How Happy is Hampi?
“Don’t worry, be Hampi” said the touristy T-shirt from a street shop facing 6th century temples. With well-practised western accents the local shopkeepers advertised their assorted wares, the persistence multiplying every second. More than a few times, petite sari-clad women with diligently oiled hair asked me if I’d like some ‘good quality mervana’. And inside the main temple south-Indian families plonked their toddlers right next to me, requesting in that sweet-strange manner it is impossible to say no to – ‘please one photo’. Totally unaware that beneath the wild hair and casual clothes, I’m as south-Indian as them and not another exotic-hippie-flamingo. Given the preponderance of Western travellers here, expect to be presumed Western unless you’re in overtly Indian clothes and speaking in Kannada/Hindi. And being perceived as an outsider here – as in most touristy places – is tantamount to having ‘fleece me’ written all over you. So in the interest of not getting fleeced I spoke in Kannada for the most part, letting any potential scammers and touts know who they’re messing with. A strategy which sometimes backfired when men tried to get over-familiar now that the language barrier had disappeared. But that’s another blogpost.
As India’s bouldering capital, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a backpacker haven now part of the aptly named “Hummus Trail”, its reputation cannot help but precede it. Backpacking friends from as far as Poland, Switzerland and Bali had told me how much they loved ‘just hangin’ out’ here. Bouldering in the day, making music in the evenings, taking in the views and the general air of insouciance. I wondered about the quaint old Hampi I knew, the way one might wonder about an old classmate who from all accounts seems an entirely different person now.
Once upon a time, a Hampi trip meant temples, temples and more temples. History and heritage served hot on a platter of sun-baked boulders and quiet village life, with a side of coconuts from the palm trees nearby. While this still remains the main course on the tourism menu here, several other offerings of various kinds now embellish the temple town, catering particularly to low budgets and high spirits. Its counter-culture resume growing every season, right next to the rice fields and all the conservative attitudes one might attribute to a small south-Indian temple town.
Some moment of every trip finds me dropping all pre-conceived notions of the place and letting it meet me as it is. After a short boat ride, this sunset marked that moment for me. Chasing away the labels I’d unwittingly piled onto the place, in exchange for a moment of stunning simplicity.
Speaking of simplicity, this impromptu live music gig by Hampi’s kids and Gali, the local rockstar, made for a charming evening on the boulders.
A ‘rock’ concert with Gali (meaning ‘breeze’ in Kannada) and the little ones of Hampi
These kids had clambered up the boulders to sell chai to the travellers. Circled by the little mob, Gali announced with all the flourish of a proud teacher, “And now the sweet children of Hampi will sing for us”, in the same breath switching to Kannada to scold the kids into behaving. Thanks to my linguistic advantage, it multiplied my entertainment the way he squeezed in low-volume Kannada admonishments between high-volume English praises for these kids, who somehow merited both simultaneously. Drums, didgeridoos, guitars and an assortment of singing voices filled the air as did squabbles and laughter.
A view made sweeter by the music
Exploring the place on foot, we met quite a few of the village’s quirks – the kind that haven’t climbed into the guidebooks yet.
A recycled cycle now serves as a earring-stand at one of the many street shops
Hampi and the art of motorcycle maintenance. A local washes his bike in the river.
Meanwhile, a resourceful traveller finds himself a suitable meditation spot, well-shadowed under an old upturned coracle (a round boat) meant to dry in the midday heat.
The coracle has spoken?
A tucked-away tree dressed in rags between piles of stones. I was told they represented the locals’ prayers to heal their loved ones.
Someone wise once said ‘It’s not an adventure unless you’re miserable at some point’. This little truism loves making itself known on almost every trip. An afternoon spent looking for a much-hyped waterfall among the boulders led to a mad adventure when we couldn’t find our way out of the boulders and back to civilization. With no food/water under the scorching midday sun and not another soul in sight, we tackled one boulder after another in slippery flip-flops making matters more precarious. The growing thirst and hunger weren’t fun either. A lot of unplanned bouldering and some wicked bruises later, a local showed up out of the blue and offered to guide us out – for the grand sum of Rs 100. Of course we gladly agreed, having learnt the hard way that a local guide is necessary around here, and that under-estimating nature is in general a bad idea.
To get our mojo back after that scorching adventure, some foot reflexology and back massages seemed just the ticket. Ganga at the Lotus Ayurvedic Health Centre worked her magic on my feet for a good half hour, after which I needed a few seconds to wake up and remind myself where in the world I was. If you’re ever in this part of the world, gift yourself a half-hour foot reflexology here. Your feet will thank you for it and walk you an extra mile or two.
But you’d be hard-pressed to walk twenty steps here without one kid or another pleading with you to buy their maps/stickers/guidebooks. It’s easy to give in when you see their bare feet and tired little faces, but the buying only perpetuates their deprivation. This rampant child labour is the sad thing about Hampi. Many kids here are pulled out of school by their parents, with the aim of having them work/beg to supplement the family’s meagre income. From the Kannada conversations I struck up with the kids here, it was clear that school simply didn’t figure as an important part of their life. Some told me the names of their schools but were out working everyday, instead of being inside those schools. Poverty and ignorance ensure that they miss out on basic education and childhood itself. But hope is right here, in the form of the Hampi Children’s Trust, set up in 2007 by Tim Brown and Kali Das. As of now, they take care of 40 children, providing them three square meals, shelter and an education free of charge. If you’d like to help them transform more childhoods, do consider making a donation. As responsible travellers and global citizens, we owe it to the places we visit to be part of their solutions, instead of cherry-picking at them and turning a blind eye to their obvious problems. Our own ability to make a difference as travellers is quite possibly the biggest hope for Hampi’s future adults. Otherwise, in the decades ahead, the only sign of Hampi being anywhere close to ‘happy’ will be that touristy T-shirt. Sold by yet another childhood-deprived child.
I’m often asked what camera I use to take the photos I post here. On this trip I used the Asus Zenfone 2 Laser phone. Its camera served me well with its laser auto-focus feature. I liked the large screen and the super-saver battery mode, which meant I could use the phone for days on end without bothering to charge it – a boon for any traveller. The flashlight was brighter than I’ve seen on any other phone and came in handy several late evenings and nights when there were no streetlights. The HDR functionality was great for capturing outdoor shots as well. It’s definitely accompanying me on my next trip!