Friday, 10 February 2012

Hampi Happenings

So, readers...we reluctantly left behind the sleepy Keralan backwaters to spend a day exploring the historic town of Fort Cochin. Due to our tight onward schedule, we had to go at lightning speed,  hiring a rickshaw driver to take us around the main sites. Doubtless our lack of time had something to do with our impression, but I couldn't help but feel shortchanged by Cochin - I was expecting the rich history of the maharajas and the spice infused intensity of Rushdie's A Moor's Last Sigh. In reality we got the Western menus, pollution and hassle of tourist town. We were pleased to leave it behind and snuggle into our double bunk on the overnight bus to Bangalore. 
All dressed up in Bangalore


Liz is a DJ and music producer and has been looked after by various music promoters at points during her trip. We were really lucky to receive more famous Indian hospitality from one of her business contacts on arrival in Bangalore: collected from the bus and taken to a serviced apartment, ours for the day to chill out in during our stopover before our onward night bus (the second in a row).  The lovely and charming Praveen even facilitated a visit to the biggest Shiva statue in India, where Liz and I put a coin in the pool, chanted Om Namah Shivaya 7 times and prayed for our wish to come true underneath the majestic 65ft statue of the creator and the destroyer (classic India - monetary opportunism meets Indian superstition). But nevertheless we dived into our pockets and made our wishes and more on Lord Shiva later...(maybe by the end of my travels we will see if the wish came true...) We were wined and dined over a fine business lunch and enjoyed a few cocktails in a Bangalore bar with the house music elite (booze! finally!) before being poured onto what was the cosiest night bus we have slept on so far - proper beds and blankets! Imagine our disorientation after being woken from  deep slumber at 5.00am to be hurried off the bus to shouts of "Hospet, Hospet"! No mate! We want to stay on! 
Shiva statue in Bangalore
Will my wish come true.....


Arriving in the chill before first light, we had no choice but to take a rickshaw the 12km to Hampi. The ride was atmospheric - passing cow-drawn carts with whole families swathed in turbans atop, on their way to the fields to work. The sky was dark but inexplicable fires blazed in the distance, lighting up the horizon in flaming orange. The sun was rising as we drew into the historic Bazaar, a hotch-potch of historic ruins dating from the Vijayanagara Empire (that's around 1336 to 1565 to you). We haggled our price down on a beautiful beach hut in Paradise Gardens, far from the madding crowds and nestled amongst a banana plantation, we stationed ourselves there for the first night. A happy afternoon was whiled away shopping, taking in the relaxed vibe of the open air, prayer flag strewn restaurants and visiting the historic Virupaksha temple (a Shiva temple with an imposing 49 metre high tower at it's entrance.) 
Hampi bazaar
Virupaksha temple tower


The next morning we took the little boat across the river to Virupapurgaddi - we had heard on the traveller grapevine that this place was much more relaxed than the main Hampi bazaar and weren't disappointed. A series of guest houses nestled against the rice paddies lined the river banks. Prices were more reasonable than in the bazaar and there were plenty of chilled out eateries to get that much sought after luxury - fruit and muesli for breakfast (read: a break from curry and samber three times / day!). After having our fill in another rooftop restaurant strewn with floor mats and cushions, Liz and I abandoned the horizontal posture that Hampi had come to increasingly foster and went out to explore Kishkindha - the kingdom of the monkey God, mentioned in Indian Ramayana mythology. 
Chilling out
Messing about on the river
River crossing
Hampi and it's surrounding areas are strewn with ruins and temples and temperatures were soaring. Knowing that it would be impossible to walk and impractical to bike, we surrendered ourselves to the Indian way and went off to hire scooters. Unfortunately, no sooner had Liz sat on her bike she accelerated too quickly, lost control and crashed, rising several feet in the air in spectacular fashion before landing on her back and leaving a nearby water pump gushing with water. Lucky that she was wearing a rucksack, which certainly saved her back, if not her life and the only damage done was to the exploded tube of suncream that had taken most of the impact. (She swears that this is the second near-death experience she has survived unscathed since leaving Amma's ashram). Despite having had a similar experience my first time on a moped in Goa (I hadn't braved it again since) I knew that it was now or never. After a few wobbly tries, I set off (complete with pillion rider) to lose my scooting virginity. The universe was kind to us- and we didn't falter once, despite negotiating tooting buses, rickshaws and the occasional herd of goats. By the end of the day I was a total biker chick convert, bezzing around the jurassic ruins,  with the wind in my hair. Sorry mum, but I think my next new toy might have to be a motorbike..

