Hemkuta Hill Hampi

Temples, Coconuts and Ganesha: Hampi in Two Days

History buff that I am, visiting the ancient temples of Hampi had been on my to-do list for quite some time. I recently used a long weekend to make this trip from Delhi to Hampi in two days via Bangalore. If you enjoy history, architecture and nature then you will love Hampi. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in my opinion one of the most underrated places in India. Read on to discover more about the town’s history, the places to visit in Hampi in two days, and the nitty-gritty of planning a trip here.  

Hampi is a small, laid-back sort of town surrounded by paddy fields, coconut trees and banana plantations. The pace of life is much slower than what you’d typically be used to. In that sense, it felt like a mix of Kerala and Goa. There are homestays and small thali-serving “restaurants” everywhere. Coconut sellers place themselves strategically outside the various temple gates, offering them to you when you return from a visit, happy but dehydrated. Coconut water is great for rehydration by the way so drink away. I lost count of the amount of coconut water I got through during my two days in Hampi! 

The historic heart of the town i.e. Hampi Bazaar and its surroundings are considered sacred ground and you will not find any non-vegetarian food or alcohol being served here. To even find an ATM you will have to come out towards Kamalapur. The town survives mostly through income from tourism, as well as the neighbouring industrial belts. It is also a known centre for weaving. Cotton Ilkal saris from Hampi are famous, as are saris and textiles made out of the locally sourced banana-leaf fibre.

 

History of an Ancient Town – Kishkindha to Pampa to Hampi

Hampi derives its name from Pampa, the older name of the Tungabhadra river. The earliest archaeological records found here indicate that Hampi was inhabited by settlers as early as the 1st century AD. It is also believed to have been a part of the Mauryan Empire, and after that ruled by the Chalukyas and the Hoysalas. One can still see some surviving specimens of Hoysala temple architecture here.

The city really came into its own in the medieval times with the rise of the Vijayanagar Empire, the last great Hindu kingdom. The Empire was established in 1336, and Hampi as its capital city grew steadily and flourished as a centre for trade in gems, cotton, spices etc. Hampi was, in the 15th century, the second-largest city in the world (Beijing being the largest) and the richest city in India. It was a thriving metropolis, with a highly developed sense of art, architecture, agriculture and infrastructure. The society was multi-ethnic and multi-religious.

In the latter half of the 16th century, the Kingdom fell to the Deccan Sultans, and Hampi was destroyed, pillaged, and then abandoned. Today the ruins of Hampi consist of nearly 1600 monuments, are spread over an area of over 30 sq. km. Anybody who has seen the temples of Angkor Wat would be struck by the similarity in the layouts of the various groups of temples.

There is another mythological aspect to Hampi as well. It is believed that Hampi is, in fact, the Kishkindha kingdom mentioned in the Ramayana, where Rama and Laxmana met Sugreeva and Hanuman and stayed for some time before leaving for Lanka. In fact, Anegundi, located across the river from Hampi, has a Hanuman temple as well as a hill called Anjaneya Parvat where Hanuman is supposed to have been born.

Bali Sugreeva battle Hampi
Sculpture from a carved pillar showing the battle between Monkey Kings Bali and Sugreeva in Kishkindha

Places to see in Hampi

The ruins of Hampi are clustered into groups; the two main groups are – the temples and sacred monuments around the Hampi Bazaar and the royal enclosure near Kamalapur. The Vijay Vitthal temple stands in solitary grandeur about 2km away from the Hampi Bazaar. There are also various hilltops around Hampi with ruins scattered across.

If you have four or five days, you can visit every monument in detail and cover everything easily. However, given that most people only stay in Hampi for two or three days, I’m giving below a list of the most important places to visit in Hampi in two days.

