As soon as you escape the tethers of electric lines and the horns of rickshaw drivers and enter the rocky ruins of Hampi, you feel as though you’ve secretly entered the playground of the gods. Giant round sandstone boulders are littered everywhere in bizarre stacks and arrangements that seem to defy nature, as if massive omnipotent hands were bored and rearranged the landscape in idly whimsical formations. In between these unlikely cairns, there are temples. Temples everywhere: wedged under boulders, balancing atop them, and filling the vaster spaces with handsomely crumbling complexes of a once great Hindu empire.
And between those – those temples and palaces still etched with friezes of naughty young handmaidens and nations of monkeys waging war – there is life, verdant and free. The coconut trees, sugarcane, banana groves, long feathery grasses, and meadows of delicately colored flowers are home to parrots, monkeys, tika-painted bovines, and scores of dragonflies and butterflies. Wispy black and white birds tale the flight trajectory of skipping stones and bounce along invisible planes of water through pollen misted air. Lost on a trail and dizzy with happiness, my steps frightened a pair of some kind of water mammal which dove into the river one after the other.
Too much splendor to take in by foot, I had been renting bicycles and traversing the landscape in search of beauty until the point of exhaustion, stopping whenever I might capture a living painting with my lens or the distant sound of festive music draws me back to humanity – like the chanting tumbling down from a hill top Krishna temple or the frenzied melodies of a wedding band near the Jain ruins. Upon my inspection of the wedding band, I was nearly devoured alive by bands of little Indian boys and girls, all wanting to shake my hand a healthy four or five times each. Wanting to enjoy the music, I let my whole right arm go limp and let them do whatever they wanted with it.
The allure of the Vijayanagar kingdom’s ruins captures also the interest of Russian tour bus groups and whole ashrams of white dreadlocked yoga-mat hippies alike, but the ruins are expansive enough to accommodate all, and I found it didn’t take much effort to have a slice of paradise to enjoy with solitude.
The villagers surrounding Hampi know neither English nor Hindi, nor do they really need to. As I biked around cursing goatherds, sari donned women balancing huge jugs of water on their heads, and falling coconuts let loose from machete wielding collectors, I got the sense very little has changed for these people since the first temple stones were being laid and monkey and lion headed gods sipped nectar in their palace gardens.
Laxshmi, the village elephant, lives in Rupaksha Temple in the heart of the modern part of the village and takes her bath at 8:30 every morning. Before heading down, she pauses to bless adoring tourists who have rupees or snacks for her: bananas eaten whole or coconuts crushed to pieces with a single effortless stomp. She then walks down the ghat steps to the river with surprising nimbleness and then lays down on her side so her mahouts can scrub her clean with large coarse brushes.
The ghats are also where people wait to cross the river, either en masse in motorboats or more intimately by paddlers in tiny discuss shaped craft made from some kind of plant weaving and layers of waterproof tar. It was here, waiting for the boat, a small brown man sat next to me with a pair of flat wicker baskets and said, “Here. Snake. Take photo,” and then he pulled out a gourd-turned-flute and out of the baskets came three very charmed cobra snakes with their hoods flared mightily. A big part of me didn’t want to let myself be entertained by a poacher, but another part was going, holy shit – cobras, and this part spoke at least a little bit louder. Two of the cobras seemed helplessly entranced by the player’s swaying and the nasally drone of his flute, but the largest of the three wasn’t having any of it and alternated between trying to escape and taking dart like swipes at its very unfazed master. After the performance the charmer tried handing me a cobra, which predictably caused me to shrink away with alarm, but after some very persistent cajoling by a few other villagers (I was the only white guy present at the time), I let myself think: okay, well obviously the poison glands have been removed somehow, so worst case scenario, I have a pair of puncture marks to take home as a souvenir. Despite all my rationalizing, when I had a live cobra working very calmly up my arm and around my neck, more out of an attempt to placate the villagers than my own curiosity, I very much wanted it off.
