04 July 2010

A week in Hampi

The monsoon has been raining down in Mumbai all morning, like millions of overturned buckets. i'm making coffee at home. The last couple of days have seen very light rain, and I was going to head to a nice new bakery that opened up nearby, but not this morning. The rain is an ongoing presence; when it's not actively coming down, it's looming in the clouds, gathering. It's soaking into my clothes and skin, leaking from my ceiling, and sneaking in to my internet cables, disrupting my service. (A technician came by to fix it, cut the wire, whipped it, and drops of water came out. No wonder i heard a sizzling sound from the modem.)

I did escape the rain for a while; I got back a few days ago from a week-long trip to Hampi, in Karnataka state, about 720 km (450 miles) to the southeast. Hampi is the location of a remarkable Hindu empire from the 15th century. The landscape is dotted with giant granite boulders and the shade of banana trees, and many old temples, statues and the ruins of royal buildings. People who visited from other places, like the ancient Persian empire, wrote about it as being the most lavish, comfortable, beautiful empire they had ever seen. Today, it's a UN World Heritage site, so no new building is allowed, and the old ruins are well preserved. You can visit the Queen's Bath, a building with a pool larger than an olympic-sized pool, where the queen would swim; and the elephant stables, where the herd of royal elephants was kept; and the royal palace grounds, where only the foundations remain, but you can still make out the royal seating areas with vast open fields in front, where sporting events and performances took place in front of the king; and many amazing, beautiful temples, with large stone statues of Ganesh or Krishna or Vishnu. Also in Hampi, right in the middle of the town, is a big temple, 30 meters high, and inside lives happy Lakshmi the temple elephant. Lakshmi is 22 years old, very well loved and cared for, and gives blessing to anyone with a coin. You hold out a coin, she grabs it with her trunk, puts it in the collection box, and then bops you gently on the head with her trunk as a blessing. And let me tell you, if you've never been gently bopped on the head by an elephant, it's really fun. Every morning they take her down to the river for a bath, and on most evenings she's featured in a little parade through the streets of the town. Everyone loves Lakshmi, and she graces everyone with her beauty and blessings of good luck. I was lucky to get a blessing from her on my first visit to Hampi in 2004, and extra lucky to get another one this time.

It was a nice, quiet week. I read about 500 pages of Shantaram, the epic novel I'm reading. I might actually finish it now! The pace of life is sooooo slow there, everything is so peaceful and gentle. The children are friendly but not crazy, mostly minding their own business unless you approach their cricket game and express interest in joining, which they immediately invite you to do. The adults are quiet and happy and spend a lot of time just sitting together. It functions as a small village; poor but not slum-destitute. They have their animals and their gardens and live simply but happily. It was nice to get out of the bustle of the city for a while.

I traveled there by bus; it was great to be on the road again. It took about 14 hours going and about 12 hours back. I think we saved a couple hours of traffic in Mumbai on the way back, because we arrived very early in the morning, whereas we left the city in the bustle of the evening. It was a comfortable overnight bus, air-conditioned, with blankets on each seat. Both times I sat next to a large, snoring Indian man, but that's to be expected traveling alone. They both were all over the armrest, and Indian men have no issue about touching strangers in a situation like that (you should see the commuter train, everyone packed in, touching tightly), so i could either rub right up against them on the armrest, or cede my position. I did both, at various times. Mostly I just plugged in my iPod and looked out the window or slept.

On the way out of Hampi at the end of the week, I had my rickshaw driver, Mr. Paul, take me to a couple more temples and palace ruins before heading to the bus. I went to one temple on the top of a hill that was about 600 years old, and was about to head back, when Mr Paul asked me if I saw the view from the other side. I had not, and he told me to go through a little door in the wall on the far side of the temple, and beyond it there were supposed to be spectacular views of the valley. I did, and it was amazing. You could see many of the other temples and ruins, lush greenery, and amazing rock formations. There was also a smaller temple, at the top of a little hillock, a little further up, that looked enticing, so I climbed up the lunar landscape to check it out. As I got close, a voice from within the temple called me closer.

The small temple was inhabited, and he invited me in, so I left my shoes outside, ducked through the doorway, and entered. It was a small space, almost a cave carved out of the stone, with a bedroll in one corner, several books on a shelf, with one large one opened on a table, and a area for prayers in the back, with a couple of statues of Ganesh and Vishnu. Above Vishnu there was a brass container filled with water, dripping onto Vishnu's head and the flowers that were spread around the statue of the god. The gentleman that lived there was bright eyed and soft spoken. His name was Pramanand Shashtri and he lived in that little cave, studying his books and meditating all day long. He was a scholar, having earned a Doctorate in Sanskrit, the language of the ancient religious texts. We talked, and did a little prayer together, and looked at his books for a while. Another Incredible India moment, just before heading out of town. It's one of the things I love about this country; India rewards me for friendliness and curiosity. There is magic around every bend, and behind every bright, sincere smile.

I took the overnight bus back to Mumbai, and when I got back it was raining in the city. I caught a rickshaw back to my apartment feeling calm and peaceful, bringing a little of the spirit of Hampi back with me.

There are lots of photos of Hampi at this link. Here are a few samples, you can click on them to make them larger:

Sunset over the River in Hampi

Vittala Temple

Getting a blessing from Lakshmi in 2004

Sri Pramanand Shashtri

Landscape on the way to the Vittala temple

15th century ruins and temple

Vittala temple (note the stone chariot)

Caught in the rain on the way back from Vittala.
Took shelter for a while, but still got soaked.

Crossing the river in a coracle boat; water had to be bailed out after each trip.
I was waiting to catch it for the return trip.

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