Hampi, the Greatest City no one ever visits

Hampi, the ancient city that once dominated Southern India, is a UNESCO world heritage site on par with Petra, but younger, nearly unknown, and where it’s easier to buy weed. Even the backpackers, the ones who missed the invention of deodorant and still know all the words to Kumbaya, rarely venture there.

Deep in the interior of Indian subcontinent, and far from the all night parties of Goa’s beach crowd, there are two main ways to get to Hampi. There’s a day long bus trip from Goa, or an overnight train from Hyderabad, an eleven hour slog through the planes of Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s largest states. Having long looked for an excuse to travel across India by train, and known of Hampi’s reputation as one of the world’s great archeological sites, I booked passage from Hyderabad.

That the Indian rail system works at all is remarkable. The statistics are staggering. Indian railways carry 25 million passengers a day, between 7,000 stations, using 9,000 engines, and employee over one and a half million people. And unlike their Chinese neighbors who are pumping in tens of billions of dollars to keep up with growing demand, India has done all of this with the same trains, tracks, and toilets they did forty years ago.

Boarding an overnight train at Hyderabad’s Deccan station dispelled any romantic notion about train travel in India. It was 11 pm on a Friday night and the station looked as though it had just been hit with a Sarin gas attack. Splayed out bodies covered the floor. Flies buzzed about the sleeping, dogs sniffed beneath exposed limbs looking for scraps, and there was an unmistakable stench of sewage wafting through the hall. Outside in the warm air I could still hear the chaos of horns and breaks as auto-rickshaws darted between beat up old cars ladened with luggage. India never sleeps. There’s isn’t room; when one shift returns home to sleep, another wakes to fill the streets.

I stepped over the prostate bodies and out onto the platform. After checking a notice board for my train, I made my way over to Platform 3 where a train of battered brown carriages idled. This was train 17004, the Kolhapur-Hyderabad BiWeekly Express. Between the masses of bodies already shoved into the ancient carriages, I caught glimpses of a few metal railed benches. I looked down at my paper ticket which gave my carriage and birth number. It didn’t look like the people inside were keeping track of that sort of thing. Was that were I was meant to sleep? Eleven hours seemed like it was going to be an awfully long time, certainly longer than it normally did.

I walked along the length of the train, looking for the right carriage. They were all full. Even the entrance staircases were now occupied by families preparing for the long trip. I was growing more concerned that I was going to be sleeping stuck halfway out a train, and if my wife back in Canada didn’t kill me, a telegraph post surely would. Finally, near the front, I found the correct carriage, 2AC, 2-tier sleeper, air conditioned. It was better than the others I had passed, but not by much. With some relief, my name was on the passenger list pasted to the side. I found lower birth 37 where I stuffed myself in amongst the others getting ready for the long night ahead.

I’d like to say the birth was Spartan but clean. It was certainly Spartan. 2nd class coaches carry about 50 passengers, half as many as the standard sleepers I’d been walking past. Births are broken into 2-tier open bays of six with two births against one side, and four vertically against the other. Dingy yellow windows, caked with decades’ old grime, obscure the night. Metal bars beneath the bottom bunks are used to chain down luggage against theft while the bag’s owner sleeps. The only modern convenience was a single wall plug for cell phone charging.

As I settle down onto my little bunk a train worker came through and dropped off freshly laundered blankets and small stiff pillows. Compared to the poor sods in the rest of the train who were going to spend the next eleven hours in various twisted states, this was luxury. I am sure now Yoga with its pretzel like contortions is merely practice for Indian train travel. With a lurch we were moving.

Throughout the night, twenty times in all, train 17004 pulled into dimly lit country stations for only a few minutes, just long enough for a quick exchange of passengers, one weary group shoving off, and another weary group shoving on. We passed through forgettable places like Malkhaid Road, Raichur, and Nawandgi, places so far off the beaten track that even Lonely Planet didn’t make an attempt at description.

The train greeted morning at Guntakal Junction where the routine changed. After a long night passengers were hungry. As the train idled at the station, local hawkers pushed through the crowded isles shouting out omelette, omelette, omelette, or dosa, dosa, chi-tea, chi-tea. Each one had his own goods carried in-hand, and the pace was rapid. The business man across from me called out “babu”, stopping the idli seller
who handed over a package of spongy white rice idli wrapped in old newsprint. Yellow chutney came in a small baggy. As long as you didn’t mind eat something with the mirror image of a recent newspaper headline transferred onto its underside, there was ample selection to go around.

As we pulled out of Guntakal half an hour later, word in the local papers was that a huge bomb has just been defused in a sleeper car in the northern state of Assam. Its five kilos of explosives would have killed hundreds.

The landscape around Hampi is semi-arid. The monsoons had begun, plunging the 40 degree days of India’s hottest months (April/May) into the relative cool 30s of the summer. But this year in the interior only the monsoon winds had come, and very little rain had followed. We crossed dry riverbeds and sunbaked fields. And everywhere there were people, slowly leading cattle in search of scrub, hoeing their small fields with hand tools unchanged for a thousand years, or just standing by the rails watching the trains go by. Each year Indian trains kills over 15,000 people, mostly caught trying to cross tracks at the wrong time. Looking through the grimy window, I wished the ones I was seeing would stand a little further back.