 

Places to Visit in Hampi in Two Days

  1. Virupaksha Temple

This is one of the most important temples in the area and the only living temple. As you walk up the road to the temple, you will notice roofless stone pavilions along the entire side of the road. These are remains of the lively bazaar that used to exist outside this temple in the 15th century. The temple is dedicated to Virupaksha, a form of Shiva and the patron deity of the Vijayanagar Empire. The original temple was constructed in the 7th century i.e. much before the Vijayanagar kingdom came about. Time your visit to this temple for the early morning to avoid crowds. Also, if you visit in the morning you might get to watch an elephant getting a morning bath at the adjoining river-ghat.

 

Approaching the Virupaksha Temple from Hampi Bazaar
Approach to Virupaksha Temple

 

  1. Sasivekalu Ganesha

This is a monolithic statue of Ganesha, about 8 feet high. Walk around and look at it from the back, and you will see that the sculptor has tried to show Ganesha sitting in Parvati’s lap. “Sasivekalu” in Kannada apparently means mustard and the statue has been thus named because of the similarity of its belly to a mustard seed. Or so I was informed.

 

  1. Kadalekalu Ganesha

Located just a couple of minutes’ walk from the earlier Ganesha, this monolithic statue of Ganesha was damaged by the invaders. At 15 feet tall, it’s one of the tallest Ganesha statues I’ve ever seen. Its location is really great, a pillared porch on a rocky outcrop surrounded by hills. Quite scenic.

Kadlekalu Ganesha or Bengal Gram Ganesha statue in Hampi

 

  1. Laxmi Narasimha

Narasimha is considered an incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu. Laxmi Narasimha as seen in Hampi is also sometimes called Ugra (angry) Narasimha due to the statue’s facial expressions. There was originally a Laxmi statue present in Narasimha’s lap, but this was damaged during the invasion of Hampi. What remains is the Narasimha statue and just the hand of Lakshmi. This statue is the largest of all statues in Hampi.

 

The Laxmi Narasimha statue is the tallest statue in Hampi
Entering the Laxmi Narasimha Temple

 

  1. Badaviling Temple

Located just next to the Laxmi Narasimha, this is a 3-metre high Shivling, carved out of a single piece of rock. It is believed that it was made by a poor woman seeking to please the deity.

  1. Underground Shiva Temple

This Shiva temple was until recently partially under water. It is still getting excavated and cleaned up by the ASI but is worth a look if you visit.

  1. The Royal Enclosure

This was the heart of the daily life of the royal inhabitants of Hampi. The Royal Enclosure contained living quarters, water tanks, stables, durbar halls etc.

Elephant Stables – This is a set of 11 stables for the King’s favourite 11 elephants.

Lotus Mahal – This beautiful medley of Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture was a part of the Zenana complex, and used as a venue for recreation and meetings. It reminded me of structures I had seen at Fatehpur Sikri in Agra.

Hazara Rama Temple – This Rama temple was the only temple within the Royal Enclosure and was the location for all ceremonial rituals of the royal family. The bas-reliefs on its walls depict scenes from the Ramayana – and instantly reminded me of the bas-reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat.

Mahanavmi Dibba – This 8m high platform probably exists in the same shape as it was made all those years ago. The King used to watch the Navami celebrations from here.

Queen’s Bath – This was an enclosed pool surrounded by corridors. The queen and her ladies used to go here for bathing and relaxation.

The Elephant Stables in the Royal Enclosures at Hampi
The Elephant Stables inside the Royal Enclosure

 

     8. Vijay Vitthal Temple

The Vitthal temple is as significant and well-known among the Hampi temples as is the Virupaksha temple. Avoid going here in the afternoon – visit early in the morning or in the evening. There is a dirt road about one km long that needs to be covered either on foot or by the shuttle bus, for which demand usually outruns supply. Vitthal temple is a Vishnu temple, and the highlights of this temple are the detailed carving, the various musical pillars (it is now forbidden to play music on these pillars to avoid damaging them further) and the huge stone chariot that is so intricately carved that it almost looks monolithic.

