Reversing the tide: How soon will the heritage sites at Hampi regain a sense of their former glory?
Not so long ago, we were flipping stones by the banks of the River Tungabhadra, with boys from the nearby village at Hampi offering a hand to find and dig out the most flat, and thereby best-suited-for flipping pebbles to toss into the normally placid waters.
By midday of the fateful second Sunday of this August, however, when the river overflowed — with the sluicegates and penstocks unexpectedly cranked open upstream at the Tungabhadra Reservoir in Munirabad, Koppal district — the memories of Hampi suddenly seemed too few and far between, and all those idle hours of playful tranquil were all but left completely awash.
Indeed, Hampi was our Moab, our own washbowl of civilisation, where we would head out in strident terms solely, and statedly, for the express purpose of seeking out solitude — albeit, most often, merely splashing ripples in the water.
At the very least, for most of us, this was where we’d get to play birthed princes in the dirt, picturing the kingdom’s daintiest damsels who might have once bathed here — lapping up the sun from the many secluded, and supremely alluring pools of water that dot this fabulous scenery of majestic courtyards, palatial enclosures and resplendent gardens that stretch to the horizon, not to forget the wondrous imaginariums of the queen’s royal baths.
But on that Sunday afternoon — ever so quickly, in the relative speck of a few hours’ time — all those glorious sights of the erstwhile Vijayanagara Empire, seemed to have been drowned out to our memory.
And, all we could lay our eyes upon was water everywhere...
The chaotic scenes of the day might well have been straight out of a blockbuster movie — admittedly, captured by many an amateur photographer and a few dedicated vloggers and social media champions.
A drove of choppers — no less than an MI-17 helicopter and the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv — held all the attention, flying low in circles around the Virupapura island (or ‘gadde’ in the local tongue) at the heritage site of Hampi.
Along the waterline, a cluster of about 350 tourists, many of them westerners, holding aloft modern-day prayers and pleas for help by selfie sticks, were eventually air-lifted and rescued to safer grounds.
At least one observer commented how this was perhaps the best use for helicopters at the heritage site, and way more action-packed than any of the chopper rides being offered for tourists.
Chant the daily mantras
In the finest summers of our youth, well-heeled in the early years of the new millennium, we had come to behold an unthinkable number of sunset and sunrise views, ornately framed in between the ancient pillars of Hampi’s temples.
The worthwhile moments were easy to stumble upon, preserved in pockets of vacuum held between boulders perched precariously, like misshapen Jenga blocks, strewn across a Deccan Plateau landscape that’s known to date back by many epochs and centuries of reference.
Our favourite haunts here were decidedly situated within Virupapur Gaddi, such as at the fairly popular Shanthi Guest House, that sits at one end of the main street.
For frequent hikers and low-flying backpackers, this was Hampi’s own ‘Little Goa’, an alternate hipster paradise of dimly lit shacks and European DJs passing through.
Over the last few years, Little Goa has faced its own share of problems including land seizures and government-led razing of illegal properties within the island.
Local tradesfolk were consigned to smaller allotments, but few of them gave up on the promise of business that Hampi brings with it every year.
Expectedly, many fingers were pointed in the aftermath of the floods, but one line of complaint — from some of the rescued tourists — seemed to sting longtime enthusiasts of the laidback Hampi lifestyle.
As it turns out, the guest (unnamed) points out in a video, the owners of the guest houses and hotels had in fact been informed about the expected flooding well in advance, but they failed to inform their guests, evidently in fear of losing out on their patronage.
The other line of reasoning, it appears, is that some of the hotel owners didn’t understand the forewarnings, dismissed them as unimportant, and simply failed to react.
Either way, there was no stopping the daily mantras being chanted on the next Monday morning, despite the dangerous levels of water.
Of course, by the time you read this article, a lot of the water will have receded and life would have limped back to some semblance of normalcy — but there’s still a long way to go for the revival of Hampi’s Little Goa.
If you get what we mean, we can’t wait to get back to Hampi for a full meal under the sprawling mango tree.
Soft, magical incantations
Many seasoned travellers are still keenly inquiring about the state of affairs at the nearby sites of Pattadakal and Aihole.
At the back of our minds, meanwhile, most of us will always hold the sight of early light rising over the Virupaksha Temple, seen half-immersed from one of the many ponds that surround it, as one that’s fit for purple passages.
The long hikes from Sugriva’s Cave, at the northern end of Hampi, past the Vittala Temple, and over the long Bazaar Road, through the town’s Sacred Centre will continue to inspire adventure hunters.
For newbies, we’d mandate a walk down the tumble-down sites of Hampi’s former royal stables, and historied stretches of tarmac that lead into the village of Sanapur, Koppal District — for a note, here lie remains of the ancient aqueduct — a vital source for drinking water in the old kingdom, all those ages ago.
The irony might be lost in the light of another daybreak, as the picture of Hampi unfolds like a tectonic landscape of 14th Century splendour reduced to rubble, and rekindled in mesmerising pools of natural light on stone.
But this was a city that remained the seat of power for over many centuries — a fact that’s never lost on the smooth rock faces that define Hampi’s landscape.
The long-fallen palaces and temples of the Royal Centre and Urban Core, south of the Sacred Centre, aren’t likely to disappear so easily.
Hampi will always be a city of magnificent sights to behold, and whisper magical incantations to, between the airs of the ages blowing through the majestic pillars and columns, both standing and levelled.
The Hampi stage will always remain preset for mystical experiences.
— Jaideep Sen