Biker chick
Our first stop in Anengundi was the Hanuman temple, reached by ascending 567 steps. As we climbed higher and higher, the view just expanded and got more and more beautiful as we reached toward the little white temple on the hill. We arrived just in time for an afternoon satsang - priests were singing bhajans and offering incense and we sat in meditation before them. In the time-honored tradition of awarding pilgrims when they reach their destination, we were offered a steamy hot cup of chai and prasad of giant sweet sugar crystals. A sleepy sadhu (Hindu holy man) lay slumbering on a bed, but awoke to answer his mobile phone in typical collision of two worlds (ancient and modern, spiritual and the material) that is India.  
Hanuman temple on the hill

Pilgrims descend the steps


Hanuman is the god of strength and loyalty. He can fly through the air like superman. At this temple he is in a devotional stance to Lord Rama, but elsewhere in Hampi he is 'working it' himself, tail and arm in the air. We had our own little picnic (avoiding the cheeky monkeys that tried to pinch our chikky nuts) staring out at the jaw dropping panoramic view of Hampi. I literally felt on top of the world and was overcome with the urge to do the yoga asana sequence surya namaskar- the sun salutation. Just another day in India, another momentary realisation of my insignificance in the scheme of this beautiful universe.. 
 
Another traveller takes in the view from the Hanuman temple
 We spent the afternoon driving around the dusty streets of Anengundi, racing through villages with mut and palm leave houses, where children simply played with tyres and sticks. We were greeted with waves and shouts of "hello" and "Namaste" wherever we went. It was a joy to be seeing this side of India. We came across a beautiful, deserted white temple and found a statue of Shiva at the inner sanctum, discernible by his ever present cow. It was in here that I had the realisation that Shiva was becoming a recurrent motif in this leg of our travels. Shiva symbolises destruction and creation. It is only be destroying the old that we can begin anew. I began to understand what I had destroyed and left behind and why I needed to do so. After our meditation we came across a large family, eating in the shades of the colonnades. We were rapidly sat down and given food to eat from a piece of newspaper - beaten rice flavoured with fresh coriander, little purple flowers, spices and peanuts. They were very excited to meet us and took some persuading out of the idea that we would travel onwards with them to Hyderabad that night! As a compromise, they asked us to take their youngest son to the West with us instead. It was a shame to tell them that I'm not planning on returning for some time.. 

One of the village children


As the afternoon was closing we found a tiny temple adorned with beautifully coloured murals of various gods and goddesses and arrived just in time for puja. I was instructed overzealously by the priest to ensure that my hand made the "shape of a half moon" when offering my hand for prasad. This typifies India: simultaneously sensual and spiritual. Despite this being a Krishna temple, the lady next to me was praying to Lakshmi - a strange coincidence as I had been praying to her for my little sister's new professional endeavours and Liz also has an affinity to the goddess. As sun was beginning to set we drove around on our little bike to the huge lake, feeling meditative in the dusk light.

Wall paintings in the Krishna temple

Lake at dusk
The next day we spent exploring the other side of Hampi. Highlights included the Shiva 'lingum', the elephant stables in the palace, feeling a 'jinn' or nasty spirit inside a temple of Krishnu that literally threw us out of the inner sanctum (prompting both of us to cast a circle and protect ourselves), being overwhelmed by serenity in the water flooded underground temples and marvelling at the musical pillars that 'sing' when tapped in the staggeringly beautiful Vittala temple. 
View of Hampi bazaar
Hampi monuments
Elephant stables
Stone car at the Vittala temple
We climbed to the rocks at sunset to watch the beautiful orange orb disappear over the ancient landscape.  With the last boat back at 6pm and no other distractions, the done thing in Virupapurgaddi is to watch a film. Liz and I lay down in one of the chilled out guest houses to do this, but alas, plans were jettisoned by hopping frogs, barking dogs and power cuts. For me, this epitomised Hampi. At every stage we were utterly disconnected from the twenty first century, conjoined instead with the ancient energies of this wonderous place. 
View of the sunset from the rocks

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