With boulders for sentinels, colonnaded bazaars and ochre-hued ruins, Hampi tells stories of both a magnificent Hindu empire and a humble temple town. Kareena Gianani peeks into an old Dutch artist-nomad’s studio, stoops low in murky caves which reveal paintings from the Bronze Age and finds that, in Hampi, time stands still
Best time to visit: November-March
You need: 4-5 days
Our guide, Nagraj, is all for roads less taken. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise to us when he turns away from yet another must-see site, or a must-visit restaurant in Hampi’s bazaar.
As the sun sets on the ochre boulders of Hampi, its temple complexes take on a new life. Pics/ Kareena Gianani & Thinkstock
He leads us away from the banks of the Tungabhadra into — bushes. “Are you sure about this?” my friend asks him. It is our first day in Hampi and his hands have been hovering around his coveted camera bag.
A watch tower
“Very,” says Nagraj, suddenly laconic. After 20 minutes, our arms and legs bear scratches but our curiosity has peaked. We know we are not moving in the direction of any of Hampi’s magnificent complexes or ruins.
Nagraj stands beside a boulder. It isn’t even half as tall as the ones which flank Hampi. It doesn’t have that precarious look to it either (most boulders around Hampi seem like they will topple any second). We aren’t really impressed. Nagraj peers at it, lightly running his hands over the rock, muttering. It is all very folkloric, very Dumbledorish, all right.
If you climb the Matanga Hill early morning, you might bump into these actors who pose for the cameras for a
Then, he takes a water bottle out of his bag and begins splashing it over the rock. The next moment, vivid, rust-coloured stick figures stand out on the boulder. “These are cave paintings from the Bronze Age. Around 1500 BCE,” announces Nagraj, nodding at our stunned faces.
Dutch painter Robert Geesink settled down in Hampi five decades ago
There’s a giant fish, a painting of a ram (or a goat, my friend argues), stick figures which depict a burial scene and other drawings we cannot decipher.
Mythology and quirks abound in carvings in Hampi
A timeless town
We know then, that in Hampi, time stands still. You could be standing at the centre of what is today a busy temple town, only to find yourself flanked by colonnaded bazaars of the 13th century.
Hampi, the erstwhile Vijayanagara Empire, flourished under the rule of two kings — Devaraya II and Krishnadeva Raya — who showcased their might by building shrines, bazaars and temple complexes. But in 1565, it was end of all glory when Hampi was captured by the combined armies of Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmednagar, and vandalised.
The village has higgledy-piggledy lanes of colourful, mostly one-storeyed homes. Rooms come cheap and other things, like a glass of warm milk freshly taken from a cow, and suggestions to visit Hampi’s best eatery, Mango Tree, come free.
My friend and I watch Virupaksha temple’s resident elephant, Laxmi, being bathed by three attendants along the Tungabhadra, and mull over how we want to spend our first day in this town.
We do the obvious — hire a bike to see Hampi’s ruins. Our guide this time is Krishna, and he is on a mission to pack in all the must-sees and must-dos before dusk. We visit Hampi’s most majestic temple, Vitthala, which has a grand stone chariot at the centre of the complex and intricate pillars and halls.
Krishna conspiratorially whispers that the columns emit music. “But I can’t play them… there are too many security guards around these days,” he mutters. We nod and our eyes fall on the vivid carvings of Chinese, Portuguese, Persians and Arabic traders on a panel.
Krishna draws our attention to another quirk here — a rather small stone carving which depicts nine scenes. Depending on how you see it, the carving could be a toad reaching out for its young one, a serpent perched to pounce on a monkey, or two monkeys hanging from a tree.
Bewitched, we head to the Hazara Rama Temple complex, whose walls are carved with scenes from the Ramayana. The Mahanavami Dibba is an elevated stone stage and has hunting scenes, dancers and elaborate torture methods carved along the walls.
Hampi’s ruins take on surreal shades of ochre early morning and with the approach of dusk, and we can only gape at details, which get increasingly whimsical.
Hampi on canvas
The day after, we catch up with Nagraj again. We move up a hillock beyond the bushes Nagraj had taken us the other day. Soon, we hear soft jazz music coming out of a cottage. Nagaraj tells us about Robert Geesink, a Dutch painter who has made Hampi home in the Rs 70s.
Robert greets us with a wink and clears up some ceramic debris to make place. He is working on a mosaic of two dragons breathing fire. “In the Rs 60s, I wanted to be an illustrator and briefly worked at Elle magazine in Paris. But I hated having a boss. So, I left the country.”
Inspired by Dutch painter Vam Batheveld who frequently visited India to paint, Robert toured the north, Gujarat, Kanyakumari and then, Hampi. “I was fascinated with the Lambani tribe. Their gypsy way of life, colourful attires... I fell in love and married one of them.” Now he lives with his second wife, Jaini, and four children. His studio is a beautiful mess of paintings of Hampi’s boulders, ruins and his muse, Jaini.
Robert has sold many Hampi paintings in Amsterdam and Delhi. I ask him whether he ever thought of going back home to Amsterdam. “Hampi is home. I live in the past and the present. Can anything be better than that?”
It is true. Hampi’s stark beauty can be overwhelming, and you soon give up on finding words to describe it. The ruins of the lost empire cradle a dreamy present, and you know no better than to stand, stare and be surprised.
Go: The nearest airports from Hampi are Bellary and Hubli airports. Alternately, you could also take a train to Hospet, a town 30 minutes away from Hampi by road, and hire a rickshaw.
Stay: Homestays abound in Hampi, but we love Shanthi Guest House in Anegundi and its namesake in Hampi.
Getting Around: You could hire a bike for Rs 150-200 a day, or hire a rickshaw