The Vijay Vitthal temple is one of the two most important temples in Hampi
The famous stone chariot of the Vijay Vitthal temple

9. Hemkuta Hill

Hemkuta Hill near the Sasivekalu Ganesha is a famous sunset point in Hampi. I had read about it and decided to give it a shot. It was a wonderful experience and I would recommend the sunset here to anybody. Get here at least half an hour before sunset to get a good place to sit, since it’s a very nice and peaceful place to relax. You get some amazing views of the surrounding hills. It’s a large enough hilltop to allow for a large number of people to gather without getting into each other’s space which is great.  

 

Other things to do in Hampi

Rock climbing: The rocky landscape with huge boulders attracts droves of rock climbing and bouldering aficionados to Hampi, with November and December being the peak period for this activity.

Wildlife watching: You can visit the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, the only such sanctuary for sloth bears in India. It is located just 15km away from Hampi.

Visit the Tungabhadra dam: Located just outside Hospet, this is the largest dam in Karnataka. There is a lighthouse here which offers great views of the surroundings. There is also a garden with a musical fountain, somewhat popular with visitors in the evenings.

Coracle ride: You can cross the Tungabhadra river by coracle (a traditional round boat) that are still used in Hampi to this today. Look for these near the Virupaksha temple ghats.

ASI Museum: This museum in Kamalapur houses the artefacts found during excavations here, and also explains Hampi’s history in detail. The museum remains closed on Mondays and public holidays.

Tungabhadra river at Hampi
Tungabhadra river and Hampi’s classic boulder-strewn landscape

 

How to reach Hampi

By train: The closest railway station is Hospet, a town located within 30 minutes’ driving distance from Hampi. If you take the overnight train Hampi Express from Bangalore (Bengaluru), this is where you will arrive. From Hospet, you can easily get to Hampi by local bus or by autorickshaw.

By bus: Hospet has bus connectivity with cities like Bangalore and Mysore. From here you can continue to Hampi by local buses or autorickshaws.

By air: Till March 2018, the closest airport for Hampi used to be Bangalore which is a drive of about six hours. Luckily, since then Trujet has introduced a Bangalore to Vidyanagar flight connection. The new airport at Vidyanagar (Bellary) is just about an hour’s drive from Hampi.  

By car: If you wish to drive yourself, you can also bring your own vehicle as the roads, for the most part, are in decent condition, except for a few bits in between. Take the route via Bellary. Hampi being a popular weekend destination, quite a few people drive down from Bangalore, Hyderabad, Goa and so on.

 

Where to stay in Hampi

Hampi has accommodation to suit all budgets and requirements. The local administration has recently shut down most homestays and guesthouses in the Hampi Bazaar area, so check before booking. Kamalapur in southern Hampi is not a bad place to stay. It’s not much in terms of ambience, but the location is great. It’s where the bus-stand and ASI Museum are. It also offers close access to the Royal Enclosure side of the ruins.  The hotel I stayed at (Clarks Inn) was more than satisfactory.

 

Best time to visit Hampi

Being located in southern India and in an extremely rocky terrain, Hampi has a dry and warm climate. Summers can be quite unbearable, so avoid visiting between April and July. If you are making a long and lazy trip and don’t mind a bit of rain, monsoon would be ideal. If a quick weekend is what you have in mind, then the cooler months of November to February are good.

 

Getting around Hampi

If you haven’t brought your own wheels, then you have quite a few options when it comes to local transportation. You could walk of course, but I would not recommend this. The Hampi ruins are spread over rather a large area and the hot weather can really sap your energy. If the weather and your fitness levels allow, you may hire bicycles from your hotel or one of the local bike-hire outfits. Some places also rent out scooters and motorcycles, but be careful to check that it’s a legit setup. The bike you hire must have a commercial licence plate or you may get into trouble with the police.

By far the most common and ubiquitous way of transport within Hampi is the autorickshaw. They are everywhere.  Drivers will usually negotiate a flat per-day rate with you to take you around the temples of Hampi. However, they are not guides, so if you want a guide in addition, that will cost you extra. If you prefer a hired car and driver, most Hampi hotels and guesthouses can arrange this as well.

