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Hampi’s ‘season’ sighs to an end as India’s scene moves west


A ten, maybe twelve—sometimes even fourteen—hours on a bone rattling, eastward journey from Goa on a sleeper bus deep into the mustard colored landscape of Karnataka is a sleepy little town called Hampi.

Hampi is a respite from the chaotic melee of India. A river runs through Hampi. Crossing the Tungabhadra River is like crossing the River Styx. An erratically scheduled boat powered by a two-stroke put-put motor ferries the wayward. Very few will cross back into India until it is time to move on. Usually it is to Gokarna, another otherworldly bubble in India.

Sunset view of Hampi

Five hundred years ago Hampi was the epicenter of the Vijayanagara Empire which enjoyed a thriving economy and culture that rivalled Ancient Rome in many ways. The Empire ruled over its happy land for about two hundred years until it literally collapsed overnight. That must have been one helluva night because all that was left afterward was thousands of ruined temples. Now only monkeys and travellers scamper amongst the venerable old rocks where devout worshippers once prayed for good fortune and a promotion at work.

Climbing in HampiHampi is a mecca for rock climbers. As the rose colored fingers of dawn shakily grasp at the horizon like a spectacularly hung over college freshman specialized rubber-treaded climbing shoes are slipped on, pouches of chalk are slung over shoulders and hundreds of bodies shimmy out of sleeping bags and mud huts to ascend the ridge for a morning of clinging and climbing onto giant boulders that are casually strewn about like an abandoned game of Brobdingnab marbles. It is only until the sun nears its searing zenith and grasping fingers, well shredded and bloodied, that the boulders are returned to the lizards.

Hammocks beckon the morning-wearied then. The soft lisping swing of a hammock, propelled by rhythmic puffs of the local chillum and a dangling leg, invite dreams of sun dappled contentment and happiness. Afternoons are snoozed away interrupted only by a replenishing lunch of chicken schnitzel and chips and a Coke. Flies are a nuisance though. Some of them are hideously experienced and refuse to be shooed away. I’ve learned to dislike flies. They are a reminder of that less pleasant world that waits, like an unforgiving overseer, on the other side of the river.

As the day nears its retirement hours and the sun slips into its resplendent tangerine slippers the hammocks empty and their slumber-dazed denizens gather atop the ridge to sing and pluck guitars, caress their drums and whisper carnal imprecations into harmonicas. It is a happy pagan ritual where nothing is sacrificed except for an inhibition or two.

Indian children, hampiIndian school girls, still wearing their blue school uniforms, troll through this merry choir selling cups of chai. I would prefer a cold beer and decline their invitations of a hot beverage. School girls do not sell cold beer.

As the proud and priapic Virupaksha Temple of the long ago collapsed Vijayanagara Empire licks away the final rays of the sun a guitarist deftly steers the jam session into a heartfelt rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. A sweet melancholia descends and binds the audience like finely spun pink candy floss tossed from high atop a ferris wheel.

In the early darkness toes are stubbed against rocks as descents are carefully picked out and the promise of hearty din dins summon us home to further commune and consume our passions—the abstract and the herbal.

Hampi is for the pursuit of passion and a reprieve from the disappointments of Europe and the Americas. Farewells are teary.

Particularly for those returning home like runaway slaves dragged back to the remainder of a dreary winter.

In Hampi we suspend our realities, shunt them into a back room as one would a disagreeable aunt whose unemployment benefits have run out, and weave illusions of innocence. The finest weaving is accomplished in a hammock. We are as free as lambs gambolling in a spring meadow.

Michael Britton painting of Hampi rocks

Paradises are fragile worlds easily sullied like sparkling new socks at a, well, sock hop. February marks the end of the season. The merry revellers zip up their back packs and bid adieu to their year of joy to assume pedestrian lives of unyielding gray and the responsibilities of adults.

An empty paradise stumbles along like an abandoned lover. Hampi feels lost and unsure of what to do with itself. Cafes that only a week ago hosted beery boasts of boulders summited and courageous attempts foiled are now as sparsely attended as a hermit’s birthday party. Lizards now frolic where virile youth once clung.

My hammock no longer gently sways in the midday breeze. It’s languorous rhythms have turned spiteful. Hints are dropped that perhaps it is time for me to go. I ignore my hammock’s strenuous insinuations until, completely exasperated by my unwillingness to leave, my hammock breaks free of its moorings and marches into my room and packs my bags.

‘Go! Goddammit! Get outta here!’

My hammock breaks my heart. My hotel tab, an accumulated mountain of debt built up from a month of camaraderie and tasty snacks, shatters my wallet.

Now I am the abandoned lover, spurned from the loving embraces of my hammock, no longer sure of what to do with the rest of my life.

The Lonely Guide for the Hammock Weaned suggest Gokarna. That is where the children of paradise play and where other hammocks swing easily in the sea breeze, winking and beckoning me hither.

Michael Britton painting of Hampi

Much more by this author – and great paintings of his travels – on his very excellent website, http://www.en-plein-air.com.

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