For a long time, Hampi lay at the bottom of my list of ‘places to visit’. A small mental note accompanied it: hot and crowded. An image of historical ruins drowning in a deluge of tourists would float before me every time I thought of visiting Hampi. Perhaps, childhood memories of spending summer vacations at temple towns and being jostled around under the scorching sun were still fresh in my mind. And yet, Hampi proved me wrong in more ways than one.
The stark landscapes of Hampi, with exquisite ruins and artfully scattered boulders precariously balancing at implausible angles, left me breathless with wonder. While the glorious remnants of the ancient Vijayanagara Empire are its main attraction, Hampi also harbors a variety of wildlife, unbeknownst to most. Look closely, and the plain ground and rock faces you passed by without a second glance suddenly spring to life, bringing forth Hampi’s hidden treasures. Every nook and corner of Hampi has its own secret stash of flora and fauna.
Daroji Bear Sanctuary
One of the major treasure troves of the region lies around 15 kms away from Hampi, at Daroji Bear Sanctuary. Here, you can be privy to sightings of the reclusive Indian Sloth Bear. The sanctuary is spread over 82.72 sq kms, and was created exclusively for the preservation of the sloth bear. A watch tower within the sanctuary provides a vantage point to view the bears from, as they emerge from adjacent hillocks to taste a sweet concoction smeared on the boulders by the forest department.
Folklore has it that in the war against Ravana, Kishkinda (purportedly modern day Anegundi) was Lord Rama’s ally, and when he travelled to Sri Lanka, he was accompanied by an army of monkeys along with Jambavantha, Kishkinda’s brave bear king. The bears of Hampi are said to have descended from him.
Mythology aside, one of the factors behind this region supporting bears is its habitability – the large boulders hide numerous caves which are well-ventilated, owing to the channels between the rocks, and are conducive to bears rearing their young ones. While man and bear conflicts are inevitable given the proximity and density of human settlements, no extreme incident has been reported.
As we sat facing the hillocks in hushed anticipation, the silence broken by the intermittent cries of peacocks, other animals and birds emerged. Mongoose, monkeys, squirrels and Wild Boars began feasting on the jaggery paste, while families of Bush Quails, Painted Spurfowls, Grey Francolins and babblers jostled amongst themselves to peck at their share.
So engrossed were we in observing the antics of these opportunistic creatures, that we almost didn’t notice the small speck of black fur ambling towards the rock. The lone bear was soon followed by a mother and her two 11-month-old cubs. It amused me to see that like all mothers, the mother bear was quite protective of her cubs, and chided them firmly with a loud “uhh uhh” each time one of them strayed a bit far. Sloth Bears usually carry their cubs piggyback, sometimes until they are 9 months old; February-March is generally the period when one can witness this endearing phenomenon at Daroji.
Currently, Daroji has a healthy population of Sloth Bears. Unfortunately, the bears continue to be threatened due to illegal mining in fragmented areas of the adjoining forests. But perhaps, with the forest department and conservationists’ efforts, we can hope for a safe future for these genial, giant fur-balls.
Birds of Hampi
The arid, boulder-strewn landscape of Hampi hides some of the most beautiful and colourful birds of the subcontinent. The first bird I saw in Hampi was a Spotted Owlet, still groggy with sleep. It sat in a cosy crevice in the Vitthala Temple premises, eyes shut tight. The tiny owlet brought out the birder in me, and soon, with my senses coming alive, the bird-life of Hampi emerged as if from a cocoon.
And yet, I almost failed to spot the Rock Eagle-owl, so well was he camouflaged with his surroundings. His eyes were half-closed, like that of a wise old sage, and we waited for him to come out of his stupor. Finally, with the rays of dawn hitting the rocks around him, he opened his eyes, and there lay before us, in all his glory, the famous red-eyed Rock Eagle-owl of Hampi. It is poignant that these beautiful eyes are also the cause of their death, owing to local superstitions that brand these owls as harbingers of misfortune.
Meanwhile, Hampi had more in store for us. Once, while passing by an open shrubby field, our guide suddenly asked us to halt our car. What bird could reside here in plain sight, I asked myself, as I followed him. He quietly motioned towards a small mound that seemed to be a patch of yellowing grass. Suddenly, the ‘grass mound’ moved ever so slightly, and I saw my first Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse. We came across them several times during our birding sessions, and each time, they amazed us with their clever camouflage.
In contrast, the Painted Sandgrouse was more colourful, with a beautiful ‘necklace’ around its neck. They were also bolder and more photo-friendly, as they stood rooted to the spot, allowing us to marvel at them for quite some time. Unfortunately, they also made for easy prey for raptors and poachers alike.
One early morning, before dawn, we found ourselves scaling the hillocks opposite the Virupaksha Temple – we were on the trail of the endangered Yellow-throated Bulbul. This rare bird is quite temperamental and can be sighted only in the wee hours of the morning. A lovely twitter reached our ears as the sun strove to break through the dark clouds. “The bulbul!” our guide pointed towards some restless birds flitting around. It was difficult to get a clear view of the fidgety bulbuls and soon, their calls could up heard uphill; the birds had left.
Later, as I stood looking at the brilliant scenery, dawn broke. It felt surreal to be standing overlooking the Virupaksha temple and the ruins around it – it almost seemed like the ancient city would come alive with the first rays of the sun. Suddenly, a soft sound behind me caught my attention. I turned around and there lay my coveted bird – the Yellow-throated Bulbul, within touching distance! Sometimes, I believe, the birds choose their own company.
Hampi had given me all that I had wished for and more, moving it from the bottom of my list to the list of ‘places I will visit again’.