Hampi, An Indian Adventure - Thomson Holidays deliver a true 'Indiana Jones' experience.
"Let's visit Hampi" our friend Peter said during a telephone conversation about our forthcoming holiday in India. "Great! what's Hampi?' was the reply because like many other visitors to India and like many Indian nationals Hampi is an unknown. What is Hampi? it is the centrepiece of a large and sophisticated empire, a great fallen city, a monument to a vast civilisation swept away by siege and fire.
A few searches on Google quickly revealed Hampi to be a 'must see' world heritage site. A lost city in a remote region with a fabulous heritage and a devastating fall at the hands on invaders over 500 years in the past. An archeological site the size of a modern urban city such as Manchester or Birmingham. The site is so large the guides use Land Rovers and mini buses to move visitors around the main temples and palaces. A monster sized 'Time Team' area hewn out of solid granite.
But Hampi is only part of this holiday excursion. The journey itself is an adventure to be enjoyed almost as much as the destination.
So it was decided that we would find a local travel agent while we were on holiday in South Goa. A three day trip would be perfect, one day to get there, one day at the city and one day to return to Goa. Pure luck found us having a drink in a Cavalossim bar where Karen Hall was having a chat with the owner. Karen mentioned that she had been to Hampi so we asked if she would tell us more about the place and how to get there. No problem says Karen who it turns out is the resort representative for Thomson Holidays. We are running a three day excursion to Hampi Karen tells us and she had been on a 'test run' to experience the trip for herself. The local travel agent had kept us waiting while she shuffled papers and chatted to her office colleagues so we were ready to book the trip with Karen.
The Hampi trip starts early. We are collected by taxi from our hotel at 4.30 in the morning and delivered to Margao railway station in darkness. The local workers are just starting their day and dawn is about to rise but the station is already busy when we arrive. If you have never travelled on Indian railways then the adventure is about to start. All of life is here. From hawkers and beggars to university professors and businessmen. The sounds and smells are all part of the scene as are the stray dogs who come begging to the odd rat running along the railway track. Chai sellers call out as they go back and forth selling hot, sweet tea and newspaper boys try to sell copies of The Times of India to tourists for vastly inflated prices. We are about to board the Calcutta Express, the train runs for 32 hours, coast to coast from Goa to Calcutta. We are only on for 10 hours as our destination is Hospet, a dusty Indian regional town with some typically Indian regional hotels waiting for us.
We chat with our fellow travellers and we meet our two travel guides who have booked the seats for the train journey. It is very reassuring to have guides who speak very good english and who fully understand the strange workings of the Indian railways. We had prepared for the trip with bottles of water, some fruit and cheese sandwiches made the evening before by a local restaurant and packed with some tomatoes into a plastic box complete with cutlery! We board the train and find our reserved seat occupied by some young indian men who quickly gather their belongings and politely move off.
Indian railways are famous for their fast food and throughout the 10 hour trip there was a constant stream of vendors selling everything from chilled soft drinks to delicious pakoras and samosas, possibly the best samosas we have ever tasted. Hot Chai and hot milky coffee are offered by the Chai wallah's who constantly walk the length of the train and back again. The carriage boy arrived with his note pad and began to take orders for lunch. A variety of birianis are on offer, the order is telephoned ahead to one of the large stations where the cooks spring in to action to make hundreds of meals. When the train arrives at Hubli station the food boxes are brought on to the carriage and you get your hot food. Everyone got their order!
All the while we are passing further away from the coast and towards the climb into the mountains. India both wild and tame passes by. Groups of brightly dressed women pick cotton and pairs of oxen pull ploughs across fertile looking fields, sometimes a modern tractor can be seen but the oxen still dominate. The forest becomes denser and tall termite mounds can bee seen along the track. We are heading for the waterfalls at Dudhsagar. The highest falls in Goa and the train line passes across and around on a series of viaducts. As we pass along the local monkeys stare back from the roofs of railway buildings. Gradually the mountains are left for a vast agricultural plain with mile after mile of crops.
As the heat of the day passes we go over a viaduct spanning the Tungabhadra river and we stop at Hospet station. A short transfer by land rover and we are at the hotel. The rooms are old fashioned but clean. The bed is a pretty hard affair, a bit like a plank with a very thin mattress. It will do for two nights stay. We have an en suite shower but no view. Our guides are great, nothing is too much trouble and they go off to their hotel after making sure we are all OK. We have travelled from Goa into Kanataka and also travelled to a state which is predominantly vegetarian and also a 'dry' state although the hotel has a bar where a very welcome cold beer can be bought. We are told that breakfast will be at 6.30 and we will be collected at 7.15.
From the Kanataka tourist board web pages - Hampi was the capital city of the powerful South Indian Vijayanagar Empire . Founded by Harihara and Bukka in 1336, it fell to the Muslim rulers of North India in 1565 after the disastrous battle of Talikota and subsequently lapsed into decline and abandonment. The ruins of the historical monuments have stood the ravages of man and time and still evoke memories of the grandeur of a bygone era.
