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Straddling the Tungabhadra River, India’s ancient village of Hampi beguiles with bustling bazaars, otherworldly boulders and mysterious monuments that date back to the Vijayanagara Empire.
Hampi is the City of Ruins. It’s a place as revered in India as the country’s many ancient religions. To head here is, for many Hindu devotees, a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.
Following a quick bite of curry, I pay 400 rupees for a sleeper-class ticket from Mysore in southwestern India to the sacred city 544km north. Resting my head on a silk shawl, I fall asleep to the resounding whirr of an overhead fan and the fervent chatter of fellow travellers.
It’s early morning when I awake as the train passes through Karnataka, and already the sun is toasting the land – a dry, deserted plain stretching as far as the eye can see. My thoughts uncloud, partially stifled by the aroma of golden dhal and the sound of vendors pitching back and forth through the third-class carriage.
Bleary-eyed after a 13-hour journey, I bundle out of the train in Hospet. It’s here that I meet Prakash, a local man, who beams from ear to ear and starts his rickshaw with a rusty splutter.
We dash along to Hampi, musical notes of the near-broken radio jostling with the turning wheels of our vehicle. Our arrival in the city bazaar is an assault on the senses – much as it would have been in ancient times when merchants traded rich and fragrant spices for a wealth of gold. In the streets, bleating goats scavenge for scraps of chapati as the locals wash curry-drenched bowls at the roadside. Energised by the chaos, I watch as motorbikes zip between plodding cows, churning up clouds of dust.
After rolling to a halt, we hurry inside a tiny room where idli (savoury rice cakes) are served with tangy chutney and potato curry. Hustling bodies rest for a minute, lapping up mouthfuls over steaming cups of chai. It’s not long before we’re off again, hurtling past religious devotees to the banks of the Tungabhadra River. At the ghats, Lakshmi the temple elephant bathes with a local mahout as young girls dally about – their jasmine-scented braids in soft apricot light – and I putter across to Virupapur Gadde, Hampi’s so-called “Hippie Island”.
I’m greeted by an idyll of rice paddies and coconut palms. Sipping on fresh sugarcane juice, I watch scampering monkeys before heading towards the ruins. Between climbing Hemakuta Hill to admire the views of Sasivekalu Ganesha shrine and visiting the surrounding forts and temples, I befriend Radhesh. Through his stories of prosperous kings and the Moghuls’ destruction, I begin to unravel the history of this otherworldly land.
Hungry from all the exploring, I wander beneath a canopy of banana palms to join Radhesh in his humble home for lunch. Its cool stone floors and tiny windows keep the furnace-like heat from spilling inside. I chop chilli peppers as Aishwarya, Radhesh’s wife, skillfully spins roti while her young daughter crawls on the floor with curious charcoal-lined eyes. There’s no place for cutlery here; as in most parts of India, egg curry and curd raita is pinched between the fingers and scooped into the mouth with exceptional ease.
I leave as the sun dips behind Hampi’s rocky crags and boulders. The city fills with a symphony of bells which ring within the walls of Virupaksha Temple. Birds soar beneath golden clouds, dodging chaiwalas as the aroma of cardamom drifts from their stalls down into the valley. Hampi is an enchanting land, and I have fallen under its spell.
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