Didn't they always tell you that change is the only constant? Not in Hampi, the boulder city in north Karnataka. Time stands still here, just like the mammoth boulders and it will, for centuries to come.
When you plan a visit to an ancient town that has inspired poets, intrigued historians, been the subject of several coffee table books, exhibition series of lensmen and the ruins of which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you pretty much know what to expect.
I thought I did, when on a Friday night I hopped onto an overnight bus that promised to take me to the city of Hospet, 12 kms away from Hampi over nine hours. But if images in travel books, brochures or websites could give you an exact idea of what a place is really like, globetrotters wouldn't exist.
And the city of ruins that I expected Hampi to be turned out to be an enigma, an abyss of mystery and a visual spectacle that mere words don't do justice to. My host for the trip was Vijayshree Resort and Heritage Village at Hospet run by the maverick R Raju Burat.
Shivaraj the bear
Spread over 17 acres, the luxurious resort with 43 cottages built amidst 60,000 trees has hosted the likes of LK Advani, Hema Malini, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sushma Swaraj among others. And going by the buzz, the dashing Salman Khan will shoot parts of his next film in the resort.
Vijayshree brings a piece of Rajasthan in the heart of Hospet. The connect, you wonder? Mr Burat originally hails from Rajasthan but speaks better Kannada than most Kannadigas I know! A staunch Jain, Burat's resort serves pure vegetarian fare and smoking and drinking is prohibited within the property. And they don't bend their rules for anyone. "Many asked me how a concept like this will work. Why would people come to a five-star resort and that doesn't serve alcohol? But I had a point to prove and I did. The place is for the entire family and people keep coming back to us," he said.
The resort, complete with a helipad, three restaurants, a function hall, a spa with swimming pool, a gym, a conference room and a theme village adjacent to it, is a good bet if you are looking for a relaxing stay not too far from Hampi. Hampi, by itself, has few lodging options and most of them are infested by foreigners who love a drag of hash.
On our Day 1 itinerary, there was the behemoth Virupaksha Temple. Virupaksha(special eye), is one of the several monikers that Lord Shiva enjoys. Built in the 6th century out of local granite stone, it doesn't look very different from any of the temples in the temple town of Madurai. But the tale behind it sets its apart. And also, Laxmi, the most adorable temple elephant who was dedicated to the temple by the local MLA Anand Singh. The eight-year-old showers blessings on you with a hefty trumpet pat on being offered coins.
"It used to be a small temple initially, and they completed it in the 14th century," said our guide, Ambarish.
The tale goes that Shiva meditated at the spot where the temple stands now and when interrupted by Kamdev with a flower arrow, killed him. The herbal paintings on the temple ceilings depict this tale and also show Kamdev in a horse-drawn chariot.
It takes a good 40-minute to go around the temple and what you shouldn't skip at any cost is the inverted shadow of the main tower of the temple that you can see in the big Gopunath chamber. It bears testimony to the earliest use of the pin-hole camera technique.
My next stop was the temple of the Peanut Ganesh. Yes, that's what the elephant God is called in the temple on the Hemakuta Hills. The giant belly of the the 16 feet high idol made of a single granite stone is shaped like a peanut and hence the name. The view from the temple courtyard is magnificent -- there are boulders all around(those are apparently remnants of the ones Sughrib carried to build the Lanka bridge) and I did want to halt there for a bit, but the temple of the Mustard Ganesh, close to the Peanut Ganesh had to be seen.
The 9-feet high Mustard Ganesh was built by a businessman trading in mustard from Andhra Pradesh in 1506 AD. When his profits increased, he made this temple for the King with whose permission he was doing his trade.
The architecture is dual faced. At the back of the Ganesha is an engraving of a woman. The temple is being protected by the Archeological Survey of India and looks over the the majestic ruins of the The Pampa Bazaaar(Pampa is Parvati), which later came to be known as the Hampi Bazaar. The structure over awes you, for it's no less than a modern day mall.
