Stoned and Ruined
temple ruins - Hampi

Stoned and Ruined

Hampi is a city you build if you’re looking to insulate yourself from marauding Muslims (and who isn’t?).  It is not a city you build if you are afraid of earthquakes. 

Every country if not every region of every country has at least one precariously balanced boulder somewhere in its domain.  Usually it has a very original name like “Hanging Rock.”  People come from miles around to see it, picnic in its shadow and take pictures standing under it, some perhaps pretending to support it on their own through some trick photography.

 But in Hampi you can’t take the same picture standing under the same rock that everyone else takes; there are just way too many rocks that look like they’re hanging by a string.  In fact the whole region looks ready to tumble loose if somebody were to bump into it by accident.

 Looking at the old buildings perched under huge boulders you might guess that said rocks might spell the demise of the civilization that lived here.  But, no, in the end it was the marauding Muslims that did in the Hindu Vijayanagara empire.  Ain’t no keeping them down.

 It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the place is overrun today by Israelis.  (Ok, it’s not actually ironic at all.)  The stats that people throw around are something like of the 5 million Israelis, some 30,000 are in India at any given time.  Maybe it’s right, maybe it isn’t but you can order a mediocre “Israeli breakfast” at almost any restaurant in the country.

 Why do people come to Hampi?  Well, it’s interesting.  Aside from the ruins, the landscape is amazing — truly deserving as a destination on its own merits.  And it’s chill, save for the usual cacophony that goes along with Hindu temples and their pilgrims, the small town is absent the noise and clatter of the big cities from which most visitors come.  As opposed to even the freshest English muffin, you could wander for weeks and probably not discover all of the nooks and crannies of Hampi.  The civilization once had half a million inhabitants so seeing everything that’s left is a tricky assignment which is why it could arguably be counted among the world’s great ghost towns.

 What is particularly nice about Hampi is that it is so expansive that it swallows up the relatively few tourists who come to check out the ruins (as well as a horde of sinewy rock climbers from around the world, drawn by the top-notch bouldering opportunities at every turn).  Spread over miles and miles of buff-colored rock interspersed with carvings from the 14th century it’s easy to feel like a latter day Schliemann which is a bit like feeling like a Latter Day Saint, except you get off easier on the tithing.  Although you know that just about every inch of the ground has been traced by other tourists and archaeologists, the place still maintains a Lost World  feel.  (You do need to ignore the occasional power lines to fully believe that of course.)  If you’ve been to Cappadocia in Turkey you might have felt a bit the same; it’s like getting to visit Rome but without modern-day Italy getting in the way.

 Beyond the scope of the place, Hampi is refreshing — if not a bit scary — because you really get a sense for the different levels of personal responsibility that one assumes in the US or the developed world and a country like India where litigiousness has not yet reared its ugly head to the extreme, for better or worse.  It’s not as ultra safe as back home but you do feel a bit more at ease getting off the beaten track.

I’d perhaps compare Hampi to a less popular version of the Grand Canyon.  But in Hampi there are no signs that tell you that the ground may be unstable.  There are no railings or banisters that restrain you.  There are no pesky guards to tell you that this or that is off limits because it’s too dangerous.  At one point along a ridge I did see a white line painted at what would logically be the edge of the cliff to demarcate in the most basic way, “Hey, feel free to cross this line but we wouldn’t be recommending it.” (Hopefully you read that in your best Kannada, i.e. Indian, accent.)

 When I was on my elephant-and-tiger safari a few weeks ago our local guides would shimmy up trees to look for wildlife.  When one of them believed that he could see an elephant in the distance, he asked us, “You climbing the trees?”  Sure, why not?  So up went one of the guys in our group, a big Aussie with no qualms. Haven’t you ever been in such a situation and wanted to climb the @#$!&* tree (be it a metaphoric one or not) and been told that you couldn’t do whatever it was because of insurance liability?  On the way back it was faster to climb down an old metal ladder, cross a dam (with no handrails, of course) and then climb back up another old ladder to the top of the gully.  The guide asks, “You can swim?”  Sure, mate, why not — and over we went.  The issue that might stop tour guides at home would be this: the dam which was perhaps two feet across and 30 meters long fell away to the water on one side, a drop of perhaps 15 feet.  If you were, however, to lose your balance on the other side, you’d tumble maybe 50 feet to a much more unpleasant (but drier) end where being a decent swimmer would be a moot issue.

 So Hampi has that laissez-faire thing going for it — if you like that sort of thing.  But it also has a few other important elements.  First, it has lots of things to climb — or at least get to the top of.  If there is one sure bet with tourists it’s that they love climbing things, ostensibly for the view from the top but who knows the real reason.  If some town wants to bring in tourists, a good bet would be to build something tall and then charge people to go to the top.  I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason that Paris has the Eiffel Tower and St. Louis has the Gateway Arch.  I don’t know how many church steeples I’ve climbed for no other reason than they were there.  I’ve climbed hundreds of steps up tall buildings in the same city to see the same thing from the top … from only marginally different angles.  It’s madness when you think about it. (But I like to think that George Mallory would have understood my less ambitious summits.) 

The other thing that Hampi has is, of course, its ruins.  Tourists love ruins, preferably those of whole civilizations which ideally perished in some spectacular and/or enigmatic fashion.  Which goes to show you that sometimes the best thing a city can do to attract tourists is to cease to exist.  Why do you think people are so bent on looking for Atlantis?  If anyone manages to dig it up it would be the world’s biggest tourist bonanza (especially if we discover that the Atlantans had tall buildings to climb).  Still, I’d like to be at the town council meeting where a marketing consultant pitches this idea:

 “With our new plan, we can cut costs and increase tourism.  But it will take time and patience.”

“How can we do this?”

“Abandon the city now.”

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