Set amidst an awesome boulder-strewn landscape along the banks of the Tungabhadra river, 12 km away from the sleepy town of Hospet in Bellary district, Hampi was the magnificent capital of the mighty Vijayanagar kingdom. "The city is such that the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it in the world," marvelled a 15th century Persian ambassador visiting the court.
Upon arrival at Hampi we are met by Mr Pradesh who will be our guide to the ruins. A lovely, clever man with a warm smile and endless patience with his group of tourists. Around us are the massive pink and grey granite boulders that were quarried to form the city. Work was still in progress when the city fell and evidence of boulders being split for building materials are everywhere. Everything is made from granite, even the fence posts around the crop fields are made from it. We walk to see the first temple, the Little Ganesha. Carved in-situ from a single granite boulder is a statue of the Hindu god. The temple building was erected around him as the statue must weigh more than 20 tons. After Mr Pradesh explains about Ganesha and his place in the hindu world we walk up to one of the gateways into the main city perimeter. We climb higher and begin to see into the next valley where the top of the towering Virupaksha Temple can be seen.
From the viewpoint we can see the scale of Hampi. Temples and other building are standing in the hills for miles around us and the vastness of the granite boulder field is awesome. At our feet there are games and places for offerings carved into the stone floor outside the small complex of temples that surround us. The place is impressive now but it must have been a fabulous sight when it was full of the life and bustle of a major city. We begin our walk down to the Virupaksha Temple. It glows with a soft ivory white colour that makes it stand out from the landscape. It is painted from the ground to the top with egg white. Around the temple entrance are cattle lazing in the sun and women selling bunches of small bananas. They bananas are very sweet but they are for the temple elephant who we will meet later. We are stared at by other visitors to the temple and Mr Pradesh explains that many of the people coming to the temple to worship will not have seen a european in the flesh before. Everyone we meet is very friendly and we are photographed by the school children who also wants their picture taking with us. Although there are other groups visiting the city it far from being crowded. As we walk or are driven to different sites there is lots of time to take the perfect photo before the crowds get in the way.
We are called for lunch. The day is beginning to feel like a long one so a drive through the small villages to the Mango Tree restaurant is very welcome. The Mango Tree sits in the middle of a small banana plantain above the banks of the Tungabhadra river. The tables are shaded and the food is brilliant, we had a mushroom and pea masala served on banana leaves with hot chapatis. Rice pudding is served after the meal and cool water and soft drinks are reviving us for the afternoon tour. To enjoy the tour of Hampi you need some good footwear, light clothing that can offer some protection from the sun. A small rucksack carried our water, lots of it and the cameras and other odds ands such as factor thirty sun cream. We took some fruit along too just to keep us going. By the time we are taken back to Hospet and our hotel we will have been on the go for 12 hours.
We return to the next section of the tour which takes us to the Queens Palace. Protected by its own walls and watchtower and surrounded by well kept gardens to palace is one of the famous sights of Hampi. It has a unique series of tubes and opening built into the whole palace to allow air to blow through and cool the rooms. We continue to another section where the only parts left are the granite bases of huge buildings. These were the civic administration buildings holding the tax collectors and the courts. Blackened marks still show where the huge wooden posts were burnt to the ground when the city was looted. Close by is a deep water tank lined in a geometric pattern of black granite stones looks otherworldly, alien. The city had a good supply of water brought into the main walls by aqueducts from specially constructed reservoirs. In London at the same time they were still throwing sewage out of windows into the street and clean drinking water was still hundreds of years away!
We go to the Queens Bath and some of us are starting to falter as the late afternoon is still hot. One day is not enough time to do justice but it is enough time to see the highlights. It is a bit like doing London in one day, it's possible but it's hard going. We are driven in extra large golf carts along a dusty road. On either side are the remains of the markets which once traded here. They stretch off into the distance. This is just one example of the markets which are all over the city. As with our modern markets different sections were trading in food or cloth and others in gems and precious metal. We enter the last complex to see one of the marvels of Hampi, the stone chariot.
A trip on the river in large coracles is available but we decide to see more buildings and take the chance to buy some chilled soft drinks. A trip to another temple sited on a peak is our last stop of the day. There is a loud and constant drumming inside the temple walls as the priests conduct a long Hindu ceremony. Monkeys are present and they work the tourists for all the bits of food they can get. I don't do monkeys and as they get more brazen in their demands for food some of our fellow travellers show signs of not doing monkeys too. The final point is behind the temple looking down across the valley to see the sun setting over Hampi. A great ending to a magical day. We are driven back to the hotel as darkness falls.
Another early start for us to catch the train back to Goa. Breakfast is dismal with coffee being the best part, the toast had been wrapped in tinfoil and was as limp as a wet sponge. I fed mine to the birds at the station and waited for the delights of Indian railway food to fill me. Some of the group managed to doze but I could not take my eyes off the passing fields, India is captivating. Hampi was better than we could have imagined and if it was less remote the place would be packed with visitors.
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