 

Overlooking Virupaksha Temple from Hemkuta Hill at sundown in Hampi
Overlooking Virupaksha Temple from Hemkuta Hill at sundown

 

I’ve seen a lot of temples in India and found Hampi to be really unique. The ruins and their stories are fascinating, and the quality of workmanship in the sculptures is outstanding. I do wish the local administration would focus on infrastructure development here. Given proper maintenance, better roads, shuttle buses, trained guides, etc., Hampi can easily be India’s Angkor Wat. In fact, I didn’t get enough of Hampi in two days and know that I will be back soon enough. 

 

Have you ever visited Hampi? What was your favourite part of the trip? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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Two Traveling Texans

#Travel tips on what to see and do in two days in #Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Bangalore in southern India

Rediscovering spirituality in Orchha

“Photo? Take my photo?” he says, walking after us as we stroll towards the bridge on the Betwa. I oblige, and the sadhu baba gives me a beatific smile. I wonder if money is now expected, realise I’m not carrying any cash to give him and say something to that effect. He smiles and says, “Beta I will never ask you for that.” I feel ashamed to have suggested it.

This small town has more than its share of saffron-clad men and women, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise because this is after all basically a temple town. Jhansi, the closest big city, is a mere 25 minute drive away – but the difference is dramatic. Orchha is small and still retains the innocence of a place untouched by the hectic nature of modern life. Oh sure you have the Tata Sky dishes and motorbikes and even – so I hear – a local radio station. The market has signboards advertising Italian cuisine, B&B’s and shops selling kitschy souvenirs. But the pace of life here is slower, gentler. The locals in the market all seem to know each other. Life revolves around the temples and the daily aartis. Nobody hurries, nobody has deadlines. Nearly everybody has a smile on the face.

A group of young boys watches as Christine and I walk across the bridge, get some shots of the Chattris , and walk back – just about managing to escape being pushed into the river by a truck that has rumbled too close past us. When we reach them, one of the boys shyly asks if we’d like to share a soft drink. We smilingly refuse and continue on our way.

Orchha is a medieval town, established in the early 16th century by a Bundela king . The palaces and temples of Orchha are reason enough to visit, especially if you are a history buff like me. The fort here has a number of palaces built during various periods of its history; Jahangir Mahal for example was built as a welcome gift for the Mughal emperor Jahangir when he visited. There is also a Sound and Light show held here every evening which acts as a good introduction to the history of the town, though a touch melodramatic.

There are many famous temples in Orchha but to me perhaps the best sight here were the cenotaphs (Chattris) standing in a row like brooding sentinels; these riverside memorials to former rulers are now in ruins and still starkly beautiful. I stand and watch the sun disappear behind them.

Cenotaphs (Chhattris) at Orchha
Cenotaphs (Chhattris) at Orchha

At night, the stars come out. Standing by the river I look up and try to identify constellations. I think I see Orion. I know for sure that it’s been a long time since I saw so many stars in the night sky. The night is quiet, peaceful and I could well be all alone – except for the half-full hotel just behind me.

We decide to attend morning Aarti before leaving Orchha. The Ram Raja temple is the only temple of its kind – Ram is worshipped here not as a deity but as a king. In deference to his royal status, a pair of cannons is posted at the entrance of the temple. Sentries are on guard duty outside and inside. We go in, a few minutes before the morning Aarti is to begin. The temple courtyard is full mostly of locals, who from the looks of it seem to be regulars here. There are of course also a few gawking tourists like us. I have a vague sense of unease, feeling like an intruder – I never visit temples if I can help it – but I soon start feeling better.  Finally the sanctum doors are opened and the Aarti begins; the devotional song being sung is one that I’ve never heard before, but the entire congregation seems to know it well. They sing loudly, un-selfconsciously, with all their hearts. A mother picks up her toddler son to allow the priest to touch his forehead in blessing. An old man is getting a wedding card blessed by Ram Raja. The hymn goes on, soothing yet cheering. I look around. I feel tears running down my face that I can’t stop. And finally, after years of declaring I don’t believe in prayers, I find myself saying one….

(Written in 2011 and published on an earlier blog. Migrated here now)