A nomadic herder ambling along a sun-soaked dusty track, with hundreds of unhurried sheep; Villages juxtaposed with monuments carved out of stone; Hordes of boys waiting patiently for fish to bite at their carelessly thrown lines – with such a languid pace of life, one gets a haunting feeling that time has stopped ticking temporarily in this otherworldly slice of earth called Hampi.
With stunning scenery and so many stories written on silent rocks, most travellers associate Hampi with heritage and monuments. Yet, it is the alternative sights that entice you once you step away from the renowned beauty of Hampi’s ruins, and look deeper into its ancient way of life – a life that seems to be from millennia ago. This is the Hampi of the giant boulders stitched together like an elaborate pattern, of the bears and leopards that prowl the rugged countryside, and of the old tribesmen who chew tufts of grass while their sure-footed sheep jump over glass-smooth rocks. This is the Hampi where tourists don’t thrive.
The ruins that make Hampi famous barely cover one-tenth of the vast landscape: the rest is a wilderness haven that provides shelter to the wildlife that comes to life by night. And it is this part of Hampi that keeps pulling the intrepid traveller towards it year after year, to explore all its nook and corners.
Just east of the famous Virupaksha Temple, River Tungabhadra breaks into several small channels, surrounded on all sides by the boulders that give Hampi its inherent character. These small channels first break away and then invariably jump over rock beds in their effort to re-join, creating several whirlpools and deep gorges as they rush to meet one another. Locally known as “waterfalls”, it is a forbidding place, with boulders smooth enough to dislodge the most experienced rock climber. Surrounded by banana fields and forests on all sides, it is easy to get lost here, but fortunately, these falls are virtually impossible to reach without a guide. The isolation has helped keep a check on curious visitors who may take a tumble into the river.
The falls set the scene, and as one walks away from the main Hampi bazaar towards Vithala Temple, the sheer force of nature takes command. One can’t help but notice that the ruins, though old, were incidental: the primal attraction of Hampi was in its rugged nature. Boulders taller than three-storeyed houses lie strewn around the path, and as the Tungabhadra now glides smoothly, the wild frontier of Anegundi or Kishkinda comes into view. Believed to be the birthplace of Lord Hanuman and the site of the fight between Bali and Sugreeva, the 3000-million-year old plateau is now an internationally renowned destination for the extreme sport of bouldering. Every year in the month of December, rock climbers in their physical prime converge at Anegundi, to try their skills at climbing the very rocks that are locally believed to have been the childhood playground of Lord Hanuman.
Locals insist that the impossible angles at which many rocks balance is a result of the truancies of young Hanuman in his playful moods. The rock climbers too agree smilingly, though some argue that it was a result of Bali and Sugreeva’s unending fight eons ago.
As the tourist trail thins out, the hills surrounding Achyutaraya and Vithala temples appear desolate, harbouring little life. But if one can cross the dense banana fields and deep irrigation channels, an unknown slice of Hampi’s life emerges: sharp hills with remnants of an ancient fortification, which are a wildlifer’s paradise. Troops of monkeys and even predators and birds of all types share this space with the occasional herder who leads his sheep into the grass-rich lake beds. With thick undergrowth all around, it is extremely difficult to walk around, and even the best trekkers have ended up with scratches, taken a tumble, or even been disoriented in the seemingly circular patch of hill. And if one is caught here at dusk, finding the way out can be a difficult task for the uninitiated. However, extreme trekkers do come to these hills to try and find Hanuman’s footprints or climb the free-standing mantapa that is visible from most places in Hampi, but one that has rarely been climbed.
The landscape gets progressively rugged as one moves east: a vast wilderness with hardly any ruins, turning increasingly dense with thick shrubbery. Upon crossing Kamalapura village, life seems to cease to exist. Gigantic rocks are replaced by smaller outcrops and high hills, and it is here that one can absorb the true nature of Hampi as it would have been ages ago. Perhaps, these impenetrable forests, coupled with the Sandur hills to the south, made it a natural choice for adventurers to set up their kingdom here.
A walk through these forests takes us through the rich biodiversity of dry forests, home to rare birds such as floricans, partridges and others. For those wanting to try their luck, the forests are populated by a rich and thriving population of Sloth Bears and an equally healthy number of leopards. A safari here can match its famous cousins in Kabini and Bandipur for the sheer variety of stunning landscapes.
The forests of Hampi are separated from the old ruins and rugged boulders by a manmade creation that is equally adventurous – at the edge of Daroji Bear Sanctuary, a manmade canal cuts through the dry landscape and creates a spectacular ecosystem of its own. More than 4 metres deep, the canal passes through stunning scenery and provides refuge to unique birdlife that has access to a water source throughout the year. Spot-bellied Eagle-owls roost here, and so do pigeons and other birds. A walk by the canal is both surreal as well as scary, as the fast flowing water creates an illusion of stillness and the forests on the other side appear inviting yet forbidden – a walk recommended for the brave.
The entire landscape of Hampi exudes an aura of distant isolation and it appears that time has virtually stood still here since the first rock was created. The ruins are magnificent in scale, juxtaposed with boulders and the wild landscape. Though we will never truly know whether it was Hanuman playing around with those rocks or some ancient tectonic upheaval that uprooted the earth and delicately created this wonderland, modern-day Hampi surely owes thanks to the ruins that received their due attention, as a world heritage site that ultimately led to the protection of the entire landscape.