Within the hour we’d arrived at Hospet where I disembarked, having barely slept, but thoroughly enjoying the experience. Hospet is a moderate sized market town where broken down vehicles litter the roadside, children play naked in the streets, and women pound their washing in the thick brown sludge that passes for a stream.   Christ could have walked on water here. Nearly anyone can. Hospet has all the charm of Cholera.  But it also has mango brought in from the local fields. I had breakfast at a stall selling a wonderful array of ripe mango which was laid out on a mat between a man selling second-hand tires, and a pile of smoldering refuse.

From Hospet I needed to catch a ride 14 kilometers north to Hampi, the smaller, dustier village built amidst the five hundred year old ruins of what was then called Kannada, the wealthy Vijayanagara Empire’s former capital.

Like Petra in Jordon, Hampi was a once fabulously rich city. By the 16th century Hampi was reputedly the second most populous city on Earth trailing only Beijing at the time.  A hundred years later Muslim armies swept down from the north leaving a pillaged carcass to rot in the brutal Indian sun.  The city was never occupied again.  What’s left is a landscape of ancient walls snaking about the landscape, ruined temples scattered amongst spectacular rock formations, and an odd little mammal that looks like a hybrid between a chipmunk and an iguana.  It’s called a Palm Squirrel, and according to Hindu legend was instrumental in constructed a bridge for Lord Rama.  Relying on tree squirrels to build bridges might explain an awful lot about India’s train infrastructure.

The ruins of Hampi are divided into two vast areas, and each took a full day to explore.

The first is called Hampi Bazaar. It’s an area of rustic storefronts—focus on the word rustic—youth hostels, and a moped rental shop that also sell warm Orange Fanta from chipped bottles. The main street runs parallel to the Tungabhadra River. The towering Virupasksha Temple dominates one end, and the ancient Bazaar, used now mostly as the local cricket green for village kids, the other.  During the sultry afternoon hours, when movement became oppressive, I lounged along the riverbank and watched villagers pan for silver.  A local MBA student told me the villagers’ ancestors panned for silver, and now they do as well.  It doesn’t matter that the silver is gone. It’s all they know to do.  Nearby people swam beneath a large skull and crossbones which warned against swimming.  I do not believe Hindi has a phrase for “public safety.”

In the temples just past the Bazaar, when I looked closely at the ancient Hindu rock carvings I started to notice the characters doing things they shouldn’t be, at least not in public, and not without a significant supply of penicillin on hand.  Men, women, and various animals were busy doing the sorts of things that end a politician’s career.  Hampi is famous for these pornographic carvings which adorn many of the temple columns. I realized rather quickly that we haven’t invented anything new in this area for a very long time.

The second area is the Royal Enclosure a few kilometers over boulder strewn hills. It is the site of the royal places, baths, and proof that despite a highly educated middle class that does a great number of things well, signage isn’t one of them.  At one point I stood by the side of a road, staring at a rare overview map which had a You Are Here circle in the middle of a giant field in which I was obviously not standing.

Unfortunately I’d started a cold two days earlier, and by the second day my body temperature was rising dangerously. Under the blistering sun I withered.  It was all I could do to trudge one foot in front another as I made my way down dusty paths.  After a time temples and palaces began to blur into one another, but make no mistake, the site is spectacular. World class. From the massive Elephant stables to the underground Temple of Shiva the Destroyer where bats hang from the subterranean ceilings, it’s a shame so few people will ever make the effort to see Hampi, but it’s better for those who do. There’s something rather evocative about standing alone in a vast windswept field of ruins.  Evocative, until you realize you’re parched, near death, and the boy whose shimmering visage is coming over the horizon, the boy whose is going to bring you water, is a young boy who just wants to sell you a postcard.  I bought four.  He tracked me down a little while later and gave me a fifth for free.  I suspect he felt badly.  When he’d started the negotiations at the ridiculously high price of 20 rupees each, I had confused him and said yes.

If I had one complaint, it is the sparsity of facilities at Hampi. There are two lackluster one-room museums, a few local vendors scattered about selling drinks, and a large water tank from which you can fill your own bottle. Otherwise you’re pretty much left to your own devices to wander across the vast site while looking for a bathroom.

By the evening of the second day, even though I’d spent two days hiking through Hampi, I still felt I hadn’t given it the time it deserved. There were still temples I hadn’t visited, and areas I hadn’t set down and contemplated long enough. The Indians I met were friendly to a fault, and I had only begun to scratch the surface of the local history. These were the thoughts I was mulling back at the train station in Hostpet, at least until the monkeys attacked. They were langurs, crafty little creatures that climbed up into the rafters of the station and had a go at stealing passengers’ food while they looked the other way.  I could see the langurs little faces peeking out from between corrugate ceiling paneling as they sought out new victims.  Kids thought it’s great, hooting at the monkeys.  Parents threw boxes at the monkeys and then fell into arguments with other passengers when the boxes bounce off recently vacated perches and landed on people trying to sleep on the floor below.

Visit Hampi. Take plenty of water, sunscreen, and time. But visit.

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