Magical Hampi

January 11, 2010: Hampi

Just a few hundred miles inland from Goa is Hampi. This town is one of those rare universally-loved places along the traveler circuit. Before arriving you can’t possibly imagine what you are about to experience.

After a long, jarring train ride disjointed by frequent layovers and delays, I arrived at the squalid Hospet train station in the middle of the night. The station was dimly-lit by grim fluorescent lights. People were sleeping on the floor and since it was 3am, I considered joining them rather than looking for a room at this hour. An excitable rickshaw driver however talked me into hiring him and before long we were buzzing through the empty midnight streets off to Hampi.

It was 4am by the time I arrived. I really didn’t know what I’d do. Maybe I’d sleep in a temple. Maybe I’d find a place to sleep beside the river. Maybe I’d just hang out and watch the sun rise, which wouldn’t be long from now. The rickshaw driver said he knew the owners of a guesthouse named “Kiran Guest House”, and this all seemed serendipitous, so I let him lead me there. Once outside their gates he hollered to the owners, who explained they had no vacancy but led me up to their restaurant patio, where I slept on cushions beside their dog.

Mosquitos feasted on me and I didn’t sleep much—if any — tonight. Once the sun came up though, I left my baggage at the hotel and began exploring.

The landscape conjures a dream of ancient places and faraway times. There are massive boulders strewn about banana plantations and vast quasi-desert plains. It reminded me of Arches National Park, or maybe Zion—and had the extraordinary geological qualities of Bryce Canyon. And just like the original inhabitants of those places, I can imagine how the original people of this land some 10,000 years ago must’ve come upon this landscape mesmerized by these extraordinary features and concluded reflexively, this is God’s country.

Consequently, Hampi has been a spiritual center for Hindus for many centuries. A thousand years ago, the ruling dynasty set up shop here and built thousands of temples and holy structures. A few centuries later, the empire was conquered and Hampi and it’s ruins began returning to dust. A decades ago, however, the area was revived and established the magnificent ruins as a National Heritage Site. Today, the area is still a powerful spiritual place where many Hindus come on pilgrimage to visit the great temple, to bathe in the holy river, and spend time in the presence of the Gods.

The spiritual vibe here is very tangible. Everything is serene here, the surroundings are magical and beautiful, no one is in a rush. Travelers arrive and stay much longer than expected. Why leave? For this reason, Hampi has become a popular hippie hangout (as is all of India). On the western side of the river is generally the older tourists, the ones who have money and do guided tours and stuff. On the eastern side of the river is where everything is chill and all the hippies are gathered on cushions, playing guitars and banging drums. I chose to stay on the chill side.

My guesthouse was pretty lowgrade. It was really dirty, dark, and had many mosquitos, but the food was excellent and they had a good vibe going in the cushioned hang-out area. The other good thing about this place is that there were a lot of good people staying there. At night we’d sit in candlelight enjoying dinner and conversation. Guitars and drums were lying around. I picked one up and played a bunch of melodies for the folks there. No one really knows my music though, and I think many would prefer if I could play some techno. However, to my astonishment, there was this supercool Indian couple nearby—Vivek and Parbody– and they loved the Dead and Bob Dylan. It was fantastic—we played every Dead and Dylan song in the catalog. Parbody was so beautiful– she’d close her eyes and start swaying to the tune, singing lyrics from the bottom of her heart. It was such a treat finding these Indian Deadheads. We stayed up all night long singing songs, convinced there were still more to be sung.

A big Hindu festival was beginning on my last day in Hampi. (Side note: no one loves festivals more than Indians, and they seem to occur every few days) At 3am I awoke to the sounds of hordes of kids and adults banging drums and playing flutes, laughing, shouting and talking loudly, directly outside my window. When I awoke a few hours later I discovered the river was a mad frenzy of jovial men and women splashing around in sudsy water, bathing in the holy waters as tradition dictates on this holy day.

Crossing the river later on proved to be a harrowing adventure. Usually, the ferry is adequate — you simply hop into a little motorized skiffer that gets you to other side in a minute or two. However, on festival day there were hundreds of people trying to cross. And the Indian mentality concludes—too many people need to cross, therefore we will stop running ferry service for a while. I stood on the shore incredulous, and concerned that I’d miss my bus. When they finally resumed service and the boat arrived, a dangerous frenzy stampeded onto the boat knocking down kids and old ladies. Nobody could even get off the boat—gridlock ensued, nobody could move. A police officer came over and started wielding his baton, and throwing people off the boat. But, the insanity persisted, and for a while it seemed resolution was nowhere near. Making matters still more urgent, the boat was sinking—there were over fifty people on this little rickety tin skiffer that usually holds fifteen max. I shook my head in disgust of the Indian mentality that breeds such situations and crossed my fingers that we’d reach the other side.

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