area and the surrounding countryside is pretty lovely.
Drum circles aside, the main downside of Hippie Island is its location across the river from Hampi Bazaar: the river has no bridge. Small boats ferry passengers across from 8am to 6pm for only 10Rs, but if you need to cross the river outside of these hours you have to pay for a private boat, and the price is whatever they feel like charging.
It’s a two hour journey by road, via Hospet, to get to Hampi Bazaar from Hippie Island and vice versa…missing the last boat is not something you want to do.
We knew before arriving that scooter rental might be an issue because of rules that came into force a few years ago: the auto-rickshaw drivers’ union managed to force a ban on private scooter rentals in Hampi.
Currently there is just one official scooter rental shop in Hampi Bazaar and it only has about 10 scooters. The official rental scooters have a black and yellow plate, as they’re commercial rental vehicles, while non-commercial vehicles have white and black plates. So if a police officer spots you riding around the ruins on a scooter with the wrong colour plate they’ll stop you and fine you. Thanks for that auto drivers, just another thing to add to the list of reasons you drive me mad.
This being India, there is of course a work around to the scooter problem: if you stay on Hippie Island you can rent a local’s scooter and shouldn’t encounter any problems with the police. We rented one from a hire stall on Hippie Island, feeling safe in the knowledge that we could ride it on this side of the river without the police stopping us and went to explore the local surroundings.
Out in the countryside
Farmland, waterways and palm trees dot the landscape around Hampi. We weaved amongst the massive boulder stacks in awe of our surroundings, passing rice farmers threshing and drying their crops and goat and sheep herds moving animals to pastures new.
These pastoral scenes of life are a million miles away from the backpacker bubble of Hippie Island, out here other tourists are far and few between. We stopped to talk to some of the rice farmers, I say talk but it was more like sign language, to see what they were doing. They seemed surprised we’d stopped and interested to talk to us, but mostly just eager to ask if we had any cigarettes.
Riding amongst fields of sugar cane an aroma of candy floss filled the air, seeping out of factories burning the cane to make jaggery. Later on our drive we passed a small riverside village where a group of locals had blocked a section of the river to corral and catch all the fish. Architectural sights are by no means the only things to see in Hampi.
Reality check part II
Our troubles started back at Hippie Island. It transpired that there was an arrangement in place with the local police: they would turn a blind eye to tourists riding the unofficial bikes around this side of the river in return for a monthly bribe. Only this month the scooter rental guys hadn’t paid the police their bung, so they were threatening to confiscate scooters being ridden by foreigners.
The locals who lend out their scooters to the middlemen, who in turn rent them out to tourists, were scared they would lose their vehicles and wanted them back in case the police tried to take them. Left without a scooter, we gave up for the day.
The next morning we crossed over the river to Hampi Bazaar, rented bicycles for the day and explored some of the ruin sites, which are spread out across the town. Most sites are free to visit but a few charge an entrance fee. As usual in India there’s a dual pricing system, for example entry to the popular Zenana Enclosure is 30Rs for locals and a whopping 500Rs for foreigners, a frustration I mentioned in previous post.
When it comes to sunset most people head to Matanga Hill to watch the drama unfold from a crumbling temple. We found an alternative view point on top of a crop of boulders outside an Ashram, just up the hill from the marketplace/bus stand. We were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves and from up there all the hassles and troubles of below seemed far away.
Decamping to Hampi Bazaar
The following morning we decamped to Hampi Bazaar side for the night so that we would be able to visit the ruins at sunrise and sunset, without the barrier of the river to negotiate.
We managed to rent one of the illusive official scooters and rode around the ruin sites we’d not yet made it to. It’s easy to lose yourself in the landscape here and escape from the hundreds of others tourists that you have to share the place with and the best way to do that is to explore some of the less popular ruins.
There was just one final insult to injury: a puncture. We had to push the scooter 3km back to the Bazaar. A reality check if ever there was one.
Was it worth it?
Hampi is a surreal and awe inspiring place, but in my experience it comes with a whole host of baggage too, from the annoying river crossing issues to scammers to scooter rental politics. The realities of life in a tourist town soon dispel any myths about the magic of the place. My advice: go to Hampi but just know that the mythical hype about the place can be quite different to the reality.