I stayed in a tiny room at the Hampi Children’s Trust, a volunteer run school for maybe two to three dozen impoverished children, in exchange for some of my time and a modest donation. I did a bit of tutoring, and I cleaned a great deal of dishes, but I think I was the most uniquely useful as a human jungle gym, and during play hours the kids slithered up my legs onto my shoulders, and if they were lucky and I had the energy I would throw them in the air or spin them in circles by their wrists and ankles. But give an inch and they take a mile. If I was too exhausted to spin the next in kid in the growing queue, tears would start to well up, and what started out as lighthearted fun demanded my most careful judiciousness on how to keep them happy without killing myself. On Saturday, the kids had a half-day of studies and then they gathered up soccer balls, tiny tennis rackets, hula-hoops, and Frisbees, and we all migrated to the same temple complex where enjoyed perhaps the best sunrise of my life after stumbling off of my overnight bus on my first day in Hampi.
One morning, I followed a yoga course in a shady temple courtyard between a mossy step well and an enshrined jungle tree. Another afternoon, I got lost in a valley beyond the river, and laid eyes upon my first kingfisher; its wings were such an ethereal blue I then understood why people spoke of them with such reverence. I climbed a deliriously endless flight of stairs to the mountain top where Hanuman, the monkey god was born. In a partially underground Shiva temple, rain water had flooded the lowest level, and proceeding without getting wet meant shimmying along wall surfaces, tiptoeing on fallen columns, hopping past plates jutting up from the water surface that only afforded the walker a moment of stability before becoming overcome by fluid, and toward the blackness that enclosed the Shiva linga at the back of the temple, dodging bats. It felt very much like navigating the exact kind of obstacles and atmosphere presented in adventure videogames, except instead of trying to recover the ancient artifact, I was trying to find the best angle to take an image without getting my pants wet.
Amid all the unbelievable beauty, however, I also saw one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. I won’t even include it here, but if you’re not terribly squeamish, you can email me and I’ll tell you.
I drank from around five coconuts a day trying to reclaim the sweat expended while biking around in the thick Indian heat, and I guzzled the lovely juice with disbelief that I was there during the cool season. The best coconut vendors could hack their wares violently, but precisely, and can have a coconut open with an inviting straw with three slices from a dull machete in just two seconds. Three quick hacks more, and the coconut is split in half, and a tiny scoop shaped sliver is cut from the side to help pull the coconut’s meat from the husk. By the river, next to a sign warning of crocodiles, I drank an amazing fresh cane juice pressed from over two meters of sugar cane, half a lemon, and a hunk of ginger. In the tourist village, I was addicted to the partially real imitations of mango juice sold in tiny cartons, and in restaurants – if I wasn’t guzzling chai – I drank soda water and lime juice, served with sugar and salt on the side to add to taste. On my final free day in India, I drank a special lassi and climbed Matanga Hill, making belief I was a sadhu meditating high above a quilt work of temples, rivers, and banana groves. Distant drums and the chirping of parrots were my soundtrack before I put Abbey Road in my ears and succumbed to a deep midafternoon nap, and waking just before a barrel or two of monkeys were making their daily migrations in my direction. I didn’t realize it at first, but I had laid down in something of a thorn bush, and I as I rose from my nap, a thorn tugged at the blood and saffron colored bracelet that had been wrapped around wrist since Diwali, which became a saddening yet appropriate symbol for the finality of my time in India.
Hampi was everything I wanted to squeeze out of my last moments in India (except, I should mention, for the food which was uncommonly mediocre). I had originally planned on splitting my final week between Hampi, Mysore, and Bengaluru, but opted to linger in Hampi until my departure was demanded by my booked flight to Nepal. In my final hours there, I became listless, awed by all I’ve done, but bereft of all I still wanted to see and do. For everyplace I went, I learned of ten more I wanted to explore, and I was hardly ready to go. What had been five of the most bewildering and frustrating weeks of my life have also been among the most vivid and exciting. I feel like I’ve just begun my relationship with India. I was sad to go, but happy about where I was: in love with where I’ve been, stimulated by where I was, and excited about what’s to come. I