Once the hippie paradise of the sixties, Goa’s beautiful beaches are now overrun with endless hawkers and techno music. Last year, the Indian state broke its own tourism record. But just beyond the tourist trappings of the tightly packed beachfront development, lie the ruins of the opulent former southern capital of the spice trade. Ancient Vijayanagara, now known as the village of Hampi, is just a day's drive from the Goan chill-out scene. It is a stark contrast to the decadence of beach life.
The rice fields and coconut plantations drop away into vast expanses of arid farmland, worked by men dressed in dhoties, driving oxen in their bare feet. Granite boulders litter the landscape, in hues of gold, pink and grey, a rocky backdrop to the sprawling ruins. The entire city was ransacked in the 16th Century, leaving behind one of the most important cultural and religious monuments in the region. This crumbling metropolis was once one of the most beautiful cities in its time. Today it is one of the most impressive ruins. This is why you go to India.
Where to start?
Most people stay in the area known as Hampi Bazaar, which is situated beside the main temple (Virupaksha), or they venture out to the neighbouring town of Hospet. The scale of Vijayanagara is not to be underestimated (26 square km of ruins), especially in the midday heat, so it is advisable to rent a bike, motorbike or hire a rickshaw driver as you cruise from temple to temple -- although it is possible to walk.
The perfect two-day exploration
The best way to quickly grasp the magnitude of Hampi is to hike Mantanga hill, preferably at sunrise for the best views. Stone steps are carved into the hillside and while it is the only way to experience the full gestalt of the city, it is still hard to imagine how invading Muslims could have spent six months attacking and pillaging the once thriving capital of 500,000 people. The comparison between what must have been and what exists today is a constant part of the experience in Hampi.
From there, head to the main river that cuts through the town, the Tungabhadra, to watch pilgrims and locals bathe down by the ghats. Every morning at around eight, the loveliest thing happens. The temple elephant, Lakshmi, carefully lumbers down the long stairs to the river and blesses the pilgrims with a spray of water before receiving her morning bath. It takes about an hour to scrub her down and she lays on her side, poking her trunk up out of the water and adjusting her ears to allow her handlers better access.
To start exploring the ruins, begin with the Ganesha temple, then work counter clockwise to the Krishna temple and the Badava Linga -- an emblem of the Hindu deity Shiva. From there, you can rest from the unrelenting slow bake of southern India in the cool, dark stone of the underground temple. Nearby, the Shiva temple is decorated with pillars carved with images of the deity. Next, you will see the Royal Enclosure, a loop of road with several sets of ruins, and beyond that, the Queen's bath, a faded building with sumptuously curved arches inside, surrounding a now empty bathing pool.
In Hampi, the sunset is a spectator sport, attracting decent crowds to admire as the surrounding hills and boulders transform from washed out creams and greys into warm reds and oranges. Hours after the sun sets, the rocks still feel warm.
Festivals occur several times throughout the year (January: Mahasankranti, February to March: Sivaratri and Holi, March to April: the celebration of the marriage of Virupaksha and Pampa with a chariot festival, November to December: the betrothal ceremony of Virupaksha and Pampa), and often at night, with drumming and dancing in the street and locals offering pujas in the main temple, Virupaksha. Depending on the time of year, there might be some combination of candle lighting, fireworks, an appearance by the temple elephant, Lakshmi, or a bonfire.
While most of the sites are free, three charge for admittance. One ticket gets you into all three, but only within the same day, so it is cheaper to see them all at once. Vithalla is a large temple complex featuring a stunning 100-column hall, a large chariot-shaped shrine and several mandapas. It is shrouded in mystery as it was built after the destruction of the capital, but no one knows under what circumstances. Next is the Lotus Mahal, a symmetrical open-air pavilion which is one of the best preserved sites in Hampi. The gracefully arched building is framed by extensive grounds and a watchtower in the distance. Finally, the elephant stables, 12 chambers that would have fit two elephants each, now stand empty and silent.
Before you go
Because of the religious significance of the site, there is no alcohol served in Hampi, although it is possible to get it in neighbouring towns or across the river at certain guest houses. Also, when visiting temples, it is important to dress appropriately, which means covering up bare arms, shoulders and legs. And unlike Goa, Hampi is largely a vegetarian-only town, so do not be surprised to see a distinct lack of meat on many menus.
Correction: Vijayanagara was misspelled in the headline. This has been fixed.