The Krishna Temple, where Jackie Chan's 2005 film The Myth was shot is beautiful yet haunting in its quietude. Built in the model of the Konarak Temple in Orissa, the temple doesn't have the Krishna deity. After being damaged by the Bahami Kings, it was shifted to the Madras Museum. The temple was built to celebrate the capture of Utkal(Orissa) after the war between Raja Krishnadevaraya and Raja Pratap Rudra, in which the latter was defeated.
After a long, hard but exciting day of sight seeing, I returned to the resort, only to be taken to their theme village. The make-believe village has everything from Rajasthani folk dancers and singers, rope walkers, puppet shows that weaves an entertaining tale around Bollywood superstars like Aishwarya Rai Bachhan and Salman Khan and even a fortune teller. The village would be a part of my personal history, because it's here that I mustered enough courage to take a camel ride for the first time, and what fun it was! However, I had to pass the horse ride, because it proved to be a wee bit unfriendly, but went on a bullock ride around the village and had my two-minutes of village belle moment!
The next morning, I headed to the Narsimha Temple, built in 1528 AD by artist Arya Krishna Bhat. The Yoga Laxmi Narsimha(who sits in a Yogic posture and hence the name), at 22 feet, is the tallest sculpture in Hampi. Narsimha, as we know is the fourth incarnation of Vishnu and that explained the snake hood of the sculpture.
Next to the deity was the second tallest shiv linga in south India built by Raja Sadashiv Rai. But legend has it that the shiva linga sprung up when a poor woman visiting Hampi for a darshan of Lord Shiva accidentally dropped the small shiva linga that she was carrying while washing her face in the pond.
The Queen's bath at Kamalapur, built in the 16th century, was where the queens would come for a dip in petal strewn waters that came from the Kamalapur Lake and visit the Shiva temple adjacent to it afterwards and then the private enclosure in the Janana enclosure nearby.
I had heard a lot about the Musical Temple and wanted to see it before sundown. Raja Krishnadevaraiya completed the temple in the 16th century. The 56 musical pillars in the Sangeet Mantap produce different tunes on being struck and their strains could be heard from several miles away in yore. Back in the day, they also had huge curtains hung from the ceiling that made the sound echo while Krishnadevaray's second wife Chinna Devi performed Bharatnatyam. The sad bit is that you're not allowed to touch any of the pillars as the place is under strict vigilance.
The Darojji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, located 15 kms away from Hampi, was on my list of must-visit places. Besides the Indian sloth bear, the sanctuary is supposed to be inhabited by hyenas, jackals, boars, porcupine, pangolins, tortoise and mongoose. About 5587.30 hectares of Bilikallu reserve forest form the Daroji Sanctuary and a steep staircase that leads to an enclosed area is from where one can spot the fauna. My intense prayers were answered when after waiting patiently for nearly 20 minutes and keeping a close watch on the vast expanse of greenery, I spotted a ball of blacknesss moving within the shrubs.
It had to be the bear! And out came Shivaraj, the bear! The friendliest one of the lot, if Mahesh is to be believed, Shivaraj was out for what seemed like his evening stroll. By the time he sat pretty on a burly boulder, enjoying his meal of ants and honey, Mahesh along with a group of press photographers managed to get as close to him as their guts would take them. And Shivaraj lapped up all the attention he was getting.
It was a treat to see the monstrous bear behave like a Bollywood star making a press appearance, with the photos going berserk clicking him. He posed for them for a good 30 minutes and perhaps even honoured their "right profile, left profile" requests before making a royal exit. And after such a sight, there was little else that was left to be seen. Delirious, I returned to the hotel and called it a night after tucking into a comforting Rajasthani thali that had everything from daal bati to kadi pakodi and kheer.
I was returning home that night, to a world where nothing is static, where one races against time every day and where, between impossible deadlines and lengthy meetings, time flies. It admonishes you when you don't run with it. How could life be so radically different within a distance 350 kilometres that it makes you feel that you went back to another era?
Even if History was your least favourite subject in school, you must visit Hampi for it will throw you back in time and place and make you realise why it's important to preserve the old. The trip was sponsored by Vijayshree Resort and Heritage Village.