The magical ruins of a fallen empire

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
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Trip End Jul 17, 2006


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Thursday, October 13, 2005

One thing that really annoyed Sarah when we were travelling together was that when we got to South India, I was mostly happy to sit idly by and let her research the places we should go in the time that we had. But every now and again, usually after she had meticulously planned an itinerary that would allow us to make the best possible use of our time, I would insist that I wanted to visit a place I had just discovered in the guidebook, and then would sulk when she said it was too late to go now. Hampi was just such a place, and boy am I glad I stopped over on my way back up north!

My arrival in the eerie light of dawn made the boulder-strewn landscape dotted with ancient ruins feel all the more mystical. Once the capital city of the Hindu Vijayangar empire, the ruins still echo its former glory even though the gold and jewels which once adorned its palaces and temples have long since been pillaged by Muslim invaders. After a couple of hours nap I rented a bicycle and set out to explore the 26 sq km area. The police required me to register with them before setting out as apparently there had been some recent muggings. They also advised me not to go alone, and at the same time a guide materialised to offer me his services for the day. What an amazing coincidence! I put it down to money-making scare tactics and set out alone regardless, with no problems whatsoever.

The highlights of the area included the exquisitely carved pillars of the Vittala temple, each of which sounded a different musical note when tapped, the Queen's bath, and the giant stone statues of Ganesh and the terrifying goddess Kali. When I returned to the main village that night, there was a real carnival atmosphere on the main bazaar, due to one of the many Hindu festivals. In the distance I could hear the beat of drums and as it came nearer I could see a procession led by the temple elephant. Kids set off firecrackers, sword-wielding warriors and fire-breathers danced to the beat of the drums and others carried a glowing idol - the focus of the celebration - to the temple on their shoulders.

The next morning whilst exploring the still-functioning temple in Hampi, I witnessed something so surreal that even now I'm not sure it really happened. As I was standing on the main pillared platform, inspecting the antique frescos, I turned to see the temple elephant being led out to the front of the platform. The keeper clasped his hands in prayer and the elephant proceeded to bow down on both knees, then rear up on its hind legs, and finally bow down on one knee in some kind of practiced ritual. The elephant then took up its position at the temple entrance to dish out the usual blessings, and this time I just had to get one myself - clearly this elephant was special!

I took some time to observe some of the other temple rituals going on around me. Naked from the waist up, the temple priests tend to the golden idols which sit inside shrines, dark and hazy from the burning incense and candles. Each idol is lavishly dressed up in silk and wreathed in flowers - like an elaborate doll. The priest rings a bell to attract the attention of the god, and the worshippers come forward in small groups to stand for a moment in silent prayer, before being splashed with holy water and decorated with a bindi (third eye) on the forehead. Other worshippers queue up bearing baskets of fruit and coconuts for a priest to crack open and fill with flowers and leaves for the worshippers to offer to the idol. For an outsider observing these practices, it is incredible to see the level of devotion shown towards the gods.
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