It’s surprising when travellers to India haven’t heard of Hampi, the scenic riverside town in the southwestern state of Karnataka.
Not because it’s a sun-baked plateau carpeted in paddies, undulant with giant granite boulders and enlivened by an eclectic traveller scene; but because Hampi, strewn with 14-16th century Dravidian ruins, is a modern-day articulation of Vijayanagar, India’s last great Hindu kingdom conquered by Moghuls in 1565.
And while its archaeology and mythology make it the ideal place for a history binge, there’s also plenty of outdoor adventure and global cuisine on offer – falafel anyone?
Visitors here spend time between the rocky hills and quiet streets of Hampi’s north, and the busier, ruin-rich south, each divided by the Tungabhadra River, a cheap boat-ride to cross. So, why exactly would you want to visit Hampi?
Hampi’s landscape of dry plains, electric green rice paddies and hills of giant boulders – from soccer ball to delivery van size – resembles an extra-terrestrial Wild West, great for exploration and photography.
Shaped by millenniums of erosion – rather than eruption or upheaval – the three-billion-year-old granite was essential in the construction of the Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagara, and continues to be integrated into the layout of local villages today.
The Ancient History
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, Hampi is peppered with over 1,600 ruins of Vijayanagar, which existed between the 14th and 16th centuries.
Though conquered and pillaged by the Muslim Declan confederacy in 1565, most of the kingdom’s architecture, monuments, bazaars and irrigation systems are discernible, some in near-original condition.
Most ruins spread across south Hampi, and can be viewed in one day with a tour group, private rickshaw or by bike. I’d recommend some prior research to best absorb their significance.
Time-poor travellers should prioritise the Zanana Enclosure, aka the Queen’s residence – a fortified complex where the Queen and royal women of Vijayanagar would socialise privately.
Featuring three remaining watchtowers and several prominent structures, including the famed Lotus Mahal – a domed, lotus-like pavilion left undamaged by Moghul invasion – the complex conveys that the Empire was an artistic, multi-religious society that celebrated Indo-Islamic aesthetic and observed purdah, separation of the sexes.
Naturally, Hampi is an international mecca for bouldering, a form of rock climbing performed without ropes or harnesses.
Using palm chalk and crash pads, experienced boulder climbers come to fine-tune their skills among Hampi’s sheer surfaces, multi-storey climbs and world-class conditions, while newbies often take lessons with the local guides, Tom and Jerry.
Most locals won’t recommend riding a scooter in India without experience or guts. But far from the dangers of Delhi or Kolkata’s traffic, Hampi is connected by a series of peaceful, uncrowded roads that lead to some its best attractions.
After checking the brakes, lights and especially the horn, travellers can pick up a well-conditioned Honda Activa for 200 rupees ($3 AUD) per day and take to the open road.
Still not convinced? Geared bicycles are available from around 100 rupees ($2 AUD) per day. Rental agencies are located both sides of the river.
Painted signs around Hampi’s manmade lake – “Don’t swim! Crocodiles inside!” – should be ignored.
Located five km northwest of the river crossing, Sanapur Lake, which services domestic water supply, offers a picturesque setting to cool off in the Karnatakan heat.
Here, travellers and locals sunbake and bathe among a series of shaded alcoves, while the braver take to rock jumping. On afternoons, try and catch the old ‘Chai Man’ selling chai made from boiled lake water.
And as for the crocodile signs – we’ll call it Indian humour.
Sunrises and Sunsets
The 575-step climb to the top of Anjaneya Hill, 4.3 km northeast of the river crossing, is rewarded with a serene panoramic viewpoint to watch the sunrise or sunset.
After watching the fiery orb creep over the waking villages, you could stay for the morning chanting sessions inside the temple on the east side, or enjoy some meditation.
Regarded as the birthplace of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, Anjaneya Hill is also home to a host of placid rhesus monkeys. Coincidence? Allow 20 minutes to reach the summit from the road.
In a place where even the common tractor is adorned with flowers, bows and pom-poms, you know the people have a soft, colourful side.
Despite Hampi’s frequently harsh conditions, and its strict dependence the four-month tourist season, Hampi locals are openly positive and talkative. Enjoy a chat in south Hampi’s boutique-lined streets, or stop for chai in one of the north-side villages for a glimpse of local farm life.
Though very few in Hampi, homestays are a great way to connect with residents and learn about local history and custom.
The Traveller Scene
Expect plenty of dreadlocks, hula-hoops and fluorescent bumbags around Hampi, where an alternative travel culture has flourished alongside the town’s archaeology scene.
Besides shopping for handmade leather journals and rave party apparel, visitors can partake in twilight drumming sessions and boulder-top healing circles most days.
Meanwhile, falafels, pizzas and a German bakery reflect an embrace of global culture. Though some travellers recommend bhang lassi to heighten the senses, this mind-altering cannabis beverage should be taken with caution.
If quiet time is a rare treasure in India, Hampi is the jackpot. With its intimate riverside cafes, rooftop lounges and pockets of uncrowded landscape, there is ample opportunity to unwind in silence.
When not swinging in a shaded hammock, you might be reclining on the low cushions of Laughing Buddha restaurant in north Hampi, enveloped in psychedelic Bob Marley posters, overlooking ancient ruins tumble into the Tungabhadra. Try the Israeli breakfast, or the simple yet rich eggplant masala with fresh parotha bread.
Words and Photography // Lizzy Keen @lizardkeen (email@example.com)
Photography // Aaron Knight @have_along_knight