Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mining the Centuries in Hampi

There seem to be two kinds of tourist attractions in the world – the first, like the dinosaur park in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, that leave you more than a little underwhelmed, and the second, like Hampi, where you put up with the loads of tourists, the endless offers for rickshaws and trinkets, and the occasional scam because when you visit the actual sites, your jaw drops.

Hampi (pronounced Haum-pee) is a town built on top of, inside of, and around a massive medieval city that during the 1500s was the one of the major seats of power in India. It’s situated along a river, amidst mountains of building-sized boulders left over from the retreat of the glaciers during the last Ice Age. At one point over 500,000 people lived here, including traders from Asia, the Middle East and farther abroad. In 1565 a massive attack by the Deccans completely destroyed the seat of power, but many of the sites have remained.

Sarah and I began by wandering through the Hampi Bazaar towards the ruins you can glimpse behind the little girl in the picture. (The photos roughly follow the course of our adventures). We climbed up the steps and through the temple, leaving the tourists, shops and noise behind and as we reached the summit of the hills (which strangely resemble the landscape and foliage of Joshua Tree National Park, CA), we looked down upon the Sule Bazaar, one of the less visited and haunting sites around. We were the only visitors in the nearly kilometer long set of ruins, in which nearly all of the stone pillars and temples remain. Intricate carvings of the Hindu gods remain (Hanuman, Krishna, Shiva, etc.) and the stone stalls feel like the vendors that used them 500+ years ago have only just left for the afternoon.

The second ancient site we visited was the Vitthala Temple, which is the best preserved out of all of the sites. It is an extensive complex of temples and public areas, including a stone chariot that used to run and a majestic tree growing right out of the stone courtyard. It was early morning when we arrived so we had the place to ourselves, but as we sat and watched, the tourists began to roll in. Most of the tourists to this site are Indian, with a good dash of Westerners mixed in as well, making it a fascinating place to people watch. In my head, I was busy imagining life here in the 1500s, traveling for months with caravans packed with goods for the marketplaces to arrive at this spot, but watching the women and men in brightly-colored saris and wraps wander through the site, I began to think about the ways in which contemporary culture in India intertwines with the very present artefacts from the past.

I can only offer the most cursory observations as an outside observer for a short period of time, but some things seem to stick out. For instance, the physical way in which the ancient sites are both revered and put to use. There are ruins nearly everywhere you look, and as you can see in some of the pictures, many local houses are built using them as a frame. This is not just a juxtaposition, but also an intermixing of the ancient and new. There are, of course, no examples of sites this old in the States or Canada, but what does remain from the distant past seems to be venerated and put behind glass as opposed to be lived in and used in this way. Which is not to say that Hampi is not respected for its antiquity – the entire village that exists here now has banned alcohol and meat (arg) out of respect for the holiness of the sites. It is just a different relationship to the past than we are used to.

I’ve also noticed that the revered position of the Hindu gods demonstrated by the intricate carvings and temples in the sites is reflected in the culture today. There is a huge number of gods in the Hindu pantheon and you see small, modern temples and shrines throughout the village of Hampi. What you also see is an amazing respect for the temples built in the 1300-1400s. Flowers and offerings dot the sights and I would imagine this is a large part of the reason that many Indian families visit these sites in their travels.

The broad range of Hindu gods also creates a situation where the popularity of certain gods fluctuates dramatically through the centuries. The big ones seem to remain constant, but we’ve seen stone depictions of many gods that have since fallen out of broad public attention (for instance, Naga, a god with a human torso and a snake lower half). The monuments remain though, dotting the ancient sites, and I can only imagine that many more hundreds of years will pass and perhaps these neglected gods will come back into favour, their dusty statues from the 1400s will be dusted off, and flowers will be laid at their feet again.

We will sadly be leaving Hampi tomorrow, and due to some rejigging of our schedule, will be taking the overnight “sleeper” bus to Goa. We’ve heard from many fellow travelers (thanks Anna!) that it’s a beautiful place with a mix of beaches and history and we are excited to arrive.

P.S. It’s blog contest time! Hampi is filled with many local and national artists selling beautiful sculptures, textiles, and jewellery. Write a comment on the blog with your guess at how much our delicious Valentine’s Day dinner in Hampi cost. The commenter who guesses the closest will receive a little prize package from India in the mail. :)


  1. Am loving following your adventures guys. Thrilled for you both and a little envious at the same time.

    I will guess that your Valentines dinner cost 200 rupees.

    Looking forward to hearing more wonderful stories.

  2. Lloyd (Dad) & Kathleen like your other blog followers are thoroughly enjoying your travels....

    The romantic Valentines dinner in Hampi probably set you back...$15 US ??

    Keep the travel insights coming!

  3. Thanks for that wonderful tour of Hampi! What a gorgeous historical site!
    Enjoy Goa..it is the hippie capital of India and a great fun place. Definitely try the Goan Feni.

    My guess for valentine's dinner for two would be about 4USD :).


  4. This is too much fun! 9 CAD!!!

  5. I'm going to guess that you guys splurged and it was 250 rupees. Unless we're talking price is right rules, in which case i'm going 201.

  6. Based on the tone of you question, I am guessing it was about $12. Wine, not included of course.

  7. I think it was absolutely free! You wangled a lovely free meal because you're so nice!

  8. I love you guys and love reading your posts. I would guess $9 but all I really care about is that you enjoyed the meal and laughed!!!!

  9. AM I TOO LATE?!!! Mark's guess is 280 rupees or $7.....and my guess is 120 rupees! But I also have to agree with Paul that you probably got it for free!

    Jenn & Mark

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